FEW EVENTS have had so great an impact on the development of the American labor movement as the bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886 and perhaps fewer have been more hotly contested. The latest work to revisit the Haymarket is Timothy Messer-Kruse’s The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks. A professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University, this is Messer-Kruse’s second book on the Haymarket affair and he once more endeavors to prove, contra the starry-eyed and naïve idealists, that the men tried, convicted, and executed were, in fact guilty of the crimes with which they were charged. In this work Messer-Kruse extends his argument. Not only did the Haymarket anarchists get a fair trial, but they were also part of a vast, transatlantic conspiracy of violent radicals who “in fact posed a real threat to public order and safety.
While there is no doubt that Professor Messer-Kruse has engaged in significant amounts of research, including the examination of hitherto unavailable and difficult to access materials, it is simply impossible to accept his contentions: that there is “reliable and convincing evidence” that August Spies, Albert Parsons, August Fischer, George Engle, Louis Lingg, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, and Oscar Neebe conspired together, along with at least two others—Reinhold “Big” Krueger and Rudolph Schnaubelt—to lure police into an ambush at Haymarket Square on the night of May 4, 1886; that the attack was part of a larger conspiracy to commit a campaign of violence against Chicago police and, finally; that this plot was the extension of a violent subculture of international anarchism which bears collective responsibility for the bombing. By his own admission, his entire argument rests upon this first claim, which only makes sense. If there was no conspiracy to lure police into a trap in Haymarket Square then, logically, there was no plot for a campaign of violence and no international conspiracy of anarchists. It is the foundation upon which his entire argument rests.
And it is a foundation of sand.
The argument Messer-Kruse develops in The Haymarket Conspiracy (hereafter, Conspiracy) begins with a series of ad hominem attacks characterizing previous historians as naïve, idealistic, and politically motivated. Unlike Messer-Kruse, they have failed to avail themselves of the actual trial transcripts and the writings of the Chicago anarchists and instead relied upon sources produced by their apologists, including an inexperienced defense team that was prone to misjudgment and more interested in politics than providing an adequate defense. Had previous historians engaged in serious, objective scholarship instead of presuming the anarchists’ innocence and uncritically accepting jailhouse denials, they would, no doubt, have been led to the same conclusion at which Messer-Kruse himself arrived. But Messer-Kruse applies a double standard when it comes to credibility. If the defenders of the anarchists were politically motivated, so too were the prosecutors. Without question the most pervasive and pernicious flaw in Messer-Kruse’s argument is that we should take for granted the impartiality of the judicial system and the honesty of the prosecution’s witnesses.
It is crucial to keep in mind that, as Messer-Kruse himself has pointed out, there was nothing approaching forensic science in 1886. Techniques of systematic crime scene investigation did not exist, and thus the only evidence at our disposal is that of witnesses. If the witnesses cannot be trusted then there is neither reliable nor convincing evidence. If there is reason to accept the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses, Messer-Kruse fails to provide it. Indeed if the “evidence” provided by Messer-Kruse proves anything at all it is that the trial was a rush to judgment driven by the desire for revenge and a powerful need to decapitate the labor movement.
Messer-Kruse repeatedly stresses (although he fails to provide any evidence) the thoroughness of the police’s investigation of the bombing. He asserts, for example, that, “It took weeks to piece together a case that could make someone legally responsible for the tragedy.” The wording here is curious and revealing. Messer-Kruse does not say that the police spent weeks to piece together who was responsible. Rather, their efforts were directed at coming up with a case by which they could hold someone legally responsible. The distinction is important. The “someone”—or rather “someones”—had already been identified.
In his prior work on the Haymarket, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (hereafter, Trial), Messer-Kruse claims that the police began their “intense investigation” that led to the conviction of eight Chicago labor activists in the early morning hours of May 5, only hours after the bombing, “with the assumption that the attack was the result of the coordinated efforts of several conspirators and not the act of a lone terrorist” (my emphasis). How is this anything but a rush to judgment? Messer-Kruse’s own accounting provides us with ample reason to believe that, far from conducting a careful, reasoned, and objective investigation, police and prosecutors from the start decided to use the bombing to go after not just one bomb thrower, but the anarchist movement as a whole. Before any intense investigation could possibly have been done, the Chicago police were arresting the city’s anarchist leadership en masse. Again, by Messer-Kruse’s own account in Conspiracy:
Orders were given to arrest all the men who had spoken from that wagon, and the following morning the police raided the offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and arrested all twenty-three editors, writers, printers, typesetters, and “devil boys” they found there.
Investigators had little or no interest in determining whether or not the anarchist leaders plotted the bombing; their interest was in producing enough evidence to hold them accountable. This decision was made immediately following the attack and the police and prosecutors never deterred from that objective. Nor were they alone in setting their sights on the anarchist movement as a whole. Once more, according to Messer-Kruse in Trial:
The day after the bombing, a group of business and legal leaders, led by Judge J.O. Glover, visited the mayor to offer their interpretation of Illinois’ statutes. Glover spoke for the group and told the mayor that in their opinion anyone who had advised the use of dynamite was as guilty of murder as the person who lit the fuse and threw the bomb.
The police, city officials, and Chicago’s business interests had made up their minds within hours of the bombing, before any investigation had begun, that this was a conspiracy involving the leadership of the radical wing of the city’s labor movement. The decision was made then—not before all the facts were in but before any facts were in—to go after newspaper editors, speakers, and other voices of the movement. Is there any surprise that they found the evidence they needed?
The trial of the Haymarket martyrs was, if anything, even more of a farce than the investigation. Messer-Kruse acknowledges that the police illegally obtained evidence in warrantless searches:
For their part, the prosecution took full advantage of the public’s nativism and anti-leftist bias. Prosecutors festooned the courtroom with anarchist and socialist flags and banners seized from workers’ meeting halls. Incendiary passages from books and newspapers were read into the record.
Messer-Kruse does not even consider the possibility that witnesses could have been coerced or threatened. In his earlier work, he dismissed the suggestion saying “the beatings and tortures that would come to be associated with the ‘third degree’ in the early twentieth century appear not to have been employed in this case.” In support of this claim he cites the testimony of two witnesses for the prosecution. Messer-Kruse dismisses, however, the testimony to the contrary because it comes from defenders of the Haymarket anarchists. He dismisses the theory that Rudolph Schnaubelt, the alleged bomb thrower, was never found because the police murdered him as based on a “thirdhand [sic] account” written by a “cowboy detective” who had written a series of exposes on the Pinkerton Detective Agency. While many historians have suggested that Louis Lingg was murdered by his jailors, Messer-Kruse does not even consider the possibility.
He dismisses the suggestion that the police would torture, threaten, or otherwise coerce testimony, but he acknowledges that, at trial, witnesses admitted to having been “paid by police.” This doesn’t undermine the credibility of their testimony, however, because “the sums they admitted to were below what everyone in Chicago knew to be a decent bribe.” I had to read the sentence twice to make sure I hadn’t read it wrong. We should not toss out the testimony of witnesses because the bribes they admitted to taking were relatively small? Is this seriously the foundation of the prosecution’s and subsequently Messer-Kruse’s case against the Chicago anarchists?
Despite such obvious problems, Messer-Kruse insists that the trial was fair, warning us, in Trial, that we must not “apply contemporary standards of justice and criminal procedure that had not yet been adopted.” It is one thing to acknowledge that forensic science had not been invented yet, and it would certainly be unfair to expect police to have applied principles of careful crime scene investigation that were unheard of in 1886. It is, however, quite another thing to dismiss criticism of hand picking juries, illegally obtaining evidence, blatantly attempting to prejudice the jury, and appealing to nativist (i.e. racist) attitudes as “presentism.” It is not presentism to suggest that because police and prosecutors routinely violated the rights of the accused and systematically engaged in practices that discriminated against the poor, immigrants, leftists, and radicals, that it was fair. Unfairness consistently applied is not fairness. More importantly, it renders every scrap of evidence and every bit of testimony suspect.
The other crucial error in Messer-Kruse’s argument is his failure to properly situate the Haymarket affair in the fight for the eight-hour workday. Messer-Kruse acknowledges that the incident took place in the midst of the struggle for an eight-hour day, but he downplays the role that the anarchists played in it, and dwells at length upon their cynicism relative to the impact an eight-hour day would ultimately have for the working class.
In major industrial cities throughout the United States, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, but Chicago was the epicenter of the eight-hour movement. In the last days of April 1886 and into the first weekend of May, labor activists and radicals engaged in more than a dozen marches and scores of meetings culminating in a parade on Saturday, May 1, in which Albert Parsons and his wife Lucy led more than 100,000 workers down Michigan Avenue demanding an eight-hour work day. Up to 40,000 of Chicago’s workers went on strike.
There was certainly ample reason for the business interests in Chicago—if not the nation as a whole—to want the movement stopped, and to eliminate its most radical elements. The eight-hour-day movement, after all, didn’t just have momentum on its side; it had the law on its side. One of the most important events in the history of the eight-hour day movement was the passage of the Eight Hour Work Day Act by the Illinois State Legislature, which established eight hours as “a legal days work” as of “the first day of May, 1867.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that the eight-hour movement chose May 1 as the date for a national general strike. It was the anniversary of the date the first eight-hour law was to have taken effect—nineteen years earlier! It had been categorically ignored by the business leadership of Illinois, and the state refused to enforce the law. It is an important fact first because it establishes the collusion of business interests and law enforcement in their efforts to prevent the eight-hour workday. It is also important because it explains anarchists’ dissatisfaction with legislative solutions to the struggles of the working class, a belief that Messer-Kruse consistently characterized as irrational and violent.
The business class was committed to preventing the establishment of the eight-hour workday. This was, moreover, the precise impact of the Haymarket tragedy. In Messer-Kruse’s own words, the bombing and trial sparked the nation’s first “red scare,” and “disrupted even moderately leftist movements for a generation” and left the anarchist movement safely broken up and suppressed.”
Messer-Kruse has provided reliable and convincing evidence that a violent subculture engaged in a conspiracy and posed a real threat to public order and safety. It wasn’t a conspiracy of anarchists and labor leaders, however, but one consisting of Chicago’s business elite, the police, and their propagandists. The forces of labor were gaining momentum, the eight-hour day was a rallying point; one which, had labor been successful, might well have led to more radical reforms. The bomber could have been a lone, angry worker dissatisfied with the slow pace of reform or a family member of any one of the many victims of the notoriously brutal Chicago police—which included at least two people shot just the day before!—or it could have been an agent provocateur or a Pinkerton detective. It could have been Rudolph Schnaubelt throwing a bomb made by Louis Lingg acting on the orders of the anarchist leadership. No matter how thorough our research, the identity of the bomber will never be more than speculative. What is not speculation but established fact is that Chicago’s business and political leaders, working with prosecutors and police, conspired to use the bombing as an excuse to go after the leadership of the eight-hour movement. The only reason that this isn’t considered a “conspiracy” is because it was done openly and without deception. It was clear from the start that this was the plan. It is also clear that it worked, and Messer-Kruse’s ignoring this dimension of the story of Haymarket is the historian’s equivalent of malpractice.
Moreover, Messer-Kruse consistently applies a double standard with respect to violence. Indeed, the whole point of The Haymarket Conspiracy appears to be to prove that the anarchist movement was inherently and irredeemably violent—a position that exactly mirrors that of the prosecution. I don’t think it is too far off the mark to suggest that the question of the Haymarket anarchists’ actual guilt isn’t important to Messer-Kruse. His argument seems to be that all anarchists are violent and will, sooner or later, engage in irrational and destructive violence. So it really doesn’t matter if there was any direct connection between the eight men convicted for the crime. They were guilty of being anarchists and the state had the right—perhaps even the responsibility—to put them down.
In the same way that Messer-Kruse ignores the business class’s conspiracy to decapitate the labor movement, he consistently refuses to acknowledge the violence committed by the police and other agents of the capitalists. For example, in opening his narrative, Messer-Kruse relates the clash between strikers and police on May 4, the day before the bombing in the Haymarket. The rally at the Haymarket was called “in protest of the alleged police killing of six workers during a riot at the McCormick Reaper Works, one of the largest industrial establishments in the city. (In fact, two men had died as a result of wounds sustained in this incident).” Messer-Kruse’s language here reveals his attitude toward police violence. While he speaks with absolute unqualified confidence when it comes to attacks on police, police attacks on labor are alleged killings. Police violence is contextualized—it takes place during a riot. The victims are not shot and killed by police but instead they died as a result of wounds sustained. He is unwilling to even concede that the victims were shot! Later, he says of the circular distributed by Adolph Fischer that it “falsely stated that six workers had been shot and killed by the police.” Messer-Kruse suggests that Fischer was lying in order to incite others to violence against the police. Messer-Kruse’s language doesn’t suggest the possibility that less than a day after the incident the anarchists could simply have been mistaken about how many men were killed, nor does he acknowledge that there is considerable disagreement over how many people were actually killed—that it might have been as few as two or as many as six. It is part of his pattern of consistently minimizing, downplaying, and qualifying the violence of police.
In one of the most egregious of these cases, Messer-Kruse asks whether or not anarchists’ call for workers to come armed to the Haymarket was “only in self-defense, or did they also contemplate taking the initiative and firing the first shot?” His work leaves little doubt as to how he answers the question. But the question itself is absurd. The first shots had already been fired by police the day before. Throughout the book Messer-Kruse recounts, often in grotesque detail, violence committed by anarchists and radicals. He demonstrates at length how many in the anarchist movement had become enamored of dynamite as a cheap, simple, and effective way to counter state police and militias. But he invests no time at all in recounting the countless acts of violence committed by police and militias against workers.
It is a ridiculous double standard. If workers do not categorically reject violence and embrace “ameliorative legal reforms” and “voting systems” as the sole mechanism of social change, they must be denounced. Business leaders are, conversely, not expected to reject violence or obey laws legally enacted.
A strong German component in the radical labor movement formed the Lehr und Wehr Verein militia, which, for Messer-Kruse, is strong evidence of the anarchists’ commitment to violence. He pointedly ignores, however, that not only was the Lehr und Wehr Verein made up of workers of many political affiliations, but that such militias were common in the United States. Several such organizations existed in Chicago including one organized by the city’s business elite to supplement what they perceived to be a poorly trained and undermanned police force. How is it that when labor groups form a militia, it has a commitment to violence but when business leaders do the same thing it isn’t even worth noting?
Similarly, Messer-Kruse describes the anarchists’ clandestine meetings, posting guards at the door, and other secretive practices in ominous tones, treating such efforts as concrete evidence of a conspiracy to wage a campaign of violence against the Chicago police. There is no mention of the latter’s widespread use of infiltrators and agents provocateurs, or businesse’s deployment of its own private army, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, against the labor movement. In The Haymarket Conspiracy, Messer-Kruse makes no mention of the Pinkertons, and pays no more than scant attention to them in The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists, and even then, without ever considering the organization’s well-documented legacy of violence. Violence perpetrated by or on behalf of business interests simply isn’t worth noting and and has no relation to our understanding of violence advocated or actually committed by the labor movement.
Messer-Kruse doesn’t just omit or downplay important dimensions of the conflict between labor and capital; he also makes super-heroic leaps of logic, leaping contradictions in a single bound. His argument is that the bomb thrower at Haymarket Square was part of a detailed and coordinated plan in which a riot would be provoked at the city center, on Desplaines Street near—not actually in—Haymarket Square. This was, according to Messer-Kruse, part of a detailed plan laid out by George Engel in the basement of Greif’s saloon. In “textbook military fashion” the anarchists would cut telegraph wires and ambush police stations in a coordinated attack, striking at the police as they piled into their patrol wagons. The goal, according to Messer-Kruse, was not to kill them all but rather “to keep police divided and weak in the face of a workers’ uprising,” and therefore unable “to confront the masses of striking and rioting workers taking over the city.”
Messer-Kruse does his best to provide his readers with the much promised yet chronically absent “reliable and convincing evidence” of this ambitious plan. Much of that “evidence” consists of incendiary portrayals of Chicago’s anarchists and the Lehr und Wehr Verein as a disciplined fighting force who would obediently assemble in response to secret codes issued by their ultramilitant leaders, and that could be counted on to act with military precision when called upon. His best evidence consists of a series of “departures from the usual anarchist routines,” which do not “by themselves prove the existence of an insurrectionary plot,” but when taken together point to a coordinated plan to ambush the police and take over the city.
It is important to note at this juncture that Messer-Kruse provides not one shred of new evidence to support this fantastic tale, but merely accepts as fact the questionable testimony and colossal leaps of logic that have failed to convince generations of historians before him. In his defense, however, Messer-Kruse does acknowledge the one serious flaw in the conspiracy theory: None of it ever happened.
The great triggering event—the “riot” on Desplaines Street just outside the Haymarket—was the opposite of a riot. Speakers did nothing to incite the crowd to riot or provoke a confrontation with the police. The meeting was attended by Chicago’s Mayor Carter Harrison, who found no cause for concern. Albert and Lucy Parsons brought their children, leaving only when it looked like rain—moving less than a block away to Zepf’s Hall. These are hardly the actions of a group committed to provoking a confrontation with police.
Messer-Kruse accounts for this fatal flaw in his conspiracy theory by simply ignoring the evidence. It was the police who seemed to be itching for a confrontation. They marched, brandishing Winchester rifles, on the peaceful crowd. He skirts around these facts by suggesting that it was simply a result of poor planning on the part of the militants that the riot did not come off. The riot was the “central precipitating event,” the “missing piece” of “an audacious plan that required a high level of coordination among separate units.” The plan was in place, needing only a central triggering event. Police gunning down strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works provided them with the moment for which they had long been hoping and planning. At this crucial juncture, in Messer-Kruse’s words, “it is understandable if these organizers did not think precipitating a riot needed much advance planning,” and so they “thought it sufficient to simply bring the volatile ingredients of violence together.”
What? Messer-Kruse’s whole theory of a conspiracy is based on what he, and the prosecutors in 1886, construed as a high degree of planning and organization done well in advance of the May 1 general strike. All the pieces were in place, the bomb was in place, the fuse was set. . .and no one had thought to bring a match?
And what about the rest of the coordinated attacks? What happened to the rest of Engel’s plan to bottle up the police in their stations? None of that took place. Messer-Kruse does acknowledge that this is a “discordant fact,” one which he answers by contending that at the crucial moment, as police poured out of their stations and into their police wagons to reinforce their brothers-in-arms at the Haymarket, the militant, well-trained anarchists who had been prepared for precisely this moment “lost their nerve at the sight and simply went home.. . . Police showed more grit and determination than expected and the armed anarchist groups. . .proved themselves to be either less committed to their principles than they boasted or simply cowards.”
That is certainly an explanation. Another would be that there was no plan in the first place.
Messer-Kruse cannot have it both ways. His whole argument is that the anarchist movement was a serious threat to peace and order because they were radicals committed to violence, disdainful of voting and other legal reforms, and part of a well-organized conspiracy to lure police into a trap in order to trigger a city-wide insurrection. He supports this with example after example of writings and speeches from anarchists, purporting to prove their zealous commitment to violence. The conspiracy theory hinges on evidence of planning and coordination by Chicago’s anarchist leaders.
But in order to account for why they failed, they are suddenly disorganized, incapable of coordinating their efforts, or communicating important messages to principle actors. The ultramilitant radicals enamored by the revolutionary potential of dynamite, to a man, are unable or unwilling to throw their bombs at the crucial moment. All but one.
The theory simply isn’t supported by the facts. Despite his prodigious efforts to produce evidence of a conspiracy or to establish a link between anarchists in the United States and revolutionaries in Europe, the facts—as Messer-Kruse relates them—simply don’t add up to the “reliable and convincing evidence” promised. Rather, a critical reading of his work points to efforts by the political, business, and media elite of Chicago to use the event as an excuse to crush an increasingly radical labor movement which was, in that moment, poised to realize the eight-hour work day after nearly twenty years of businesses thwarting the law. A victory on that front would not, as many socialists and anarchists pointed out, have brought about a dramatic change in the conditions of labor. It would, however, have revealed to workers not just in Chicago but all over the industrialized world, the scope of their power. Even though the numbers of workers involved in the strike were significant—hundreds of thousands of men and women participated—they still represented a minority of the working class.
Imagine what might have happened if tens of millions of workers drew inspiration from a victory for the eight-hour day? If thousands could achieve that long-sought objective, what might millions achieve?
It is a powerful incentive for business interests—and the police and courts with a manifestation of capitalist power—to collude, lie, bribe, threaten, propagandize and ultimately murder the leaders of the anarchist movement.
When it comes down to it, though, isn’t this whole discussion academic? We’ll never really know who threw the bomb or why. The events took place more than a century ago, so why does it matter?
In answering that question, Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the U.S. and frequent contributor to ISR, in a speech at Socialism 2011, made this observation:
When discussing history, as Marxists, we don’t simply discuss history out of curiosity. Although it is obviously very interesting, we discuss the past in order to help us prepare for the future. And this is especially important for us as we’re now entering the beginning phase of a new era of class struggle.
What happened at the Haymarket on the night of May 4, 1886 isn’t as important as what happened before and what happened after.
The bombing in the Haymarket is the logical, rational outcome of state-sponsored violence. It is a point that Messer-Kruse consistently avoids in his history. Workers forced to choose between starvation and working ten, twelve, fourteen hour days under backbreaking conditions and who, at the first sign of resistance were fired and blackballed, cannot be expected to remain passive while a tiny fraction of the population amasses greater and greater wealth. Workers who, if they stood up to the capitalists of the Gilded Age would face the batons and bullets of private detectives, police, state militia, and federal marshals—none of whom were expected to foreswear violence—will respond in kind. Another reason why the Haymarket matters is because it paints a clear picture of what can and does happen when the working class tries to fight back. The police, courts, and mass media under the control of capitalist forces will not hesitate to bring everything in their arsenals to bear upon it.
Messer-Kruse’s book also shows us how the propagandists in the employ of the capitalist class attempt to control the narrative, and the strategies they will use to influence public understanding of important events. Messer-Kruse, like the bourgeois press of the nineteenth century, consistently downplays and often outright ignores the crimes of the capitalist state, decontextualizes the actions of activists and radicals, especially when they respond violently to the attacks of police and other agents of the capitalist state. The propagandists will zero in upon and magnify any violent act by workers, and while they may not advocate outright a theory of collective guilt and collective punishment, Messer-Kruse continues a long tradition of rationalizing state actions which punish movements as a whole for the actions of individuals or small groups.
My review copy of this book came with a flyer that, in a commanding font at the top, declared the contents to be A BOLD RECONSIDERATION OF THE ROOTS AND REALITIES OF AMERICAN ANARCHISM. It certainly isn’t anything like a reconsideration of anything. This books is another, in a long list of attempts to condition Americans to accept that anarchists are categorically violent, that the police are neutral arbiters of law and order who, if they commit acts of violence, are justified in doing so; and in cases where police violence does cross the line, it is not a systemic problem but the product of a few bad apples.
Messer-Kruse is a gifted storyteller. His gift, however, is in telling the same old story and making people think they have heard something new.