Speaking of “a class of the lost,” on this day in 1894, Jacob S. Coxey started out with his army of the unemployed, also known as “the Commonweal of Christ,” from Massillon, Ohio, to march to Washington. You know the basic story: it’s a deep, desperate depression, the worst at least until the Great Depression; Coxey is a soft-money man, a People’s Party kind of guy—not poor himself, but believes in the cause, and wants the federal government to provide aid.

Here’s the thing: it’s awfully hard not to play Coxey for laughs. He named his child “Legal Tender.” He converted to a peculiar version of Christianity at the hands of an amateur theologian named Carl Browne, who held that each of us is reincarnated from a pool of mixed souls, so that a new soul contains an amalgam of old souls, which means that each of us contains a bit of Christ’s soul, too—and that Browne and Coxey had extra bits of Christ’s soul (he could just tell). The army marched under a banner with a portrait of Christ and a motto reading, “He is Risen, but Death to Interest on Bonds.” Coxey promised an army of a hundred thousand, but mustered only maybe a hundred; Massillon, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best place to accumulate a pool of the unemployed. The army accrued a few hundred more people as it went along, but arrived still pretty small in Washington, DC, where its leaders were arrested and convicted for walking on the grass.

There were, immediately following, much more serious armies. But they were all tainted by this first outing’s faint air of ridiculousness.

So what do you do, teaching this story? Do you let the funny parts be funny? (Honestly, I’m not sure you can stop them.) How do you get your students, or readers, to refocus on the serious material at hand (double-digit unemployment, Pullman Strike, federal government going bust until/unless Morgan bails it out, that kind of thing). How can you play something that happens first as farce, then as tragedy?