Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor

By Robert E. Weir | Go to book overview

1
The Lights in Ritual

A Culture of Fraternalism

In 1874, a twenty-five-year-old machinist attended an antimonopoly convention in Philadelphia. He took comfort in the presence of likeminded men and was honored when William Fennimore invited him to his room for what he assumed would be a social evening. Thus he was surprised when Fennimore locked the door and asked him to kneel. He did so in anticipation of prayer, but was instead queried on a variety of subjects concerning capital and labor relations. Fennimore then asked him to join the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor ( KOL). He agreed, took an oath, and was told never to utter or write the name of the Order in public.

The young man returned to his home and job in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and heard little of the KOL until September 6, 1876. On that night, a shopmate invited him to attend a labor lecture. The two met at the designated time and place, only to confront a masked figure in a black gown. They were questioned and taken into a room with other robed men. An elaborate ceremony filled with symbolic allusions to death and rebirth ensued. After seemingly endless questions, lectures, oaths, and mystical allegories, the young man was officially welcomed into the Knights of Labor and was given over to the Venerable Sage in order to learn the secret handshakes, signs, and rituals necessary to be a fully functioning Knight.1

The machinist's name was Terence Vincent Powderly, and in less than three years after that meeting he headed the KOL. His wistful ex post facto recollections of his initiation seem odd, given that he used his power to erode KOL ritual. Powderly explained:

Traveling slowly, building carefully, and working silently, it would take many years to build an organization of sufficient strength or importance, numerically or otherwise, to command attention on the part of workers or employers. When you reflect

____________________
1
Powderly, The Path I Trod, chap. 5.

-19-

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Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Abbreviations vii
  • List of Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Preface xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Lights in Ritual 19
  • 2 - Labor Is Noble and Holy 67
  • 3 - Storm the Fort 103
  • 4 - Solidarity, Segmentation, And Sentimentality 145
  • 5 - Victoria's Sons And Daughters? 195
  • 6 - Symbols of Solidarity/ Images of Conflict 231
  • 7 - Knights of Labor Knights of Leisure 277
  • Conclusion - Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well Then I Contradict Myself 321
  • Select Bibliography 329
  • Index 339
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