Muckrakers, we said, wrote about wrongs. And the Gilded Age had many. It was that age of extremes, of huge wealth and great poverty. In 1893, the distance between those extremes widened when the nation was hit by a terrible depression. It started partly because the Treasury had been spending a lot of the gold it kept in reserve. In those days, you could exchange paper money for gold or silver whenever you wanted. When Americans realized the gold supply was going down, they panicked and began turning in their paper money for gold, and that made the gold supply drop even further. And that upset the economic world. George Herron, a Congregationalist minister, had this to say: "This richest nation of the world suddenly finds a vast population face to face with famine."
The country's farmers were already doing badly. Since they had little money, they stopped buying goods. That hurt the manufacturers. Soon the banks were in trouble, too. They took over farms whose owners couldn't pay their mortgages and tried to sell thembut no one wanted to buy farms then, so the banks lost their money. We were having a depression. In the first nine months of 1893, 172 state banks, 177 private banks, and 47 savings-and-loan associations closed. More than 15,000 businesses failed. Railroads started closing156 of them before it was over. Mines were shut down, steamers stayed in port, factories closed, and companies went bankrupt. Many of the people who had worked in those banks, railroads, and factories were out of work, which made the depression more frightening. A journalist described life in the Appanoose County mining camp near Cincinnati: "The 500 mine families in this locality have little to eat, and their clothing is in utter tatters. All have a sickly appearance. Many have been confined to bed with illness."
One out of four people in Pennsylvania was reported out of work. In Michigan the figure was 43.6 percent. In Chicago, 100,000 men were sleeping on the streets. Newspaper editor and activist John Swinton wrote this: "In our land that offers welcome to all mankind, we see the growth of a horde of paupers, beggars, and tramps."