15. The Attempted Assassination of Frick Was the “first terrorist act in America.” 

Henry Clay Frick, age 26, about to embark on the mining career that would make him King of Coke (roughly 80% of the steel industry bought Frick coke). Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Or so said the radical anarchist, Andrew Berkman, who shot him. An implacable opponent of labor unions, Frick provoked a major strike at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead plant in June 1892 by cutting wages in the fearsome mills. When the powerful Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers objected, Frick locked out the workers and called in 300 Pinkertons. He surrounded the mill with a 12-foot-tall fence topped with 18 inches of barbed wire and searchlights on the corner towers. It was promptly called Fort Frick. Nonetheless, the Pinkertons were “outnumbered, outgunned, and trapped” in a humiliating defeat, according to the Homestead Foundation. They were captured and forced to run a gauntlet of furious workers and sympathizers before being packed into trains and sent out of town to safety. After the governor of Pennsylvania summoned the National Guard, not really fair play, Frick hired replacement workers. In Homestead’s many violent clashes, hundreds were injured and some 16 people were killed. Public opinion turned decisively against Frick.

Then, in a disastrous blow to the labor movement, Andrew Berkman, long-time lover of Emma Goldman (they were called anarchism’s royal couple), arrived in Homestead. Planning to commit an attentat, or act of political assassination to remove a tyrant, he burst into Frick’s office and fired point blank, hitting Frick in the left earlobe. The bullet penetrated his neck and lodged in his back. Hurled off his feet, Frick was struck by a second bullet to the neck. A Frick worker grabbed Berkman’s arm, forestalling a third shot. Badly wounded, Frick nonetheless tackled Berkman, who stabbed Frick four times before he was brought down by a carpenter wielding a hammer.

When Berkman was searched by the police he was found to have a dynamite capsule in his mouth and one in his pocket. He explained at his trial (where he was found guilty and sentenced to 22 years in prison), “My act was to free the earth of the oppressors of the workingmen.” Instead, his act set back the labor movement decades, until the New Deal, as public opinion shifted again.

Another serious black mark against Frick was the earlier, horrific Johnstown Flood in 1889 in which some 2,200 people drowned. Caused in large part by the neglectful practices of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, of which Frick was a leading member, the flood was ruled an act of God by the courts, but not by history.

Berkman and Frick remained oddly linked. Berkman and Emma Goldman were awaiting deportation in Chicago when they heard the news of Frick’s death on Dec. 2, 1919.  “Deported by God,” said Goldman. “Well anyhow, he left the country before I did,” said Berkman. He and Goldman were deported later that day.

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One Response
  1. Simon DelMonte Reply

    Wouldn’t the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by a group of conspirators who also tried to kill Seward and Johnson count as an act of terrorism? The word has almost lost all meaning, but surely any comparison between the attempt to kill Frick and the murder of Lincoln would place the two horrific events on the same level of combining politics and violence.

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