Mowing the Graveyard: John Peter Altgeld

This story is going to go backward.  It starts with a great man—one of the most famously loved and hated men of his time—and trace him back to see where he came from.  His life ended in Chicago—where this account starts—but it began in Richland County.

The man was John Peter Altgeld, and at his funeral in 1902 Clarence Darrow called him “one of the rarest souls who ever lived.  His was a humble birth, a fearless life.”

People likened him to Lincoln, to Jefferson.  If he had been born in America they would have run him for President.  He championed the working class, and because he came from the working class—because he was raised in America as a peasant—the integrity with which he fought for the poor rang with an iron honesty that was invincible.

John Peter Altgeld (1847-1902) was only 54 when he died, and he left Richland County when he was 19. In the 35 intervening years of his life he studied law in Missouri, practiced law in Iowa, became a judge in Illinois, juggled real estate to become a millionaire, and served as Governor of Illinois from 1893-1897.

Raised a poor farmboy in southern Richland County, he would have been nominated for President if he had been born in America.

A Peoples’ Hero

Altgeld is remembered in US history today primarily for one specific event: when he granted a pardon to some men convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.  There was much more to it, of course, the main part of which was that most folks in the US wanted someone to pay for the crime of throwing a bomb that killed policemen; and the leading anarchists of the time seemed appropriate scapegoats.  These men didn’t actually throw the bomb, they weren’t even at the scene; but they were politically dangerous men and all the nations’ fear and blind hatred focused on them.

When Altgeld pardoned them, all that intense hatred shifted to focus on him.

He was Governor of Illinois at the time: 1893.  He was unquestionably the most powerful man in the Democratic Party, and the rich rulers of the Republican faction and the leading newspapers took advantage of Altgeld’s unfavorable pardon, and the accompanying public distress, to attempt to discredit and destroy him.

Their first attack pinpointed his citizenship.  Altgeld was born in Nieder Selters, Germany, and his enemies claimed that any acts as Governor were invalid because he was not actually a US citizen.

After Altgeld pardoned three of the men convicted in the Haymarket Riot a firestorm of fierce anger was unleashed on him by many US newspapers who accused him of undermining American values.

Most images of him that can be found from that era depict him as a wild eyed devil with a bomb in each hand.
He published several books during his lifetime, but the words of his most often cited today come from a document he wrote outlining his reasons for the pardon.

The American

There was a big news splash in 1893, shortly after the American Press attacked Altgeld, when nearly every newspaper in the US focused on one place: Mansfield, Ohio.  Around the 4th of July the nationwide news confirmed that Altgeld’s father rode into the Richland County courthouse to produce evidence that he was a naturalized US citizen.  The paperwork proved that his son—the Governor of Illinois—was only a boy at that time of his father’s naturalization, and so he too was an American citizen.

In Richland County the news was a little bewildering to most people—those who knew Pete Altgeld as a youngster here couldn’t imagine that this Governor of Illinois could be the same person they remembered.  The boy Altgeld was awkward, funny looking, spoke a weird German-pigeon-English, and tracked mud everywhere from his father’s fields.

His parents were literally peasants from the old country.  His father didn’t believe in education so young Pete got his English from a Methodist Church, and haphazard school lessons from the schoolhouse only in seasons when his father released him from work.

The boy had a thirst for knowledge though, and a need to see the world outside the confines of agriculture.  When he was 16 he lied about his age and went off to the Civil War for a year.  With only that much vision of the wider US world, a hearty vine of ambition took root in Peter Altgeld and he defied his father in order to attend Mansfield High School.  Then he took higher education at the Gailey Seminary in Lexington so he could be a teacher—because he felt a terrifically strong need to be of service.

Two years of teaching at the Woodville School on Cook Road boosted Pete’s confidence enough so he could walk west in search of his destiny, because his need to serve had grown much larger than classes of schoolkids in Madison Township.  He was ultimately to embrace Chicago, the whole State of Illinois, and then the entire class of blue collar America.

During the 1890s when factions of the US media were trying to destroy Altgeld’s reputation, two elements of his past were brought into question: his American citizenship, and his service with the Union Army during the Civil War.

Ultimately his citizenship was confirmed in Mansfield, and his service with the 163rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was documented.
Emma Ford grew up south of Little Washington on a farm that adjoined the Altgeld’s land.
She taught at Woodville School on Cook Road alongside Pete Altgeld, and touched his heart so deeply that six years after he left Richland County he came back to marry her.

As First Lady of Illinois Emma became a published novelist.
In Sarah’s Choice she made literary use of her neighbors in Little Washington, and set some scenes of her novel in the same rural graveyard that her husband mowed as a young man.

The Roots

Altgeld did his great work out in the great world—not here.  Everything he did to scribe himself into the history books he did somewhere else.  He only came back here a couple times after he left: to marry the ‘girl next door,’ and to make sure his mother was laid softly into her grave on German Church Road.

But everything that shaped the man, the fertile soil in which he formed the roots of who he was to become, that all took place in Richland County.  When he was 3 months old his parents landed on a rented farm just west of Newville, and Pete’s childhood years were spent roaming the woods around Possum Run and Slater’s Run and the Clear Fork River.

By the time he was 12, and very familiar with and practiced at the arts of farming, his father bought a farm 2 miles due south of Little Washington.  Most local accounts of Altgeld associate him with Little Washington because that’s where his father entered the tax records, but the boy actually spent the best part of his Richland County years around Newville.

Only days before he died he spoke of how people still referred to him as a foreigner.  “This is my land because it made me, shaped me, it nourished me.  The thoughts I have came from this land, and the dreams I dream came from this land.”

What little formal schooling Pete Altgeld had in his childhood took place in the Village of Newville. The old frame schoolhouse can be seen in the near foreground, identified by its bell tower.

Mowing the Graveyard

This is the memory Pete Altgeld told about growing up in Richland County: he was the one they sent out to mow the graveyard. 

First you have to understand that mowing the graveyard didn’t mean starting up the mower and letting a machine do the work; or even pushing something with wheels that had a mechanized blade.  Mowing meant sickle and scythe, and in the graveyard it was close, careful work.  It was a job.

In the hills west of Newville they only did it sparingly…before Fourth of July, during Harvest festival.  Anyone could have done it—they were all capable and experienced.  But they gave the job to the boy.

They wanted him to see and be familiar with those graves that had names on them he recognized from his community.  They wanted him to see, and to know by the sweat of his brow, that he was only one in a long line of the human family.  He needed to understand that there would be more after him.

The world was his today—but it was here before him and it would be here after he was gone.  From his father, raised a peasant, it was supposed to teach him humility and futility: that the boy was but a small and insignificant piece of the soil.

For John Peter Altgeld the graveyard taught exactly the opposite lesson: that his life on Earth granted him time and opportunity to make a significant difference in The Land he loved.

Young Pete Altgeld was sent out to mow the graveyard nearest their farm: at the Presbyterian Church on Snyder Road. The church has been gone since the 1870s but the graveyard remains.
The John Peter Altgeld Monument stands in Lincoln Park in Chicago. Dedicated on Labor Day in 1915, it was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, the man who created Mount Rushmore.

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