Book review: “The Haymarket Conspiracy” by Timothy Messer-Kruse

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Book review: “The Haymarket Conspiracy” by Timothy Messer-Kruse

HACAT_V46

In late April, 1885, Chicago’s small, tight, deeply committed group of anarchists marched to protest the opening of the new Board of Trade Building. Turned away by police, the group ended up hearing speeches nearby at the building in which the group’s newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung was housed.

An undercover policeman, Thomas Treharn, made his way up to the paper’s editorial offices where he found several people, including editor August Spies two well-known anarchist speakers Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden. Someone asked Spies to show “the package” he had displayed a few days earlier, and, writes historian Timothy Messer-Kruse:

Spies handed Parsons a foot-long tube with a fuse protruding from one end. Parsons boasted there was “enough there to blow up the building.” [Treharn] asked Parsons why he had not challenged the police barricades and later remembered Parson saying, “We’re not exactly prepared to-night…here is a thing I could knock a hundred [police] down with like tenpins.”

A little more than a year later, a mile and a half away, near Haymarket Square, a similarly homemade bomb was thrown into the midst of nearly 200 policemen.

They fell like tenpins.

 

Riot, tragedy or conspiracy?

It’s been called the Haymarket Riot and the Haymarket Tragedy. But, now, with his 2012 book, Messer-Kruse argues that, more than a riot or a tragedy, the event was, as his title asserts, The Haymarket Conspiracy.

It happened on May 4, 1886 at a rain-dampened protest meeting on Desplaines Street, just north of Randolph Street and just east of Haymarket Square. The gathering, sponsored by Chicago’s anarchists, was coming to a quiet end when thick ranks of uniformed police marched up and ordered the small crowd to disperse.

Suddenly, from behind a stack of fish crates, a round bomb, like a lead softball, arced through the air, fell into the midst of the police and exploded, killing or mortally wounding five of the officers. Cops then fired wildly at the crowd, and shots were returned, leaving another two police and at least three civilians dead.

HACAT_V46

HACAT_V46

The bomb-thrower was never identified, but eight anarchist leaders and associates were put on trial for the act of terrorism and convicted on a vague, undefined charge of conspiracy, even though none was linked to the unknown someone who tossed the explosive.

Nonetheless, there was a great deal of testimony about their violent rhetoric and brandishing of weapons and explosives, including that bomb displayed a year earlier at the Arbeiter-Zeitung offices where three of the defendants were present.

In addition to those three — Spies, Parsons and Fielden — the defendants included Adolph Fischer, one of the newspaper’s typesetters; Michael Schwab, the assistant editor of the paper; Oscar Neebe, the paper’s office manager; George Engel, a militant anarchist; and Louis Lingg, a bomb maker.

Eighteen months after the explosion, four of the men were executed: Engel, Fischer, Parsons and Spies. Lingg avoided the hangman by a particularly gruesome form of suicide — exploding a blasting cap in his mouth.

Fielden, Schwab and Neebe served prison sentences until they were pardoned in 1893 by Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld who described them as victims of “hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge.”

Seven of the eight Haymarket defendants

Seven of the eight Haymarket defendants

 

The forces of chaos

The Haymarket bombing was a pivotal moment in the history of Chicago and of labor relations throughout the nation and the world. And, over the past 130 years, there have been three versions of the story. Like all of history, these versions reflect preoccupations that have waxed and waned on the nation’s psychic landscape..

As the son of a Chicago policeman, I grew up hearing about the Haymarket Riot.

This was during the Joe McCarthy era when the nation was awash with anxieties over Red Communism. The eight men arrested for the Haymarket crime were seen as early incarnations of the Soviet spies and conspiracies that, in the 1950s, we feared were set on destroying our American way of life. The term “riot” emphasized the forces of chaos beating against the police as guardians of order.

This view went back to the beginning. The Haymarket bomb touched off America’s first red scare and, for decades, crippled efforts by left-wing groups seeking social reforms.

 

Martyrs, not terrorists

By the 1960s. however, as Americans took to the streets to protest racism, the Vietnam War, nuclear arms and a growing array of other issues, another view of the Haymarket defendants came to the fore — as martyrs rather than as terrorists.

This perspective also dated from the beginning when, during and after the trial, the Haymarket defendants were portrayed by themselves and their supporters as peace-loving crusaders. Over the decades, their defenders argued that, although these anarchists told workers to arm themselves with guns and dynamite for a takeover of society, it was all just big talk.

This resonated deeply in the 1960s and 1970s when most rabble-rousers either espoused non-violence or, if they preached violence, never carried out such threats.

This perspective was encapsulated in the title of Paul Avrich’s 1984 history The Haymarket Tragedy.

 

“Soldiers, not victims”

For half a century, that’s been the widely accepted narrative. But Messer-Kruse argues that it’s dead wrong. Not only is it false to the facts, but it is false to the anarchists, true believers all, who have been characterized, he writes, “as gasbags and blowhards.”

While no one can speak for the dead, few who have read their writings and noted their deeds could imagine that Lingg, Fischer, or Engel would have tolerated the uses to which their memory has been put.

Had they defiantly proclaimed their part in the bombing, had they regretted as some of their supporters had only the number of bombs thrown that night, they may have escaped the ironic twist of their legacy. Had they been buried as soldiers and not victims, their names would not have been written in school books or official markers. But their stories may have lived on in song, in graffiti, in rebel lore.

Make no mistake. Messer-Kruse is no radical. He’s a professor and chair of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University. He’s not writing as an ideologue, but as an historian who is aiming to correct misconceptions and special pleading that have wrapped the Haymarket defendants in a mist of myth.

 

“The culmination of an idea”

It’s a complex story that Messer-Kruse wants to tell, and his writing makes it much more complicated than it needs to be.

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The Haymarket Conspiracy is centered on a hefty, multi-faceted collection of evidence, much of it circumstantial, that Messer-Kruse has pulled together to prove his assertion that what happened at the May 4 wasn’t the random act of an over-zealous radical but the climax of anarchist violent rhetoric and planning with roots decades earlier.

According to more than a dozen “squealers,” the Haymarket meeting was originally conceived as the centerpiece of a larger plan to attack police stations throughout the city. It was the culmination of an idea that was conceived well before the strike for the eight-hour workday that commenced on May 1, 1886, and that was ultimately agreed to at a clandestine meeting of the “armed men” of the movement after rioting broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works on May 3.

That gives an idea of Messer-Kruse’s convoluted prose and thinking. Throughout his book, he makes similar arguments in similarly entangled ways.

What he’s got here, essentially, is a prosecutorial case against the Haymarket defendants and the anarchist movement in general.

I think he’s got the proof to back up his assertions, but it’s hard to know for sure because Messer-Kruse seems constitutionally incapable of summarizing evidence with clear, direct statements. His manner of writing requires the reader to hold in mind masses of facts and draw judgements and connections from those facts without a lot of help from the author.

 

Important points

I think this is an important and flawed book, and I will try to summarize the key points that Messer-Kruse, as a prosecutor, fails to make as clear as he should.

First, some perspective:

• Chicago’s anarchists were closely in touch with their colleagues in Europe and espoused that same strategy of “the propaganda of the deed” — that assassinations, bombings and other violence helped educate workers and would provide, some day, the spark for revolution.
• Chicago’s anarchists preached this violence for many years before the Haymarket bomb.
• Chicago’s anarchists worked tirelessly to undercut traditional trade unions and to sabotage the 8-hour workday movement,

In other words, the anarchists in Chicago, like those in Europe, had no patience with peaceful attempts at social change. In the face of oppression, the only answer for them was violence.

Now, a look at the events leading up to the Haymarket meeting:

• On the morning of Sunday, May 2, 1886, a council of anarchists adopted a plan by George Engel to have independent groups bomb police stations and gun down any officers that came out, as soon as some major spark of violence occurred.
• That afternoon, a coded alert — “Y – Come Monday Night” — was set in type in the pages of the next day’s Arbeiter-Zeitung. This would be a prearranged signal for the armed cells of the anarchist movement to gather together for a meeting.
• On the morning of Monday, May 3, the day’s Arbeiter-Zeitung carried the coded alert.
• Later that day, a riot broke out among workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, incited in part by August Spies and by another radical speaker who said, “With revolver in one hand and your knife in the other and bombs in your pockets, march on to revolution and schism.”
• Still later that day, at about 10 p.m., the members of the armed cells met in the basement of Greif’s Hall, a large saloon on Lake Street, just east of State Street. Engel and Adolph Fischer dominated this meeting which was the result of the coded signal earlier in the day (published, significantly, before the McCormick riot). A plan was approved to schedule a meeting at Haymarket the next day where police could be forced into a confrontation. That confrontation apparently would be the signal to armed groups around the city to begin ambushing police. Louis Lingg told men at the meeting that he would make bombs for whoever needed them. As one attendee reported: “The unanimous understanding among us was that all who desired bombs must go to Lingg and get them.”

 

The violence May 4

Things get murky here, and not just because of Messer-Kruse’s prose. Few who testified at the trial or were interviewed by police could give the specifics of the Haymarket plan although John Thielen, a friend of Lingg, told one captain:

The plan was to call out a meeting first and have no speakers there. The police would then come and drive us away. They then should fire on the police. There were a lot of armed people at the meeting, I know. But the police did not interfere, so they got speakers at the meeting. Finally the police came out, and the mob did what they had agreed to do.

But maybe Theilen wasn’t all that trustworthy. He apparently didn’t testify at the trial so perhaps the prosecutors didn’t think much of his story.

Based on my reading of The Haymarket Conspiracy and evaluation of Messer-Kruse’s evidence, it seems clear that Engel, Fischer and Lingg, at least, were directly involved in a plan to initiate violent action against the police on May 4.

Messer-Kruse doesn’t indicate that any of the other defendants had direct knowledge of the plan. But it’s also clear that Spies and Parson had been preaching violent action for years and had helped the anarchists create and store their cache of bombs. Whether they were aware of the plan for violence on May 4 apparently can’t be determined.

The other three defendants — Fielden, Schwab and Neebe — are quoted by Messer-Kruse as speaking publicly against trade unions, but aren’t shown to be connected much, if at all, with bombs. These are the three who were sent to prison and later pardoned.

 

Why only one?

But, if the Engel plan was in place, why was there only one bomb thrown?

Messer-Kruse notes that an international anarchist was quoted in a letter as saying that he had been told that there was, in fact, a plan to ambush police at the Haymarket meeting. But, for some reason, the plan was changed. Word was spread, but someone didn’t get the message. Messer-Kruse writes:

When the police marched up and ordered the crowd to disperse, this individual threw his bomb, fully expecting others to do the same.

He adds that, given the law at the time, it didn’t matter if the plan had been called off. Engel, Fischer and Lingg as well as another else at Greif’s Hall were guilty:

Without the cellar conspiracy, the law could reach only the man who threw the bomb; with it, however, every man present in that cellar was as legally culpable as the bomber himself.

How many of the men who died were legally guilty? How many morally guilty? It’s evident from The Haymarket Conspiracy that the answers to such questions are far from black and white.

Messer-Kruse’s book won’t be the final word on what happened on Desplaines Street on the night of May 4, 1886.

But, flawed as it is, The Haymarket Conspiracy raises important questions and makes important assertions that historians today and in the future will not be able to ignore.

Patrick T. Reardon
2.4.2016

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