Death in the Haymarket

May 2, 2006

A book review for The Common Review.

The facts are clear: On May 1, 1886, 80,000 Chicago workers paraded down Michigan Avenue demanding an eight-hour work day for all wage-laborers. It was the opening salvo of a general strike organized by unionists and anarchists, socialists and revolutionaries, and it was largely successful. Industry ground to a halt all over town with one glaring exception—the huge McCormick Reaper Works was in full operation, manned by strikebreaking scabs protected by a large contingent of Chicago police.
On May 3, during a skirmish at the gates of the McCormick plant, police opened fire, killing four striking workers. Organizers immediately called for a rally the next day at the Haymarket on Desplaines Street; at 7:30 PM on May 4 over 1,500 people gathered to hear a range of speakers including the fiery agitator Albert Parsons who eloquently denounced the police killings, wage slavery, and the system of capitalism itself while calling for justice, an eight-hour-day, and a worker’s revolution.
As the rally was winding down, and only a few hundred people remained, a large contingent of policemen quick-marched up to the hay wagon that was serving as platform and podium, and just as suddenly a rocket came out of the crowd, landed on the street in the midst of the police, and exploded with terrific force; stunned police officers opened fire into the crowd and kept up a barrage of pistol and rifle fire for several minutes.
To this day no one knows who threw the bomb, nor how many people were actually killed or wounded in the chaos that followed. Within a week seven patrolmen were confirmed dead, as well as four workers who were felled by police bullets—“it seems probable,” writes James Green, “that at least 3 others died” (p. 191), and possibly many more. Three months later seven anarchists, including Albert Parsons, were convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Seven dead policemen, seven dead workers, seven condemned revolutionists, each a working man—these 21 formed, according to Green, “a haunting triangle of death.” (p. 191)
In Death in the Haymarket James Green maps the fault-lines in American labor’s long struggle for justice as he retells this dramatic story and locates it appropriately in the conflicts and upheavals of the time. In the tradition of Eric Hobsbaum, Edward Thompson, and Eric Foner, Green’s focus shifts effortlessly from thick descriptions of people and events on the ground to the widening circles—historical flow, cultural surround, economic condition—within which those events took place. Tracking back and forth from the tiniest of local detail to the largest and most sweeping of contexts, Green gives us both a compelling narrative of the Haymarket tragedy, and a layered understanding of its multiple meanings as they exploded out away from the event itself. Green combines his skills as an historian and researcher with a distinct literacy bent to create an account at once thorough and vivid. This is the best book ever written about the Haymarket.
James Green draws characters and scenes with such dazzling precision that they reawaken the purposes, conflicts, and tensions that must have powered events at the time; more even than that, the reader can feel the contemporary resonance of this “drama without end” (p. 10): the violence of the state, the limits of protest and speech, the ongoing struggle for justice, capital punishment, government repression, the manipulation of fear, and much more.
On November 11, 1887, four anarchists were hanged by the state of Illinois—the moment before their executions, August Spies cried out: “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today”; George Engel shouted in German, “Hurray for Anarchy!”; and Adolph Fischer said, “This is the happiest day of my life” (p. 270). Albert Parsons began “May I be allowed to speak?… Harken to the voice of the people”… before the trap door was sprung and his speech cut off (p. 270).
The outpouring for the massive public funeral a few days later eclipsed even Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in Chicago twenty-two years earlier. Emma Goldman marked these events as the inspiration for her life-long commitment to workers’ struggles, and labor figures from Mother Jones to Big Bill Haywood pointed to Haymarket as a defining moment in their lives. Albert Parson’s widow Lucy, a former slave, carried the legacy of Haymarket to union halls and political rallies until her death in 1942 at the age of eighty-nine.
Part of that legacy is the eight-hour-day and union rights, part the ongoing fight for human and civil rights. And part of that legacy is May Day, recognized the world around as Workers Day, and, ironically largely unknown in the US.
James Green captures it all, and gives us a definitive account of a germinal moment in American history.