The dynamite plot

Streetcar at Fairground Park (1880s)
Missouri Historical Society

In 1885, streetcar workers in St. Louis went on strike, seeking a 12-hour workday (instead of the usual 16- to 18-hour day), a wage scale of $2 per day for conductors, 20 cents per hour for overtime, and $1.75 for drivers. The streetcar companies responded by hiring replacement workers.

The strikers, backed by the Knights of Labor, responded, in some cases, by dragging the replacements — denounced as “scabs” and “rats” — from the cars and assaulting them. They also tried to disrupt service by rocking cars, stretching carpet across the tracks to frighten the horses, and blowing cars off the tracks.

On the night of Oct. 23, 1885, Car No. 42 of the Lindell Railway Company rolled over a bomb and was “lifted off the track.” The Post-Dispatch, in a vivid account, said “the flooring beneath the driver’s feet was splintered in to a thousand pieces.”  Henry Constine, the driver, unhitched the horse, which apparently was not injured. A Mrs. Shay, a passenger, fainted. And Prof. H.W. Prentis, another passenger, “vented his wrath very freely,” offering to assist in a lynching. (“As there seemed no way of discovering the perpetrators of the outrage, the Professor’s suggestion was not carried out,” the Post-Dispatch noted.)

About two weeks later, though, five “dynamitards” were identified and arrested largely on information provided by George R. Withrow, described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as “a weak brother whose zeal led him so far away that he was called upon to stand sponsor for all the acts of his companions or turn State’s evidence.”

Eventually, seven men were charged with obstructing a railroad track by the use of dynamite: Withrow, William P. Sears, Millard W. Withers, Fred Pinkerton, David Keenan, Philip S. Burns and Thomas Tobin.

Withers was the first to go on trial, but Withrow refused to testify against him and jury found Withers not guilty on April 22, 1886. Spectators in the courtroom erupted in applause. Charges against all the other conspirators — except Withrow, who angered authorities when he refused to testify — were dropped.

Withrow went on trial in February 1887, but after deliberating just three hours, a jury acquitted him to the delight of his mother who “fell upon his neck, kissed him passionately and wept tears of joy … crying ‘Oh, my boy! Oh, my boy!’”

Withrow, who spent 18 months in jail, was the last of the alleged conspirators tried. His acquittal ended the streetcar dynamite cases, in which an unknown number of people were injured but no one died. No one was ever convicted.

Historian Russell M. Nolen, writing in 1940 about the labor movement in St. Louis, noted the 1885 strike lasted about three weeks and failed to accomplish its purposes. At the same time, though, St. Louis backed the strikers, which may explain why juries wouldn’t convict.

“The public expressed strong sympathy with the dispossessed workers and the sentiment of the laboring class was strongly against the capitalists in St. Louis,” Nolen wrote.

Fifteen years later, after streetcars were electrified, St. Louis would be rocked by a much deadlier and prolonged strike, one that claimed 14 lives and injured more than 200 people. That story was retold by Tim O’Neil in the Post-Dispatch about 10 years ago. — Roland Klose (Originally published May 1, 2022)

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