John Peter Altgeld Is Born

Turn-of-the-century progressive reformer John Peter Altgeld was born in Germany on December 30, 1847.

Despite his humble origins as the son of immigrants, Altgeld was resourceful and passionate, successfully amassing a small fortune in real estate in Chicago in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was sympathetic to the plight of the poor and other victims of the second industrial revolution. Committing himself to politics, Altgeld was elected to the superior court of Cook county (1886-91), won his party's nomination for governor (1892), and was elected by the farm and labor vote.

As governor, Altgeld achieved much, including improvements to the penal system and passage of early child labor legislation. However, he is most famous for his pardon of the German-American anarchists involved in the Haymarket Riot, an 1886 labor protest for the eight-hour day. The protest escalated into a violent confrontation in which seven policemen were killed. Altgeld, petitioned by Clarence Darrow, labor leaders, and others, argued that the trial had been unfair because the judge was prejudiced and the jury stacked.

John Peter Altgeld (December 30, 1847 - March 12, 1902) was the governor of the U.S. state of Illinois from 1893 until 1897. He was the first Democratic governor of that state since the 1850s. A leading figure of the Progressive Era movement, Altgeld improved workplace safety and child labor laws, pardoned three of the men convicted of the Haymarket Affair, and, for a time, resisted calls to break up the Pullman strike with force.

Altgeld was born in the town of Selters in the German Westerwald, the son of John P. and Mary Altgeld. He came to America early in life with his father's family, who settled on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio.

He left home at age 16 to join the Union Army (lying about his age), where he fought in Virginia with an ill-fated regiment and nearly died of fever. He then worked on his father's farm, studied in the library of a neighbor and at a private school in Lexington, Ohio, and for two years taught school.