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This Day in Labor History: November 11, 1887

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On November 11, 1887, the state of Illinois executed four anarchists for participation in the Haymarket bombing from the previous year. They almost certainly did not commit the crime for which they were convicted. Yet what was on trial was their beliefs, not their actions. The state was going to kill people for the bombing and it did. However, in doing so, it made martyrs of the dead that inspire activists and radicals to the present.

The Haymarket bombing is one of the most famous incidents in global labor history and I have covered it in this series, so I won’t go into much detail. In short, as part of a small rally protesting the police violence and killings of strikers near Chicago at the McCormick Harvester factory, part of the larger 8-hour day movement led by the Knights of Labor, someone threw a bomb that killed at least seven police officers. In the aftermath, the police rounded up the city’s anarchist leaders. Most of them were German immigrants, but they also included Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier from Texas converted to the cause of labor and racial justice who had married an African-American woman who became a long-time radical leader in her own right, Lucy Parsons. They were put on trial and 7 were convicted of capital offenses. Another received a 15-year sentence.

A few years ago, the historian Timothy Messer-Kruse published a new book about Haymarket that took the words of the anarchists seriously. He noted that quite likely the bomb did come from that anarchist community, which had a philosophy of violence developed in Germany that came with them to the United States. The outrage for this rather obvious claim among some labor historians was totally out of control. They were disgusted that he would dare claim the anarchists might actually be guilty. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of needing to defend the actions of people who lived well over a century ago like they are on trial now, obviously someone threw the bomb. And while it’s convenient to say that it was an inside job to make the anarchists look bad or something, there’s not much chance that actually happened. These were men who had recently converted to Johann Most’s idea of the “propaganda of the deed,” which in short meant that killing innocent people through violence was OK because the reaction would convert more people to revolutionary ideals. This irresponsible and stupid idea was later repudiated by most anarchists, but had convinced many at the time that the 8-hour strikers were the perfect opportunity to move the nation toward revolution, whether the workers liked it or not.

We will probably never know who threw the bomb at Haymarket. But we can pretty well say that the people convicted and executed didn’t do it. The most likely person was Rudolf Schnaubelt, another German anarchist, but he fled the country once the police started investigating him. The only people on trial who were even at the event were August Spies and Samuel Fielden, who had both spoken. Two others had been there but had since left, Albert Parsons and Adolph Fischer. Parsons was actually in a nearby bar when the bomb went off. He had no idea what had happened. Michael Schwab was speaking at another rally in a different part of Chicago. George Engel and Louis Lingg were arrested because they were true radicals. Lingg in fact was a bombmaker for anarchists, but there was never any evidence he had any connection to Haymarket. Finally, Oscar Neebe was an American-born German who was an anarchist newspaperman.

The trial began on June 21 and concluded on August 11. It was a farce from the beginning. Judge Joseph Gary openly hated the anarchists and he made sure there was not even the facade of impartiality from the bench. Any jury member who had any connection to the labor movement or even sympathy for it was dismissed. Prosecutors tried to connect the bombs found in Lingg’s apartment to the fragments at the scene, but never could prove anything. Many of the defendants openly defended their anarchist beliefs on the stand, appealing to the jury and the broader public to understand their position, hoping to convert them to anarchism. But of course they were all found guilty. Gary sentenced seven of the defendants to death, with Neebe getting the 15-year sentence. The case was appealed, but to no success.

The first five death sentences were to take place on November 11. However, the night before, Lingg managed to kill himself by biting into a blasting cap smuggled into his cell, which blew off half his face, but left him alive and in agony for six hours. Nevertheless, in the morning, Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies were all executed, again, with no evidence at all connecting them to the act. Engel, Fischer, and Spies all shouted anarchist slogans upon their death. Parsons attempted to speak, but the trap door opened. However, whether intentional or not, the nooses were not tied to kill them immediately. Instead, they strangled to death.

The whole process outraged many and the remaining prisoners became a cause celebre for the left. People from Clarence Darrow to William Dean Howells called for a new trial or for their pardon. In 1893, John Altgeld was governor of Illinois. A labor-friendly reformer and all around excellent political figure by Gilded Age standards, he pardoned the remaining prisoners. This destroyed his political career and he was defeated for reelection in 1896 based on being soft toward anarchists and other unionists, as he had defended Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union at Pullman, arguing against the federal intervention in the strike that crushed it. Altgeld eventually ended up working for Darrow before his early death in 1902.

It is not the bombing itself that makes the Haymarket so famous. It was the trial and the massive miscarriage of justice that followed. This was far from uncommon for labor trials during the Gilded Age, but the international connections of the anarchists gave this incident a much wider audience than most similar examples. We can damn the ideas of these anarchists around violence if we want. I certainly do. I despise anarchism in all its forms as a counterproductive fantasy that provides aid and comfort to capitalism by siphoning off legitimate organizing toward a better future. But we have to damn the actions of Judge Gray and the people of Illinois even more. The whole process, from the killing of the McCormick workers to the executions and subsequent demonization of Altgeld, showed the late nineteenth century at its worst.

This is the 248th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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