Eugene Victor Debs was a leader in the labor movement and one of the most prominent socialist in the U.S. during the early 20^th century.
Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana. At the age of 14 he dropped out of high school and got a job at the Vandalia railroad car shops. He became a locomotive fireman in December 1871 and held the job till 1875.
He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in February 1875 rising to the rank of Brotherhood Grand Secretary. Debs also embarked on a career in public service, as Terre Haute's city clerk from 1879 to 1883. The following year he was elected to the State General Assembly where he served for one term.
In 1893 he stepped down from his position with the BLF so that he cold found the American Railway Union, the first industrial union in the country. The organization became a national fixture in no time, especially when they became involved in the Pullman Strike of 1894. When federal authorities were called in, the strike broke up and Debs was convicted for failing to follow a court injunction demanding the strike be called off.
He spent six months in prison. In that time he became familiar with the concepts and ideals behind socialism. When he got out of prison he talked the American Railway Union into joining with the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth to create the Social Democracy of America (SDA) in 1895. Debs ran for president, but received no electoral votes.
A year later he split from the SDA to found the Social Democratic Party of the United States. He would go on to run for President in each election starting from 1900 through 1920 (of which he was in prison during; he didn't run in 1916). In that time he also played role in founding the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World.
After making several speeches in 1918 denouncing the U.S. getting involved in WWI, he was convicted of treason under the Espionage Act of 1917 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. President Harding commuted the sentence in 1921.
Eugene V. Debs died on October 20, 1926 shortly after being admitted to a sanatorium.