Review of “Death in the Hamarket” by James Green

This is the best work of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.


Green begins his story with the struggle for the eight hour day in post-Civil War Illinois. Many workers believed that the growing tyranny of wage labor was against the principles of the Radical Republicanism they associated, rightly or wrongly, with Abraham Lincoln. Lobbying by Illinois’s incipient labor movement led to Governor Richard Oglesby signing into law an eight hour law in 1867. However employers ignored it and judges invalidated it so it died. Green describes the Great Railway strike of 1877 as it affected Chicago. Over a hundred strikers lost their lives across the country in this strike. This experience began the process of radicalization of Albert Parsons. Parsons had been a confederate soldier from Texas but after the Civil War he became a Radical Republican.  In the midst of murderous pogroms’ launched by the KKK and other white vigilantes, tried to organize African Americans (in the endnotes Green cites a statistic that about 400 blacks had been killed in pogroms in Texas by 1868). Parsons later moved to Chicago. After the strikes of 1877, Parsons was taken by plainclothes police to a meeting of the Chicago  Board of Trade whose members shouted abuse at him and argued that he should be  lynched. He was warned that he was in danger of assassination.


In 1885-86 in the run-up to the Haymarket incident there were several major violent incidents. Two quarry workers were shot dead outside of Chicago, and the Chicago street car strike featured another police riot which resulted in severe injuries. Seven strikers in East St. Louis Illinois were shot dead


But in 1886 the stakes escalated. That year nationwide, at least 610,000 workers went on strike for an eight hour day, about three times as many as the previous year. A general strike swept Chicago on May 1st 1886. On May 3rd, four strikers at the McCormick works were gunned down when strikers attacked strikebreakers. This lead to a fateful meeting that night where it was resolved that a meeting would be held the next day in Haymarket square to protest these killings and where sentiments were voiced about the need for armed self-defense and the inevitableness of armed conflict with the powers that be.  However Green points out that none of the credible witnesses alleged that any action other than a peaceful protest meeting was planned for the night of May 4th.


As police tried to break up the Haymarket meeting shortly before it was scheduled to end, a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the assembled police squadrons.. One policeman died and about six or seven more cops died when the police response to the bomb was to start shooting their pistols indiscriminately. It appears that almost all of the cops died by the friendly fire of their own brethren and at least three of the workers at the meeting were shot from behind running while away from the gunfire.


Of course the police could never actually finger the person who threw the bomb. Some speculated that it might have been a provocateur from the police or the notorious Pinkerton detective agency.. It seems that the Louis Lingg, one of the eight defendants in the Haymarket trial and a German immigrant like most of the defendants, might have made the bomb for he was known to have made many bombs in expectation of warfare with the powers that be. Another German anarchist was alleged to have thrown the bomb but he was released by police when witnesses vouched for him and he left the country. Two witnesses claimed that they saw August Spies, editor of the anarchist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung  light the bomb and give it to this other German anarchist , but one of these witnesses was obviously a drug addict and other witnesses apparently not tampered with by police vouched that Spies was not lighting any bombs.


. Public opinion had been stirred up by the media against the anarchists for many years; they were portrayed as immoral, filthy, socialistic beasts from the bowels of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere who desired to destroy all the values and institutions which right thinking WASPS held dear.  After the bombing, police went on a rampage, entering without warrants into the homes and offices of anybody associated with the anarchists, ransacking and roughly handing the persons who got in their way. The staff of the Arbeiter Zeitung was arrested after the bombing and paraded through the streets while onlookers screamed for them to be lynched. Met with credible witnesses from the defense contradicting the claims of prosecution witnesses, the Judge and prosecution were left to explain to the jury that even if none of the eight defendants had thrown the bomb, they were still all guilty. The judge and prosecution explained that because of the words the anarchists used in their newspapers and speeches, threatening violence in self-defense against employer and state repression, they clearly were involved in a conspiracy because they inspired whoever threw the bomb. Four of the anarchists, including Albert Parsons and August Spies were hanged while the other four were imprisoned but then pardoned in 1892 by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld.


The Knights of Labor descended into oblivioun after Haymarket and the eight hour day suffered severe set-backs under police repression. It was not until the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 when a national eight hour day (and a national minimum wage) was finally instituted. Domestic and agricultural labor would be excluded from FLSA protection—a bribe to Southern Democrats to get them to support the legislation for these were occupations in which African Americans were disproportionately represented.  (See When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America by Ira Katznelson for the story of the large-scale exclusion of African Americans from the New Deal and Post-World War II welfare measures—such as the GI bill).


American workers continued to fight against exploitation as during the Eugene Debs led Pullman strike of 1894 when 34 strikers were killed and hundreds wounded in a strike which began in the Pullman Company’s “model” town outside Chicago. A federal commission later stated that Pullman workers were ruthlessly exploited but the federal government sent in federal troops to crush the strikes.  The railroad strikes of 1877 and 1894 are part of the extraordinarily violent labor history of the United States. . In the text and endnotes he mentions a few salient murderous episodes, such as the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, the deaths of 60 members of the Western Federation of Miners as literal guerilla warfare was being waged against mine owners in Colorado, and the killing of ten CIO strikers as they ran away from Chicago police gunfire in 1937.  Citing 1969 statistics, Green notes that the United States had 700 instances of strikes during its history where at least one fatality occurred. Quoting Richard Hofstadter, he lays this down to the peculiarly reactionary character of the American business class of which anti-unionism was and is such an integral part.


After Haymarket, Captain Michael Schaak became a sought after specialist in the forming of police anti-radical squads which would multiply across the country over the decades. However John Bonfield, Schaak and two other police commanders on the scene that night at Haymarket were exposed by the Chicago Times in 1889 of running a protection racket against illegal and legal Chicago businesses and selling prisoner’s items for their own profit. Among the items sold was some jewelry that Louis Lingg had intended as a gift for his girlfriend. Characteristically, Bonfield tried to dispose of the matter by having the editors arrested and the paper shut down but he and his buddies ended up getting fired.  Chicago police commissioner Frederick Ebersold, who confronted the defendants on the day of their arrest and told them of the violent things that he personally wanted to do to them, later explained that Schaak had been deliberately trying to provoke the anarchists in the run-up to Haymarket. Apparently Shaak also set up bogus groups of anarchists, probably with the aim of having them engage in actions and rhetoric to discredit the real anarchists.


Green’s  portrayal of the trial itself is full of really good writing. He introduces the reader to many fascinating personalities.  There is Parsons and his wife Lucy—who passed as Mexican and Native American but who probably tried to keep quiet an African American parentage. Lucy would keep the spirit of the Haymarket martyrs alive into the late 30’s. There was Carter Harrison the patrician paternalist populist mayor. There was the lead defense attorney William Perkins Black, a corporation lawyer whom with his wife endured complete ostracism from upper class society for defending the anarchists. There was Nina Van Zandt the upper class heiress who visited August Spies in prison and fell in love with his manly beauty and married him before he died. Green tells the story of Haymarket in lively prose; the book almost reads like a novel.


I’m a graduate student trying desperately to finish a master’s thesis in history, trying to wade through some interesting but many dull secondary texts. My enthusiasm for becoming a historian has been waning but reading this book has renewed my enthusiasm for the possibilities of what a historian can accomplish. In his acknowledgements section Green cites Howard Zinn as a leading inspirer for him to write this book.







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