Let's learn from the past: Assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick

  • Posted on: 6 July 2017
  • By: thecollective

from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

by Brady Smith, Heinz History Center director of communication

During the late 19th century, an assassination attempt on the life of Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick shocked the nation during one of the most notorious labor disputes in American history.

By the time he was 30 years old, Henry Clay Frick had become a millionaire. His company controlled nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s coke supply, essential for making steel.

After forging a partnership with Andrew Carnegie in May 1882, Frick helped the Carnegie Steel Company grow into the world’s largest steel manufacturer.

A ruthless opponent of labor unions, Frick caused a major dispute in June 1892 after cutting wages at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead plant. When their union refused to accept the cut, he locked out the union workers, and a standoff ensued.

To boost security and show muscle, Frick hired 300 agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. On July 6, while attempting to quell the standoff, a violent clash between armed strikers and the Pinkertons resulted in 16 deaths.

The news received national attention and ignited public criticism of Frick. One dissenter, Russian anarchist Alexander Berkman, devised a plan to assassinate Frick and inspire a national working-class revolt.

On July 23, Berkman entered Frick’s office in downtown Pittsburgh and fired three shots from his revolver, two of which hit Frick in the neck. Frick’s aides immediately rushed in to stop the attack.

During the struggle, Berkman managed to stab Frick in the leg with a dagger while being wrestled to the ground. Despite his wounds, Frick survived, and as legend suggests, he even dictated some business letters while doctors treated him.

Berkman was later arrested and convicted, serving 14 years in prison for attempted murder.

The failed assassination drew media attention away from the strike and evoked a sense of sympathy for Frick among many Americans. This dramatic swing in public opinion helped lead to the collapse of the strike.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center’s “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation” exhibition can see the dagger used by Alexander Berkman during his attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick. For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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