The Day Coxey’s Army Marched Through Mansfield: 1894

There are many chapters of our local story that have directly participated in our national story; when significant people or events of American History have originated from, or been influenced by, or passed through Mansfield.

One of these stories happened in 1894, when a nationwide movement of desperately out-of-work men marched to Washington DC in order to lay their plight before lawmakers.  This historic watershed of social change was called Coxey’s Army; and among the countless headlines they generated in 1894 was the day they crossed paths with Mansfield Ohio.

The Movement

Coxey’s Army was actually a collective term used for a dozen different armies of men, who were left unemployed by the economic crash of 1893; who all undertook to walk to Washington DC. 

The plan originated from Jacob Coxey of Massillon, Ohio, who conceived an act of Congress that could put all the unemployed of America back to work by pumping money into US infrastructure through road construction and public works that would hire thousands of men.

This unprecedented idea fell on deaf ears in Congress, so to get lawmakers attention, Coxey called for a demonstration of 10,000 men to march on Washington as a “Petition in Boots.”

Coxey’s own personal army of demonstrators departed from Massillon on Easter Sunday to walk to Washington.  As soon as they stepped off on their epic hike, it sparked hope in a whole nation of out-of-work men, to make their own treks to join forces with Coxey in DC.

In the following weeks, a contingent of 800 left California called Kelly’s Army; a collective of 600 left Montana called Hogan’s Army; another unit of 500 men set off from Salt Lake City as Carter’s Army.  The headlines made reference to Frye’s Army, and Cantwell’s Army marching through the Midwest; all leaving their homes in April and May and aiming directly at the Capitol Building.

All of these separate bands of marchers were referred to in the news as Coxey’s Army; sometimes as the Industrial Army.  The name the marchers themselves attached to the movement was the Commonweal, which was a sort of populist way of saying ‘Of the People’ without sounding like Socialists.  Newspapers called them ‘Wealers.’

There was a troop of 433 men who amassed in Chicago, that was called Randall’s Army.  They walked out of that city on May 1; and on June 1 they were marching east on Park Avenue West into Mansfield.

Unemployed of America march to Washington: this photo captured Randall’s Army as it passed through Indiana on its way to Mansfield.

The Fears

As they moved eastward across the nation, each of the armies had no idea what was awaiting them: every town responded differently to a horde of dusty men.  Some towns lined the streets and cheered, and invited them to public celebrations with speakers and singing. 

Other towns smoldered silently as the army walked through.

In La Porte, Indiana, the law met them at the edge of town and promptly arrested General Randall, and clapped him in jail. 

Towns that lined the route eastward all kept a close eye to which roads the army was trending, because they needed to prepare protocols: whether to let them in, or turn them away, or throw a parade.

There were very widely mixed responses.  For one thing, rumors rode ahead of the mob with the alarming warning that the men were carrying smallpox.

The Bystanders

The unemployed men relied on the good graces of communities along the way to feed them.  By the time they got to Bucyrus, and then Crestline, and then Mansfield, they were “buffeted and beaten by 30 days of hard marching, most of the time in rough weather.  Of course, members of the army do not present the most elegant appearance.”

They looked like hobos.  People called them the Tramp Army.  But the Mansfield reporter who conducted a survey of the men recorded that of 262 he talked with, 181 were skilled mechanics; 74 were common laborers; 7 were artisans.  There were 70 trades represented and, of them all, only 2 had no education.

No one knew quite what to make of them.  They seemed to be Christian—at least all of the signs they carried were quoting the Bible.  They called themselves the Commonweal—which could mean anything at all, from Christian Charity to Communism.

Most people felt sorry for them—they looked so bedraggled and pathetic—and folks handed them loaves of bread and shoes as the army passed down the street.

About five days before they got to Mansfield, Randall’s Army tried to stop in Kenton, but the town absolutely refused them admittance.  They struck a deal that if the army would camp outside of town, the city would deliver food to the camp.  The food never came.

A reporter from Mansfield, who traveled with the marchers for a few days, wrote “Through a night that seemed never-ending, with the grass for a bed and the gnarled roots of trees for pillows; with rain above and rain below, the men of Randall’s Army crouched within a short distance of a city full of churches: starving and shivering like outcasts, with food in plenty and shelter near.”

The Mansfield Show

When Randall’s Army got to Mansfield it was Friday June 1 in the early afternoon; and according to which city paper you read, they were met at the edge of town by one cop, or every cop that could be found.  One paper said there were 126 men marching; the other said 250.

There were other details on which they agreed: the city had announced several days before that the Army would not set foot on Mansfield turf; but they relented and let them in.  They refused however, to let them camp at the fairgrounds, and only reluctantly agreed to let them hole up at the stock yard north of town, in a field next to the Reformatory.

The Coxeyites marched through town with drum and bugles announcing their presence: parading in Park Avenue West, down Mulberry Street, out Fifth Street and Newman Street to OSR.

The Reformatory streetcar did extra runs Friday and Saturday so everyone could go out to take a look at the famous troublemakers.

The Commonweal announced their intention to depart the city on Saturday, but there was a rather serious breach of Constitutional Rights Friday night that derailed their plan.

Randall’s army of Coxeyites paraded through town without attracting much of a crowd; but after they were encamped near the Reformatory the people of Mansfield came out in great hoards to see the Hobo Army.

When the Industrial Army came to Mansfield, they were granted accommodations in the city stockyards where cattle were regularly penned near the B&O tracks.

A National Spotlight

In the evening on Friday, Gen. Randall went to the Square to deliver a speech to the citizens of Mansfield, as he had at many other towns along the way; and there was a crowd already there of several thousand assembled to hear him.

The Shield carefully explained that “not everyone in attendance was in favor of Coxeyism, but they were all courteous and curious to hear what he had to say.”

Sadly, the Sheriff was not so courteous, and quickly rousted General Randall off the courthouse steps.  When he mounted the city bandstand to give his talk, a city constable blocked his way.

Before he stalked away from the Square, Randall announced loudly that he was not leaving Mansfield until he could address the people who wanted to hear him.

So Saturday was a mad scramble.  News already hit the wire in Washington and New York that Mansfield OH was trashing the First Amendment, and wire services carried the news across the nation where it was printed in hundreds of papers.

The ‘Populist Committee’ knocked on doors of halls, hotels, schools, ballrooms and theaters, searching for a venue where Randall could give his talk.  They immediately began raising money for a defense fund to deal with court cases about to drop on Mansfield. 

In addition, the hardworking men of Mansfield in sympathy with the unemployed, undertook to assemble a bodyguard to accompany Randall in case the law tried to descend on him.  Fierce with indignation, the volunteers raised 200 men with clubs to surround the commander when he went into downtown.

There was clearly a riot brewing, so City Council met in emergency Saturday chambers and voted to give up the bandstand in order to keep the peace.

When Randall spoke that night, there were 7,000 people in the Square.  The population of the city at that time was 14,473.  The event had a lot of singing, and quite a bit of cheering, but afterward nobody could exactly remember what it was he said.  Jesse Black’s diary said he spoke on “equality.”

A lot of people saw the whole movement as a threat to the American way of life, and considered Coxey’s Army to be a swarm of locusts crossing the land to devour Capitalism.  The Commonweal was a confusing mix: they said they wanted work/and they looked like tramps.

General Randall made it clear to everyone who marched with him, that their sole purpose in making the massive demonstration was to generate employment; and if anyone marching to Washington was offered a job along the way, it was their obligation to drop out of line and go to work.

The Road to Change

The next morning the Commonweal left for Ashland.  They had come 316 miles from Chicago; they still had 411 miles to reach Washington.

The whole Coxey plan was a visionary idea, and it did eventually come to fruition forty years later as the New Deal, during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Officially, in the newspaper reports and historical documentations of the Commonweal, Mansfield was recorded as having not given a very kindly reception to the down-and-out as they asked for help. The people of town however, rose to the occasion quite heartwarmingly, and the Coxeyites were well fed as long as they stayed out by the Reformatory.  All of the emergency funds raised in town were donated to the Army’s food fund.

When Dr. JH Randall, formerly ‘Gen. Randall,’ made his return trip from Washington to Chicago in November, he made a solitary journey of it, passing through the towns his army visited six months earlier.  He made a point of looking up the Episcopal Rector in Mansfield to thank him for his kindness.

It was a sure indicator of how prosperous and well-off towns were by how the Coxey Army was received.  Poor folk loved them.  Working class blue collars were wholly inspired by them.  Factory owners, and those who held the reins of industry, were scared witless.  They knew how quickly the whole production house of cards could come tumbling down.  Supply and demand have a tenuous grasp on one another that relies on a web of networking connections: and Coxey’s Army looked like a threat that could inadvertently unravel that web
 But even more alarming was the unspoken undercurrent of the movement that terrified upper class citizens so profoundly that they could barely speak the words out loud…it seemed entirely likely that Coxey’s Army represented the first shots fired in the one uprising they all dreaded: class war.

There were plenty of community leaders along the way—industrialists, capitalists, rich folk of every tier—who would do anything to keep a grassroots financial revolution from gaining any foothold; and there were factories in Mansfield owned and run by influential men who did not want their employees getting any ideas from Randall’s Army.

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