Socialist Gym Rats Fought to End Slavery in America

Veterans of the 1848 German revolution immigrated to America with three passions burning in their hearts: barbells, beer, and socialism.

The acrobatic team of the Milwaukee Turners, 1866. (Wikimedia Commons)

It would be strange if today the Gold’s Gym franchise began training paramilitary units across the United States — and even stranger if they were fighting for the Left instead of the Right. But at the beginning of the Civil War, the German Turner gyms did precisely that.

The Turners were one of the most influential athletic organizations of the nineteenth century, “turn” being German for “gym” or “gymnastics.” The German immigrants who made up the Turners’ ranks were heavily influenced by the mid-nineteenth-century radicalism of the country that they fled. In the 1850s the Turners transformed their Turnverein, or gym halls, into armed community centers.

The Turners first dedicated their efforts to advancing the message of socialism in the United States while defending themselves against nativist thugs. They went on to advocate abolishing slavery, defend the Union, and even act as Abraham Lincoln’s personal security detail. Along the way, they drank a lot of beer and lifted a lot of barbells.

Gym Father John

In their home country, the Turners were founded out of spite. Back when Prussia was still a thing, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the “father of gymnastics,” was so disgusted with Napoleonic rule in the German states that he organized a new kind of community center based around the radical idea of lifting weights. Jahn originated the modern concept of getting swole, ripped, shredded, and peeled — all to inspire Germans to reject aristocratic rule.

The curriculum Jahn prescribed was called Turnen, a paramilitary method of exercise invented to restore a dominated nation’s sense of worth, while transmitting a collective morality through the beneficial health effects. Turnvater Jahn (Gym Father John) was a retired German nationalist reformer who opposed the monarchical-church structure of a government shading from feudalism to early capitalism. He hoped to restore the German spirit and do his part to encourage revolution through exercise.

Jahn inaugurated the first open-air gymnasium, the Turnplatz, in Berlin in 1811. The motto, “Sound mind in a sound body,” was translated from the Roman poet Juvenal. Turnverein associations were designed for the young middle classes, particularly students and skilled artisans. Young Germans were taught to think of themselves as members of a guild whose goal was the emancipation of the fatherland from autocratic governance.

If that sounds a little Nazi — well, there’s definitely a connection, but the attribution is backward. The Nazis later appropriated Gym Father John’s strength-and-pride ethos, just like they disingenuously appropriated socialist May Day. The Nazi view of public health combined the Turners’ group-exercise mentality with eugenic extremism. The concept of a “Volksgemeinschaft” (German racial community) took the Turner community-building function and transformed it into a cause for fascist nationalism and genocide.

But back in the nineteenth century, it was the Left that was politicizing exercise. By the 1840s the Turner movement was the largest national organization in the German states — and politically, it had shifted to the left of Father Jahn himself. While Jahn supported a constitutional monarchy, the Turnvereins became a radicalized democratic movement, one cheered on by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as editors of Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

When the moment for revolutionary action arrived in 1848, the Turners were ready. Because Turner societies offered shooting clubs, it was no major leap for them to form armed militias. They became known as the “Forty-Eighter” revolutionaries. They armed the barricades in support of a very basic idea: the people in charge shouldn’t think they are invested with special power by God (monarchs, popes) or by blood (the aristocracy).

Marx and Engels supported the revolution because democracy was a necessary step in the right direction, and because the radical egalitarianism at the root of the Forty-Eighters’ efforts was the same as that which animated socialism. For their part, many Forty-Eighters were further radicalized by their efforts to secure democracy, which were crushed mercilessly by belligerent elites.

Nurseries of Revolutionary Ideas

In the wake of the revolution’s failure, Germany of the twentieth century was born. Turner societies, especially in the Baden region of southern Germany where much of the action had happened, were surveilled by police or outright prohibited in the ’48 revolution’s aftermath. The coalition of communists and liberals had failed to decapitate the monarchy and bring democracy to the Rhineland. The real winner was the German aristocracy, who had won control of a dying feudal order — the peasants and artisans had lost, and the high cost of leaving the country started to seem pretty good.

After the revolution failed, massive numbers of Germans exported themselves and their beliefs across the world, many to the United States. Radical Germans believed that the United States, then still a young country, could be guided away from Europe’s reactionary tendencies. They believed that in America, their revolutionary dreams could flourish.

When they arrived on American soil, many post-’48 German immigrants brought with them a handful of possessions, their radical beliefs, and their love of the Turnverein. Turner gyms proved to be a fantastic resource for immigrants: a sort of secular church where German language and culture were celebrated, sport and exercise were pursued, and vast quantities of beer were consumed. American Turnvereins quickly became a vibrant part of a burgeoning middle-class club life in the nineteenth-century United States. As democratically organized neighborhood associations, the gyms were also capable of withstanding violent attempts to snuff out German culture.

Group portrait from the early years of the New York Turnverein, when it was named Sozialistischer Turnverein, in the 1850s. (Wikimedia Commons)

In The American Turner Movement, Annette Hofmann writes that wherever Forty-Eighter immigrants settled they joined existing Turner societies, or set up new ones, which became “nurseries of revolutionary ideas.” Adopting a “proudly cosmopolitan” ideology, American Turners swore to “fight any restrictions of individual rights, including the practice of slavery, hostility toward foreigners, and other discrimination directed against the color of one’s skin, place of birth or gender.” In a tradition of rationalism and liberalism, they rejected any connection between church and state as well as Temperance and Sabbath Day laws — to them, beer was essentially sacred.

Pilsners and biergartens were nonnegotiables, linking the homeland to the new diaspora in Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and St Louis, where German-Americans would come to represent the largest immigrant groups by the end of the century.

Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St Louis were known as strongholds for German immigrant culture, and Wisconsin became especially popular as industrialization north of the Mason-Dixon meant more and more urban opportunities. The South proved to have a bad climate, coupled with a moral issue: the Germans had a deep dislike for the aristocratic cotton plantation owners, and the institution of slavery overall.

As Robert Knight Barney details, the American Turner was “in general male, in his twenties, unmarried, in excellent physical condition through training in gymnastics, classically educated, politically enlightened and motivated, not without some economic means, and quite likely, disposed toward returning to Germany at a later time to support again the forces of revolution against the hated German princes and the influence of their corrupt power.”

The Turnvereins in America became a home for the “children of the revolution,” and represented a “sovereign people’s opposition” to the planter class that had allied with American nativists to maintain a chattel-slavery social order. The Turners saw the institution as pitting slaves against the working poor, both to the benefit of a murderous and exploitative aristocratic elite.

At their highest philosophical register, the Turners wanted to advance human society toward a goal of social justice. As Friedrich Hecker described it, the German-American Turner movement was a “true tree of a purposeful life, with aspirations that branches out into two boughs: one, intellectual and the other, physical — the freedom tree of mankind for its development and cultural progress.”

Individuals who reached a balance of body and mind would possess “resilience and courage, steadfastness and stamina, trust in self, well-thought-out action in face of danger and difficulty, defeat of a threatening force, true bravery in war and peace, moral courage and stability through life’s storms,” which made paying monthly thirty-cent dues seem like a bargain.

Festival gymnastics squad of the Milwaukee Turnverein, presenting model pyramids at the 30th Federal Gymnastics Festival, held in 1909 in Cincinnati. (Joseph Brown / Wikimedia Commons)

Getting in Shape, Antebellum Style

There were only two sports organizations in the colonies: fishing and a jockey club in Charles Town. Organized sport was forbidden by the Puritans, since entertaining competition or attending to one’s body would surely distract from more pious pursuits. Thus sledding and something called “football” (which was not NFL-style football) were outlawed in Boston from 1675 to 1786.

Up to the mid-nineteenth century, the American sports scene involved a lot of cock fights, horse races, and foot races. But as immigrant communities continued to settle in the New World, they brought their fun-time runaround activities. For their part, the Germans liked lifting barbells, forming human pyramids, shooting rifles, and drinking beer.

Also in the nineteenth century, something new was happening in cities: middle-class Americans were living on top of their working-class counterparts. They began to notice something they hadn’t before, when workers were mostly toiling in the fields: people who are exploited at work all day in unsanitary conditions and live in slums without the money for basic necessities are often lacking in hygiene and health. Mid-nineteenth-century bourgeois urbanites, startled by this revelation, developed a new ideology of health and cleanliness, which dovetailed well with their assiduous Protestant morality. Only the lean and clean shall be saved.

The Turners were right there promising to fix all that with a vaulting horse, and some non-Germans began to take interest in them. Soon a far more acceptable version came on the scene: “Muscular Christianity,” which became the basis of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). It was similar to the Turnen in the link between physical fitness of mind and body, but without all the immigrants and beer.

Between the YMCA and the Turnvereins, physical education became a hot commodity. The Turners’s new submotto — “Fresh, free, strong, and true” — came with a snazzy new white uniform. In addition to fencing, gymnastics, wrestling, pyramid building, climbing, swimming, and track and field, the Turnvereins became known for their coordination in military exercises and accuracy in target practice.

Some members critiqued Turners from the inside, making fun of the pseudomilitary games as well as the Turner affinity for participating in pageants and parades rather than the intellectual “exercises of the mind.” Others thought that the club wasted too much money on beer and indulged in “culturally static Germanness.”

But the main critique came from outside the organization and the German community. If you’re going to do rifle drills, you’ll have to purchase some guns. American nativists and slavery advocates didn’t like that. Not only were the Turners immigrants, but by now it was also well-known that they were abolitionists. Such people could pose a real problem if armed.

As tensions mounted leading up to the Civil War, gymnastics displays called Turnfests and other Turner ceremonies became targets for right-wing attacks. In Wallabout, Long Island, a rumble broke out at a consecration after a Catholic priest accused the Turners of conspiring to destroy all religion.

In 1855 Cincinnati, six thousand nativists from the Know Nothing party rioted for several days trying to keep Irish and Germans from voting. “The fact that the Germans owned a cannon led to several days of siege,” Hofmann notes. The German area was separated from the rest of Cincinnati by the Miami Canal, colloquially known as the Rhine. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Irish were ready to smash “rowdie” faces, “burning with enthusiasm for a battle because they had been sworn enemies of the Know Nothings for a long time.” Two were killed and a few injured. The surrender of the German cannon to a neutral third party ended the siege.

Amid the wave of anti-immigrant violence that rocked Philadelphia, Columbus, Louisville, and Covington, the Turners were determined to protect themselves. In 1852, famed Forty-Eighter Franz Sigel published “Drill Regulations” as a training guide for Turners. The Socialist Turner Union recommended every society acquire weapons, and not just for rifle practice.

Civil War St Louis

On the eve of the Civil War, German papers observed that America was influenced by “stupid boys,” by which they meant the English. Slavery, the church (a “state within a state”), and outrageous levels of materialism seemed to make the basic functioning of a democratic government impossible. Consequently, writes Hofmann, “Many Turners saw it as their duty in their new homeland to continue fighting for democracy, liberty and fraternity as they had done in Germany.”

At this time, what we now know as the Civil War was a nameless set of heightening tensions and sharpening contradictions. To many Germans, with their worldview shaped by the ’48 revolution, the Confederacy meant church and planter rule over a racial caste system. It would resemble feudal Europe, but this time, exploitative industrial capitalism would poison the air, bind huge populations to machine toil, turn artisans into button pushers, and mangle children’s limbs in textile machines.

Immigrant children would be first-generation Americans if the Union won. If the nativists had their way, the next generation would be a permanent factory underclass.

In Germans for a Free Missouri, Steven Rowan argues that the Forty-Eighters viewed the American Civil War as life-or-death episode in a revolutionary tradition, drawing on “a shared language and symbols going back at least to the era of the French Revolution and the wars of liberation against Napoleon I of 1812–1814.”

The Socialistische Turnerbund von Nordamerika, the Socialistic Turner Union of North America, swore to fight any attempt to limit “freedom of conscience.” The group opposed slavery, nativism, and temperance constraints as part of the same struggle to create a dignified working class. The Socialistic Turner Union guidebook stated the end goal: A “democratic-republican constitution, prosperity guaranteed for ‘all,’ the best-possible free education according to the ability of each one, the elimination of hierarchical and privileged powers.”

Concordia, Missouri Turners, 1907. (Louis Melsheimer / Missouri History Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Days after Lincoln’s election, a Baltimore Turner hall was burned, causing members to flee the city — punishment by Southern sympathizers for refusing to exchange their Union flag, even as Maryland remained in the Union. With flags and drum rolls, those same Baltimore Turners joined the Washington group to form the “Bodyguard of Honor,” protecting Lincoln’s train upon arrival in Washington, DC, and accompanied the newly elected president in procession to his 1860 inauguration. That Turner regiment formed the first volunteer military unit, the 8th Battalion, and Turners often served as Lincoln’s public security.

The attack on Fort Sumter set off the first call for volunteers, but the Turners had already been busy establishing their own marksmen companies, doing gun drills, and practicing fencing. The “Turner Sisters” sewed uniforms and flags. One of the best-known Turner regiments was the 17th Missouri Volunteers, which prevented St Louis — and by extension, much of the Mississippi River Valley — from falling into Confederate control. Ulysses S. Grant speculated:

If St. Louis had been captured by the rebels it would have made a vast difference . . . it would have been a terrible task to recapture St. Louis, one of the most difficult that could have been given to any military man. Instead of a campaign before Vicksburg it would have been a campaign before St. Louis.

In May, 1861, Captain Lyons assembled his professional Union soldiers, backed up by a huge company led by the “Damned Dutchman” Franz Sigel. They marched on Camp Jackson (a Confederate massing area west of the city), and as the volunteers passed the Turner hall, reserve troops inside cheered and wept for joy. The editor of the Westliche Post, Theodor Olshausen, wrote that it was the Paris uprisings of 1848 again, it was the Baden Revolution again, “one of those splendid moments when emotions glowing deep in the heart of the masses suddenly breaks into wild flames.”

Camp Jackson surrendered, and the German Volunteer regiments went on to prevent the capture of the St Louis arsenal — the largest stockpile of weapons west of the Mississippi.

Forgetting the Turners

A Union victory did not prevent a toiling immigrant underclass from developing in the United States. The German Forty-Eighters would go on to battle the Gilded Age railroad barons, with a Turner hall playing a big role in the Haymarket Riot. The “Sewer Socialists” of Milwaukee were the product of radicalized German politics. In St Louis, German labor militancy was on full display during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Nestled into the southwest side of St Louis’s Forest Park, a forty-one-foot-long statue displays the Moses-bearded originator of the Turners, Father Jahn.

The Turnvereins continued to flourish after the Civil War. Combining the athletic club, community center, and veteran’s hall, they acquired bowling alleys, built showers and gymnasiums, and ran multiple bars — one for members, the other for the beer-loving public. At their peak in 1894, there were more than three hundred Turnvereins with approximately forty thousand members.

But the rise in anti-German sentiment during World War I, and then again in World War II, erased much of the Midwest’s German identity. Berlin Avenues were renamed, and German was no longer taught in schools. Between McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the German socialists who built cities like St Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee were written out of official US history. Only the statues remain, though few members of the general public understand their meaning.

Prize-winning squad of the Milwaukee Turners at the 21st Federal Turners Festival in Philadelphia, 1879. (Wikimedia Commons)

The most influential remnant of the Turners is pedagogical. The Turnen curriculum was adopted into gym class. The nineteenth-century introduction of physical education in American public schools was largely due to German Turner influence, which later developed into the Presidential Fitness Tests.

Today Americans spend millions on private exercise classes, exclusive dietary equipment, cosmetic surgeries, megatons of supplements, gallons of steroids injected into all manner of asses — all in order to exude the ideal bodily expression of health. But this superficial vision of health is a far cry from that of the Turners, for whom physical fitness was intimately tied to both making revolution and making merry.

The Turners believed that health meant becoming a well-rounded person — and one can’t truly achieve well-roundedness without conviction and camaraderie. They believed that fitness does not have to be expensive and exclusive, that everyone deserves a place to engage in good-natured competition and invigorating exercise. And finally, they believed that a good amount of beer can give anyone the courage to overthrow the monarchy.