Relitigating the Haymarket Trial

Relitigating the Haymarket Trial

The Haymarket Conspiracy:
Transatlantic Anarchist Networks

by Timothy Messer-Kruse
University of Illinois Press, 2012, 256 pp.

An impassive consideration of the Haymarket Affair might run as follows:

On the evening of May 4, 1886, following several days of violent protests in Chicago, workers and cops confronted one another near the city’s Haymarket Square. During the skirmish, an explosive device flew into the midst of the officers’ formation, killing seven policemen. Though authorities could not identify the bomb thrower, they quickly arrested eight leading local anarchists and charged them with conspiracy to murder. Following a six-week trial, the defendants were found guilty. Four were hanged; a fifth evaded the noose by committing suicide in his cell, and the three others were sentenced to long prison terms.

But, of course, no one considers the Affair impassively.

From the moment of their arrest to the hour of their death—and ever after—the Haymarket defendants have been revered in progressive circles as martyrs to the cause of labor. The Left takes for granted that their conviction was a legal travesty. Plays, novels, poems, and an entire body of scholarly work have examined the celebrated case. The innocence of the executed men has been an article of faith to activists and intellectuals from Jane Addams to Howard Zinn.

This is the orthodoxy that—with two books, several articles, and even a much-publicized intervention on Wikipedia—Timothy Messer-Kruse has spent the past decade striving to overturn. Beatification of the anarchists, he argues, has come at the expense of historical truth: the saints of our memory bear little resemblance to the fiery insurrectionists who stalked Chicago’s wards in the 1880s.

With promises of fresh information and an unbiased eye, Messer-Kruse, a professor at Bowling Green State University, offers to reverse years of hagiography and restore the reputation of his subjects. “Understanding the revolutionary anarchist movement on the participants’ own terms,” he writes, “rather than in the romantic ways their martyrs have been eulogized changes the meaning of their trial, their movement, and their memory.”

There is some validity to this premise. Political symbols are often wrenched from their historical provenance to serve the needs of the moment; and, at times, historians have been loath to acknowledge violence as a tactic of the mainstream labor movement. But Messer-Kruse’s own description of his goals is disingenuous. His latest book, The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, amounts to an elaborate retrial of the case—and the defendants receive the same prejudiced treatment this time around.

The central fact of the case has never been disputed: none of the anarchists on trial were found personally responsible for throwing the bomb. Without a culprit to indict, desperate prosecutors rounded up eight of the leading revolutionaries in Chicago: two of the defendants, Albert Parsons and August Spies, were newspaper editors, the others were labor leaders and activists. All were notorious for their radicalism but since none had actually been present at the time of the attack, the state’s attorneys were forced to employ the most malleable of all charges—conspiracy. A guilty verdict did not require any direct link to the crime at hand; the state merely had to prove that the eight defendants had fomented an atmosphere in which such an act might have occurred. Every incendiary editorial in a labor newspaper, each secret meeting and blistering speech, became admissible as evidence. During the trial, it became clear that some of the accused men had been organizing armed resistance in case of police attacks. One—Louis Lingg—admitted to constructing bombs, and several explosive devices were discovered in his apartment, though no link could be made between these weapons and the one used at Haymarket. Considering the hostility of the jury and the anti-radical furor that followed the bombing, the outcome was foreordained. The anarchists were dead men from the moment of their arrest.

Even their contemporaries knew they had witnessed a terrible miscarriage of justice. The first books in defense of the anarchists were published during the trial. An international movement for amnesty arose. And after the court’s sentence of death was carried out, on November 11, 1887, as many as half a million mourners followed the funeral cortege to the cemetery. These may have been partisan sympathizers, but within a decade a more objective voice added to the chorus of dissent. In the 1890s, when the Democratic Governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, reviewed the facts of the case, he found a biased jury, inadequate evidence, and a prejudiced judge. In an unparalleled act of moral statesmanship, which cost him his political career, Altgeld issued a formal rebuke of the prosecution and pardoned the three surviving Haymarket prisoners.

Messer-Kruse mentions Altgeld’s ruling only in passing, while deriding the efforts of the defense attorneys and supporters. Demonstrating his enmity toward the defendants, Messer-Kruse asserts that modern Americans should abide by the assumptions of a flawed nineteenth-century legal system explicitly designed to protect plutocratic interests. “According to the law that was operative at the time of the Haymarket trial,” he writes, “the most relevant act was not the throwing of the bomb” but the plotting of the demonstrations that resulted in violence. If prosecutors at the time had employed a standard as lax as Messer-Kruse advocates today, every labor activist in Chicago would have been as legally culpable for the attack as the individual bomber.

Such a draconian position is incompatible with the empathetic motivations Messer-Kruse claims. But it is perfectly commensurate with the content of this and the author’s previous work. The Haymarket Conspiracy reads like an FBI file—and that is not a compliment. It begins with a verdict of guilty and progresses backward from there. Rather than restoring dignity to Chicago’s anarchists, it seldom misses a chance to disparage them as “arrogant,” “inexperienced,” “almost naïve,” “simply cowards,” “gasbags and blowhards.”

Moreover, the author’s promises of new evidence dissipate on careful inspection. What appears instead is an unusual willingness to embrace known sources that other scholars have dismissed as corrupt or biased. He presents as truth any claim made by a police spy, paid informant, or sensationalist reporter. Downplaying exculpatory facts, Messer-Kruse exhibits credulity toward even the most dubious or compromised testimony—if it fits his brief. For instance, he identifies a secret meeting held in a saloon basement on the night of May 3 as the time and place when the conspiracy was concocted. But he ignores the fact that the witnesses who described this clandestine session at the trial explicitly testified that no discussions had taken place there concerning a potential attack on the police. Yet even granting Messer-Kruse’s “originalist” legal vision and accepting all the hearsay he admits as evidence, only three of the eight defendants could have been conceivably construed as guilty of conspiracy. He has nothing to say about the innocence of the other five.

Less than half the book discusses the trial itself (the author has already covered that topic in previous works). Most of the chapters consist of a broad attack on anarchist political philosophy more generally. Messer-Kruse spends an inordinate amount of time describing violent declarations issued by radical conferences, while making no effort to show that these rhetorical utterances had any impact on actual activism; he traces supposed links between terrorist cells scattered across the globe, and argues that German ideologues influenced American-born socialists to gravitate toward violent methods. Choosing the tactics of a conspiracy theorist over the methods of a historian, Messer-Kruse presents a highly sensationalized, and often conjectural, tale of secret aliases, scarlet oaths, backroom plots, and international cabals. The narrative is riddled with innuendo and suggestive possibilities, but overall it aims to reduce anarchism to a synonym for bloody-mindedness and chaos. In The Haymarket Conspiracy all violent revolutionaries are anarchists and all anarchists are violent. “Haymarket’s blast was not the work of one disgruntled worker, one fanatic, or even one small group of miscalculating radicals,” he writes in a typical passage. “It was the culmination of an ideological movement.”

This is a gross distortion of a set of beliefs that has embraced tendencies ranging from the Christian pacifism of Leo Tolstoy to the educational reforms of Francisco Ferrer, from the feminism of Emma Goldman to the democratic spirit of Occupy Wall Street.

Thai Jones is an assistant professor of history at the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program. His most recent book is More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy (Walker & Co., 2012).

Illustration from 1889 book by Chicago police chief, via Wikimedia Commons