The Haymarket Affair and its Consequences:

In 1884, it was agreed by the Federation of Organised Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada that 1 May, 1886 would be the date from which ‘eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor’. Property owners and business people mobilized to prevent any such thing happening. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Chicago.

This was the era of rampant capitalism – the decades after the Civil War when circumstances peculiarly favourable to ruthless investors and corrupt politicians made possible the amassing of huge fortunes. In their way stood labouring people increasingly aware of the opportunities available to them from the same circumstances. Curtailing hours of work was hugely attractive and just for a moment they looked to the future with optimism:

In what is generally regarded … as the first May Day parade, Albert Parsons, his wife Lucy and their two children … led 80,000 workers up Michigan Avenue [Chicago] singing, arm-in-arm.

Parsons and his closest activist colleagues were self-described anarchists. On the other side of the world, founding members of the Melbourne Anarchist Club chose the same day for their first formal meeting. Mostly young, serious minded free-thinkers, they came together to calmly debate radical social change theories coming to them via northern free-thought magazines. They could not have known how quickly they would be called upon to deal with the consequences of those ideas being put into practice, nor with allegations that it was their ideas which had caused large-scale murder and mayhem.

Just three days after their first meeting and three days after a joy-filled May Day, an explosion occurred in Chicago with such impact that it reverberated around the world. The trials which followed, now known as ‘the Haymarket Affair’, were described shortly after by a Sydney activist as ‘the most dramatic event in all labour history.’ A more recent scholar has written:

The full meaning of the Haymarket Affair becomes apparent only when set in the perspective of labor’s Great Upheaval of the mid-1880s.[27]

On the evening of 4 May 1886, at 10.oopm, one hundred and seventy-six Chicago policemen were marched out to disperse an orderly meeting called to protest a shooting of locked-out workers by those same police the day before. The Mayor, after attending the meeting, had already gone home believing that the peaceful gathering, which had dwindled from some thousands to about 200, was on the verge of being wound up. The police however were formed up in ranks by Captain John Bonfield and the meeting was ordered to disperse. At this point someone, to this day unknown, threw a bomb, apparently at them. Bonfield later claimed they were also fired on from the shadows. The wounds that many sustained indicated random fire but the police made no attempt to establish the source of any of the bullets. It seems that they, stunned and frightened, had regrouped and returned fire at anything that moved. With the crowd dispersed and the smoke cleared, the organizers of the meeting, eight self-styled anarchists, were arrested and charged with capital crimes. All were prominent labor organisers, some had witnessed previous attacks by Bonfield’s troops on strikers seeking to prevent strike-breakers getting to work sites.[28]

The events of that day[29] were made immediately available to the world with an unprecedented intensity.[30] Especially strident and bigoted, the Hearst publications sought sales and political leverage by demonising all anti-capital advocates. All ‘anarchists and other such traitors’ should be ‘violently handled’. Rural and urban areas of the US experienced their own ‘full- blown panics’.[31] Racism was not the only element in the prejudice:

… long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives, but who, driven half-crazy with years of oppression [before coming to ‘the land of the free’] and mad with envy of the rich .. [32]

Extreme language was common on both sides, indeed on all sides. A partisan US newspaper editor at election time, October 1886:

The grain stacks, houses and barns of active Democrats should be burned; their children burned and their wives outraged, that they may understand that the Republican Party is the one which is bound to rule…[33]

The palpable smell of danger spread around the world and lingered for over a decade. It remained strongest where labour activists sought redress and remained a potent political weapon while ever bombast and appeals to heroic deeds could turn an election. There are many examples – Commander Melville of Britain’s CID during the 1890s thought anarchists were ‘sewer-rats’[34] which perhaps explains his favorite disguise, that of a sanitary inspector.[35]Elsewhere in Gribble’s biography, anarchists are ‘murder-minded internationalists’ and ‘gangsters’. On the other hand, Melville is described as ‘resourceful’, ‘plucky’, ‘determined’, ‘scrupulous’, ‘cheerful’, ‘physically strong’ and ‘an inspiration to his men’.[36] The Haymarket affair’s infection of language and social attitudes linger yet.

The highly flammable elements gathered at Chicago included an atmosphere of unbridled commerce bred on opportunism. The city was the boastful, rambunctious standout in a nation-wide revolution.[37] Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I the United States experienced extraordinary social and economic changes. In 1870, only one-quarter of Americans lived in cities. By 1920, over one-half did. Chicago grew from a population of 298,977 in 1870 to over 2.7 million in 1920. This process of urbanization was the cause and the effect of industrialization and immigration. Technological advances, particularly in the making of steel, allowed the construction of large factories for mass production. Large-scale, well-financed companies came to dominate most industries. With these changes in the scale and organization of industry came significant changes in workers’ opportunities and experiences. Factories no longer needed many skilled artisans or craftsmen, whose work could now be done by machine. Instead, they needed numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers to operate the machines. Industrial workers in dangerous or exploitative conditions had little leverage to negotiate fair wages or workplace protections. Cities struggled to meet the demands that such rapid growth placed on housing, transportation, water, and sewage systems.  Many of these workers were recent arrivals from abroad. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 23 million immigrants came to the United States.

By the time of the Civil War, after less than 30 years of unrestrained capitalism, Chicago was the metropolis of the mid-West – the world’s largest railroad hub, the world’s largest lumber market, the world’s largest grain port. Built of timber, it burned in 1871 like a giant forest fire, supposedly the largest urban conflagration of the age. A city of braggers, its wealthier, more ambitious citizens saw opportunities to rebuild bigger, faster and more profitably. Eager entrepreneurs brought people in swarms from the East and from Ireland, Germany and Central Europe. The Protestant elite who hired them was, nevertheless, hostile to their foreign ways, their labor unions, and their socialism. The new immigrants faced hostility, too, from fellow workers who were Anglo-Americans or older immigrants. Passion, conflict and instability were guaranteed.

The front page of the December 25, 1873 issue of the Chicago Tribune did not wish residents of the city Xmas cheer. That was on pages two and three. The entire front page dealt with organizations threatening the city. Under the headline, “Our Communists”, the city’s leading English language newspaper promised to give Chicagoans “A brief sketch of the Socialist movement” and to identify “The First Organization in Chicago” to introduce this new doctrine. Articles included a biographical sketch of “Carl Marx,” and a summary of Marx’s “peculiar ideas as expressed in his work The Communist Manifesto.” There were also articles setting out the desperate situation of the local poor. Over one-quarter of the city’s working population was unemployed, many of those still employed had suffered severe wage reductions. Socialists had taken over the leadership of the unemployed who were increasingly demonstrating their anger. The newspaper laid the responsibility at the feet of one group: recent German immigrants and their workers clubs, the first of which had been established in 1858. By 1871, the Tribune wrote, the largest had accepted as its creed the Manifesto of the Communist Party and had held meetings to discuss this “peculiar” philosophy. There were many others in the city, with lending libraries, and beside debates organised picnics, balls, concerts, and song festivals.

Disparities in well-being between the rich and the poor had hugely increased. Demands from below for reform became louder, searchers for explanations and effective tactics increased their efforts. A great ‘labor upsurge’ – ‘working men and women from every trade, of every skill-level, and of all nationalities and races’ streaming into labor organizations by the tens of thousands’ – made itself known all across the industrialising world. In the United States, the labor organization most closely identified with this Great Upheaval was the Knights of Labor. In Schneirov’s view:

With its well-known motto, “an injury to one is the concern of all,” the Knights epitomized the theory and spirit of class solidarity. The characteristic form of the Knights-mixed local assemblies drawing together workers of all trades-offered an organizational alternative to existing craft unionism.

The Knights developed and popularised a new and for a time, successful weapon, ‘the sympathy strike’ which allowed local organisers to specify the when, who and where of strikes or boycotts rather than wait on the centralised executive for a response. Chicago’s Mayor, Carter Harrison, came under pressure for assisting labour activists to participate in municipal governance and for maintaining strict neutrality during difficulties. Sometime in 1885, he succumbed and appointed a new Police Commissioner, Bonfield, who immediately went on the offensive, against organised labour. The change in the balance of forces was stark and immediate. The further level of State violence, martial law to quell civil dissent remained. President Grover Cleveland introduced the military into the streets of Seattle in February, 1886 and into Chicago in 1894.

Whoever was ultimately responsible, the hysteria around the Haymarket events enabled the Chicago authorities to disregard what evidence there was, and world-wide protests, to execute Parsons and three others and to jail a further three. The eighth was found dead in his cell the day before the executions, 11 November 1887. Two days after the execution, London police attacked peaceful demonstrators attempting to maintain the freedom to speak on political issues in Trafalgar Square. Three were killed, over two hundred injured. In Chicago in 1887:

[On] the eve of their execution, a long procession with muffled drums and banners draped with crape marched through the streets of New York …. On the Sunday after the execution their dead bodies were carried to the grave in Chicago with demon­strations of respect and sympathy such as are rarely accorded to unquestioned public benefactors, and in all parts of the country there are indications that a considerable class regard these men not as criminals but as heroes and martyrs.[38]

At the graveside, ex-Senator Trumbull asserted:

The time will come when mankind will look back upon the execution of the anarchists as we of this day look back upon the burning of witches in New England.

In 1889, Chicago’s Captain Bonfield and his colleague Schaak were exposed in a series of articles in the Chicago Times for exaggerating, if not concocting the Haymarket tragedy to gain promotion and to defuse pressure building up for their dismissal over corruption.[39] The pair sued but they and the cases were dismissed. In 1891 the ‘great Italian criminologist’ Cesare Lombroso, claimed that the faces of anarchists ‘possess peculiar physical characteristics common among the inmates of our idiot and imbecile asylums.’ He claimed 34 per cent of his ‘anarchist’ sample possessed the ‘criminal type’ of face as compared with 43 per cent among ‘ordinary criminals’ of the prison at Turin. He found 40 per cent ‘criminal types’ among photographs of Chicago anarchists, seventeen out of forty-three having ‘disagreeable peculiarities of the face’.[40]

In 1893 a pardon was given to the three anarchists still in jail by the incoming Democrat governor, Altgeld, whose published report referred to the injustice done to those executed: ‘the jury had been rigged, the jurors legally incompetent, the judge partial and the evidence insufficient.[41] The politics around the affair meant, however, that Altgeld, the governor, never won public office again. Bonfield was chosen by Chicago’s Mayor to police the International Exhibition that year during which an American ‘Jack the Ripper’ tortured and killed dozens of women. Bonfield was again found operating a theft and fencing network and was arrested and charged. A street jingle became popular:

Please to remember eleventh November

Government treason and plot

I don’t see the reason why Government treason

Should ever be forgot.

After the threat was seen to be contained, calmer reappraisals even by some of the status quo’s most militant defenders were allowed into the public domain:

[The] great majority of Anarchists … are a harmless body of people … unalterably opposed to all forms of murder and violence.[42]

More recent scholars have put the Haymarket media campaign into a longer-term, left vs right context:

So expertly was the campaign [of red-baiting] waged that it molded the popular mind for years to come, and played its part in conditioning the mass response to the imaginary threat of the ‘social revolution’ frequently displayed … since 1886.[43]

The revolutionary threat was not entirely imaginary and this revisionist interpretation is not yet the full story since ‘left vs right’ is no longer a sufficient descriptor, if it ever was. Manipulation of the public via an apparently benign commercial press was not new in 19th century Chicago, and ‘the experts’ behind the red-baiting considered themselves at war with a perverse, devious enemy. They believed that the ends did justify the means. This is a perennial and often-canvassed theoretical issue, one which fully deserves the attention it has already had, and more. But it is only one of the ‘issues’ involved, just one of the perspectives on offer with which to attempt insight into the whole.

The boom times were coming to an end, and not just in Chicago. Globally, speculation had out-run substance and market confidence was faltering, teetering on the lip of the inevitable downturn. All of the elements normally involved took on added tension, the spaces between cause and effect began to shorten considerably. Those with more to protect had extra reasons for secrecy and violence. Those who had least to lose had less reason to hug the shadows and pretend compliance.

For the active participants, distinguishing real from imaginary threats became a 24-hour a day activity. Sorting information flowing from soap boxes, from Town Halls or from on-line editorials became a complex, time-consuming process. Some ‘actors’ were in a better position than others to control the flow and to shape its movement.

The separation of fields – domestic from foreign, legal from illegal, espionage from counter-intelligence, political from non-political, a free, independent press from partisan ‘ventriloquist’s dummies’ – is a common-place element of the manipulation. Rhetorical camouflage – ‘destroying in order to save’, ‘unpleasant but necessary’, ‘for the greater good’, ‘plausible deniability’ – has been commonly used with physical force or is in contemplation. This tactic is most effective when an otherwise sympathetic figure – a current hero, or a revered figure of past authority – personalises the message. Writing in 1901 retired British army officer Lee asserted that:

(The) idea of preventing or repressing riots by means of a civil police force was hardly considered to fall within the range of practical politics … [However] the signal manner in which the military had failed to keep order during the Gordon Riots [1780] conclusively demonstrated how unreliable was that arm for the purposes of peace maintenance…[44]

The first organised Metropolitan police forces began to appear in England after the 1780 riots. By the second decade of the twentieth century the camouflage – unlimited force behind a benign ‘bobby’ required renewal:

Systematic military policy-making towards internal security in Great Britain dates from the period following the First World War. It was stimulated above all by widespread fears of possible revolution, sharpened by a belief in the collective incapacity of police forces to deal with civil disorder.[45]

That the British military had not continued to be part of the civil control apparatus was a myth fostered by the military. Jeffery quotes Lord Ironsides: ‘[For] a soldier there is no more distasteful duty than that of aiding the civil power’.[46] The one refresher complements another, that of spying: Sir Douglas Haig, General Commanding in Chief, June 1919, said to the Head of Special Branch, Sir Basil Thomson, who was looking forward to getting access to military intelligence:

I said that I would not authorise any men being used as spies. Officers must act straight­forwardly and as Englishmen.[47]

Richard Deacon’s History of the British Secret Service backgrounds the long-term existence of an official spy network but only in terms of defensive information gathering against external threat.[48] The same shell-game allows the non-inclusion of Britain in lists of defined police states even though it has from time to time been used as a model by a State that is included, eg France, Spain.[49]

Before they became government employees, spies were employed by ‘the court’ or factions thereof. Modes of operation and of administration altered less drastically than the change in employer. A re-organised Home Office from the 1770s ‘ran’ domestic and external agents some of whom were within the military and some were not.[50] Co-operation was always possible between these two arms of government for domestic purposes and ‘appropriate’ physical force was used when necessary.[51] Major-General Sir Wyndham Childs who took over Special Branch in the CID in 1921 authenticated the long-term and continuing liaison: ‘[The actual stock of arms available to the police] was a subject on which I had taken the deepest interest while in the War Office [up to 1920]; for part of my work there had been the consideration of revolutionary activities from a military point of view, as it was the duty of the Adjutant-General’s Department to deal with all questions of military aid to the civil powers in case of disturbance’[52] Nineteenth century authorities continuously adjusted the civil police force but it was never far from the reach of the military. Reith has emphasised the importance of the century to the evolution of the ‘police-idea’[53] and the importance of the civil police as a medium through which the army and naval force found it necessary to function.[54]

The military were ordinarily trained to fight battles with ‘fronts’, no man’s land, large-scale retreats and manoeuvres. They instinctively recognised an invasion, even a large-scale uprising. Conspiracies, stump orators, subversion in words, needed adjustments towards adaptability, stealth and a greater priority on ‘knowing the enemy’ before moving. The strategic question remained the one of adequate response. Assessments determined the level of force required to achieve outcome ‘x’.  Government could only fall if the applied force proved insufficient, and there were no reserves or a Plan B. Civil police developed to control indoor meetings, as in taverns, and a range of responses had to be developed. Initially there were only two – infiltration and massive intervention to break up meetings, conspiracies, groups altogether. Outside meetings became less important and were increasingly tolerated unless a speaker was considered blasphemous, or threatening violence or spouting disloyalty, and even some of this was tolerated as being public it was believed to be ineffective.

In Chicago, the local police ‘saw’ the unruly as ‘foreign’ and therefore un-American and therefore threatening objects which could be struck down indiscriminately. In England, and the colonies white people, at least, looked familiar. Why then did the British military move so dramatically against the very public striker meetings and strike camps in the late 19th century? Part of the answer has to be because grimy and uncouth, miners and bush labourers outside the cities were still seen as ‘foreign’, at least by the officer class. In towns and cities, by the late 19th century, unruly crowds were more ‘us’ and less ‘them’ with the least-easily accepted being the ‘street arabs’, the poorest, the least tamed, the most different. The unemployed, whether voluntarily-so or not, were a sometimes independent and unpredictable force. The more foreign, or organised, the more threatening they could be. Crowds could be discouraged from violence by reason or by shows of superior power, but they could be under orders, or being paid to be confrontational. When political meetings were first accepted as legitimate elements of the democratic process they had some of the characteristics of battles with ‘fronts’ and deployments of opposing armies. Tactics were evolving and the rules of engagement still being negotiated, especially where weapons were concerned. Governments were less certain how much force was just enough and military advisors had to do without the counter-productive ceremonial and colour-coding of previous years.

In the evolving British model, plain-clothes police operated as secret political police during the nineteenth century. From 1829, the ‘peelers’, the Metro­politan Police, were dully uniformed, they collected information and they mixed with the public in ways armed, brightly dressed soldiers never could. Even so, as pseudo-soldiers they were quartered in barracks, drilled in public and in private, armed or not, and marched to their ‘beats’.[55] Additional ‘special constables’, who had always been available under other names in previous centuries, were revamped by special legislation in 1831, 1835 and 1837.[56] Lee described this legislation as ‘an adequate defence against mob violence’ and one of the two key advances made during ‘the most important decade in our police history’.[57] The converging priorities of the bureaucratising process were clear as early as the Seditious Meetings Act of 1817[58]  which required that police note taking be formalised for court appearances. The 1848 Crown and Government Security Act[59] replaced the capital charge of treason, which was hard to succeed with in court, with the felony of sedition which was the same thing made easier to prove. Later again, came the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which had anti-conspiracy clauses.[60]

Plain clothes policemen officially designated ‘detectives’ appeared in 1842.[61] In 1833 a Parliamentary Committee had expressed the opinion: ‘With respect to the occasional employment of police in plain-clothes, the system affords no just matter of complaint while strictly confined to detecting breaches of the law.’ This Committee solemnly deprecated any employment of spies as a practice most abhorrent to the feelings of the people and most alien to the spirit of the Constitution.[62] Charles Dickens played a part in turning domestic suspicion of detectives into admiration,[63] and detectives in the next sixty years became an example of the archetypal virtuous, British white, male hero. Their alleged success in preventing Fenians, anarchists and labor agitators shooting royalty, burning down the Bank of England or blowing up the Houses of Parliament, that is, all that was ever glorious, was largely responsible for their exalted image. The fact that no attempts were made by the majority of persons using the term ‘anarchist’ to do these things was considered irrelevant when denunciations were being handed out. In the twentieth century similarly romanticised ‘spies’ with domestic and overseas applications were given their own administrative structures. International espionage became the norm and domestic surveillance again dropped out of sight.

The ISIS phenomenon shows that as far as media-demonisation is concerned, correlation of evil with a threatening group or idea is still most easily made when the enemy is foreign and non-Christian. Locals who ‘look foreign’ may be labelled ‘home-grown terrorists’ while otherwise violent Australians are never ‘terrorists’ or even evil. They are one-punch cowards, traumatised veterans, mentally-ill drug-takers, or just ‘angry white males.’ In his 2006 positively-reviewed history, Matthew Carr drew attention to ’the ritualised official response’ and the ‘praetorian guard’ of outraged moralists and media pundits which supports it:

As a result of the September 11 attacks the world has been sucked with frightening speed into a vicious downward spiral of war and atrocity, in which elementary notions of legality, morality and human dignity are being trampled on by both sides…I believe that those of us who are being terrorised have the right and even the obligation to re-examine how terrorism came to acquire such fearsome ascendancy over our era.[64]

In the 1880’s, mass media hunting as a pack was a new phenomenon. After the Haymarket event, the archetype for the ‘indiscriminate’ or ‘senseless’ murder charge against anarchists was probably Emile Henry’s bombing attack on the Terminus Restaurant (1894)or Vaillant’s on the French Chamber of Deputies (1893) both in Paris, during a period of French political upheavals. One person was killed in the first and none in the second.[65] Henry’s logic was cool and precise: ‘The whole of the bourgeoisie lives by the exploitation of the unfortunate and should expiate its crimes together.’[66] However, the further one looks at the statistics, the more anomalies there are. In numbers of attacks,[67] in numbers of victims,[68] in applications of indiscriminate force, the label of ‘mindless terrorist’ attaches more reasonably to the disciplined military, police and para-military, such as the Pinkertons, the Black and Tans, or regular troops, than to anarchists.