The Dynamite Conspiracy of 1888, Part 1

by Etan Heller, Modern Manuscripts Intern

At the time of the Great Burlington Strike of 1888, dynamite had a fearsome reputation. It was associated with chaos-rousing anarchists; when used as a weapon, it killed and damaged anything in its blast radius.

“…testify to the custody of the dynamite.”

That’s why a series of letters dated 1888 from a lawyer, Chester Dawes, to CB&Q official L.O. Goddard caught my eye while I was going through Goddard’s correspondences; one letter talked about bringing witnesses to testify about the possession of dynamite for a seemingly important case. Another from earlier in the year talked about some “late turmoil and excitement” wherein “we have got the scoundrels ‘dead to rights.’ and we will send some of them to the penitentiary certain.” The letter mentions a man named Bauereisen, who “seems to be the head devil.” In a different handwritten letter, Dawes summarizes at length the proceedings of a trial involving Bauereisen, a defendant in what Dawes calls “the dynamite case.”

During the time of the strike, CB&Q executives hired Pinkerton agents to keep an eye on strikers. One dangerous possibility the Pinkertons continually investigated was the possibility of sabotage by dynamite. Up until May of 1888, many rumors had popped up about possible plots by strikers to detonate dynamite on Burlington roads, yet none had ever come through. However, in mid-May, small explosions on CB&Q tracks started happening with alarming frequency. At least 4 explosions damaged tracks by the end of May, and more occurred in June and July.

The resulting investigation by the Pinkerton detectives was slow at first. Besides a list of suspicious suspects, strikers whom the Pinkertons had been investigating, all the Pinkertons had was a few surviving fragments of paper that the dynamite had been wrapped in. One fragment had a stationary manufacturer’s trade mark on it, and after a lengthy investigation into the origin of the paper, the detectives finally traced it back to J.A. Bowles, a man involved with the organization of strikers.

“…we have got the scoundrels ‘dead to rights’…”

A tail was put on Bowles in an attempt to discover who his associates were, and to try to gain more evidence against them. Many names started to appear on the Pinkertons’ watch list. Among them was John A. Bauereisen, chief of the Aurora division of the B. of L.E., a higher-up among the strikers. After a few more weeks of trailing Bowles, investigating his associates, and gathering more information, the Pinkertons decided that they had enough evidence to go ahead and arrest Bowles, but wanted to do so while he was in possession of dynamite to strengthen their case. They got a tip that Bowles and his main associate, Broderick, as well as two other conspirators (Wilson and Ray) were going to board a train from Aurora to Chicago with dynamite that Broderick had purchased in Aurora. A Pinkerton operative and a U.S. marshal boarded the departing train with warrants, and promptly arrested the four suspects, finding the dynamite wrapped up in the overhead compartment (it turned out later that Wilson had been working undercover for Pinkerton). Broderick apparently attempted to covertly throw a letter out the train window, but the Pinkerton detective noticed him doing so and had the train stopped. The letter, along with others on the persons of the arrested, definitively implicated Bauereisen in the conspiracy.

One such letter was a reply to Bowles from Bauereisen about a suspicion that Bowles had that he was being followed. Bauereisen wrote: “I think you could give him the slip very easy at night by taking a walk to the next town and if the son of a Bitch should follow you shoot him for I would not have any mercy on any son of a Bitch that would follow me.” Bauereisen was arrested in his home the next day. More arrests followed.

“…the present condition of the dynamite case.”

Although news of the explosions had mostly been kept from the press when they had happened, news of the arrests and trial traveled quickly, thanks to the sensational nature of the events (here’s a New York Times article giving an update on the trial). Bauereisen had been implicated as the head of the conspiracy, and was ultimately charged with buying dynamite for illegal purposes, and a few other smaller charges. He received the longest sentence of the conspirators (2 years).

The trial brought up a whole host of issues related to the strike. One major controversy was whether or not the Pinkertons had faked some of the evidence (which they had been known to do) and framed the strikers, though this theory is largely put to rest by the historical record. Another was the relation of the strikers to violence. The Brotherhood of Engineers denounced Bauereisen and the use of dynamite. Many thought that this was simply a superficial attempt to ward off suspicion. Eugene V. Debs wrote an editorial before the events of the Conspiracy defending the Brotherhood as sincerely concerned with peaceful negotiation, not violent tactics. Many thought that this was still true of the strikers despite the Conspiracy, but others felt that it had tarnished this reputation. The Dynamite Conspiracy was clearly an important series of events for the way unions and strikers operated and were perceived thereafter.

The Dynamite Conspiracy of 1888, Part 2

For more information on the Dynamite Conspiracy and the Great Burlington Strike of 1888, see Donald L. McMurry’s The Great Burlington Strike of 1888: a Case History in Labor Relations (1956).

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