Seth Luther (1795-1863) was the most memorable figure in the pioneering days of the Rhode Island labor movement. When he died in 1863, a Providence Journal obituary said that the “had considerable talent for both writing and speaking, but he was too violent, willful and headstrong to accomplish any good.” The editors then added, for good measure, that he had “just closed his worse than useful life.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Luther was born in 1795 at Providence the son of a Revolutionary War soldier. Seth learned the carpenter’s trade. Although he traveled extensively to find work and spread the growing gospel of the labor movement, in 1832 he was back in Providence lobbying the state government to enact a ten hour workday. When assaulted for his activities he wrote: “I glory in these wounds knowing they would not have been inflicted had I not advocated the cause of the suffering children incarcerated in the cotton mills of our once happy New England.” Such dramatic sentiment appeared in several influential pamphlets, some of the nation’s earliest union tracts, that Luther authored in that tumultuous era.
He was a founder of the Trades Union of Boston, sold copies of working class newspapers, and then made his most momentous decision to join the local suffrage movement to provide the right to vote to all white males regardless of their station in life; Rhode Island requiring a property qualification that shut out a majority of working class citizens. Luther joined in the legislative and military attempt to force the question during the Dorr War of 1842 which the reformers lost. He was imprisoned in Newport and briefly escaped by setting fire to his cell. Charges were eventually dropped and Luther went on a national tour for the cause of labor and open suffrage.
Being a social pioneer finally took its toll on the labor agitator when he entered a Boston Bank, armed with a sword and demanded $1,000.00, ostensibly to help in the war against Mexico in 1846. He was incarcerated at Butler Hospital for a decade before being moved to a cheaper facility in Brattleboro, Vermont where he died in 1863 and was buried in an unmarked and unknown grave. There are no known likenesses.
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