(Historical) Jagoff of the Week: George Pullman
by Paul Durica
When George Pullman arrived in Chicago towards the middle of the nineteenth century, he helped lift the city out of the muck—literally. He ran a business that specialized in raising buildings at a moment when Chicago’s street grade was elevated in order to mitigate problems associated with its swampy foundations. With the money made on that venture, he went into the luxury train car line, achieving national prominence when, through typical Chicago-style machinations, a Pullman Palace Car was selected to carry the body of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln from Washington to Springfield. Success in this market led him to create a model town adjoining the train car factory. While it offered the latest in urban amenities, it also prohibited its residents from buying their own houses, running their own newspapers, drinking, assembling in public, and attending Sunday services in their own house of worship (Pullman rented out the Greenstone Church by the hour). Cash conscious Pullman even had the residents’ waste materials pumped out to the fields surrounding the town to be used as fertilizer in growing the crops that were then sold back to said residents: in other words, Pullman’s people ate their own shit. When an economic crisis hit the country in 1893, Pullman cut the wages of his workers but did not lower the rent in his town, believing the two matters were completely unrelated and caring only about making a profit. Workers at the Pullman factory wanted to negotiate with him, but he refused all entreaties to settle the dispute in arbitration, even when they came from a secular saint like Jane Addams. In 1894 the Pullman workers went on strike and were joined in sympathy by railroad employees from across the country. Federal troops put down the strike and restored order, but Pullman ultimately lost ownership of his town, which became part of Chicago. His friends and family must have known he was something of a jagoff. When he died, they buried him in Graceland Cemetery in the early morning hours and covered over the coffin with several feet of concrete to prevent the body from being desecrated by disgruntled employees.
This originally ran in our special Lumpen Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs.