What Happened at Haymarket?
A historian challenges a labor-history fable
by John J Miller, National Review, Feb 11, 2013 (excerpts)
Timothy Messer-Kruse doesn’t remember her name, but the question she asked in his college classroom a dozen years ago changed his career — and now it may revolutionize everything historians thought they knew about a hallowed event in the imagination of the American Left. “In my courses on labor history, I always devoted a full lecture to Haymarket,” says Messer-Kruse, referring to what happened in Chicago on the night of May 4, 1886. He would describe how a gathering of anarchists near Haymarket Square turned into a fatal bombing and riot. Although police never arrested the bomb-thrower, they went on to tyrannize radical groups throughout the city, in a crackdown that is often called America’s first Red Scare. Eight men were convicted of aiding and abetting murder. Four died at the end of a hangman’s noose. Today, history books portray them as the innocent victims of a sham trial: They are labor-movement martyrs who sought modest reforms in the face of ruthless robber-baron capitalism.
As Messer-Kruse recounted this familiar tale to his students at the University of Toledo in 2001, a woman raised her hand. “Professor,” she asked, “if what it says in our textbook is true, that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever connecting them with the bombing,’ then what did they talk about in the courtroom for six weeks?”
The question stumped Messer-Kruse. “It had not occurred to me before,” he says. He muttered a few words about lousy evidence and paid witnesses. “But I didn’t really know,” he recalls. “I told her I’d look it up.” As he checked out the standard sources, he failed to find good answers. The semester ended and the student moved on, but her question haunted him. “My interest grew into an obsession.” As Messer-Kruse began to look more closely, he started to wonder if the true story of Haymarket was fundamentally different from the version he and just about everybody else had been told.
His first step was to consult the conventional scholarship — works published by labor historians Henry David in 1936 and Paul Avrich in 1984. “I thought it would be easy to learn what happened,” he says. Yet neither account satisfied him. Then the Internet came to the rescue: Messer-Kruse discovered that the Library of Congress and the Chicago Historical Society had just digitized a large collection of material on Haymarket, including a transcript of the trial. He slogged through thousands of pages, consulting other primary documents to gain a sharper picture of what lay buried in the historical record. Along the way, he realized that earlier researchers had not consulted this transcript. Instead, they had relied on an abstract of the trial prepared by defense lawyers, drawing their conclusions from a flamboyantly prejudiced account of the bombing and its aftermath. “The best source had been hiding in plain sight,” says Messer-Kruse.
Here was a scholar’s dream: untapped evidence about a landmark moment in history. Messer-Kruse looked at Haymarket from brand-new angles, embarking on the CSI: Haymarket phase of his research. The trial transcript made him question the claim that friendly fire was at least as deadly to the police as the actual bomb, so he consulted old maps and built a scale-model diorama in his basement. Cardboard cutouts represented buildings. Plastic green soldiers stood in for police and protesters. One time, his wife came down the steps to find him fixated on his miniature scene. “A beautiful mind,” she said before turning around and heading back up, in an allusion to the then-current movie about John Nash, a brilliant professor who sinks into madness. “I was just trying to understand the evidence,” says Messer-Kruse.
This unusual approach seems to have paid off: Messer-Kruse believes that although it’s impossible to rule out lethal friendly fire, several policemen were probably shot by armed protesters — a fact that chips away at the belief that the anarchists were peaceful. Messer-Kruse also worked with chemists to study the forensic remains of Haymarket’s violence. He determined that the original trial experts brought in to study the bomb and bullet fragments had done their jobs well. He furthermore concluded that one of the Haymarket defendants — Louis Lingg, who killed himself before authorities could carry out his death sentence — almost certainly built the bomb.
These findings made their way into Messer-Kruse’s first formal work of scholarship on Haymarket: a 2005 paper printed in Labor, a top academic journal. Around the same time, Messer-Kruse organized a symposium on his work at an annual labor-history conference at Wayne State University, in Detroit. “I expected skepticism,” he says. “Instead, I encountered utter and complete denial of the evidence.” The standing-room-only crowd refused to question what had become an article of faith in left-wing mythology. “They seemed to think that our purpose as historians was to celebrate Haymarket, not to study it or challenge it,” he says. The most provocative attack came a year later, when Bryan D. Palmer of Trent University, in Canada, published a rebuttal to Messer-Kruse. The Haymarket anarchists, he wrote, were “humane, gentle, kindly souls.” Evildoers oppressed them: “The state, the judiciary, and the capitalist class had blood on their hands in 1886–87,” he wrote. Those of us who “drink of this old wine adorned with the new label of Messer-Kruse . . . may end up with the sickly sweet repugnance of blood on our lips.”
These fighting words convinced Messer-Kruse that he needed to continue his work. He envisioned a magnum opus on Haymarket — a large book that would ask hard questions and exploit new sources. “A lot of labor historians think they must be deeply engaged with the prospects and agenda of labor unions,” says Messer-Kruse. “But we have an obligation to represent as best we can the objective reality of the past.”
For several years, Messer-Kruse toiled away. He produced a thick manuscript, only to find that publishers didn’t want a big book on the subject. They feared a commercial flop. So he broke it into three parts, delivering his reinterpretation of Haymarket in a long academic paper and two peer-reviewed books: The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists, published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2011, and The Haymarket Conspiracy, published by the University of Illinois Press last summer.
“My aim is not to prove that the police and the courts were right and the anarchists and their supporters were wrong,” writes Messer-Kruse in the introduction to Trial. Yet the sum of his work appears to do just that. He shows that Chicago’s anarchists belonged to an international network of left-wing militants who believed that only bloodshed could bring social change. They plotted to incite violence at Haymarket. The person who threw the bomb was almost certainly Rudolph Schnaubelt, a close confederate of the defendants. He was never brought to justice because he fled Chicago and vanished from history, though Messer-Kruse suggests that he lived out his days as a farm-equipment salesman in Buenos Aires. The eight men who were arrested received a fair trial by the standards of the day. Finally, most of the blame for their being found guilty lies with a defense team that seemed more committed to political theater than to providing competent legal counsel.
Once again, Messer-Kruse encountered the closed-minded hostility that he had experienced at the Wayne State conference. When a press release for The Haymarket Conspiracy appeared on an online discussion board for labor historians in August, within days of Mitt Romney’s acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination, Norman Markowitz of Rutgers University delivered this deep thought: “Perhaps Romney will put the book on his reading list.” Dissent, a left-wing quarterly, attacked Messer-Kruse’s work, and most mainstream publications have ignored it. Messer-Kruse even battled Wikipedia editors when he tried to update the entry for Haymarket.
Yet Messer-Kruse is also starting to receive a strange new respect. Last May, the Labadie Collection — the nation’s premier archive of anarchist documents, housed at the University of Michigan — asked Messer-Kruse to deliver the keynote address at its centennial exhibit. In August, the academic journal Labor History picked Trial as its book of the year. In the fall, Labor, the scholarly periodical, published a symposium on his work. Colleagues offered criticism, but they also praised his “careful,” “well-argued,” and “impressively nuanced” scholarship. The January 2013 issue of Choice, the professional magazine for college librarians, listed Trial as an outstanding academic title….
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