Haymarket Revisionist

“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” — G.K. Chesterton

Revisionist history has been trendy over the past half century. It generally seems to be practiced by left wing professors who seek to prove that individualism and capitalism as it has evolved in America is evil, socialism is good, those who founded the United States were slavers, oppressors, and venal people, and that poverty and/or possession of a darker shade of complexion imbues one with superior moral worth.

Most revisionism does not unearth new facts. It just emphasizes and puts a spin on events and occurrences to serve a point of view, usually that of the practitioner. Since history professors are usually liberal Democrats, as the center-left professor C. Vann Woodward once pointed out, we can usually expect the spin to be counter-clockwise.

Occasionally, however, revisionism serves the good guys; to wit, the following:

On the evening of May 4, 1886 in Chicago, there was an incident known to history as the “Haymarket Affair.” Near the corner of Desplaines and Randolph Streets, an area known as the “haymarket,” a bomb was thrown into the midst of policemen arriving ostensibly to break up a rally of anarchists protesting the shooting of strikers at the McCormick Reaper factory the day before. Seven police officers were killed outright or died of their wounds and twenty-three were injured gravely enough to be disabled. Three participants or bystanders were killed and an unknown, but doubtless significant number of others suffered gunshot wounds. Eight anarchists were arrested, brought to trial, and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. One committed suicide in his cell while awaiting execution; four were hanged. The three others were later pardoned a decade later by a new Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, who believed a miscarriage of justice had occurred and the convictions were wrongful.

The anarchists became martyrs to the labor movement in the United States, and the Haymarket Affair, along with the Homestead Strike in 1892, were celebrated by the left in a manner akin to the Alamo in Texas or any number of other real or imagined atrocities that solidified support for movements and revolutions throughout history. This continued into the 20th Century where Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs became part of the hagiology of the left. Late in the tumultuous 1960s, Haymarket became a rallying point such that radical Bill Ayers and another Weather Underground member bombed a statue at the location that honored the fallen police officers.

It has been settled belief among historians for a century and a quarter that there was no evidence to connect the defendants with the bombing and there was no anarchist conspiracy. The police raid on a peaceful rally was an act of oppression and blatant offense against freedom of speech and assembly. The popular attitude toward the attempts of labor to organize in the so-called Gilded Age was generally negative. Furthermore, most of the anarchists in Chicago at the time were German immigrants, and racial or ethnic prejudice was cited as a reason for the eight defendants’ conviction (and the later pardon of the survivors by the German-American Altgeld). Those defendants had been charged by prosecutors bowing to pressure brought by industrialists, and convicted by a biased jury.

But what was the real story? Was the conviction of eight, and execution of four, anarchists wrongful? Or was it justified? One problem was the actual bomb-thrower was never brought to trial, and his identity was said to be unknown or at least not proven. When the actual doer of the deed is not among those charged, it tends to diminish the responsibility of those who merely planned it. Also, many anarchists and their sympathizers at the time suggested it was a police agent provocateur who threw the bomb, although even left-leaning historians discounted that notion. This hypothesis was revived in the 1960s. It has been popularized by the late Howard Zinn, who repeated it in his cut and paste screed The People’s History of the United States, even though there was not a scrap of new evidence.

Standard works on Haymarket, including Henry David’s History of the Haymarket Affair published in 1936, and Paul Avrich’s The Haymarket Tragedy of 1984, accept the miscarriage of justice theory. Recently, however, professor Timothy Messer-Kruse of Bowling Green (Ohio) State University culminated a decade long research and writing project on the incident, using primary sources, including the actual trial transcripts, maintained by the Chicago Historical Society. Messer-Kruse says his project was prompted by a student who asked him in class “if what it says in our textbook is true, that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever connecting them with the bombing,’ then what did they talk about in the courtroom for six weeks?” He decided to find out.

After painstaking research, Messer-Kruse produced a number of articles and two books that concluded (1) there was indeed an anarchist conspiracy to create havoc and attempt taking over parts of the city on that date; (2) while the eight defendants were not equally involved in the planning of the actions of May 4, 1986, among them there were those who knew of the plot beforehand and they all committed acts that contributed to the violence; and (3) the preponderance of the evidence points to an indicted anarchist, closely associated with the defendants, who went on the lam and was never brought to trial as the bomb thrower.

Messer-Kruse acknowledges that the trial may not have comported with what we today believe due process requires, at least in the search and seizure methods of evidence gathering. By the standards of the day, however, it was fair, even scrupulously so. Many of the defendants’ problems at trial were a result of their lawyers trying to make political and ideological points. The defense botched many of the procedural opportunities it had. The death penalty imposed was carried out rather quickly. It took our government nearly six years to execute our recent domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh; the Haymarket anarchists went to the gallows within six months.

All told, the Haymarket Affairs and the trial of the perpetrators, far from being an atrocity amounting to judicial murder, amounted to no more or no less than one of many growing pains suffered by an emerging nation and industrial economy. For those involved, of course, it was a profound misfortune. That is the lot of humankind, and nature, and will continue to be so. One of the facts of life, as Al Capp might have said.

For a brief, but illuminating discussion of late 19th Century anarchism, see Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower; A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 (1966). Professor Messer-Kruse’s books are The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks (2012) and The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (2011).

An interesting local connection is Albert Parsons, the defendant who was not a German immigrant, was a former Confederate solider, born in Alabama and raised in Tyler and Johnson County, Texas, and educated at Waco (now Baylor) University. Parsons’ wife Lucy was of Mexican and Indian, and probably African, descent, which is probably one of the reasons he moved to the Midwest. Parsons left Chicago immediately after Haymarket, but gave himself up to the Illinois authorities later, supposedly to make a political statement about anarchism. For his pains, he was tried with the others and hanged.

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