A teenage labor activist versus the button industry, Joe McCarthy, and oblivion.

For more on Pearl McGill, see Kate Rousmaniere's articles "The Muscatine Button Workers' Strike of 1911-1912," in The Annals of Iowa (spring 1982), and "The Short, Radical Life of Pearl McGill," in Labor: Studies in Working-class Histories of the Americas (2009).

You can buy Jeffrey Copeland's novel Shell Games here.

Here's an image of Pearl's letters, from the Iowa Women's Archive at the University of Iowa.

Music featured in this episode:

"Terra Firma" and "Letu Sinega," by E.R. (Ethiopian Records)

"Afsd," by Clement Gelly


When Jean was a girl, her mother and uncle and aunts would get together and discuss their late sister, Pearl. But whenever a kid entered the room,

Jean Burns: Everything went silent. So I was always a little intrigued.

Jean knew her mother kept Pearl’s letters, so she snuck into her mother’s room and read them.

JB: There were an awful lot of words I didn’t know.

She was eight or nine at the time.

JB: Capitalism, socialism, communism, a lot of brother this and sister that. I think one of her letters said, “This is a war for bread.”

In another letter, Pearl wrote,

Pearl McGill: “They had all the hardest union workers on the blacklist. The factory where I worked had the most. They had eight men, and me. I was the only girl in the factory they wouldn’t take back.”

At sixteen years old, in 1912, Jean’s aunt Pearl McGill had thrown herself into labor activism. These letters traced Pearl’s journey traveling from Iowa to Chicago and then Manhattan and Boston, as she organized strikes and grew passionate about the socialist cause. Jean stowed the letters away, but she returned to them from time to time. She was fascinated.

JB: Those letters had always been something impressive and precious. Pearl had written those from out east. That’s a childhood impression that lingers with me yet. That they were special.

But in the early 1950s, in Jean’s twenties:

JB: I found my mother—I was a young married woman at the time—found my mother sitting out behind her house, burning some letters, page by page, and tears streaming down her face. When I got close, I saw she had Pearl’s letters. Well, I was very, very upset, and I yelled at my mother that she had no right to burn those. And mother finally said, “Well, I’m not burning all of them, but old McCarthy’s not getting anything on me.”

Twenty-five of Pearl’s letters remain. They’re almost enough—painfully close enough—to tell the story of a woman turned radical by buttons.

If you pry open a mussel and remove the organism, you’ll see that the underside of the gnarly shell is lustrous and white. This is pearl, the pearl of pearl necklaces and earrings. Today we wear plastic buttons, but circa 1900, America went wild for buttons punched from the pearlescent insides of shells.

It happened like this. Japan and continental Europe operated large pearl button industries, but high import tax kept them from Americans. In Germany, a buttonmaker named John Frederick Boepple found a box of mussel shells his father had apparently gotten from a river in America. Boepple figured if he could find these freshwater mussels, he could set up shop in America, avoid those taxes, and make a buck.

Boepple didn’t know which river the shells came from, so he consulted a map. He ran his finger down the Mississippi River. The river, he saw, ran north-south except for a stretch in Iowa where it ran east-west. This stretch ended at a town called Muscatine, so Boepple went there, guessing that mussel shells would drift and collect in this crook of river. He found his first mussel by wading into the water and cutting his foot on one.

He opened his shop. Business boomed. Compared to common metal and glass buttons, pearl buttons proved more durable and more beautiful. Others followed suit, introducing mechanized drilling where Boepple stuck to hand-operated machinery, and the button industry exploded. By 1905, sixty button factories operated in Muscatine, producing 1.5 billion buttons for over a third of the world’s button output. And at fourteen or fifteen, Pearl began working in one such factory, earning money for teacher’s college.

In the fall of 1911, wading in the river, Boepple stepped on another mussel shell; this time, a species called a heel-splitter. The cut was deep. It got badly infected. During Boepple’s funeral every shop in Muscatine closed. Soon a third of the town would work in the button industry, but before the industry raced forward it paused, briefly, to remember the man who started it all.

The other side of Boepple’s success, of the pearl button boom, was a town that stank. Shells punched full of holes lined Muscatine’s streets in festering heaps. The air smelled so bad that pedestrians pressed lavender-soaked kerchiefs to their faces, bending to shield their noses and mouths from the vile breeze.

As one character observes in Jeffrey Copeland’s period recreation novel Shell Games, This is what money smells like.

Jeffrey Copeland: Pretty much like rotting fish.

That’s Jeff, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa whose novel follows Pearl’s radicalization.

JC: If you go to Muscatine today after a really good rainfall and you stand up at Lookout Park, overlooking the city, you can still smell it. I mean, it is horrifying.

Conditions inside the factories were far worse.

JC: They couldn’t taste or smell anything after working in the factories, because that pretty much did them in.

Every stage of production had its commonplace maiming. During the initial hole-punching, flying shards often claimed eyes. Next, the rough semi-buttons got polished. The polishers inhaled so much shell dust while polishing that they suffered throat and lung trouble. Then drillers, usually women, added the little holes for thread. These drillers lost fingertips, fingers, hands, and at least once a whole arm to the machines.

JC: Most of the button factories had what was called a “finger jar.” So when people got fingers cut off, they would put them in, like, a mason jar that was full of alcohol, and the fingers would float in there. Because nothing would make you sober more quickly about your safety than looking up and seeing a whole jar of fingers in front of you.

To bargain for safer, fairer labor, the button workers formed a union.

In the nineteen-teens, unionizing was dangerous business. Factory owners fired workers who joined unions. So the workers organized in secret. Pearl joined the union as a secretary, but then the union’s covert organizing spilled over into a strike. The factory hired strike-breakers to attack button workers on the streets of Muscatine, but the workers held their ground. Pearl quickly rose through the ranks because she gave great, rousing speeches to the workers.

One speech drew notice from the Women’s Trade Union League, a sort of super-union devoted to women’s rights and suffrage. They figured an articulate, passionate young woman could draw donations for the striking button workers, so they asked Pearl if she’d consider a short lecture circuit in Chicago. Pearl said yes, and just like that, she left Iowa, not to return for two years.

KR: How did she get active? I guess that’s the big question about her, you know?

That’s Kate Rousmaniere, a professor at the University of Miami, Ohio, who’s written several articles about Pearl. She pointed out that, where you have child labor, you’ll get a few child labor activists.

KR: So there are no child labor laws, right? So children can work anywhere.

At sixteen, fifteen, when she leaves her rural town, she’s basically an independent agent. And so she gets involved.

Pearl’s letters home convey a powerful conviction in the fight, leavened with reminders that she’s, endearingly, still a teenager. She writes with wonder of a trip to Chicago’s Field Museum:

PM: “Mummies—whale skeletons—stuffed deer and all other kinds of stuffed animals and birds. Goodness, I couldn’t begin to tell you half of what I’ve seen.”

They sent her on to Saint Louis and up and down the east coast. She celebrated her seventeenth birthday somewhere in New York City, from which she wrote,

PM: “I went out to the beach yesterday. The ocean was beautiful. Big waves roll up on the beach higher than your head and break into white foam. I got some lovely shells. It is quite expensive to send ‘rocks’ through the mail but I will send you some later on.”

I paused when I read this note. Why send seashells when shells were so abundant back home? Was Pearl surprised to find herself considering these work objects beautiful?

Every day the Muscatine strike ground on. Every day, Pearl woke up in Harlem and spent most nights lecturing in basements and bars around the city. Time passed. Every day, Americans fastened their clothes with Muscatine buttons. Quietly, at the bottom of the Mississippi River, the mussel shells began dwindling.

Terry Eagle: Now, when it first started, you’re talking shells that are 75-80 years old, and they were quite large. Anywhere from ten to twelve inches. But as the industry overfished them, you were getting shells that were two to three to four inches. They hadn’t had time to grow.

That’s Terry Eagle, Assistant Director of Muscatine’s History and Industry Museum.

TE: Our river looked quite different back then than it does now. It used to run from bluff to bluff, about three to four foot deep. Lot of marshes. Perfect habitat for the mussel. And then we diked, we dammed, we polluted our river. Their habitat disappeared. They don’t like deep, cold, fast-running water.

But aside from the nuisance of smaller shells, people didn’t think much about the mussels. Unlike the buffalo, whose bodies provided a rallying point for conservation, the mussels just diminished.

TE: They were out of sight, out of mind.

Meanwhile, on the east coast, Pearl joined the Industrial Workers of the World—

KR: which was like, just the most radical thing you could do.

The IWW was, and remains, a union of anarchists, socialists, and Marxists, who disdained most unions’ collective bargaining strategies. They wanted nothing less than the destruction of capitalism. Throughout the early twentieth century the US government did its utmost to kill, jail, or blacken the names of the IWW’s officials.

KR: They’re, like, arresting, deporting people who are involved in the IWW. And she just throws herself into it.

There was Pearl at seventeen, organizing protests, directing Greek immigrants as they sang revolutionary songs in the street, calling for riots at the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike, mailing her parents socialist literature, and writing them letters I’m kind of surprised to find unburnt.

PM: “Here is why I love the fight. Because this capitalist government has kept me where I am, in the factory, out on strike, out of school, and out of work and can’t get a job. I would die for the Just Cause of starving out of work people of my Nation, the Working Class if necessary. Maybe you think I am losing my mind, but I have just lately come to my senses. Don’t ever think I could teach school. With all the experiences I’ve had I know as much or more than all the teachers in Louisa County. Wouldn’t a rebel like me be a fine specimen teaching little kids to respect the American Flag? Never.”

But there’s a mystery here. By Pearl’s nineteenth birthday, she was back in Iowa, enrolled in teacher’s college. Her letters don’t say what changed. I can guess, of course. World War I had begun, so did patriotism look different in that light? During the war the US government redoubled its efforts to deport, rough up, or otherwise incapacitate the IWW’s members, so did violence scare Pearl after all? Or did she simply miss her family? In several letters home from Massachusetts, she describes hearing a train whistle that sounds just like a train back home, and she writes that she couldn’t sleep for longing.

KR: I mean, it reminds me, I don’t know about you, but I was really politically active in college, and I had some friends who were immensely politically active—I mean, they were like, you know, reading Marx all the time and stuff—and now three of them work on Wall Street. So, you know, at first, I thought, “Well, they’re hypocrites.” And then I think, “Well, I’ve got a job, too,” you know. That’s how I see her. I don’t see it as an unusual pattern. I think it’s actually more typical than Mother Jones or these other people who committed their whole life to it.

Whatever the reason, Pearl returned to her original plan of teaching. Some consolation must have come from a meeting that February with fellow IWW member Hellen Keller. Yes, the Helen Keller. Keller visited campus and so admired Pearl that she sent Pearl money toward her education, paying for a third of it. Keller wrote her,

“I look forward confidently to your being a teacher, not only in a class room, but in the great school of the world. It is splendid to think what you can do with your fine mind and fearless heart to lessen the terrible ignorance of men on the most vital questions of our daily life—the questions of bread, of right thinking and right living.”

Pearl graduated and began teaching about fifteen miles from Muscatine, right back where her radical odyssey began. Pearl wrote bitterly to her mother about the low pay, and married a button cutter named Ed Vance. Ed was prone to depression, paranoia, and violence. He was in and out of mental hospitals. The couple divorced just after Pearl’s twenty-ninth birthday.

On April 30th of that year, Pearl attended a church meeting on a warm Sunday night. She bid her friends good night and walked home. She found someone waiting inside her house with a gun. She ran. She made it to a neighbor’s porch before her attacker shot her. By the time the police arrived, her attacker had disappeared, and Pearl was dead.

The official story blamed her husband. Newspapers at the time fixed on his depressive and violent episodes, splashing “INSANE” across their pages. A few weeks later, when a man’s body in women’s clothes washed ashore on the bank of the Mississppi bearing two fatal bullet wounds, the press had no problem announcing that the deranged Ed Vance had finally resurfaced, dead by his own hand. No matter that the corpse was decomposed beyond identification, or that both bullet wounds were fatal, diminishing the likelihood that the man himself pulled the trigger.

The official story blamed Pearl’s husband, but Jeff Copeland, author of Shell Games, tells another story. While researching his book he dug through basement archives for a year until he found the coroner’s inquest for Pearl’s murder.

JC: The coroner’s inquest is interviewing all the witnesses, especially if a crime is involved, to find out what they know about said act so that a conclusion can be drawn. All of the people who said in the newspapers they saw her husband leaving the scene of the crime, when they were put under oath, in a courtroom, for the coroner’s inquest, they all recanted their stories, and said, “Well, I didn’t really see him. I kind of assumed it was him. I thought it was him.” And when I read that I was just floored. They were going along with the sensational part of the story. So the coroner’s inquest actually ended with, Pearl’s death was by “hand or hands”—plural—“unknown.” So there was not a shred of information tying it to the husband at all. Not one bit.

What was certain from the inquest was this: there were at least two killers, two separate silhouettes fleeing the scene.

JC: I don’t think the husband had anything to do with it. Because the husband was seen in other cities before and after the event.

With transportation at the time, it’s physically impossible for Ed to have killed her. Well, if it wasn’t Ed, Jeff wondered, who killed Pearl? And why? Jeff suspects hired killers.

JC: She really did give some serious thought into going back into the activism.

By the mid-1920s, the power of unions began to wane, even as mussels shrank and profits fell. The unions grew desperate. Pearl’s old friends reached out to her.

JC: Now, this is merely conjecture on my part. The owners knew that a very formidable foe was going to be back at the table pretty soon, so I think she was actually eliminated.

We know that factory owners had grown desperate too, and that some of Pearl’s other old friends were murdered by thugs. Perhaps it was a button factory that had Pearl killed.

I feel a powerful urge to connect the dots, but there’s such a scarcity of evidence. How much might Pearl’s missing letters have told us, particularly if Jean’s mother began by burning those that scared her most? We just don’t know what changed for Pearl. We don’t know what brought her back to the place and the industry she was so thrilled to leave as a teenager. Maybe it was fear for her life. Maybe it was a loss of faith in the cause. I imagine the facts floating just outside the margins of Pearl’s letters. I find myself holding Pearl’s words up to the light and turning them, hoping something else appears.

Paging through her letters again I found this quote, describing the malnourished children of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts to her mother. Pearl wrote,

PM: “They were like a plant which had grown in the shade.”

Maybe it takes a teenage activist to fix on this detail. Maybe it takes the kind of person who sees a quiet radicalism in educating children growing up in the shadow of the button industry, like her.

But the story trails off, grows dim, even in contemporary accounts. Right after Pearl died, the newspapers got it doubly wrong, reducing her labor work to stenographer to the stars, to “Big Bill” Haywood and Eugene Debs, the men whose stories the textbooks tell.

Today, Muscatine’s many button factories are closed. By the 1930s, cheaper, safer plastic button production pushed pearl buttons out of business before we could fish mussels to extinction, though we certainly finished some species.

Today, depending on which the direction of the breeze, Muscatine smells like rendered grain from a factory downriver, or else ketchup, from a nearby Heinz plant. These days Chinese investors regularly visit Muscatine. In 1985, President Xi Jinping of China lived with a Muscatine family while studying agriculture, so these investors imagine a tourist industry centered around that story.

Today, on the floor of the river, living mussels lie in the mud, presumably approaching the ten to twelve inches of their heyday. And on the banks of the Mississippi, castoff shells still wash ashore, bearing their punched holes and that fine lining of pearl.

Episode 3: Pearls

March 14, 2016