Kto Zbawi?

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

Kto Zbawi (Polish for ‘Who will save us?’) is a project I worked on for a class last year, The Social Gospel in American Life, taught by Heath Carter. I am revisiting this project this summer, looking through more archives and primary sources to strengthen my interpretation in hopes of findings its way into publication.



Kto Zbawi?

American Polonia and Rerum Novarum

Seventeen-year-old Anton Kloza wept in the hallway of the Laporte County courthouse. Earlier in the day, February 27, 1904, a jury failed to reach an agreement in Kloza’s suit against the Haskell-Barker Car Company, one of the largest freight car manufacturers in the United States. Haskell-Barker was owned and run exclusively by John Barker, an industrialist, and financier worth sixty million dollars upon his death in 1910. [1] Kloza had lost his leg while working in Haskell-Barker’s Michigan City Indiana plant and was suing the company for $10,000 in damages. When he was found in the hallway, it turned out that the young Pole, who was unable to speak English, had not eaten in days and had neither money nor a place to stay.[2]

In the American Polish diaspora or Polonia, Anton Kloza’s case was not unique. Polish immigration to the United States peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing millions of Poles into circumstances like Kloza. Between 1899 and 1932 1.8 million Poles flooded into the country, many of them gathering in industrial centers of the Midwest, particularly Chicago. [3] This wave of immigration is typically called the ‘za chlebem’ ‘for bread’ wave as most of the immigrants were peasants escaping famine and restricted economic mobility in partitioned Poland.[4] Like Kloza, these peasants were thrown into a dangerous world where they lived and worked in some of the worst conditions of America’s Gilded Age. These Poles were at the foot of powerful industrialists like John Barker, Philip Armour, or Gustavus Swift. As a pillar of the Polish community, many of these oppressed Poles turned to the Catholic church for support. Unfortunately for Polish laborers like Kloza though, the Catholic Church was never clear on the side of labor in their struggle under industrial capitalism––until 1891 that is.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum Novarum, a papal encyclical which laid out for the first time the Church’s official stance on industrial capitalism and the labor issue. Rerum Novarum condemned socialism, but it also affirmed the validity of the worker’s movement. Rerum Novarum was released thirteen years before Anton Kloza lost his leg, but did it have an impact in his time? Did working Polonia recognize the role the Catholic church could play in their struggles? How was Rerum Novarum received in places like Michigan City or the South Side of Chicago, so far afield from the Vatican?


With Kloza’s case, the historical trail runs cold. We never see if Rerum Novarum touched his life. In this essay, though, I explore the reception of Rerum Novarum among working Polonia in general. I begin with an outline of Rerum Novarum and the encyclical’s reception among American Catholics. Polish Catholics represented a very distinctive community isolated from the mainstream Catholic Church. After highlighting this distinction, I dive into the reactions of Poles to Rerum Novarum as evinced in Polish newspapers in the time period. In the final section, I locate Poles’ reception of Rerum Novarum in the context of Polish labor activism.

Rerum Novarum was released on May 15, 1891. The encyclical’s subtitle reads ‘On Capital and Labor,’ as the encyclical was intended to be the Church’s first official stance on the labor issue. The encyclical legitimized many of labor’s most pressing grievances, recognizing that “by degree, it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the heartlessness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.”[5] In response to the plight of the worker, though, the Pope did not endorse socialism; on the contrary, he denounced socialists for “striving to do away with private property” and then proceeded to affirm the sanctity of the same.[6]

While the encyclical did affirm the rights of workers, it did so while clarifying the duties of capital and labor so as not to sound socialistic. The pope first off denied class antagonism: “capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital.”[7] Workers had a duty to work fully and faithfully “the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon.”[8] The encyclical went on to clarify that it was not Christian to consider one’s wealth to be ‘private property’ alone, rather all riches were ‘common to all, so as to share them without hesitations when others are in need.”[9] Employers thus had to ensure that a worker’s wages were enough so that all workers could live comfortably, yet those wages must be made through free agreement.[10] This was a major departure from previous American economic thought. Americans previously thought that a freely agreed contract by itself made labor just, this idea of a living wage was radical.[11]

Rerum Novarum was the beginning of what would become known as Catholic Social Teaching, a collection of Catholic doctrines on human dignity and society. The encyclical affirmed the fundamental rights of workers, and through this, the Pope had made a demand of his flock that had not been made so explicitly before: Rerum Novarum had made an argument relevant to public economic life.[12]

In the United States, the encyclical spoke to some of the most pressing issues of the day, but according to Aaron Abell’s overview of the reception of Rerum Novarum in the United States, the encyclical did not have much of an impact. Abell noted that the encyclical had provoked American Catholics to think about the moral law governing property.[13] However, Abell points out, the encyclical did not have a widespread impact on mainstream American Catholics. Some American Catholics recognized that the church supported labor, but the argument did not move them toward sympathy with labor.[14] The encyclical in some places even had the opposite effect, with priests latching on to the pope’s condemnation of socialism and ignoring the Pope’s call for support of labor.[15]

Despite the general apathy, Rerum Novarum did have an impact in some quarters. Some major Catholic periodicals ran articles praising the call for the liberation of workers. One article in Catholic World ended by stated that “indeed Pope Leo XIII would seem to imply by his encyclical that the church should take the lead in a worldwide movement for the relief and elevation of the toiling, struggling masses; and surely the nineteenth century offer no ampler field.”[16] Another article in the following issue of the Catholic World wrote on the significance of the encyclical for American coal and ironworkers.[17] Even though some thinkers interacted positively with Rerum Novarum, most who reacted in this way were blind to the plight of ethnic Catholics and immigrant workers.[18]

While most American Catholics were apathetic to encyclical’s call for labor, Rerum Novarum was directly used in a number of small labor movements in the twentieth century. The San Francisco labor movement, for example, was heavily influenced by Rerum Novarum. Father Peter C. Yourke, an Irish priest from Baltimore, successfully used the principles of the encyclical to explain to San Francisco workers in the 1900-01 strikes to explain the workers’ moral right to association.[19] An Irish priest was noted for speaking on Mid-century, the encyclical also had a noted impact on labor resistance to the Bracero Program, the US government’s use and abuse of migrant laborers on southwest farms in the 1950-60s. Archbishop of San Antonio Robert Lucey and his missionaries used Rerum Novarum and other encyclicals in the canon of Catholic Social teaching up against that point, to counsel Bracero workers on the importance of labor organization.[20]

While sharing the same religion and geographic space, American Poles were radically disconnected from the world of Abell’s Catholics as well as Irish Catholic priests such as Peter Yourke. Catholic Polonia was distinctly different mainstream Catholicism. Poles in the late nineteenth century were perceived as being non-white in comparison to German or Irish Catholics. Poles were a relatively new immigrant group in 1890s America, and they were considered to be too different from previous Irish and German immigrants. Poles, along with Italian and Jewish immigrants, were deemed to be non-white by the prevailing nativist and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ political and social elites in the United States.[21] Poles were ethnic Catholics, included in the church as Catholic in name only.

The Poles were looked down upon by the Irish-dominated mainstream Catholic establishment. One of the most well-documented cases was the continuing conflict between Cardinal George Mundelein, bishop of Chicago from 1915 to 1939, and the Polish Catholics in his community. In the 1920s Mundelein refused multiple times to approve Polish prayers in Catholic masses in mixed parishes and at several points attempted to block the establishment of Polish parishes.[22] Mundelein’s attitude toward the Poles was typical of relations between the Catholic hierarchy and the Polish church. Was this social distance from the Catholic hierarchy enough for American Poles to be able to form a social gospel such as in San Francisco or in the bracero program?


Despite being isolated from the church hierarchy, Polish communities in the United States were deeply Catholic. For Poles, the church as a way of retaining their identity and community in the New World. In rural Poland, the church was the center of identity, it wholly defined how Poles knew and interacted with one another.[23] In the United States, the Polish diaspora tried their best to recreate this foundation. Polish workers working in the packinghouses and steel mills of Chicago, making barely enough to survive, always saved up enough to send their children to the local Polish parish school, where their language and identity could be protected.[24] Poles also increasingly created community organizations through the church, such as Fraternal clubs and devotional groups, essentially defining all public life in Polonia through the church.[25] With such a profoundly Catholic working-class community, one would expect that Rerum Novarum made some impact in the Polish community.


The encyclical did make an impact in the community, but of a different kind than that of Abell’s Catholic hierarchy or the labor movements that used the encyclical. Early Polish responses to the encyclical were subtle. In the years immediately following its publication, Polish newspapers did not write any significant tracts in response to the encyclical. But, over the following twenty years, Rerum Novarum would be mentioned in Polish papers at a much higher rate than other newspapers in the time period.[26]

Poles took a positive meaning from the encyclical. An article 1898 in Dziennik Chicagoski, a prominent Polish-Catholic newspaper, praised Leo XIII for following in ‘the path of common people’ with Rerum Novarum.[27] An 1893 article praised the encyclical for being aimed at ‘social harmony.’[28] Through Rerum, Poles recognized that Leo was on their side in their struggle with industrial capitalism.

A poem published in Dziennik Chicagoski in 1895 titled “Kto Zbawi? –Bóg!”  or ‘Who will save us? –God!’ directly cited the meaning of Rerum Novarum for Polonia. The poem began:


W “Rerum Novarum” rzekłeś nam,                   In Rerum Novarum, you told us

Niech miłość będzie waszem prawem,             Your love is all our right

Niech biedak u bogacza bram                             Let Poor man and rich man enter the gates

Nie stoi z okiem łzawem…                                   He does not stand with tears

Niech będzie w słusznej cenie trud                    Give labor its rightful price

A wtedy Szczęsnym będzie lud.                          and the people will be happy[29]


To the Pole who wrote this poem for the newspaper, Rerum Novarum was seen as the Pope stepping in on the side of ‘us’ to give labor its due. The final stanza of the poem states that the world does not understand Leo’s words and that the only one who can save the Poles is God.

Through this explicit identification with the encyclical, it is evident Rerum Novarum had a well-known and pervasive meaning for the Polish communities. Through the following decades, this meaning subtly lingered on in many Polish newspapers. For example, into the twentieth-century Polish newspapers continued to reprint excerpts from the encyclical. A 1904 reprint in a Polish paper in Minnesota republished excerpts from paragraph twenty-four of the encyclical, on the importance of using the riches responsibility. The reprint also included excerpts of paragraph thirty-six on the responsibility of the state to interfere in strikes and worker’s issues.[30] Other Polish newspapers followed a similar pattern.

The encyclical later became a lens on a labor organization. Much of this language connected the encyclical to the labor movement in both the United States and in partitioned Poland. An 1898 Chicago paper published a labor periodical about Rerum Novarum that had been circulating in Galicia, to ‘advise’ Polish workers in America.[31] A newspaper in Cleveland in 1906 praised a new social-democratic party in Warsaw for taking ‘action’ on the encyclical.[32] American Polonia was aware of the impact and use Rerum Novarum had in Poland. The encyclical had been better received by the hierarchy there, and the labor-sympathetic message of the encyclical made its way into most pulpits, but it had relatively little effect on the weak labor movements in Poland’s few industrial centers.[33]

In 1911 Polish papers celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. One article celebrated the power the encyclical gave to the working class to defend against their exploitation and called upon the working class to celebrate its anniversary.[34] Other articles surrounding this revealed Poles to be considering how the encyclical connected to calls for Social Christianity. Another 1911 article detailed the history Social Christianity, as it was embodied in the French revolution and the German revolutions of 1848, the history ended with Rerum Novarum.[35] An extensive overview of Social Christianity also appeared in Dziennik Chicagoski in 1910. This overview was titled “Refleksy e Społecno Chrzescijańskie na Czasie” [Timely Reflections on Social Christianity], and it detailed the role of Christianity in civilization with several descriptions of the critical the role Rerum Novarum played in handling class relations.[36] These articles were only a few years after the publication of Robert Ruaschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and John Ryan’s A Living Wage (1906) which led many Americans into conversation on the role of Christianity in industrial America as well as popularizing the notion of ‘Social Christianity.’ Ryan, a Catholic priest, especially commented on social Christianity through the lens of Rerum Novarum. Ryan argued that Leo’s support of private property and profit-seeking was not all-out support of capital, instead of private property was equally the property of labor and capital.[37] As these articles revealed, Poles were to a minor extent part of this conversation.

Through the two decades after its publication, the Polish diaspora was persistently aware of the meaning and potential of Rerum Novarum. Poles reflected upon its meaning and consistently spoke of the encyclical with reverence and hope. Yet it is not clear if the encyclical made it way into the Polish labor movements as it did with Father Yourke in San Francisco or Archbishop Lucey in Texas. What was the Polish church’s role in the Polish labor movement? Did Polish workers have a social gospel in the first place and if so, did Rerum Novarum directly make its way into that gospel?


Polish labor was in a desperate state in the time these articles were written. Poles lived in some of the worst slums in industrializing America and worked some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs. Many Poles worked an eighty-four hour week in South Chicago steel mills while other salved away in the horrifying mess of Chicago’s packinghouses. Poles working at the Haskell-Barker factory in Michigan City where Anton Kloza worked before he lost his leg, walked to the freight car factory at dawn and worked a 12-14 hour shift seven days a week. Polish workers slowly organized at the end of the nineteenth century.

Since Poles, like most turn of the century immigrants, were for the most part unskilled laborers, unionization was especially difficult for them. Skilled workers refused to unionize with the Poles and attempts at organizing unskilled labor rarely succeeded since there was always a large labor pool to draw from. Poles did turn to unions in times of crisis in the Gilded Age, but when they did, they were not as radical as other immigrant groups in the time period.

Poles were somewhat averse to radicalism. Polish workers, although at the bottom rung, were especially conservative in their outlook on labor. Poles protested against Capital under cases of severe pay cuts or changes. In these cases though, but their demands were always for a return to the status quo.[38] Some later Polish immigrants who migrated from regions of Poland with high rates of peasant populism were more assertive but on the whole Polish workers were seen as docile in the time period.[39] Poles were also generally far less likely to support or join socialist organizations in this time.[40]

Polish labor activists were also not entirely united behind Catholicism. Many Polish labor agitators argued their case from Polish nationalist rhetoric instead of religious rhetoric. Poles, when leaving for the United States carried strong nationalist impulses stemming from Poland’s multiple partitions and political disenfranchisement. Nationalism provided a sharp lens on Polish views on labor, as well as American politics in general.[41] Through the first world war, Polish community leaders in Chicago remained divided over whether nationalism or Catholicism would define their political and labor movements in the United States, whether arguments for the dignity of Polish labor lay in the church or the nationalist spirit.[42] Rerum Novarum did sneak its way into some of these nationalist calls for labor, as evinced in the newspaper articles on Polish labor in both Galicia and in Poland above.[43]

A number of crucial Poles in the labor movement who relied upon Catholic arguments made arguments similar to that of Rerum Novarum. The prominent historian of Polish labor, John Radziłowski argued that while Poles were generally upset with the impact of industrial capitalism, but they did not partake in labor radicalism due to the influence of the Polish church in their lives.[44] The role of Polish religious leader, Wincenty Barzyński was a factor in this aversion to socialism, according to Radziłowski. Barzyński was a very successful church planter in Polonia, and wherever he started Polish parishes, he carried strong arguments against modernism that included both indictments of industrial capitalism and socialism.[45]  Barzyński also successfully aligned Polish Chicago with the Democratic party in the 1890s, politicizing the group’s goals but not making them too radical. Barzyński was just one loud voice in Polonia’s reaction to industrial capitalism though. He used some of the principles of Catholic social teaching, but his arguments did not define the movement or make a discernable impact.

Rerum Novarum, while on the minds of Poles, could not take root in the Polish diaspora in America. Poles were too averse to radical unionization, divided, and numbed by arguments against socialism to fully take on the calling of Rerum Novarum. While it would seem as if such a deeply Catholic community would take on the pope’s first social teaching, Polonia was merely too divided and complex. Polish newspapers evinced a distinct awareness and appreciation of Rerum Novarum, albeit it never worked its way into a robust Polish social gospel.


In 1991, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Centesimus Annus or “hundredth year.” Centesimus Annus was a capstone to the tradition of Catholic Social teaching that had begun with Rerum Novarum; it condemned the communist regimes of the twentieth century and made a strong call for the ‘principle of subsidiarity,’ which stated that a higher order community must respect the right of a lower community to make its own decisions for itself but that the higher community still bears a responsibility for the lower community when that community is in need. Before taking his regnal name in 1979, John Paul II was the Bishop of Kraków, Karol Joźef Wojtyła. American Poles reacted to the election of the first Polish pope with tremendous zeal. Polish Catholics became a much closer, prouder community in the era of the ‘miracle pope.’[46]

Poles in this time had come a long way from Rerum Novarum. In 1983 the Solidarność movement put the plight of Polish workers in the global spotlight, highlighted the abuse of Polish workers by the postwar communist regime. John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s were key in motivating Solidarność. Polish labor now had a radical face, tied in deeply with the Catholic hierarchy. This was a state of affairs inconceivable in the time of Kloza, albeit its seeds may have already been sewn as he wept in the courthouse hallway.

[1] James Forgan Recollections of a Busy Life (New York: The Banker’s Publishing Company, 1924), 224, “John H Barker Dead, Expired Soon After Noon” Michigan City Evening Dispatch December 11, 1910

[2] “Jury Fails to Agree, No Verdict in Damage Suit of Friendless Polish Boy” Indianapolis Journal February 28, 1904

[3] Pacyga, Dominic. Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on the South Side, 1880-1922. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) 17

[4] William Galush, For More Than Bread: Community and Identity in American Polonia 1880-1940 East European Monographs DCLXXXIX (Columbia University Press, 2006) vii

[5] Leo XII Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor (May 15, 1891) §3 http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html

[6] ibid §4-5

[7] ibid §19

[8] ibid §20

[9] ibid §22

[10] ibid §45-46

[11] See Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)

[12] Kevin Schmeising, Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II. (Lenham MD: Lexington Books, 2004) 18

[13] Aaron Abell, “The Reception of Leo XIII’s Labor Encyclical in America” Review of Politics Vol.7 No4 (October 1945) 464-495; 471

[14] ibid 478

[15] ibid 481

[16] E.B. Brady, “The Pope and the Proletariat” Catholic World Vol.53 No. 317 (August 1891) 633-644; 644

[17] Rev. Morgan Sheedy, “The Encyclical and American Iron-Workers and Coal Miners” Catholic World Vol.53 No.318 (September 1891) 850-861

[18] Martin Zielinski, “The American Catholic and Chicago Response to Rerum Novarum” Chicago Studies Vol.31 No.2 (August 1992) 142-153; 145

[19] Richard Gribble, “Rerum Novarum and the San Francisco Labor Movement” American Catholic Historian Vol.9 No.3 (Summer 1990) 275-288; 285

[20] Brett Hendrickson, “Catholic Social Policy and Resistance to the Bracero Program” in Heath Carter, Christopher Cantwell, and Janine Giordano eds. The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2016) 192-210

[21] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998) Jacobson identifies race as a lens defined by power struggles in the United States in this time, Poles and other new immigrants were excluded from being white on account of the 1798 naturalization act which stipulated that citizenship was only available to ‘free white males.’

[22] Edward R. Kantowicz, Corporation Sole: Cardinal Mundelein and Chicago Catholicism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 75-6

[23] Pacyga Workers 111-12

[24] Pacyga 144-45

[25] Galush For More than Bread 67

[26] The majority of the results for a search for ‘Rerum Novarum’ in several digital newspaper databases for the decades between 1890 and 1920 were in Polish newspapers.

[27] “Polacy w Chicago” [People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

[28] “Poglądy Katolickiego Męź Stanu Na Kwestyę Socalnyą” [A Catholic’s View on the State of the Social Question] Dziennik Chicagoski April 4th, 1893

[29] “Kto Zbawi? –Bóg!” [Who will save us? God!] Dziennik Chicagoski July 23rd, 1895, Author’s translation

[30] Wiarus February 4, 1904

[31] “Polacy w Chicago” [Polish People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

[32] “Nowy Stronnictwa” [New Party] Ameryka Echo January 6, 1906

[33] Brian Porter, Faith, and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford University Press, 2011) 129-130

[34] “Rocznica Encyliki Rerum Novarum” [Anniversary of Rerum Novarum] Dziennik Chicagoski  June 9, 1911

[35] “Uwagi: Socyalizm Chrześcijański” [Comments on Christian Socialism” Dziennik Chicagoski December 7, 1911

[36] “Refleksy e Społecno Chrzescijańskie na Czasie” [Timely Reflection on Social Christianity] Dziennik Chicagoski December 15th, 1910

[37] Ryan, John A., Harlan Beckley Ed. Economic Justice: Selections from Distributive Justice and A Living Wage (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1996) 118

[38] William Falkowski, “Labor, Radicalism, and the Worker” in John Bukowczyk ed. Polish Americans and the History: Community Culture and Politics (University of Pittsburg Press, 1996) 39-57; 41

[39] Falkowski 43

[40] Galush For More than Bread 61

[41] See Matthew Frye, Jacobson,  Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants. Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1995.

[42] George Pabis, “The Polish Press in Chicago and American Labor Strikes, 1892-1912” Polish American Studies Vol.48, No.1 (Spring 1991) 7-21;8

[43] “Polacy w Chicago” [Polish People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

Nowy Stronnictwa” [New Party] Ameryka Echo January 6, 1906

[44] John Radziłowski, “Rev. Wincenty Barzyński and a Polish Catholic Response to Industrial Capitalism” Polish American Studies Vol.58 No.2 (Autumn 2001) 23-32; 24

[45] ibid  29

[46] John Radziłowski, “Miracle: American Polonia, Karol Wojtyła and the Election of Pope John Paul II” Polish American Studies Vol.63 No.1 (Spring 2006) 79-87

A Cultural History of Gilded Age Suicide

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

 *The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

In the summer of 2017, I spent a significant chunk of my time looking through newspapers on microfilm at the Michigan City public library. This was part of the research for a book on the Barker Family which eventually that book turned into a full history of Michigan City in the Gilded Age, Michigan City and the Gilded Age: Industrialists, Immigrants, and Sand which is coming out this fall through the History Press of Charleston SC. I was looking through these newspapers for information on the Barkers, local politics, factories, immigrants, scandals, and other pieces of Gilded Age Michigan City history. As the case with most late-nineteenth-century local papers, Michigan City ran more national news than local news, using new telegraph news services such as the Associated Press. This meant sifting through pages of articles that had little to do with Michigan City or even Indiana to find information usable for my research (in the end I actually found more information on Michigan City in Chicago, South Bend, and Indianapolis newspapers than I found in Michigan City).

While mind-numbing at times, there were a few interesting things in these non-Michigan City articles. My favorite was a series of 1880s articles on an individual known as “Bill Nye, Scientist.” Rather than a beloved 1990s children’s science educator, the Gilded Age Bill Nye was a doctor who answered questions about anatomy in a column for the New York World.

One of the more troubling things in the Michigan City papers was the regularity in which Michigan City papers sensationalized Suicide. Nearly every day, there were long articles on the front page about the suicides of local residents as well as people from Chicago, New York, and even overseas. The most striking article I found (which I made a note of but unfortunately did not print off a copy of) was a long report on the Suicide of an inmate at the state prison in Michigan City. Reporters for the New Dispatch had gone to the prison and taken, from the prison post office, several letters the prisoner had addressed to his family, and then proceeded to print the text of the letters in full on the front page. I was perplexed, why was Suicide such a sensational topic in Gilded Age? What drove the demand for this extreme in nineteenth-century media?

An important historical question, but one that would have to wait. I had more pressing concerns, including securing the book contract and my upcoming senior seminar paper on the Katyń massacre, which I was writing that fall. The following spring, which was the second semester of my junior year at Valparaiso University, I began exploring possible topics for my honors thesis. At the end of the semester, my project proposal was due, and I was expected to work on it for the next year with the final draft due in April of my senior year. I was still under the thrall of Eastern European history when I first decided to do honors work. My first idea for the project was going to be an intellectual history on the influence of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Poland. The previous year I had run across some debates between Polish Hegelian academics and Polish Catholic priests while researching a philosophy paper. I ran into trouble on this topic, though. While some sources were in Polish, the majority of the sources on Polish Hegelian thought was written a German, a language in which I was woefully unskilled.

Around this time, I was beginning to drift more and more into American history. I had studied and written on American history in my work at the Barker Mansion, but I never considered myself an American historian, I always had my hopes set on becoming a historian of the Soviet Union and Poland. I had my doubts about this dream, though. For one, I had never traveled to Eastern Europe. I had never experienced the culture which I wanted to study, and I also lacked knowledge of Russian. I had studied Polish with a tutor for several years at Valpo, but my knowledge of Russian barely extended beyond being the Cyrillic alphabet, basic grammar, some phrases from the Soviet Era, and crossover words between Polish and Russian. I found American history on the hand very attractive.

American history, while shorter, was much more real to me, especially the Gilded Age. The problems of the Gilded Age seemed very much alive with many of the same issues in our public discourse today. I still live and walk amongst the buildings, institutions, and inventions of that era. I also found that I did not have to abandon Polish history wholly, for the Gilded Age was the time when all of my Polish ancestors came over to the United States to work in the steel mills.

I quickly abandoned my plans for the thesis on Hegel in Poland and started exploring the history of Polish immigrants in the United States. I spoke to Heath Carter, the Gilded Age historian at Valparaiso, who agreed to be my thesis mentor on the project. Dr. Carter also supervised an independent study on the Gilded Age that spring, where we explored the vast literature on the Gilded Age. He also gave me feedback on my book manuscript in the class. We read a few books on immigration history such as John Higham’s Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, which covered the history of immigration debates in the Gilded Age, and Dominic Pacyga’s Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago, a history of Polish steel mill and packinghouse workers in Chicago.

Dr. Carter also introduced me to the extensive scholarship on the cultural history of the Gilded Age. Cultural history is a historical method which focuses on the symbols and representations with a single culture. This meant following the changing use of terms in American media and literature; seeing how different Americans found different meanings for the same turn. It meant understanding how Gilded Age Americans perceived the world through their culture. I found this method of historical inquiry extremely interesting. To me, cultural history seemed to get closer to the ‘what-its-like’ of historical experience than other methods seemed to allow. I have always wanted to get into the head of historical agents, to get an inkling of what is meant to live in a particular historical context; cultural history seemed to be the best route towards that.

I tried to integrate my newfound love for cultural history into my honors thesis plans. My initial plan was to explore the perception of time among Polish immigrants working in Chicago. Polish workers were mostly peasants who went from working in the fields of Poland to working eighty-four hours weeks in the blast furnace of South Chicago Steel Works or spending all day on the horrific assembly line of one of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. I wanted to see if their perception of time changed as their experience changed; did time slow down for them when they made this move?

This was a big question, and I quickly found that it was not feasible given the scope of an honors work project. To understand how Polish immigrants experienced the time I would have to essentially read any bit of media circulated in the Polish community both in Chicago and in Poland, hoping to find evidence of angst or anxiety about how they felt the time was moving. I found some evidence of this thesis in my cursory research, but the task was too monumental. I did not want to condemn myself to read newspapers on microfilm for another, and Polish newspapers at that!

Around this time, the question of Gilded Age suicide drifted back into my train of thought. Dr. Carter had me read TJ Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace, cultural history of the anti-modern impulse in American history, which I covered in broad strokes my the previous post. Lears’ work covered different ways in which Gilded Age Americans responded to the negative effects of industrialization and urbanization. These Americans felt a feeling of weightlessness as their entire world changed dramatically.

Lears’ book made me think about the suicide notes that the Michigan City papers stole from the prison post office; what meaning did Suicide have for these Americans? Americans felt their whole world change, did Suicide have some sort of metaphorical significance to this feeling?

It turns out Suicide was a major topic of public debate in the Gilded Age. Americans claimed that suicide rates were increasing due to urbanization and modernization. Extensive tracts on the rise in Suicide regularly ran in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune as well as in the labor press, the immigrant press, the feminist press, religious periodicals, fashion magazines––just about everywhere I looked I found debates over Suicide. Suicide was also sensationalized in American media with dramatic accounts of suicides and graphic illustrations regularly printed in newspapers. Reprinting suicide notes as the case with the Michigan City paper turned out to be a common practice.

A cultural history of Suicide in the Gilded Age thus became my honors thesis. For the past year, I have poured through thousands of newspapers, magazines, books, medical journals, and other sources to reconstruct several areas of public debate and discourse where Suicide played a significant role. Eventually I narrowed the study down to three distinct areas of discourse: (1) suicide and anarchism in the Gilded Age, the Suicide of anarchists such as condemned Haymarket bomber Louis Lingg were commented on extensively in American media; (2) gender and Suicide, the Suicide of women in nineteenth-century American cities were sensationalized by different strata of American society; (3) suicide and the market, Americans increasingly tied Suicide into the new industrial economy of the Gilded Age. Through all of these arenas of discourse, I argued that suicide sensationalism expressed Americans’ deep anxieties about the direction America had taken under industrialization.

I finished writing this thesis a few weeks ago, I went a little primary-source-crazy, and it ended up being 118 pages long. On May 10, I defended the thesis and managed to pass. This summer, I plan to share some of my findings in a three-part podcast on Suicide and the Gilded Age, which will be posted on the mansions podcast site. I also will publish pieces of the study on this blog, and I am going to submit some sections for consideration by various journals. You can also read it by clicking here.

You never know where a research project may go or what may strike interest. I traipsed from Hegel’s influence in Poland to the perception of time by Polish immigrants. The only reason I ended up studying Gilded Age suicide was because of some articles I happened to stumble by in my quest for other sources. That’s why I plan to live my life immersed in the world of primary sources; you never know where you are going to go, and I always enjoy the journey.

TJ Kalin, May 26, 2019

Anti-Modernism and the Barkers

By TJ Kalin Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

John Barker was born in Michigan City, Indiana in 1844. Chicago, fifty miles away, had a population of about 15,000 when he was born. When Barker passed away in 1910, the city had a population of over 2,000,000. His lifetime saw other dramatic changes to American life. He lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction; people began to say the ‘United States is” instead of the “United States are.” In his lifetime, electric light fundamentally changed how Americans viewed their own homes and cities. Telephones and telegraphs made once great distances seem incredibly small. With the railroad and later the automobile, humans were able to travel faster than horses, wind, or water. Laws of incorporation saw companied became incredibly large, and the advent of bureaucracy gave a new face to the government.

When Barker was born, Americans lived by the Jeffersonian Republican ideal; everyone worked in hopes of someday running their own independent farm. Wage labor was seen as a means towards one day, gaining independence. Labor was a matter of interacting with one’s environment. With industrialization, this changed. Millions of immigrant workers entered perpetual wage labor in the United States. The modern assembly line meant that the workers’ tasks were simplified, repeating the same motions all day long.

Labor changed for the professional class too. With incorporation, more white collar workers were needed to manage the complex hierarchies of American companies. Factories like the Haskell and Barker car company needed more middle management, more people in offices. Suddenly, labor for middle was a matter of sitting in artificially lit offices all day, endlessly shuffling paperwork. In their attempt to feel as if they were still interacting with the work, these workers began to work extremely long hours. According to John Barker’s obituary, even though he was president of the company, Barker was still in the office before anyone else in the morning, and he was always last to leave.


Oglesbee and Hale, History of Michigan City Indiana (1908) p.200


This changes in labor occurred in tandem with shifts in Americans view of morality and the self. Before the Civil War, most Americans lived in small towns. Their identity was rooted in their communities; they had moral accountability among a small group of people. With the advent of industrialization and urbanization, that sense of self fractured radically. Living in cities of millions of people uprooted Americans’ sense of identity and moral assuredness. The image of the urban vices of the city, opium, alcohol, prostitution, further undermined Americans’ moral sense in the era.

Together, the loss of identity and the change in labor led middle-class Americans to feel a ‘weightlessness’ of modern life. They felt as if they were no longer interacting with the world, that their actions were futile; American did not think they had control over their lives. The term ‘neurasthenia’ came into usage to describe a nervous collapse brought by weightlessness and ‘overcivilization.’


Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 5.54.18 PM
“Worry Drives Thousands to the Death, the Madhouse and to Suicide,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 13, 1905.


One remedy was to search for intense experiences to offset the weightlessness. The middle class took up hobbies such as silversmithing, crocheting, beekeeping, and pottery. Through these hobbies, Americans tried to embody the ideals of medieval artisans, whom they thought lived intense lives. Outdoors hobbies such as camping and fishing became popular, as Americans sought to escape the cities into the outdoors. The Barker family was involved in these hobbies. Pillows sewn by Katherine Fitzgerald Barker are in the museum’s collection and our archives house several photos of the Barkers on camping trips with other high society families.

PhotoELF Edits:
2013:01:05 --- Batch JPG Compressed YUV444 EXIF 98 %


The return to the medieval artisan was one way in which Americans sought to defy modernization, i.e., a return to pre-modern ideals. American architecture also reflected this change, as Greek and Roman revival style skyscrapers sprung up across the country. These styles masked the modernity of the buildings, hiding steel beams, electric light, and elevators beneath old facades. The Barker Mansion is an excellent example of this impulse, constructed in English-Renaissance revival style. Inside the mansion elaborate woodwork, tapestries, and faux candelabras hide electric light, radiators, modern vents, and pressurized plumbing. Historians refer to these trends as the anti-modernism.

When I am in the mansion today, I try to look for more evidence of the Barkers’ anti-modernism. The advent of the internet on my life is nothing compared to these changes the Barkers went through and I try to keep that in mind when I look at their world through my eyes. The Gilded Age was a time of changing perceptions of the world, people saw time, space, and themselves differently and my plan for the next year is to design interpretive programs that convey the weight of these changes. Last weekend I held the second “Building Barker Architecture Tour” which explored the mansion and the family’s history through the lens of Frederick Wainwright Perkins, the architect who designed the mansion as well as that of Jens Jensen, who designed the gardens. Using Perkins’ correspondence with the Barkers as well as the context of Gilded Age architecture, we explored several manifestations of anti-modernism in the structure of the mansion as well as the symbolism and designs throughout the building and grounds. I am also planning a program for September 18th, tentatively titled “Lighting the Barker Mansion” (not much pizzazz right now, but I’ll work on it!). In this program, I explore the impact of electric light in the Gilded Age, how lighting changed social customs, fashion, and altered how people interact with the space inside their own homes. Anti-modernism is just one of a myriad of perspective we can take on the Barker Mansion, and it brings us a hair closer to seeing the world through the Barkers’ eyes.

Further Reading:

Lears, TJ Jackson. No Place of Grace: Anti-Modernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1870-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

———, The Railroad Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.