Governor Matthews was born and raised on a farm in Kentucky. After graduating college, he moved to Vermillion County where he met and married Martha Whitcomb, the daughter of former governor James Whitcomb. He continued farming in Vermillion County and apparently gained a reputation for producing quality cattle and horses. He served a term as a state representative, then lost a bid for the state senate. He was approached by Democratic party leaders in 1890 to run for Secretary of State. They were making a particular effort at the time to recruit farmers in an effort to stave off the loss of members to the Populist Party. The Populists grew out of “a mood of agrarian unrest in response to low agricultural prices in the South and the trans-Mississippi West, as well as thought that the “Eastern Elites” were taking advantage of the farmers by charging higher rates on loans and trains.” Matthews was a strong advocate of the unlimited silver coinage movement.
Matthews ran against Governor Gray and the Populist candidate, Leroy Templeton. Eighty-nine percent of eligible voters cast ballots. A major focus of the campaign was depressed farm prices and farmer desire to inflate the currency to help alleviate debt. Coopting the Populist positions seems to have been a short-term winner for the Democrats but a long term failure. The Panic of 1893 and the party’s free-silver position seems to have pushed Hoosiers away from their near equal support of the two major parties and toward a solid Republican majority. From 1896 to 1908, the Republicans would have what historian James Madison calls “an unprecedented ascendancy.” And, really, this has mostly lasted through the present day.
Pullman Strike, Eugene V. Debs, and deployment of state troops to Hammond
In the summer of 1894, Gov. Matthews dispatched state troops to Hammond during the Pullman Strike. Pullman ran a company town and, during the economic downturn, reduced wages but did not reduce the rents in the company town where the workers were compelled to live. This was not a popular move. The workers had not organized into a union, and this was a wildcat strike. Terre Haute native, Eugene V. Debs had founded the American Railway Union the year before and came to Pullman, Illinois to organize. The company refused to negotiate. In order to increase the pressure, the ARU employed tactics designed to stop movement of Pullman cars along the tracks. The ARU and its members also organized a boycott: “Debs began the boycott on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had ‘walked off’ the job rather than handle Pullman cars.” President Cleveland’s Attorney General (who still received a salary from his old railroad employers) got an injunction that the ARU ignored. Federal troops were dispatched.
The situation in Hammond was apparently as violent as anything going on in Chicago. Mobs confronted nonunion workers, derailed locomotives and rolling stock, and, on July 7, seized the telegraph office. The Lake County sheriff could not handle the situation and requested aid from the governor. But, Gov. Matthews was initially unreceptive to the requests. Only after federal forces were dispatched did Gov. Matthews also deploy about 700 state guardsmen. Because the General Assembly was not in session, Matthews found it necessary to personally borrow $41,000 to pay the troops. He was later reimbursed.
There was an incident where federal troops fired indiscriminately into a crowd and killed Charles Fleischer, an innocent bystander who was searching the area for one of his sons. A local magistrate swore out a warrant for the regular federal soldiers involved in the incident, but the military felt that the soldiers were provoked and ignored the civil warrant. With the numerous federal injunctions, involvement of federal troops, and arrest of Debs and other leaders of the ARU, the strike ended on August 5. The Supreme Court ultimately determined that Posse Comitatus Act did not restrict the use of federal troops in any strike involving transportation of the mails or the movement of interstate commerce.
Election of 1894 and Republican majority
The Democrats fared poorly in the election of 1894. Republicans took back the General Assembly. During the Albert Porter administration, the Democratic General Assembly had stripped the governor of a great deal of his appointment powers. When Democratic Gov. Matthews was elected, they restored those powers. The Republican General Assembly promptly stripped them again. Gov. Matthews vetoed the bill stripping his authority and did so minutes before the General Assembly was set to adjourn — in an effort to delay their ability to override the veto. However, the House Republicans blocked the governor’s messenger from reaching the House Speaker. This resulted in fist fights between Republican and Democratic lawmakers that lasted about a half hour. (A good round up of the newspaper coverage of the incident is here.) The governor’s private secretary, Myron King, was apparently in pretty rough shape after the beating. “Revolvers were flourished and blows struck with such articles of furniture as the combatants could lay hands on conveniently.” The Democrats apparently finally got King with his veto message to the Speaker’s desk, but moments after the Speaker declared the session adjourned sine die. The members of the legislature involved in the assault of King apparently left the city quickly thereafter to avoid arrest.
During his term, Matthews also successfully cracked down on horse racing and prize fighting in Lake County, notwithstanding the offer of a $500 bribe for the House clerk to “lose” the racetrack bill before the governor could sign it.
Oh, Lake County. Never change.
During this period, Indiana was coming to the end of its major courthouse construction period. The period of 1870-1900 saw the construction of the state’s largest and grandest courthouses (pdf). State law allowed county commissioners “to appropriate any funds in the county’s treasury to borrow up to one percent of all appraised real and personal property without an election and to levy and collect whatever taxes were necessary to build a courthouse whenever the commissioners thought such a building was necessary.” This encouraged generous expenditures for courthouse construction and many Indiana courthouses exhibit remarkable grandeur. According to courthouse expert David Hermansen in 1868:
Indiana still has one of the finest assemblages of nineteenth-century courthouses in the Midwest, and they vividly express a variety of architectural concepts. They express the architectural skills and aspirations of America in the nineteenth century… They are tangible and can continue to afford us a rich architectural stimulus and experience for many decades.
At the end of Governor Matthews term, he was a contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1896 but lost on the fifth ballot to William Jennings Bryan and his “Cross of Gold” speech.
Next month we’ll resume with 1897 and into the 20th century!