Thursday, May 3, 2018
May 3, 2018: Haymarket Histories: The Trial
[On May 4th, 1886, a labor protest and rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in support of a nationwide strike turned into a confusing, bloody mess. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for the Haymarket Affair, leading up to a special weekend post on one of our most important current scholarly voices on labor.]
On two frustrating failures of and one inspiring moment from a farcical show trial.
From the outset, the arrest and trial of the Haymarket “bombers” was an overt case of presumed guilt, and not just (not really at all) for the Haymarket Square bombing. The media used the bombing to whip up xenophobic fears and violent exclusionary fantasies, as illustrated by a Chicago Times editorial that argued, “Let us whip these slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue, or in some way exterminate them.” The police followed suit, raiding the offices of the pro-labor newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung without a warrant and arresting its editors, and then doing the same with the residences of numerous known socialist and anarchist activists. While the eight men eventually charged with the bombing were indeed swept up during these widespread raids (including those two newspaper editors, August Spies and Michael Schwab), there is ample evidence to suggest that the raids were designed and executed to intimidate and destroy entire communities, and that picking scapegoats for the bombing from among those targets was simply a convenient side effect.
The trial itself was no more fair or legally sound. The eight defendants were charged not with the bombing itself, but with the broader and vaguer charge of conspiracy, which came to mean simply producing anarchist journalism and propaganda that might have inspired a bomb-thrower: as state’s attorney Julius Grinnell instructed the jury, “The question for you to determine is, having ascertained that a murder was committed, not only who did it, but who is responsible for it, who abetted it, assisted it, or encouraged it?” That jury was hand-picked from the jury pool by the court’s bailiff, a break from the normal random selection procedure; it included no immigrants or laborers. After presenting the jury with a long series of circumstancial and tangential details and accusations that only vaguely connected any of the defendants to the Haymarket violence, in his closing argument Grinnell made plain the trial’s true stakes: acquitting the defendants would mean more radicals on the city’s streets, “"like a lot of rats and vermin”; and only the jurors “stand between the living and the dead. You stand between law and violated law.”
Unsurprisingly, the jury convicted the defendants, with seven sentenced to death and one (labor organizer Oscar Neebe) to fifteen years in prison. Four were executed in November 1887, while three others had their sentences commuted to life in prison or otherwise were still in limbo when Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned them in 1893, his first year in office (due to his outrage at the farcical arrests and trial). That pardon (which cost Altgeld his political career) was one inspiring moment to emerge from this historic injustice, but to my mind even more inspiring was August Spies’s concluding statement to the judge and jury. “The contemplated murder of eight men,” Spies argued, “whose only crime is that they have dared to speak the truth, may open the eyes of these suffering millions; may wake them up.” Detailing the prosecutor and judge’s numerous inappropriate and likely illegal staetments, he added, “I will say that if I had not been an Anarchist at the beginning of this trial I would be one now.” And in his concluding paragraphs, he brilliantly reversed the concepts of patriotism and treason that had been used to condemn the defendants: “I can well understand why that man Grinnell did not urge upon the grand jury to charge us with treason. I can well understand it. You cannot try and convict a man for treason who has upheld the Constitution against those who trample it under their feet.” A moment of American ideals amidst a history that did indeed trample upon them.
Last Haymarket history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Haymarket histories or contexts you’d highlight?