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A Failure of American Justice

ISSUE:  Winter 1986
The Haymarket Tragedy. By Paul Avrich. Princeton. $29. 50.

Having just read “Mr. America,” Harold Bloom’s reflections on Emerson, I found the protagonists, labor anarchists and capitalist anarchists, of Avrich’s work in the Emersonian grain. Bloom sees the chill at the heart of “the religion of self-reliance Emerson founded,” in his vision of power, the individual absolved from practicing Christian virtues; and, picking up on Yale President Giamatti’s “Emerson gave our politics its particular view of power as freed from all moral limitations,” extends it to a disregard for social consequences, whether manifested left or right.

Avrich has written his book in terms of strong individuals asserting their autonomy at a time when lawless uncontrollable changes and forces, in a frightening onrush, beset “the endless promise” of America. Against the ineluctable reality of this larger American tragedy the Haymarket tragedy is cast. By the time the bomb falls which set it off (more than 200 pages into the book) on a May evening in 1886, the reader has been conditioned to expect the worst, saturated with the inevitability of some catastrophe by Avrich’s rendition of events and the volatile tensions inexorably building to it.

The tumultuous boom and bust years of the seventies and eighties, of giant transformations through which the technological age of the coming century was being shaped, gave rise to trade unionism coupled with a political movement radicalized by wretched working and living conditions, unemployment, poverty, and disillusion with peaceful means. The early crucial struggles between labor and capital, the great railroad strike of 1877, broadening into a general strike, and the nationwide agitation for the eight-hour day, seen as a crisis for industrial capitalism, fueled fear, hatred, violence, and the state machinery of armed suppression by erection of armories in the centers of American cities and reorganization of state militias.

Between 1880 and 1883 a revolutionary anarchist movement evolved, reaching its height by 1886, with Chicago its Mecca. The Revolutionary Socialist Party, the first U.S. anarchist organization, owed much to Johann Most; expelled from Bismarck’s Germany, he spent seven years in European prisons and some of his 25 American years in ours. He was the man America loved to hate, pamphleteer, journalist, wit, something of a frustrated actor, whose beard hid a deformed jaw caused by a childhood operation. He worked in a dynamite factory for a year and put it to use writing a manual, “Revolutionary War Science”, that turned pocket dynamite sticks into an anarchist home industry.

The party consisted of groups loosely organized, with no central leadership, embracing differing anarchist views; but the goal was armed insurrection and the prize socialism. Its ideologies drew inspiration from European writers and philosophers: Heine, Hugo, Zola, Kant, Bakunin, Marx, and from uprisings in the past, and in 1871 the Paris Commune, observed as harbinger of the Chicago Commune. They were indomitably vocal, and they were determinedly visible, holding open-air meetings, demonstrations, marches, taking to the streets in countercelebrations on Christmas, July 4th, Thanksgiving. Men, women, and children, bands playing, flaunting banners, red flags, and black, for misery and hunger; proclaiming they had right on their side, that the system by its cruelty, immorality, subversion of “natural law” was digging its own grave, that the revolution was around the corner. The capitalists seemed equally convinced that these taunting thousands could effect it. But if each by its tactics provoked the other, power was completely one-sided.

There was, however, nothing of an inflammatory nature in the May 4th meeting on the periphery of Haymarket Square, called in sympathy with striking McCormick Reaper workers, though the day before police had fired and killed some of them. Tensions had built around the campaign for the eight-hour day, and there had been other skirmishes with the police. Mayor Harrison, doing what he could to cool the situation, attended the meeting and reported to the police that it was a peaceful gathering. But rumors were flying, something was bound to break, and soon after the Mayor left, “Blackjack” Bonfield, whose skull-cracking had made the brutality of the Chicago police notorious, descended with his men on the meeting. Though, under threat of rain, it was breaking up, he demanded it disperse, when a bomb tore through police ranks. Bonfield let loose a wild barrage of bullets; it was dark and in the panic and confusion most of the 67 police casualties were inflicted by the police on themselves; among the eight dead, Officer Degan was the one undeniable bomb victim. In addition, around 50 civilians were killed or wounded. Eight anarchist leaders were speedily arrested and brought to trial in an atmosphere in which vengeance for the slain policemen superseded justice.

For weeks after the bombing Chicago was under virtual martial law. In the frenzied “Red Scare,” the first in the country’s history, the rabid equation between “reds” and immigrants was established. They were “the scum and offal of the old world come to these shores to blow up America.” In the national press there was no reprieve to the daily hanging of the eight, and it continued during and after the trial, through court appeals, and into 1893 when Governor Altgeld, repelled by the trial’s conduct, pardoned the imprisoned, Neebe, Fielden, and Schwab.

Avrich, preferring the human approach—the warm versus cold history—winds his narrative about the most prominent, ablest, and interesting of the defendants: August Spies and Albert Parsons. Between the two, Spies who was 30, seven years younger, was the deeper, more intellectual, and cultured. He and the others were German immigrants, except for Samuel Fielden, who was from Lancashire; Parsons could trace his lineage to the Mayflower. If he had a stereotype, it was not that of the foreigner with anarchist bomb in hand but rather, with his good looks, natty mustache, premature gray blackened by hair dye, the stock villain of melodrama after the heroine’s honor. Raised in Texas by his oldest brother, he fought for the South, became pro-free black, and after the war made himself unpopular by his activity and strong opinions in alleviating the plight of blacks. With his part-black wife Lucy he came to Chicago in 1873, and together were drawn into the trade union-socialist revolution “abolition of wage slavery movement.” Parsons’ writing and oratory were laced with allusions to John Brown and Patrick Henry and bred in the American tradition of freedom, despite a European import of ideology. Neither he nor Spies, who was “the sanest” of the eight, could be reckoned with the extremists, yet no differentiation was made; all were tried and convicted together.

Under Judge Joseph Gary and state’s attorney Julius Grinnell the spirit “of hang them first, try them afterwards” prevailed. All the jurors admitted prejudice; those who were chosen were conned by Gary into doubtfully admitting they could change if testimony warranted. There were no industrial workers, no Germans, and only one foreign-born among them; included was a relative of one of the slain policemen. The trial conducted in a Roman holiday atmosphere lasted from June to August 1886; it took the jury less than three hours to bring in the verdict. There was no evidence that any of the accused had thrown the bomb. Their writing, their speeches, flags, everything calculated to inflame the court were brought in to condemn them on the charge of conspiracy, and to sentence them—Spies, Parsons, Lingg, Engel Fischer to hang, Neebe, Fielden and Schwab to long imprisonment.

Someone had thrown a bomb, but who? Engel, Fischer, in particular Louis Lingg, had the temperament for it, but the defense proved, as with the others, they couldn’t have done it. Lingg made bombs and left them for the taking in beer and meeting halls. Defiant in court, refusing to let capitalist justice have him, in his cell he lit a smuggled-in cigar bomb, blowing his face—. “like a Greek god’s,” half off, dying horribly and stoically. Professor Avrich believes the anarchist claim that one of their own was the bomb thrower; the name was known, but confessing it would have merely added another to the hanged.

The Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun, on sojourn here in 1889, said it was just like American democracy to put up a police monument in Haymarket Square to hanging ideas. The trial had aroused dissenting voices in the nation. W.D. Howells, among them, appalled by Haymarket’s “civic murder, ” sought to rally writers against it—as did William Morris and others beyond our shores. But that all such dissent was swept away is part of the tragedy.

Professor Avrich has emptied previously untapped archives, existing old and new material, into a comprehensive account, supplanting Henry David’s history originally written in 1936. A few years before a young Chicago artist, Mitchell Siporin, documented the Haymarket tragedy in drawings which merge it with the imagination, as Goya and others have, in depicting human beings suffering the agonies of history. He saw Haymarket as “interwoven in the city’s fabric, one with the latter-day gangsters and the smell of hog blood in the air. Every street and landmark smells and tells the story of this violence which characterized the growth of a world city in a century of progress.”

Avrich has given us a fascinating and important book, even if the writing tends to sink into cliché, lacks the spark to give it inner life and misses, in its array of political, social, and economic forces, an interior feel for the time. Yet, reading it, one is shocked by this failure of American justice even one hundred years after the event.

Revolutions need martyrs, and the hanged died with ringing words on their lips. The workers’ dawn has come and gone, first in Russia, now in China, where the latest news is that capitalism is alive and well. In the world the hope for human freedom and equality goes on, but they seem further away than ever.


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