Thomas Aloysius (Red Tom) Hickey, socialist journalist, lecturer, and West Texas oilman, was born in Dublin, Ireland, on January 14, 1869. He immigrated to the United States in 1892. The Homestead strike that year led him to espouse the cause of labor, and in 1893 he joined the Socialist Labor party and the Knights of Labor. He read Karl Marx and many socialist papers and became a protégé of Daniel DeLeon and a defender of Big Bill Haywood and Francisco (Pancho) Villa. He became a fiery speaker and organizer, talents that soon raised him to prominence in radical circles. He served as Eugene V. Debs's private secretary, then spent four years as a party organizer. Hickey developed into a prolific writer of pamphlets and newspaper articles on labor conflicts. He adopted secular millenarianism and used the rhetoric of Texas evangelists to prophesy the coming birth of a "cooperative commonwealth." He was a cofounder of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, which eventually became a part of the Industrial Workers of the World. He broke with the Socialist Labor party in 1900, helped organize a victorious machinists' strike in Watsossing, New Jersey, and then found himself blacklisted by employers. He moved to Butte, Montana, where he joined the Western Federation of Miners, recruited for the Socialist party, and wrote a pamphlet on the Montana copper war.
Hickey moved to Texas in 1907 and launched a weekly newspaper, The Rebel, in 1911 at Hallettsville. The paper bore the slogan "The great appear great to us only because we are on our knees. Let us arise." It became the official organ of the Socialist party in Texas, and Hickey quickly became one of the most charismatic figures in the socialist movement. In 1912 he was Socialist candidate for lieutenant governor. His Irish heritage of hatred for British landowners led him to embrace the struggle of Texas tenant farmers, which became a statewide issue in Texas politics by 1914. Former Populists looking for a vital organization to carry on reform battles were attracted to the Socialist party because of Hickey's espousal of the farm tenants' cause.
In 1917, during World War I, the national government suppressed The Rebel by refusing to accept it at the post office and filing criminal charges. Hickey, claiming a circulation of 25,000, denounced the victory of "the landlords and usurers of the South." The Nonpartisan League struck Hickey another blow in 1918 by firing him as an organizer, although it allowed him to recruit members on a commission basis.
When the war ended Hickey was preparing to renew publication of The Rebel in Dallas, when he was diverted by the great oil strikes in Eastland County. He and other socialists developed some valuable properties and in October 1919 organized the National Workers Drilling and Production Company. Hickey doubled as advertising manager of the Desdemona Oil News and correspondent for fourteen other newspapers. The story of the Desdemona oil socialists caused some scorn in the nation's press, which inaccurately but inevitably labeled them "Socialist Millionaires."
One investment incident deserves its place in Texas oilfield lore. A number of socialist farmers lived in the area and sponsored a yearly encampment at Ellison Springs, where Hickey was the featured orator. The Desdemona socialists also had a baseball club, which played on a field owned by S. E. Snodgrass, a leading local Democrat and avid antisocialist. When Snodgrass banned the socialists from his land and demanded the exorbitant sum of fifty dollars for the 1½-acre ballpark, they raised the purchase price of fifty dollars by popular subscription. When oil was discovered, the baseball field suddenly became worth $40,000 to its socialist owners. It was soon surrounded by producing oil wells also owned by the socialists.
Though some other Desdemona socialist farmers may have become rich, Hickey did not. He withdrew from the National Workers Drilling and Production Company in 1920 and subsequently lived on a farm five miles west of Stamford when he was not roving the state for oil-crew stories. He died on May 7, 1925, of throat cancer. Shortly before his death he had been publishing Tom Hickey's Magazine in Fort Worth.