You are here



Grand Master Workman; Humanitarian; Immigration; Knights of Labor; Labor activist; Mayor of Scranton; Pro-union; Union leader


Terence V. Powderly was born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania on January 22, 1849. He was employed at the age of 13 and worked as a laborer for most of his life. He became Grand Master Workman for the Knights of Labor. He also served as the Mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for three terms. Later in his life he served the federal government, continuing to advocate his pro-labor perspective. He died on June 24, 1924.


Terence V. Powderly was born to Irish immigrants on January 22, 1849. He was the eleventh of twelve children (eight boys, four girls). Early in his life Powderly had scarlet fever, which damaged one ear. Later in his autobiography, Powderly joked, "I did not hear half of the disagreeable things that others had to listen to." Additionally, he had the measles as a child. He went to school until the age of 13, but describes his education as one of experience rather than academics. Powderly considered himself mature at a young age. Powderly wrote that seven is an "age that entitled me to be reasonable; seven is the age of reason in some, while one hundred and seven would be about right for others...." In his autobiography, he describes the presidential election of James Buchanan and how his mother did not have the right to vote. At this point in his life, he began developing his beliefs in the importance of women's suffrage and equal rights.

Powderly went to school in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, until the age of 13. He then became employed by the Delaware and Hudson Railroad.* When he was 14-years-old, he became car examiner for the D. & H. Co. Powderly was apprenticed to the machinist trade when he turned 17. At the age of 20, Powderly went to Scranton, Pennsylvania. He became employed by the D.L. & W. Company in the locomotive shop. A few years later he joined the Machinist and Blacksmiths Union in 1871, and he was elected president of a subordinate union in 1872. Powderly married in 1872 to Hanna Dever, who later died in 1901. Powderly was discharged from work due to union matters in 1873. He then worked in Galion, Ohio, and Oil City, Pennsylvania. In 1875, he moved back to Scranton and was employed by the L.I. & C. Company and worked with the erection of steel works. Next, he worked for the Dicson Company at the Cliff Works until the company suspended its employees in 1877.

On February 19, 1878, Powderly was elected to his first term as Mayor of Scranton. He was reelected in 1880 and 1882. Additionally, Powderly was nominated for Lieutenant Governor by the Greenback Labor party in 1882, but declined the nomination.

Powderly joined the Knights of Labor in 1876, although he was sworn in in 1874. Powderly was elected Corresponding Secretary. He held the position until his duties as Grand Master Workman prevented him from performing his Corresponding Secretary duties. Powderly was elected General Worthy Foreman of the Order at St. Louis in January 1879. Powderly became General Master Workman of the Knights of Labor soon afterward.

Powderly promoted strong pro-labor attitudes. For example, Powderly advocated an eight hour day, fair pay, and argued that Sunday should be observed as a non-work day because it is the Sabbath. According to Harry Carman, Powderly wrote the following about his beliefs:

When the bodies of men are abused, overworked and starved until a stage in human development is reached, where the brute takes the place of the man, spirituality is dwarfed if not killed, and the fines, noblest attributes of the human soul are stifled. It was that stifling process I had to deal with, and I came more directly and intimately in contact with it than did any of my critics. I came to believe, and was warranted in that belief by my observation and experience with the employers of labor, that they did not think about or care whether a worker had a should so long as he could grind on which the exploiter could realize a profit.

He noted the difference in power between the rich and the poor. According to Donald Kemmerer and Edward Wickersham, Powderly writes in his autobiography, "Five men in the country control the chief interests of five hundred thousand working men, and can at any moment take the means of livelihood from two and a half million souls." He sought to reduce this disparity and inequality throughout his career.

Powderly continually sought to increase the power of labor. He used work stoppages and recruited many people to the cause. Steven Avery wrote, "Powderly was personally opposed to the use of work stoppages, but strikes brought them increased power." In addition, "[h]e worked with the noted American bishop, James Gibbons, to persuade the pope to remove sanctions against Roman Catholics who joined unions."

As G.M.W. for the Knights of Labor, he witnessed and enhanced the growth of the Knights of Labor. According to Avery, "During the next dozen years, the Knights achieved their greatest influence and numerical strength." The number of workers in the union dramatically increased. Powderly states in his autobiography, "In 1885 we had about 80,000 members in good standing, in one year that number jumped up to 700,000 of which at least four hundred thousand came in from curiosity and caused more damage than good." Powderly dramatically influenced the power of labor in the United States.

The order ventually lost its power for two reasons: controversy and leadership deterioration. The Haymarket affair is an example of controversy. On May 1, 1886, a labor protester threw a bomb at police and killed one officer. Eight anarchist leaders were arrested, and three were executed. Not one was linked to the bombing. The events dealt a striking blow to the labor movement even though leaders tried to rally support. As a result, Powderly tried to salvage the Knights of Labor's reputation while advocating peaceful protest in his address about the Haymarket affair, according to the article "The Plea for Eight Hours." Unfortunately, the organization became associated with the violence incurred. Additionally, the large number of members contributed to its undoing. As the Knights of Labor grew, many of the local leaders pursued their own interests. In 1887, Powderly acknowledged the deterioration of the organization, but still champions its cause:

We are breaking up old traditions. We are breaking up hereditary rights, and planting everywhere the seed of universal rights. We are breaking up the idea that money makes the man and not moral worth. We are breaking up the idea that might makes right... We are breaking up the practice of employing little children in factories, thus breeding a race of deformed, ignorant, and profligate? We are breaking up the idea that the accident of sex puts one-half of the human race beyond the pale of constitutional rights. We are breaking up the practice of paying woman one-third the wages paid man simply because she is a woman. Yes, the Knights of Labor are breaking up, and they will continue their appointed work of breaking up until universal rights shall prevail; and while they may not bring in the millennium, they will do their part in the evolution of moral forces that are working for the emancipation of the race.

Powderly continued as Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor until 1893 when he became fed up with internal quarreling among leaders. In The Path I Trod, Powderly states that he resigned due to "a General Executive Board antagonistic to his policies." In 1894, he was expelled from the movement because he refused to turn over certain properties to the new officers of the order. Powderly was reinstated as a member of the Knights of Labor by the Birmingham General Assembly in 1900.

Powderly became a member of the bar in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1894. He practiced law before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1897. Four years later, Powderly was granted the right to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Additionally, President McKinley appointed Powderly the position of Commissioner General of Immigration in 1897. Powderly viewed immigrants negatively. In a conversation with President McKinley recorded in The Path I Trod Powderly stated, "How can we expect a man whom we rob on his entrance to our country to respect us, our laws, our institutions, or our flag. I am trying to end that practice." Powderly remained the Commissioner General until he was removed by President Theodore Roosevelt on July 2, 1902.

Powderly was appointed special representative of the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1906. In this position, he studied the causes of emigration from Europe to America and became well traveled. Powderly visited the British Isles, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

In 1907, Powderly became the Chief of the Division of Information in the Bureau of Immigration. Additionally, he participated in several business ventures from 1902 to 1907. He became the President of the Black Diamond Coal Company, Washington representative of the General Lubricating Company of Philadelphia, and conducted a real estate business in Washington. None of the businesses were extremely profitable.

He married Emma Fickensher in 1919, and she was his secretary when he was the head of the Knights of Labor. She died in 1940. Until 1921, Powderly held the post of Chief of the Division of Information of the Bureau of Immigration. At this point, he was named a member of the Board of Review of the Bureau.

From 1921 until his death on June 24, 1924, he was the Commissioner of Conciliation in the Department of Labor. In 1938, nearly 14 years after Powderly's death, his autobiography was discovered and published soon thereafter. He is currently featured in the United States Department of Labor's Labor Hall of Fame.

*Note: In his autobiography, the editors listed the company as the D & H. Canal Co. in the introduction. Powderly himself states that it is the Delaware and Hudson Railroad in his autobiography.

  • "Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865." The Knights of Labor. 10 Oct. 2005. 6 Dec. 2005. <>>.
  • "A Healthy Public Opinion: Terence V. Powderly Distances the Knights of Labor from the Haymarket Martyrs" 6 Dec. 2005. <>>.
  • "The Knights of Labor Champion Reform." 1887 Murray High School. 6 Dec. 2005. "The Plea for Eight Hours." 1890. The Knights of Labor. 10 Oct. 2005. 6 Dec. 2005. <>>.
  • Thirty Years of Labor: 1859-1889. Philadelphia: T.V. Powderly, 1890.
  • The Path I Trod: The Autobiography of Terence V. Powderly. Ed. Carman, Harry J., Henry David, and Paul N. Guthrie. New York: Columbia UP, 1940.
  • Avery, Steve, ed. "Terence V. Powderly." 2005. 6 Dec. 2005Carman, Harry J. "Terence Vincent Powderly—An Appraisal." The Journal of Economic History May 1941: 83-87.
  • Kemmerer, Donald L. and Edward D. Wickersham. "Reasons for the Growth of the Knights of Labor in 1885-1886." Industrial and Labor Relations Review January 1950: 213-220.
  • Miner, Claudia. "The 1886 Convention of the Knights of Labor." Phylon 2nd Qtr., 1983: 147-159.

For Further Information:

  • Falzone, Vincent J. Terence V. Powderly: Middle Class Reformer. Washington: UP of America, 1978.
  • Phelan, Craig. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
  • Weir, Robert E. Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in a Gilded Age Social Movement. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2000.
Literary Note: 

A three-time mayor of Scranton and a labor activist with the Knights of Labor, Carbondale native Terence Powderly was elected to the Labor Hall of Fame.

First Name: 
Middle Name: