[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 what we’ll never know about Haymarket, why that matters, and what we can say anyway.
The May 4th rally and protest devolved into violence and chaos for several reasons, but one moment towers above the rest: the throwing of a dynamite bomb at police officers. It was after that bombing that police began firing at protesters, that protesters began rioting and fighting back, and that the widespread conflict which resulted in at least eleven deaths (seven police officers and four protesters) and countless injuries truly commenced. Yet if the bombing’s influence and effects are crystal clear, its origins are entirely murky: as I’ll discuss in tomorrow’s post, eight anarchist activists were tried and convicted for the bombing, but that trial was a demonstrable farce (so much so that the governor of Illinois pardoned the anarchists who had not yet been executed only seven years later) and certainly does not offer historical proof of who threw the Haymarket bomb. Indeed, as far as I can tell historians have no idea of who threw that bomb, and it’s difficult to imagine the emergence at this late date of any new details or evidence that will provide any further clarity into that crucial historical ambiguity.
Such a central historical ambiguity is quite frustrating, but it’s even more illuminating. That is, our eternal uncertainty about the Haymarket bombing offers a number of valuable lessons for the study of history and its meanings in the present. For one thing, Haymarket makes quite plain the way that subsequent narratives (such as those created at a trial) shape our understanding of a historical event, and forces us to consider whether and how all such narratives distort (or at best partially portray) more than they reflect the histories themselves. For another, such ambiguous histories render it nearly impossible to write about the past without bringing our own perspectives and preferences to bear—I’m sure I’ve done that here in writing about Haymarket—and in truth that limitation is (as the recently deceased historian and theorist Hayden White laid out so convincingly) an element of any and all history writing and historical thinking. And for a third, particularly clear historical ambiguities like Haymarket can help us engage with the presence of such ambiguities in every significant historical event and moment: what caused the Salem Witch Trials; why Jefferson’s draft paragraph on slavery was cut from the Declaration of Independence; what Abraham Lincoln’s vision of Reconstruction entailed; and many more.
If there are many things we can’t know or say with certainty about the Haymarket Affair, however, there are still some that we can. To my mind, perhaps the most important thing we can say about the Haymarket protest is that it was intended to be a peaceful rally in support of the nationwide strike; that the bombing, whoever performed it and for whatever purpose, was a horrific aberration and break from the event’s goals. A violent, destructive moment like the bombing often overtakes any other histories in providing one of those subsequent narratives and frames for an event, and perhaps that’s inevitable and not worth contesting. But it seems to me still crucial to differentiate events where the violence is planned and central (such as the 1898 Wilmington coup and massacre) from those where violence shatters and shifts the event from its plans and purposes. It’s my understanding that that’s what happened in Haymarket Square on May 4th, and that’s a historical narrative worth working to add to our collective memories.
Next Haymarket history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Haymarket histories or contexts you’d highlight?
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