Ernest Everhard, a labour leader, is invited to a dinner party at Professor Cunningham's. The guests, encouraged by the professor, exchange their views on various social problems. Ernest seizes the opportunity to expose the cruel treatmn.-t of the workers at the local mills. He tells them about Jackson, a worker who lost his arm in an accident. The man had noticed a piece of flint that had got in his machine and might have put it out of order. He threw off the belt to stop the machine and reached for the flint. But the belt didn't come off and his arm was picked and clawed to shreds from the finger tips to the shoulder. When he came out of hospital Jackson could not return to his job. And the company refused to give him work he could do. So his situation was wretched...
The story is told by Avis Cunningham, the professor's daughter.
"And what did the company do for him?" I asked Ernest.
"Nothing. Oh, yes, they did do something. They successfully fought the damage suit that he brought when he came out of hospital. The company employs very efficient lawyers, you know."
"But the courts," I urged. "The case would not have been decided against him, had there been no more to the affair than you have mentioned."
"Colonel Ingram is the company's leading lawyer. He is a very shrewd man." Ernest looked at me intently for a moment, then he went on: "I'll tell you what, Miss Cunningham. You investigate Jackson's case."
"I had already determined to," I said coldly.
"All right," he smiled good-naturedly," and I'll tell you where to find him. But I tremble for you when I think of all you are to prove by Jackson's arm."
And so it came about that I accepted Ernest's challenge.
I found Jackson in a crazy ramshackle house down near the bay on the edge of the marsh. He was making some sort of a basket and toiled on steadily while I talked with him.
"How did you happen to get your arm caught in the machine?" I asked.
He looked at me in a slow and pondering way and shook his head.
"Carelessness?" I prompted.
"No," he answered, "I ain't for callin' it that. I was workin" overtime, an' I guess I was tired out. I worked seventeen years in them mills, an' I've noticed that most of the accidents happens just before whistle-blow. A man ain't so quick after workin' steady for hours. I've seen too many of 'em cut up and killed not to know."
"Many of them?" I asked.
"Hundreds an' hundreds, an' children, too."
With the exception of the terrible details, Jackson's story of his accident was the same as that I had already heard. When I asked him if he had broken some rule of working the machinery, he shook his head.
His mind was rather hazy concerning the suit for damages. Only one thing was clear to him and that was that he had not got any damages. He had a feeling that the testimony of the foremen and the superintendent had brought about the adverse decision of the court. Their testimony, as he put it, "wasn't what it ought to have ben". And to them I resolved to go.
One thing was plain. Jackson's situation was wretched. His wife was in ill health, and he was unable to earn, by his basket-work and peddling, sufficient food for the family. He was back in his rent, and the oldest boy, a lad of eleven, had started to work in the mills.
"They might a-given me a watchman's job," were his last words as I went away.
* * *
Jackson's lawyer was a weak and inefficient-looking man, and at sight of him two of Ernest's statements flashed into my mind. "The company employs very efficient lawyers," and "Colonel Ingram is a very shrewd man." It dawned upon me that of course the company could afford finer legal talent than could a working-man like Jackson.
"Why did you lose the case?" I asked.
The lawyer was perplexed and worried for a moment. Then he began to whine. He whined about the testimony. The witnesses had given only the evidence that helped the other side. Not one word could he get out of them that would have helped Jackson. They knew which side their bread was buttered on. Jackson had been confused by Colonel Ingram, who was brilliant at cross-examination. He had made Jackson answer damaging questions.
"How could Jackson's answer be damaging if he had the right on his side?" I demanded.
"What's right got to do with it?" he demanded back. "You see all those books?" He waved his hand towards the crowded shelves of books in his tiny office. "All my reading and studying of them has taught me that law is one thing and right is another thing. Ask any lawyer."
* * *
"Why did you not call attention to the fact that Jackson was trying to save the machinery from being damaged?" I asked Peter Donnelly, one of the foremen who had testified at the trial.
He pondered a long time before replying. Then he cast an anxious look about him and said:
"Because I've a wife and three children, that's why. It wouldn't a-ben healthy," he answered.
* * *
Henry Dallas, the superintendent, refused to talk. Not a word could I get from him concerning the trial and his testimony.
But with James Smith, the other foreman, I had better luck. He agreed with Peter Donnelly that Jackson should have won his case and got damages. He went even further and called the action heartless and cold-blooded. Also he explained that there were many ."ccidents in the mills, and that the company's policy was to fight to the bitter end all suits for damages.
"When you testified at the trial, you didn't point out that Jackson received his injury through trying to save the machinery from damage?" 1 asked.
"No, I did not," was the answer. "I testified to the effect that Jackson injured himself by neglect and carelessness, and that the company was not in any way to blame."
"Was it carelessness?" I asked.
"Call it that or anything you want to call it. The fact is that I testified at the trial the way I did ... because I was following instructions, Colonel Ingram's instructions. He outlined the evidence I was to give."
"And it lost Jackson's case for him?"
He nodded, and his face grew dark.
"And Jackson had a wife and two children dependent on him."
"I know," he said quietly, but his face grew darker.
"Tell me," I went on, "was it easy to do such a thing at the trial?"
He burst into a savage oath.
"I beg your pardon," he said the next moment. "No, it was not easy. But let me tell you this. If you repeat anything I've said, I'll deny every word of it; and if I have to, I'll do it under oath on the witness stand."
After my interview with Smith I went to my father's office and there I met Ernest.
"I have been looking up Jackson's case. He seems to have been badly treated," I confessed.
"Of course," he answered. "If Jackson and all his fellows were treated mercifully, the dividends of the company would not be so large. Our boasted civilization is based upon blood."
(From "The Iron Heel" by Jack London)