Profiles in Courage: Season 1, Episode 11

John Peter Altgeld (24 Jan. 1965)

TV Episode  -   -  Biography | Drama | History
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Episode credited cast:
Roy Barcroft ...
Judge
...
Parsons
...
Whitlock
...
John Peter Altgeld
Milton Selzer ...
Schilling
Howard St. John ...
Hinrichsen
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24 January 1965 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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The Eagle That WAS NOT Forgotten
29 October 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Unlike the debacle of the episode dealing with Secretary of State Hamilton Fish and the Grant - Baez Agreement, this one was on target. It is based on an incident from 1886 - 1893 that shook up America, and created the first hero of the modern American Democratic Party.

Kennedy mentioned it in passing, and even quoted the poem by Vachel Lindsay THE EAGLE WHO IS FORGOTTEN, dealing with this hero: Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois (Burgess Meredith in this episode). Altgeld was a successful land speculator and corporate lawyer, who became the first foreign born Governor of Illinois, and the first Governor of that state elected by the foreign minority blocks of Chicago and the other cities of the state.

In November 1886 there was a massive tragedy in Chicago's Haymarket Square. During a labor dispute there was a massive public meeting, and some police showed up to break it up. Suddenly someone (to this day nobody knows who) threw a nitroglycerin bomb into the crowd near the police, killing about a dozen people, including many policemen. Eventually eight men who were anarchists in political beliefs were arrested, including Albert Parsons (John Cassavetes here) who was a newspaper editor of an anarchist paper (and whose wife - although not noted in this episode - was an African American!). Parsons and four of the others were tried and sentenced to death by hanging for the "Haymarket Square Explosion". Three others got life imprisonment. As it turned out, one of the death sentences was not carried out by the state. Lingg, one of the anarchists, managed to kill himself with a dynamite cap that was smuggled into his. But Parson and the other three were hanged.

Now all this happened in 1886 - 1887. Altgeld did not become Governor until 1893. Suddenly the families of the men who were executed, and of the men in prison, appealed to him for clemency. They claimed the men were innocent. Altgeld was unimpressed - he had not paid much attention to the 1887 trial, but it seemed to be normal. But he promised to look into it.

That was the problem for the forces that railroaded Parsons, Lingg, Spiers, and the other men to their sentences. When a neutral party reviewed the trial transcripts...well it did not look so good. Remember, John Peter Altgeld was a successful corporate attorney. One of his junior clerks who he hoped to see practice in the firm was Clarence Darrow. Altgeld was no legal slouch.

Meredith has a wonderful moment when he reads the transcript to his staff - the trial judge comments on the nature of the evidence, and basically says that it does not matter if the evidence shows they are active or passive when the bomb was thrown. They were there so they are guilty! He picks every error in the trial - how witnesses make contradictory statements nobody questions, how evidence is mislaid, how the judge is unfair to the defense. In the end Altgeld pardons not only the three men in prison, but the five who were sentenced to death.

There was a national outcry against Altgeld as a result. He was a foreigner, so it was suggested he really was not American in his view of things (if they meant he wasn't a Yahoo who jumped to paranoid conclusion they might have been on to something). Cartoonists painted him as a bomb throwing anarchist. Even Ambrose Bierce (unfortunately) forget his own common sense and joined the attack. The best that can be said for the attackers was that they were outraged by the tragedy, and saw these men as responsible - and thus should pay with their lives. And Altgeld took that away from them, on the basis of pettifogging details of law.

Kennedy's brief account mentions that Altgeld lost his reelection bid in 1897, and died a few years later. That's true, as is his loss of his lucrative corporate law practice, and of much of his huge real estate fortune. But again Kennedy (and the series) goofed. Altgeld made as many friends among the lower classes, and the immigrant groups as he lost among the Yahoos. This was cemented by President Cleveland's regrettable error (in 1895) of sending in Federal troops to Chicago under General Nelson Miles to put down the nationwide Pullman Strike under Eugene Debs. Altgeld argued he never requested Federal troops! Cleveland was applauded by the plutocrats of the land, but many middle and working class people were not so happy about this.

The Democrats split in 1896. A rump, the Gold Democrats, supported the Republican Candidate William McKinley. The masses reunited with the ex-Populist Party. Altgeld held the convention in Chicago, and it nominated Bryan (in Harry Barnard's biography it was pointed out that being born in Germany Altgeld could not be elected U.S. President under the Constitution, so he was out of the running for the nomination). Altgeld, however, wrote most of the platform, which was heavily against the trusts, and favored social reforms. The modern Democratic Party was created by John Peter Altgeld.

He died in 1902. Yes, he was out of power, and poorer than he had been, but he was widely loved and respected among the people he gave hope back to. Had he lived twenty years more, into the Woodrow Wilson Administration, he would have had further political offices.


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