Today, there is no 526 North Milwaukee Avenue. The numbers jump from 518 to 534. Where the building should be, the area is intersected by North Green Street, separating the Stax Café and the Athletic Physical Therapy building. Near the end of the nineteenth century, 526 North Milwaukee Avenue was the location of Frank A. Stauber’s hardware store. Stauber was the first socialist elected to the Chicago City Council, the first socialist elected as Cook County Commissioner, and a friend of the Haymarket Martyrs. Despite Stauber’s eventful life, his history, much like his hardware store, has been completely erased from Chicago. Still, his life is an example of a tireless socialist politician, and the degree to which the city’s political elites, especially its corrupt political bosses, will go to drive socialists from public offices.
The Workingmen’s Party of Illinois (WPI) formed in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873. The global financial crisis had a devastating impact on Chicago’s working class. The Great Fire of 1871 resulted in a massive rebuilding of the city. Jobs were plentiful. Desperate workers from all over flocked to Chicago in search of employment. With the Panic of 1873, the massive rebuilding process ground to a halt. Suddenly, the city was overwhelmed with a reserve army of the unemployed. The Workingmen’s Party of Illinois was the response. It did not take long for the party to grow in prominence and be duplicated in other states equally afflicted by the economic downturn. By 1876, the party had changed its name to the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (WPUS).
During Chicago’s aldermanic election of 1876, Prokop Hudek, Albert Parsons, and Frank Stauber were the WPUS’s nominated candidates. Of the three, Stauber was the least politically experienced. It showed in the election returns. In a three-way race, Stauber only received 7% of the vote in the Fourteenth Ward. Hudek did slightly better with 8% in the Sixth Ward in a four-way race. Parson—who had served in the Texas legislature as a Radical Republican before coming to Chicago—finished with a respectable 16% in a three-way race in the Fifteenth Ward.
The results were disappointing, but the WPUS’s popularity would soon skyrocket in Chicago. On July 16th, the workers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company in Martinsburg, Virginia, went on strike. The strike was an electrifying event. It rapidly expanded, moving along the railroad tracks, until it engulfed the entire industry. By July 21st, the strike had come to Chicago. Over a thousand workers attended a rally organized by the WPUS on a vacant lot at Twelfth and Halsted. Two days later, workers at Chicago’s railroad yards walked off the job.
Chicago’s mayor Monroe Heath responded to the strike the only way he knew how: with callous and brutal force. He ordered the police to break up demonstrations. He welcomed the National Guard into the city with bayonets drawn. In the end, 28 to 35 workers were killed, and another 200 were seriously injured. No law enforcement, neither police nor National Guard, were killed, and only 18 suffered minor injuries.
The strike galvanized the WPUS. Three hundred participants came to their annual convention to decide on candidates for the upcoming county elections. Unlike in the 1876 aldermanic elections, the WPUS nominated an entire slate of candidates for the county positions. Stauber was nominated as the WPUS candidate for Cook County Treasurer. In a dramatic increase in their popularity, all the WPUS candidates received somewhere between 6000 and 7000 votes. For the Cook County Treasurer position, Stauber received approximately 14% in a four-way race. Broken down by ward, the results were even more promising. He received over 20% of the votes in wards Seventh, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth, and over 30% in wards Fifth and Fourteenth. With 30% as the new benchmark and a likely three-way against a Republican and Democrat, the returns indicated that he had a real possibility of capturing a plurality in the Fourteenth Ward in the next aldermanic race.
The WPUS had little time to celebrate. In a matter of weeks, its members had to attend the party’s national convention in Newark, New Jersey. The convention was a turning point. During it, the WPUS adopted a new platform and changed its name to the Socialistic Labor Party (SLP). It was the first major explicitly socialist political party in American history. Under the new name and party platform, Stauber ran as alderman for the Fourteenth Ward. This time, he won with a plurality of 41% in a four-way race. Other socialists came close to victory as well. Albert Parsons received 29% of the vote in the Fifteenth Ward in a tight three-way race. The SLP candidate for the Fifth Ward, Albert Stroclow, came in second with over 21%, beating both the Democratic and Republican candidates in a five-way race. The SLP candidate for the Sixteenth Ward, F. W. Korth, also came in second with 35% of the vote in a three-way race; he lost the election by only 79 votes.
Buoyed by Stauber’s 1878 successes, the SLP came out in full force in the aldermanic elections of 1879. In addition to Stauber, the Socialistic Labor Party elected three more members to the Chicago City Council: J. J. Altpeter from the Sixth Ward, Reinhold Lorenz from the Fourteenth Ward, and Christian Meier from the Sixteenth Ward. In addition to these victories, the SLP also achieved numerous marginal defeats. In the Seventh Ward, the SLP candidate, Frank Bielefeldt—who was also a captain of the leftwing militia Lehr und Wehr Verein—came in second with 24% of the vote in a four-way race. In the Fifth Ward, SLP candidate T. J. Morgan came in a close second with 36% of the vote in a four-way race; he defeated both the Democrat and Republican candidates but lost to the independent by only 160 votes. For the mayoral race, SLP candidate Dr. Ernest Schmidt managed to get a respectable 21% of the vote against the Republican Abner Wright’s 35% and Carter Harrison’s 44%. In a few short years, Chicago’s socialists had gone from a political fringe to an insurgent third party capable of running competitive campaigns.
By this time, the Fourteenth Ward had become an SLP stronghold. Both its aldermen were members of the SLP, and one, Frank Stauber, of course, had become a statesman for Chicago socialism. For business-friendly Republicans, along with the city’s debased political machines, the situation intolerable. Corrupt alderman schemed to rig the election. During the 1880 election, Stauber ran against the Republican challenger James McGrath. Stauber won his ward in a close plurality; the final count was 1,410 votes for Stauber and 1,379 for McGrath. In the Seventh Precinct, the vote tallies were 109 for Stauber and 100 for McGrath. However, the Seventh Precinct election judges, upon learning that McGrath had lost, decided to take the ballot boxes home. When they returned them, the final count had changed to 59 for Stauber and 150 for McGrath. It was enough to declare McGrath the winner.
What followed was a nearly two-year struggle for Stauber to reclaim his aldermanic seat in the face of obvious fraud. Stauber and his supporters first appealed to the city council’s election committee, but the majority on the elections committee found no evidence of election fraud. Stauber then took his case to court. The trial ended up being an utterly embarrassing affair for McGrath’s lawyers. Once on the stand, the election judges admitted to being drunk during the election. With that admission, there was little doubt the election results were changed. The jury returned a decision in fifteen minutes. Still, McGrath’s lawyers appealed. The city council used the appeal to drag their feet and continued to deny Stauber his seat. Eventually, the appellate courted found that Stauber was the rightful winner. However, it overturned the conviction of the election judges since it was argued that the change in ballots was due to drunken incompetence and not intentional nefariousness. Regardless, McGrath appealed again to the Illinois Supreme Court. Again, the council’s majority used the appeal process as an excuse to refuse to seat Stauber. Finally, the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the case, thus upholding the lower court’s decision. It ordered the Chicago City Council to enforce the ruling. Despite this, corrupt aldermen used every loophole and stall tactic at their disposal to prevent Stauber from joining the council. Finally, after the corrupt aldermen had exhausted all options—and driven the council into a state of such tension that a physical altercation within the council chambers seemed inevitable—Stauber was allowed to reclaim his seat.
The McGrath-Stauber Affair, as it became known in the Chicago press, was a draining and divisive episode for the city’s socialist movement. The drawn-out litigation cost the movement around $2,000 (over $50,000 today) and seemed to vindicate the anarchist assertion that engaging in electoral politics was a meaningless exercise. As a result, Chicago’s socialist movement split into various sectarian factions, many of them more interested in fighting with each other than against the city’s elites. The SLP fell apart. In a matter of two years, there were no longer any socialists on the Chicago City Council. Many of the city’s radicals gave up on social movement building. In the vacuum, the anarchist Jonah Most developed a sizable following. Pointing to the futility of electoral politics, Most preached a cathartic message of a bombing throwing vanguard tearing down the capitalist state.
It was not until the rise of the Eight-Hour Day movement, which Most criticized as reformist dribble, that socialists in the city became part of a genuine social movement again. The Eight-Hour Day movement was a unifying cause for the city’s radicals and probably would have resulted in a new wave of labor victories if the campaign had not been abruptly thrown into chaos by the Haymarket Riot. The identity of the bomb thrower was never known, but the association of anarchism with wanton revolutionary violence that Most had adamantly proclaimed in the preceding years was enough to convict martyrs. At the trial, Parsons pointed to the treatment of Stauber by the Chicago City Council. He argued that if a capitalist court was going to convict him for his anarchist convictions, it should at least consider that those in control of the government had prevented working-class’ representatives from taking office through election fraud. Tragically, the jury was unpersuaded. Parsons was executed on November 11th, 1887. The day after the execution, Stauber visited Albert’s wife, Lucy, in the couples’ apartment. Usually bold and energetic, the wife of the slain labor hero was overcome with grief. Stauber would later tell a journalist that she was the most grief-stricken person he had ever seen; she was so distraught that he sincerely feared that he would die of a broken heart.
By the close of the nineteenth century, the Socialistic Labor Party was essentially dead in Chicago. From its ashes, various progressive and labor parties emerged. Stauber took full advantage of them to continue in his capacity as a public official. In 1891, he was elected as a Cook County Commissioner as a joint member of the Republican Party and the People’s Trade and Labor Party. As with his time as alderman, he was known as an aggressive champion of progressive causes. Later, he would join the Municipal Ownership Party. He would remain active in local politics, though not necessarily as an elected official, until he died in 1911.
A year before being elected as Cook County Commissioner, Stauber sold his successful hardware store on 526 North Milwaukee Avenue. The store had earned him a modest fortune. He was comfortably part of Chicago’s middle-class. Despite his class ascendancy, he never tired in the cause of labor. As alderman, Stauber introduced a series of progressive legislation, including the calling on the city to create a public bathhouse and reading room, supplying streets with kerosene lamps, and paying aldermen $3.00 per session to deter bribery and encourage working-class residents to run for office. Today, universal access to libraries, running water, street-lights, and an expectation that aldermen work for the city, not for a private business, are given. At the time, they were considered far left ideas. Stauber was, like so many other Chicagoans of his time, keenly aware of the city’s heartless poverty and dedicated much of his life to ending it. Unfortunately, poverty remains one of Chicago’s primary affliction. Chicago’s slums have moved, and the residents that occupy them have changed, but they have always been there, and despite the efforts of people like Stauber, remain there today. While most history books have relegated Stauber’s life to a few pages or footnotes, his relentless campaigning to end poverty, and efforts to confront the city’s corrupt political machines, remains an important example of Chicago’s rich tradition of social justice. 526 North Milwaukee Avenue has been torn down, but it is important Frank A. Stauber, and others like him, lives on.