EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on May 17, 2017 by the Ohio History Connection with many more photos. Ashland Source has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.
In the Ohio History Connection archives there lives a scrapbook compiled by a journalist named Wilbur Miller. Miller spent multiple months during the spring of 1894 following a band of rag tag unemployed protestors named Coxey's Army as they marched from Massillon to Washington D.C.
Thanks to journalists like Miller, this army would gain national fame and interest during its march. So who exactly were these people and what were they protesting?
During the mid-1800s, the United States economy changed drastically as the world industrialized. Suddenly a country made up of farmers from small rural towns was moving to the big city and joining a factory production line. For the first time ever, many people suddenly had a job outside the home and a boss that wasn’t related to them.
Industrial jobs had their advantages -- for example, a consistent wage. However, when the national economy took a swift nosedive during the Panic of 1893, the country was not prepared for the effects this could have on the new industrial worker.
When many workers had to be fired from their jobs, they had no way to buy food for their families and no government welfare programs to rely on. Many people with monthly rents and mortgages were forced into homelessness.
Enter Jacob S. Coxey, the wealthy owner of a quarry near Massillon, Ohio. Mr. Coxey had some ideas about how the federal government could help the unemployed (such as the workers he was forced to lay off at his quarry).
Coxey wanted Congress to pass legislation that he called the “Good Roads Bill.” His bill said:
"the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States is hereby authorized and instructed to have engraved and have printed, immediately after the passage of this bill, five hundred millions of dollars of Treasury notes...said notes...to be placed in a fund to be known as the 'general county-road fund system of the United States..."
Basically, Coxey wanted the government to pay unemployed workers to take jobs improving and building the nation’s roads. (This idea of using public works to create jobs would appear again during the New Deal and Great Depression era.)
In 1893, Jacob Coxey went to Chicago, during the World’s Fair, to attend a smaller political event called the Silver Congress. The event attracted many political Populists, including a man named Carl Browne.
The two men became fast friends, working to get Coxey’s Good Roads Bill introduced in both houses of Congress.
With a little bit of coaxing, Browne convinced Coxey that the two friends should lead a march of the unemployed to the steps of the capitol building. They decided the march would leave from Massillon, Ohio, on Easter morning and arrive in Washington D.C. on May 1, 1894. With the dates in hand, the two began advertising their coming protest.
From day one, the march of Coxey’s Army of the unemployed provided a multitude of stories to fill the pages of newspapers around Ohio and the nation. Miller's scrapbook contains articles in which journalists attempted to sketch these characters for their readers, both with verbal description and in visual form.
The interesting characters that traveled with the army included:
“Weary” Bill Iller, a teamster who never moved from his wagon seat.
Jesse and Legal Tender Coxey, Coxey’s sons.
The Great Unknown, a man of some military skills who tried to wrestle control of the army from Coxey and Browne. He took the name Louis Smith, but was not meant to be known personally. He told stories of the plight of workers.
One of the weirdest characters in this crew was Carl Browne himself. Browne insisted on dressing like Buffalo Bill and converted Coxey to his new religion called theosophy.
Browne believed that everyone is a partial reincarnation of all those people who have lived previously. Browne said that he and Coxey both contained a large quantity of Jesus Christ’s soul. He called himself the “Cerebellum of Christ,” Coxey was the “Cerebrum of Christ,” and their army the “Commonweal of Christ.”
With the absolute abundance of stories to tell, a small team of journalists began to follow the Commonweal of Christ on their march to Washington D.C. One of these journalists was Wilbur Miller, the complier of the scrapbook in the OHC archives. He was writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Associated Press.
Even though he clearly understood the aid the media added to his cause (Americans were following Coxey’s Army almost daily through their local newspapers), Carl Browne vehemently disliked the journalists making camp with him. In fact he deemed them to be “Argus-Eyed Demons of Hell.” The journalists happily bore this title, wearing badges bearing the word 'demon' and flying a demon flag when traveling by boat.
The journalists, despite writing for different publications, had to work together on the journey with Coxey's Army. The men made sure that they all had access to telegraph wires to get their stories sent home. The twenty or so men following the army became close and formed a sort of fraternity amongst the madness.
Despite the fun that the journalists were having, traveling with Coxey's Army could be hard work. On their walk from Ohio to Washington D.C., the group received mixed reviews from locals in the cities they passed through. They had to make camp wherever they could, and make do with whatever resources they had.
Despite the fact that they were "roughing it," Coxey's Army was organized. Members of Coxey's Army/the Commonweal of Christ wore cloth badges to designate their roles within the group. Some examples can be seen below, including Wilbur Miller's handmade demon badge(bottom right). The journalists enjoyed poking fun at the traditions that Carl Browne created for his following.
When Coxey’s Army finally made it to Washington D.C., his story ended anticlimactically. Coxey, Browne, and Christopher Columbus Jones were all arrested for breaking a law by trampling the grass outside the capitol building. Other protestors continued to travel from the Western United States, but the movement largely died at the capitol steps before Coxey even began to read his proposals.
Coxey, Browne, and others continued to promote their movement. Another march was organized in 1914, and in 1944, Coxey was finally allowed to read his proposals on the Capitol steps. However the movement was greatly deflated, because after the day Coxey’s Army trampled the grass, the press went home.
Without the gossip-like nature of the national coverage, no one cared about Coxey’s words.
Despite Coxey’s quick descent into the unknown, his movement is still relevant today. How many more protests have used a march on Washington to meet their goals? What similar requests were made of the government during the Great Depression? Has our economy changed in any other significant ways? What about public welfare programs? Or the effects of the media?
Thanks to Wilbur Miller, the journalist from Cincinnati, Coxey's Army will forever be remembered at the Ohio History Connection.