Learn about the case — historical background and documents
The Judicial Process: A Chronology
May 11, 1894
Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike to protest wage reductions and the company’s refusal to lower rents of company-owned housing.
June 26, 1894
Members of the American Railway Union initiated a boycott of work involving Pullman railroad cars.
July 2, 1894
Acting in response to a complaint submitted by the U.S. attorney, Judges William A. Woods and Peter S. Grosscup, sitting in the U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, issued an injunction directing Eugene V. Debs and other officers of the American Railway Union to cease all activity that might interfere with interstate commerce and the delivery of the U.S. mail.
July 3, 1894
President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops into Chicago to ensure that trains would be able to move and to prevent threatened violence. Governor John P. Altgeld objected to the order, saying it was unnecessary.
July 10, 1894
A grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois indicted Eugene V. Debs, George W. Howard, Sylvester Keliher, and Lewis Rogers for criminal conspiracy to interfere with the mail and interstate commerce.
July 17, 1894
In response to informations filed by the U.S. attorney and a railroad company, Judge William Seaman, sitting in the U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, ordered Debs and the other union officers held on charges of contempt of the court’s injunction.
December 14, 1894
U.S. Circuit Judge William A. Woods ruled in United States v. Debs et al. that Debs and other officers of the American Railway Union were in contempt of court for not abiding by the earlier injunction, and he sentenced them to jail terms. Debs and the officers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of error and a writ of habeas corpus.
January 14, 1895
Criminal trial of Debs, Howard, Keliher and Rogers began in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
February 12, 1895
After a member of the jury became seriously ill, Judge Peter S. Grosscup dismissed the jury and thereby ended the criminal trial.
March 25–26, 1895
Oral arguments on the petition for a writ of habeas corpus before the Supreme Court.
May 27, 1895
Justice David J. Brewer issued a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court upholding the contempt citation in the case of In re Debs.
March 12, 1896
U.S. attorney entered an order of nolle prosequi, formally ending the criminal prosecution of Debs and the other union leaders.
The Debs Case: Labor, Capital, and the Federal Courts of the 1890s