Seeing so much poverty and want and suffering, threw my whole soul into church and religious work. I felt somehow that the great, good God who had made us could not have want only abandoned his children to such hopeless misery and sordid suffering. There was nothing uplifting in it, nothing to draw the heart nearer to him, only forces that clutched and dragged men and women down into the abyss of drunkenness and vice. Perhaps he had only overlooked those miserable children of the poor in the slums of Kansas City, and if we prayed long and earnestly and had enough of religious zeal he might hear and heed and pity. For several years I lived through that Gethsemane we all endure who walk the path from religious fanaticism to cold, dead, material cynicism with no ray of sane life-philosophy to light it.
I saw drunkenness and the liquor traffic in all the bestial, sordid aspects it wears in the slums, and with it the ever-close companion of prostitution in its most disgusting and degraded forms. I believed, for the good preachers and temperance workers who led me said, that drunkenness and vice caused poverty and I struggled and worked, with only the heart-breaking zeal that an intense young girl can work, to destroy them. But in spite of all we could do the corner saloon still flourished, the saloon-keeper still controlled the government of the city and new inmates came to fill the brothel as fast as the old ones were carried out to the Potter's field, and the grim grist of human misery and suffering still ground on in defiance to church and temperance society and rescue mission.
About this time father embarked in the machine shop business and I added to my various experiences that of a woman forced into the business world there to have every schoolday illusion rudely shattered, and forced to see business life in its sordid nakedness. Possibly because I hated ledgers and daybooks and loved mechanics, and possibly because I really wanted to study the wage-worker in his own life, I made life so miserable for the foreman and all concerned that they finally consented to let me go into the shop as an apprentice to learn the trade of machinist. For more than four years I worked at the forge and lathe and bench side by side with some of the best mechanics of the city and some of the noblest men I have ever known. The work was most congenial and I learned for the first time what absorbing joy there can be in labor, if it be a labor that one loves.
Even before my advent into the shop I had begun to have some conception of economics. I had read Progress and Poverty, Wealth vs. Commonwealth, Caesar's Column, and many such books. Our shop being a union one I naturally came in contact with the labor union world and was soon as deeply imbued with the hope trade unionism held out, as I had been with religious zeal. After a while it dawned upon me in a dim and hazy way that trade unionism was something like the frog who climbed up to the well side two feet each day and slipped back three each night. Every victory we gained seemed to give the capitalist class a little greater advantage.
One night while returning from a union meeting, , I heard a man talking on the street corner of the necessity of workingmen having a political party of their own. I asked a bystander who the speaker was and he replied, "a Socialist." Of course, if he had called him anything else it would have meant just as much to me, but somehow I remembered the word. A few weeks later I attended a ball given by the Cigar Maker's union, and Mother Jones spoke. Dear old Mother! That is one of the mile-posts in my life that I can easily locate. Like a mother talking to her errant boys she taught and admonished that night in words that went home to every heart. At last she told them that a scab at the ballot-box was more to be despised than one at the factory door, that a scab ballot could do more harm than a scab bullet; that workingmen must support the political party of their class and that the only place for a sincere union man was in the Socialist party. Here was that strange new word again coupled with the things I had vainly tried to show my fellow unionists.
I hastily sought out "Mother" and asked her to tell what Socialism was, and how I could find the Socialist party. With a smile she said, "Why, little girl, I can't tell you all about it now, but here are some Socialists, come over and get acquainted." In a moment I was in the center of an excited group of men all talking at once, and hurling unknown phrases at me until my brain was whirling. I escaped by promising to "come down to the office tomorrow and get some books." The next day I hunted up the office and was assailed by more perplexing phrases and finally escaped loaded down with Socialist classics enough to give a college professor mental indigestion. For weeks I struggled with that mass of books only to grow more hopelessly lost each day. At last down at the very bottom of the pile I found a well worn, dog-eared, little book that I could not only read, but understand, but to my heart-breaking disappointment it did not even mention Socialism. It was the Communist Manifesto, and I could not understand what relation it could have to what I was looking for.
I carried the books back and humbly admitted my inability to understand them or grasp the philosophy they presented. As the men who had given me the books explained and expostulated in vain, a long, lean, hungry looking individual unfolded from behind a battered desk in the corner and joined the group. With an expression more forceful than elegant he dumped the classics in the corner, ridiculed the men for expecting me to read or understand them, and after asking some questions as to what I had read gave me a few small booklets. Merrie England and Ten Men of Money Island, Looking Backward, and Between Jesus and Caesar, and possibly half a dozen more of the same type. The hungry looking individual was Julius Wayland, and the dingy office the birthplace of the Appeal to Reason.