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How communists (briefly) ran St. Louis

Missouri Historical Society
Railroad workers attempted to stop guarded trains in East St. Louis, Illinois, during the 1877 railroad strike. The strike led to workers seizing control of St. Louis' government.
Railroad workers attempted to stop guarded trains in East St. Louis, Illinois, during the 1877 railroad strike. The strike led to workers seizing control of St. Louis' government.

Mark Kruger’s new book — the first he’s written since his dissertation was published decades ago — has its roots in his curiosity about a long-forgotten piece of local history.

“Twenty-five years ago, I was reading something and there were a few sentences talking about how, at the end of the railroad strike of 1877, the workers of St. Louis took over the city,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘That’s interesting. Why has nothing been written about it?’”

Author Mark Kruger is retired lawyer and professor.
Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Author Mark Kruger is retired lawyer and professor.

The thought stayed with Kruger. And when he retired six years ago after a long career as both a lawyer and a professor (he taught at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park and ran St. Louis University’s criminal justice program), he found himself thinking about those questions much more seriously. He learned there was one book on the subject (“Reign of the Rabble,” which he calls “excellent”). But not only was the 1966 book out of print, it failed to answer some of his big questions, namely: Where did the people come from? Who were they?

Kruger’s answers can be found in “The St. Louis Commune of 1877: Communism in the Heartland,” his engagingly written history of how Marxism in Europe, mass German migration to Missouri and exploitative railroad companies set the stage for an unprecedented attempt at American socialism. The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press this fall.

How communists (briefly) ran St. Louis
Listen to Mark Kruger on St. Louis on the Air

Kruger explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air that the Marx-inspired Workingmen’s Party of the United States of America didn’t organize the railroad strikes that took place across the country in July 1877. But they were able to use the spontaneous demonstrations to advocate for, and achieve, a much larger strike in St. Louis — a strike that shut down virtually all commerce in the city.

“It's considered to be the first general strike in American history,” Kruger said. And the Workingmen’s Party seized the moment: “They had set up headquarters, elected an executive committee, and they were providing security on the streets. They were protecting property. They were actually running the entire city. … They were making the decisions that, [if] businesses needed something, they came to them rather than the city officials. And it made it the only city in American history to ever be ruled by communists.”

It didn’t even last a week. A militia put together by city officials with assistance from the state was able to easily quash the communists. Kruger noted that the Workingmen’s Party failed to seize the armory or otherwise take control of the levers of power.

“They didn't do the things that they needed to do if they wanted to stay in power,” Kruger noted. “Their goal never really was to overthrow the government of the United States, or even to overthrow the authorities in St. Louis. What they really wanted were social reforms” — things like shorter workdays and an end to child labor.

And so unlike the previous Paris Commune of 1871, which held the city for three months, the St. Louis Commune was bloodless, with arrests for the ringleaders (and some innocent people swept up in them as well) the main consequence.

Even so, the communists’ week in power reverberated for more than a century. Kruger writes that the founding of the Veiled Prophet organization the following March was in direct response to the workers’ seizing control of the city. He notes that it was the same wealthy citizens who helped put down the communists who formed the Veiled Prophet’s founding members; the police commissioner who helped suppress the strike was the first man chosen as the Veiled Prophet, the mysterious veiled figure at the center of the organization’s signature ball.

“The idea was to show that the streets, which had been controlled by the St. Louis Commune … were back in the hands of the respectable citizens,” Kruger said. “And that parade has gone on to this very day.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.