Indiana State University Newsroom

Library buys Debs’ letters

January 25, 2012

Cinda May sat with the phone to her ear listening as the auctioneer in New York City said "Holding, holding."

"I'm thinking, ‘yes, yes,' then a third bidder came in," May said.

May continued bidding and bought 20 letters that union organizer, presidential candidate and Terre Haute-native Eugene Debs wrote to his nephew, Robert Heinl, from 1893 to 1925.

"I felt very strongly that they really needed to be here," said May, special collections chair at Indiana State University's Cunningham Memorial Library.

In the handwritten and typed letters, which join about 6,000 other items in the library's Debs Collection, Debs wrote personal and political news to his favorite nephew, as Heinl grew up to become a newspaper columnist and editor in New York and Washington.

In one of the more important letters dated Sept. 26, 1918, two weeks after Debs was found guilty of sedition, he tells his nephew that such a verdict was "inevitable."

"If my position is right nothing else matters, and I am absolutely sure that it is, as sure as I am of my own soul. What the world in its present madness says or thinks or does is nothing to me," Debs wrote in the letter. He also alluded to a difference of opinion between the uncle and nephew, "I know my position from your point of view is indefensible and it would be a sheer waste of time to argue about it...We may be very widely separated in our views but our hearts toward each other will remain unchanged."

Such letters provide an important link to Debs during a 30-year period when he worked to organize unions, found the International Workers of the World, lead the Socialist Party and run for president five times, according to May. Debs made his last presidential run, in 1920, from prison and received 913,664 votes.

The collection also includes a letter to Heinl from his uncle, Theodore Debs, brother of Eugene Debs, who served as secretary to his brother. In the March 13, 1921, letter, Theodore wrote, "The Boss is still animated with the old spirit and you can gamble your last dollar that he will not allow these p---ants to humiliate him or put anything over without a vigorous come-back, even if he is in prison."

President Warren Harding commuted Debs' prison sentence to time served and he was released on Dec. 23, 1921.
"They do contain information about what is going on in his life. It shows his human side," May said. "They provide a window into the family."

Letters provide an important link to influential figures and allow historians to study a period and a person, according to May.

"It may be the only place to find certain kinds of information," she said. "There's a comfort zone that you're in when you're communicating with kin."

In a letter in August 1914, Debs writes to his nephew about presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, "Strange how many people here seem to think of him almost as a god. In the final searching analysis of history he will almost if not entirely disappear from view."

In another letter written in Cleveland in September 1914, Debs wrote about World War I, "These are stirring days and it sometimes seems as if the world were stark mad and our so-called civilization bent upon destroying itself from the face of the earth. The carnival of blood and iron in Europe is frightful and enough to fill me with pity and horror. But if it will finally make for the overthrow of such savages as William and Nicholas and the vampires they represent, it will at least make some atonement for its awful cost of humanity."

The letters will be stored in ISU special collections and available for researchers to view. Special collections is located on the third floor of the library and is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m.

Cinda May shows a few of letters that Eugene Debs wrote to his nephew. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell
Letters from Eugene Debs to his nephew. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Contact: Cinda May, Indiana State University, special collections chair at 812-237-2534 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or