Just out of Leavenworth himself, Harrison George offers a sketch of his prison-mate and fellow wobbly, the legendary rebel Ralph H. Chaplin., author of ‘Solidarity Forever.’ Still in prison as one of the many I.W.W. militants arrested for conspiracy and sedition during World War One, Chaplin was pardoned at the end of 1923.
‘Who’s Who in Prison: Ralph H. Chaplin’ by Harrison George from Labor Herald. Vol. 2 N. 4. June, 1923.
HIS face and tumbled locks, intaglio like, stand out in memory, as some firm yet sheltering crag limned against wind-blown clouds. But the boyish lift of head, the almost petulant curl of lip, the blue eyes that race with laughter-— these reveal the inward spirit of youth in pleasing contrast to the heavily silvered chestnut hair.
Ralph H. Chaplin was born in Kansas thirty-five years ago. Five years ago he was sent back to Kansas by the open shop mad mullah, Judge Landis, to serve a sentence of twenty years behind the walls of Leavenworth Prison for daring to uphold the interests of the workers in the face of profiteers and persecution. As editor of the leading I.W.W. paper during 1917, this artist, poet and workingman held high the torch of proletarian protest against a venal and despotic government which abetted capitalism in lynching, murdering and deporting—in terrorizing the whole mass of workers with gunmen, soldiery, a horde of cheap finks—and the applause of Sam Gompers. So Chaplin was given twenty years under the infamous Espionage Act, along with one hundred other I.W.W. men. Today fifty of these men, who prize their manhood too highly to beg the marionette at the White House for clemency, keep Chaplin company. And the least of these is a better man than he outside who fears to speak for them.
While working days, Chaplin studied art in night school. A born rebel, he arrived idealistically at his views of social problems, soap-boxing for the socialists when only sixteen years of age. With maturity and direct experience in the West Virginia mine fields, his ideals were fortified and personal sacrifice for them became a part of his nature. A wage worker, although as an artist receiving “aristocratic” pay—what time he did not deliberately choose privation and danger of work in the radical movement—he worked some time in Old Mexico. Returning, he worked for the Chicago Portrait Company until its artists went on strike. Chaplin became an organizer and a charter member of the Commercial Portrait Artists’ Union, No. 14286, A. F. of L., of which he is still a member.
The artists lost that strike, however, and Chaplin went to West Virginia. Always an active member of the old Socialist party, he worked on the Charleston “Socialist and Labor Star,” which became the voice of the U.M.W. of A. in the coal miners’ strike at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek. He there became acquainted, metallurgically, with gunmen of Baldwin-Feltz. He came out of West Virginia with an undying hatred of industrial tyranny, and a book of poems called “When the Leaves Come Out,” which fairly flames with the heat of the struggle.
Since he has been imprisoned at Leavenworth, Chaplin has written some of the most brilliant and significant prison poetry ever published in the English language. Since the first edition of Chaplin’s book—”Bars and Shadows,” the imbecile warden has forbidden him to write poetry, and continually harasses this genius whose shoes he is not fit to be kicked with. But a new edition with added poems is now prepared, and another issue has been printed in England, while noted composers have given song to his inspiring verse.
Another work is Chaplin’s book “The Centralia Conspiracy,” the fruit of months of sacrifice and danger he devoted to the victims of that indescribable barbarity.
Let us not forget that as long as Chaplin and his fellow workers remain in prison we, outside, have a duty to perform. Let us break the fangs of the White Terror and set our brothers free!
A winning personality, Upton Sinclair uses Ralph as the character “John, the favorite disciple” in Sinclair’s book “They Call Me Carpenter.” Yet religion which countenances exploitation always meets Chaplin’s vitriolic condemnation. In West Virginia when union miners pleaded with members of the “Holy Roller” sect who built the murderous “Bull Moose Special,” to desist, these godly men replied that they had prayed and “asked Jesus, and that Jesus had said to ‘go ahead’!”
A soul sensitive to pain, yet which suffers without surrendering—that is true manhood; and something of this spirit is found in a stanza of Chaplin’s poem “Salaam”-—wherein he lashes the smug and the respectable:
“I go my way rejoicingly,
I, outcast, spurned and low,
But undreamed worlds may come to birth
From seeds that I may sow.
And if there’s pain within my heart
Those fools shall never know!”
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborherald/v2n04-jun-1923.pdf