Debs's lifespan encompassed three important periods in American social history: the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the Red Scare. That timeline was punctuated by innumerable labor battles and societal conflicts, and Debs constantly crisscrossed the front lines of those insurgencies. His legendary altruism and dedication earned him a Christlike reputation that camouflaged any and all shortcomings. Debs both nurtured and fed from the ensuing mythology and, in the process, rewrote his own personal history. He became a radical, transformed almost overnight by the reading of Marx's Das Kapital while in Woodstock Jail in 1894. Contrary to this almost mystical conversion to socialism, Debs waged a lifelong individual struggle to break with a capitalist mindset inculcated
during his formative years. His earlier antagonism to the 1877 railroad strike and the Haymarket Martyrs was spuriously altered to convey unstinting support later in his career. In reality, the Good Samaritan frequented bars and brothels and, not surprisingly, suffered from psychological problems associated with being a social pioneer.