Anarchists in Chicago: The Story Retold

November 2014By Terry Scambray

Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.

The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks.  By Timothy Messer-Kruse. University of Illinois Press. 256 pages. $30.

The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age.  By Timothy Messer-Kruse. Palgrave Macmillan. 244 pages. $30.



The struggle for the soul of America necessarily involves the struggle for the story of America. Beginning in the latter part of the 1960s, the story of America began to be told in a different way. This version of the story was not actually new, since progressive writers had offered a version of it all along. But until then it was a marginal view, shaped by historians like Charles Beard and V.L. Parrington, and later mainstreamed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Hofstadter. It was also a view depicted by storytellers like Jack London and Upton Sinclair, whose goal was to show the dreadful disparity, in their view, between the promise of America and its sordid reality.

Timothy Messer-Kruse, a self-incriminated liberal and historian at Bowling Green University, has written a pair of books that show that one of the major episodes in the progressive version of America’s story, the so-called Haymarket Tragedy or Haymarket Massacre, was not what we have been told it was: a capitalist plot to destroy dissent in America. Messer-Kruse demonstrates quite convincingly that anarchists were responsible for the Haymarket bombing and that their trial and conviction for this deadly crime was more than fair.

The vibrant American economy of the nineteenth century drew immigrants from Europe, a small number of whom carried strains of Marxist thought. Among these were anarchists from Germany, some of whom had been imprisoned for advocating and engaging in violence in their homeland. Several of these men were labor activists in Chicago, which was, as Richard Hofstadter described it in The Progressive Historians, “the rawest and most dynamic city” in the U.S., the Midwest’s “most potent evidence that the Industrial Revolution, with all its terrors, had really descended upon America.” (And with all its opportunities, I would hasten to add, for why else would millions of people, then as now, pour into America?) Much of the labor strife at this time centered around workers’ desire for an eight-hour workday. The forces negotiating and agitating to achieve this goal were labor organizations, socialists, and anarchists, the former two seeking to distance themselves from the radical goals of the latter. As Messer-Kruse writes, the anarchists “had arrived at a fundamentally logical but ruthless proposition. All institutions and rulers propping up the existing order, that is, the church, the government, elections, courts, jails, bankers, kings, policemen, and bosses, are legitimate targets in a war of class liberation.”

The conflict reached a head on the evening of May 4, 1886. A small group, “even by anarchist’s standards,” met near Haymarket Square to hear speeches protesting the shooting of workers by the Chicago police at McCormick Reaper Works, one of the city’s largest employers. As Samuel Fielden, the last platform speaker, concluded his speech, two hundred Chicago policemen marched into the area from the neighboring Des Plaines Street Station. Then, just as the police captain ordered the crowd to disperse, someone threw a bomb into the tightly packed police ranks. Gunfire immediately erupted from the direction of the crowd — a fact brought out in the ensuing trial — indicating that the attack had been planned.

The devastation was both immediate and enduring. Blood was splattered from the Haymarket area to the police station, which served as a field hospital for those hit by shrapnel and bullets. The first policeman to die, 35-year-old Mathias Degan, his thigh ripped by jagged shards from the bomb, bled to death, leaving an orphaned son (his wife had died two years earlier). At the police station, “surgeons probed, lanced, sewed and sawed away until pools of blood formed on the floor and was [sic] trampled about until almost every foot of space was red and slippery.” Seven policemen and three civilians were killed that night, while another twenty-three policemen were disabled, some severely so. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing serves as a contemporary example of the devastation and suffering terror attacks can cause.

Some observers of the case claim that there was a conspiracy to silence the anarchists, as indicated by the confrontational police march into the protest meeting. However, police attention to the meeting was aroused because a day earlier, August Spies, Chicago’s most notorious anarchist, had been speaking to striking McCormick factory workers who then attacked the strikebreakers who were leaving the plant at the end of a shift. Even though some commentators point to the fact that the Haymarket meeting was peaceful until the police marched into the area, the police saw it as a possible continuation of the previous day’s riot. The subsequent intense investigation into the Haymarket incident resulted in the arrests of eight men who were charged with conspiracy to kill police officers. Under Illinois law at the time, aiding and abetting murder carried the same penalty as murder. A jury was selected from among citizens of a city torn by fear and animosity between its various sectors.

Among the suspects were three men who had spoken the night of the bombing and were prominent Chicago anarchists: Spies, Albert Parsons, and Fielden, also known as “Red Sam.” All were militant anarchists, though their backgrounds differed somewhat. Fielden, an English immigrant, began as a laborer in Chicago, graduated to owning his own business and, with increased wealth, traveled, read, and attended ten-cent lectures at McCormick Hall by speakers like the agnostic firebrand Robert Ingersoll. Spies was born in Germany, where he acquired an elite education and gained fluency in several languages; he had urbane manners and tastes and became a leader in whatever organization he joined. Parsons, more of a family man, was the editor of Alarm, one of several anarchist newspapers in the area.

Rudolph Schnaubelt, a carpenter, was probably the one who threw the bomb, and though he was arrested on suspicion, he was released. Schnaubelt was a brother-in-law of one of the conspirators and was known to have practiced setting off “czar bombs” — bottles of nitroglycerin, of the type a Russian anarchist used to murder Czar Alexander II in March 1881 (which assassination, by the way, caused ripples of jubilant hope among European and American anarchists who used this so-called propaganda of the deed to warn American capitalists like Jay Gould and William Vanderbilt of what could be their impending doom).

Chemists determined that bomb fragments taken at the scene matched bombs found at the residences of Chicago anarchists who had connections to those arrested. Police also determined that these bombs had been made according to “the anarchist instruction manual, The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, written by the German exile Johann Most, the most notorious anarchist in America” and a friend of those arrested. An informant also testified at the trial that coded signals “calling for a rare general meeting of the armed cells” of anarchists had appeared in their main newspaper, Arbeiter-Zeitung.

This testimony, along with other findings, indicate that the Haymarket area had been specifically chosen for its “tactical advantages” because it was crisscrossed by thoroughfares and alleyways that could serve as escape routes when the planned riot began. Protest organizers expected thirty or forty thousand people to show up, and the anarchist leadership figured that this mob, led by armed cadres of anarchists positioned around the city, could overwhelm the police and take control of Chicago. Given the ease with which the riot had broken out at the McCormick plant the day before, the anarchists were confident that their loosely stitched plan would work.

What these expectations show is how delusional these ungovernable utopians were, thinking that an “ad hoc plan” could establish a Chicago version of the Paris Commune, with no thought of the savagery and suffering required to give birth to such a Frankenstein monster. Though no evidence was discovered of a specific plan to throw a bomb, unusual features like the unsigned notices announcing the Haymarket rally combine to show that its “unique purpose was to launch a coordinated attack upon the police.” Such circumstantial evidence stacked alongside both the testimony of insiders and the physical evidence led the jury to render conspiracy convictions against the eight men, seven of whom they sentenced to death, with the eighth conspirator receiving fifteen years. In a rare move, both the presiding judge and prosecutor supported a motion to commute the sentences to life imprisonment for two of the convicted. One of those sentenced to death cheated the hangman by “smoking a small stick of dynamite that had been smuggled into his cell.”

On November 11, 1887, four of the convicted were executed. The remaining three convicts were pardoned by Gov. John Altgeld in 1893, precipitating a hail of controversy that destroyed his promising political career. While conceding that the defendants were represented by inept counsel more interested in conducting a teach-in on anarchism than exonerating their clients, Messer-Kruse shows that “a fair trial was conducted according to the standards of the day.” Like any worthy historian, he warns against “presentism,” the habit of judging the past by present standards.

Messer-Kruse has discovered that past historians of the case had not read the trial record itself but only an abstract of it, prepared by, of all people, the convicted anarchists’ defense team! Besides that, the source most cited by historians was A Concise History of the Great Trial of the Chicago Anarchists in 1886, written by Dyer Lum, “a leader of the effort to win amnesty for the condemned anarchists,” whose account was “published while that campaign was in full swing.” Lum was also interim editor of Alarm while Parsons was on death row. Thus, the dominant liberal-progressive historians of the past hundred years have “photoshopped” the Haymarket event into their picture of America as an intolerant plutocracy. But the Left and labor at the time wanted no part of the anarchists’ despicable acts — acts that set back the labor movement’s goal of an eight-hour workday and also forced labor to moderate its stands for the next twenty years.

Considering that what happens in Europe invariably affects America, it is additionally surprising that historians have not followed the threads that connect this transatlantic anarchist cabal. Certainly, apologists for the anarchists claimed that they were in the tradition of nonviolent social idealists like Tolstoy and Thoreau, and that their militancy was merely a bluff to intimidate the owners and authorities in Chicago. But who would swallow such an opiate? Furthermore, why didn’t later historians see that the Haymarket bombing was the first outbreak of anarchist violence in the U.S., which continued with the assassination of President William McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, as well as with the murders and bombings of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the barbaric Wall Street bombing of 1920?

While ignoring the evidence, the dominant liberal-progressive historians saw the Haymarket affair against a background of an America still climbing out of its pit of repression — a repression inherited from the Puritans, intensified with slavery, and rapaciously applied to newer victims like immigrants and workingmen. With this clear “progression” in play, who could resist pinning the same label on the Haymarket affair? Lazy and bigoted historians apparently couldn’t. Of course, any discussion of episodes of terrorism on American soil reminds us of the threat of Islamic terrorism, which, like anarchism, is ruthless and implacably bound to a destructive ideology, despite its apologists and the present trend toward soft-pedaling the problem.

Messer-Kruse has written these books with the quiet confidence of a man who holds a full house. He packs a lot of information into both of his studies, indicating that it will be difficult to bluff him by challenging his courageous, exhaustively researched, and discerning conclusions. As a bonus, clear writing elevates his books above dry scholarship so that the difference between revisionist fables and the truth is sharply defined.



Back to November 2014 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!