Eugene Debs and Old McHenry County Courthouse
Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House, 101 North Johnson Street, Woodstock. (Marker is located on the Cass Street side.)
City of Woodstock, Woodstock Celebrates, Inc., The Illinois Labor History Society, The Illinois State Historical Society, and the McHenry County Federation of Teachers, Local 1642
The 1894 Pullman Strike and boycott of Pullman railcars led by the American Railway Union involved 250,000 workers in 27 states. It paralyzed much of the nation’s rail system and directly led to the establishment that year of a national Labor Day. The strike also brought civil charges against American Railway Union leaders for violating a court injunction against the strike. Their attorneys, including Clarence Darrow and Lyman Trumbull, defended them before the United States Supreme Court.
On 27 May 1895, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld court injunctions against labor strikes. The decision, “In re Debs,” sent American Railway Union leader Eugene V. Debs to a six-month stay in this building, then McHenry County Jail. The Pullman case guided governmental response to strikes for nearly four decades. Not until the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act did the United States Congress erase the power of courts to end strikes through injunctions.
In Woodstock, Sheriff George Eckert protected Debs from threats and the Eckert family began three decades of warm friendship with Debs. Eckert allowed Debs to use his jail time to study and ponder the plight of working-class Americans. Famous visitors included reporter Nellie Bly, Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger, and Keir Hardie, the first Labour Member of Parliament.
Debs left Woodstock even more determined to fight for working people. His time in McHenry County Jail transformed Debs from a labor leader into a national political activist, founder of the Socialist Party, and five-time presidential candidate.
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