The bloody showdown of 1892 between striking workers and guards at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead steel works in the Monongahela Valley of Pennsylvania may have helped the Democrat, Grover Cleveland, win that year's presidential election over Benjamin Harrison, and it stunted the American union movement for decades to come.
Les Standiford touches on those dog-eared themes in his splashy, loosely documented ''Meet You in Hell." But his focus is on a highly personal legacy of the Homestead battle: its effect in souring the business partnership between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.
Mutual recrimination over how Carnegie, the shrewd and fiercely ambitious steel-manufacturing baron, and Frick, his ruthless and fiercely ambitious sidekick, handled the Homestead affair drove a ''wedge of acrimony" between them ''that would endure to the grave," Standiford writes.
A letter Carnegie had delivered to Frick, from whom he had been estranged for 20 years since having sacked him as president of Carnegie Steel Co. in 1899, sought a meeting to make amends. ''Tell him I'll see him in Hell, where we both are going," Frick reportedly replied.
Hence the dramatic title of Standiford's book, albeit in poetically licensed, pared-down form. Much of the Carnegie-Frick story lends itself to high drama. It is ready made for a novelist (Standiford directs the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami).
When Carnegie acquired the 3,800-worker Homestead mill in 1883, he inherited a union representing most of the skilled craftsmen, who comprised about a fourth of the employees. Upon expiration of the union's contract on July 1, 1892, management and workers were at loggerheads over wages and other issues.
Frick, who was in charge, locked out the striking workers, hired replacements, and attempted a nighttime delivery by barge of 300 armed Pinkerton guards to reinforce the mill's security. Tipped off, the striking workers massed along the river near the mill's landing. Gunfire erupted. Which side fired first is a matter of longstanding dispute, a question on which Standiford sheds no light.
Casualty estimates differed, too, although at least six workers and two Pinkerton men died. The governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Pattison, mobilized the National Guard to restore order, and the strikers capitulated. The mill became a nonunion shop.
Carnegie was far removed from the bloodshed. All that summer he was ensconced in a country estate in Scotland. A guilt-ridden Carnegie would later imply that his advice had been to wait out the strike rather than reopen Homestead with nonunion hires, backbiting that infuriated Frick.
But a close reading of the Homestead-related correspondence shows that Carnegie ''had condoned everything and anything from the beginning," concludes Standiford.
If finger-pointing over Homestead contributed to the schism between Carnegie and Frick, their later squabbling over money might have produced the same result. In their dealings with each other, they resorted to the same kind of acquisitive scheming that had marked their fabulously lucrative business careers.