By Ferald Bryan
The most striking building on the Northern Illinois University campus is arguably Altgeld Hall. Most observers admire the stark Tudor Gothic “castle on the hill” without recalling the Illinois governor for whom it is named. The life of John Peter Altgeld is truly an American story and, to paraphrase the words of Illinois poet Vachel Lindsey, “need not be forgotten.” Altgeld’s influence is still visible 112 years after his death.
Altgeld was born on December 30, 1847 in the German village of Nieder Selters, in the Prussian state of Nassau. When he was three months old, Altgeld’s parents immigrated to America. The two principle biographers of Altgeld, Waldo R. Browne (Altgeld of Illinois: A Record of His Life and Work, New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1924) and Harry Barnard (Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1938), record that “young Pete” worked hard on his family farm in Ohio and was often beaten by his stern father.
At 16, Altgeld enlisted in an Ohio infantry regiment, but suffered more from illness than military action in the Civil War. Following the war, he attended secondary school rather than returning to farming. A capable student, Altgeld became a teacher and taught at various schools near Mansfield, Ohio.
In 1869, he left Ohio and settled in Savannah, Missouri teaching during and reading law. At the age of 24, Altgeld was admitted to the bar and soon became the city attorney for Savannah. Three years later Altgeld moved to Chicago to bolster his legal career.
Altgeld’s rise from humble beginnings to respected attorney prompted biographers Waldo Browne and Ray Ginger (Altgeld’s America: The Lincoln Ideal Versus Changing Realities, New York: Harper and Row, 1958), to suggest that his early life paralleled that of Abraham Lincoln. After successful years as a Chicago attorney, Altgeld began investing in real estate that culminated in his construction of the sixteen story “Unity Block” building at 127 Dearborn Street.
Altgeld’s political ambitions became evident in his first book, Our Penal Machinery and its Victims (Chicago: Janssen McClurg and Co., 1884). This treatise revealed his embrace of progressive reforms and led to close friendships with labor leader George A. Schilling and prominent attorney Clarence Darrow.
Altgeld was elected in 1886 as judge of the Cook County superior court. In 1891, Altgeld became Chief Justice of Cook County and published his second book, Live Questions (Chicago: Donahue, Henneberry Co.).
In 1892, Altgeld was elected governor of Illinois and became the first Democrat elected after the Civil War. Altgeld’s term as Illinois’ chief executive was soon marked by controversy with his pardon of the three surviving prisoners of the infamous Haymarket Square bombing and his dispute with President Grover Cleveland during the Pullman strike. His great successes, however, were the expansion of the University of Illinois and the building of new normal schools at DeKalb and Charleston. The governor also asserted his own architectural imprint on educational and other state buildings by insisting on the Tudor Gothic style that resembled medieval castles along the Rhine River.
Governor Altgeld exerted his political clout during the July 1896 Democratic National convention in Chicago. His strong support helped secure the Democratic nomination for William Jennings Bryan. Many authors, notably Ray Ginger have argued that Altgeld might have won the presidential nomination for himself except that he was disqualified by his foreign birth.
After losing his bid for reelection in 1896, he returned to the practice of law by joining Clarence Darrow’s firm. Staying active as a speaker and writer, Altgeld’s final book, Oratory: Its Requirements and Its Rewards (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr) appeared in 1901. Widely regards as one of the finest orators of his day, Altgeld frequently noted in letters to friends that he had a special affection for the power of the spoken word. Altgeld died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 11, 1902 a few hours after delivering a speech in Joliet.
In his 1956 book, Profiles in Courage, future president John F. Kennedy strongly praised Altgeld’s act of political courage in issuing the Haymarket Pardons. Altgeld’s most lasting legacy, however, is likely embodied in the imposing five “castle-themed” academic buildings at the University of Illinois, SIU—Carbondale, Illinois State, Eastern Illinois and, of course, Northern Illinois University.
This article was originally published in Founder’s Type, the newsletter of the Friends of NIU Libraries. Ferald Bryan is the president of Friends of NIU Libraries. He recently celebrated 25 years of service at NIU, where he is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and director of the COMS 100 program.