Haymarket on Trial: Timothy Messer-Kruse’s The Trial of Haymarket Activists

As a regular feature of this blog, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas will be opening public access and dialogue about one article in its current issue. Given that November 11 (1887) was known as “Black Friday” across the globe because four Chicago anarchist labor activists were hung by the state on that date, it is supremely fitting that we feature the current Labor roundtable on Timothy Messer Kruse’s book The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age. I invite readers to read the round-table and join in a discussion about the book and the critiques. We thank Duke University Press for allowing us to post it at no charge for six months. Messer-Kruse has garnered quite a bit of attention to his book, some of it based on the hook of Wikipedia “censoring” of his perspectives and evidence, and the provocative charge that the martyrs were part of a terrorist network.

The most startling comment in the roundtable is Messer-Kruse’s own closing comment that he has “not endeavored to retry the Haymarket anarchists.” Certainly fair readers would consider his book a retrial and attempt to convict. He renders the anarchists as complicit in a conspiracy, as charged by the prosecution. Thus the word “justice” in his title seems to me to suggest that some measure of justice was done in the case, contra previous works. The book also contains harsh indictments of the work of previous historians, especially that they failed to show that violence and terror was the centerpiece of Chicago anarchist strategies. While most previous authors have sought to place the trial in a wider context of lack of justice for labor activists, Messer-Kruse’s book has almost nothing of that context.

Messer-Kruse’s characterization of previous work doesn’t square with my own. Just one example: Messer-Kruse claims that historians ignored the possibility that Rudolph Schnaubelt may have thrown the bomb at Haymarket.(p.226) I know that whenever I’ve taught about Haymarket, I’ve mentioned that historians have pointed to Rudolph Schnaubelt as one possibility. Dave Roediger’s fine Haymarket Scrapbook has 10 mentions of Schnaubelt, including those of Paul Avrich, who instead suggests another possibility, one that Messer-Kruse himself ignores. Even the popular website The Dramas of Haymarket, to which I have sent my students regularly, suggests that “most people at the time and since, regardless of which side they were on, believed that the likely bomb-thrower was anarchist Rudolph Schnaubelt.” The prosecution wasn’t able to prove Schnaubelt did it. Messer-Kruse attempts to do that for them, and to connect the condemned men to Schnaubelt in a wider conspiracy than even imagined by chief investigator Michael Schaack.

I’m more troubled by Messer-Kruse’s use of Schaack’s book, Anarchy and Anarchists: A History of the Red Terror, as a credible source for reducing the anarchists to part of a terrorist network. My 13 year old son Joe Rathke used the book for his Illinois history fair project last year and reacquainted me with it. Joe wrote this in response to his project question about what he had learned about using primary sources: “My favorite part of researching this was reading Chicago Police Captain Schaack’s distorted stereotype of the anarchist women in the movement. (Ch. 12) His description was so vividly exaggerated, calling the women “squaws” engaged in “war dances,” and using images of old witch-like women plotting deaths of capitalists. This showed me that anarchists were treated the same as Native Americans, as though they were barbarians who should have no rights. Reading that first-hand account, you could see how much propaganda was put out to destroy this movement.” Yet Messer-Kruse has to redeem Schaack and this source in order to make his case, and he goes to great lengths to do so. The larger context—that all of the evidence was tainted and is debatable, not definite—which my son got from the Schaack source, gets lost in the Messer-Kruse’s treatment.


  • Sam Mitrani
    Sam Mitrani November 14, 2012

    I have to agree with Rosemary. I think that Messer-Kruse fails to accurately capture the nuances and divisions within Chicago’s anarchist and socialist movement. He does not locate Chicago anarchism within the context of the city’s working class political economy. As a result, he attributes the anarchists’ isolation from the mainstream of Chicago’s labor movement entirely to the drift in anarchist politics over the mid-1880s and fails to account for their reaction to Carter Harrison’s policies and the role Harrison played in shifting the political landscape of the city. Instead of anti-union advocates of “propaganda of the deed” versus pro-union, pro-reform socialists, the split was between trade-union based reformers allied with the Democrats and anarchist and socialist revolutionaries, as John Jentz and Richard Schneirov’s recent excellent book, Chicago in the Age of Capital, illustrates quite convincingly.

    Also, to back up Rosemary’s point about Michael Schaack’s book, Anarchy and the Anarchists, even the police superintendent at the time, Frederick Ebersold, called the whole book a fabrication. Using this book as a source uncritically seems a bit unsupportable.

  • Timothy Messer-Kruse November 15, 2012

    I welcome Rosemary Feurer’s contributions to discussions about the new interpretations and insights I offer about the Haymarket Affair in my book, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists. This is exactly the sort of considerate exchange and debate I had always hoped my work would advance.

    I must take issue with a few of the points that Prof. Feurer raises which I think misrepresent my actual published statements. Feurer writes, “The most startling comment in the roundtable is Messer-Kruse’s own closing comment that he has “not endeavored to retry the Haymarket anarchists.” Certainly fair readers would consider his book a retrial and attempt to convict.” Feurer should have indicated with an ellipsis that this was not my full sentence for the remainder of that passage carries a somewhat different meaning than what she implies:

    “I have not endeavored to retry the Haymarket anarchists but to understand them and their times more completely, and the only way to do that is to start afresh by taking everyone’s…point of view seriously until contradicted by convincing evidence.” (51)

    The point I was making was simply that my motivation for writing this book was not to impeach and retry the Chicago anarchists but to use all available information to construct a fuller understanding of who they were, what they did, and what these things meant for that time.

    Feurer goes on to wrongly state that I condemned earlier historians for ignoring the possibility that Schaubelt was the bomber. (“Messer-Kruse claims that historians ignored the possibility that Rudolph Schnaubelt may have thrown the bomb at Haymarket.(p.226)”) I did not in fact claim that any of the primary scholars “ignored” such a possibility. What I wrote was that historians have been reluctant to credit the evidence against Schnaubelt, a charge that is abundantly sustained by the work of these scholars. Here is what I actually wrote in the footnote that Feurer cites: “Historians have shown a great reluctance to acknowledge the obvious—that Schnaubelt was the likely bomber.” The footnote goes on to accurately quote Paul Avrich who claimed “there is not a shred of evidence that Schnaubelt hurled the explosive…” and James Green who likewise dismissed all the evidence against Schnaubelt as not being “credible.”

    Finally, Feurer is “troubled” by my use of some sources from Michael Schaack’s book, Anarchy and Anarchists. Feurer charges that I endeavored to generally “redeem Schaack and this source” overlooking its’ obvious limitations. In fact I don’t draw from Schaack’s narrative or interpretations in my account, but rather selectively examine a number of primary sources—investigative notes—that are reproduced as part of this volume. I am, of course, well aware of the drawbacks and dangers of relying on Schaack as a source. In fact in the section where I discuss my limited use of this source I describe Schaack’s book as “sensational—much of it written in the then popular style of dime novel detective thrillers.” (p. 28)

    Feurer concludes by tucking all the evidence I have uncovered beneath a soothing blanket of denial. “The larger context—that all of the evidence was tainted and is debatable, not definite…gets lost in the Messer-Kruse’s treatment.” How comforting to know that because Gilded Age America was a vicious society filled with corruption and exploitation that labor historians have permission to cherry pick whatever evidence and facts they wish.

    Timothy Messer-Kruse
    Bowling Green State University

  • Rosemary Feurer
    Rosemary Feurer November 18, 2012

    Your very title nods to Schaack’s title “Red Terror.” There is nothing in your book that justifies that word. Certainly you offer no evidence that this was the way the small number of bomb builders among the anarchists perceived things.

    The tendency of a tiny portion of the anarchists toward bombs is in all the literature, and that’s why in the roundtable Prof. Schneirov objects (p.32) that it’s a straw man argument about what historians have written. The social world of the anarchist and of Chicago, of police repression is in these other works, but not in your book, which seems bent on depicting Chicago’s anarchists as violence fomenters and not much else.

    I would hope that readers will note pp.31-32 of Prof. Schneirov’s roundtable comments to understand why those who make conclusions about “still not guilty” do so on very solid grounds. I learned from your book, but I also found myself objecting too often to some depictions of the evidence, and especially the certainty of your conclusions.

    I’ve never had a dog in this hunt; I do not need a soothing blanket. (I’m assuming that comment was intended to suggest that my political sensibilities make me crave a barrier from cold reality.) There was a lot going on beyond Haymarket, a remarkable world of resistance, and that interests me more. And it was met with a massive scale of employer and state repression of all kinds, one that warrants the word terror more than the anarchists do. We still don’t have an official body count, do we? And Schaack, as Frank Donner told us long ago, was the leader in constructing a picture of the world with a violent anarchist or socialist under every bed and of a specific species of political demonology justifying repression, that lived on well past Haymarket.

    In your book Schaack is remarkably softened, and is presented without taking his point of view as repression instrument seriously. You do exactly what you accuse previous historians of doing, selective use of evidence to build your case, rather than balanced presentation. You do that in order to re-prosecute the charges and the trial and to build a case for exact and precise bomb location, for placing people in meetings, and for other prosecutorial matters that are problematic. These are problems that at least two roundtable participants mentioned. Instead of telling the reader the full story of who Schaack was and his motivation, you seek to make him an informant and make his book a more reliable corroboration source on guilt than is credible. You defend him against the charges of corruption that had tarnished his reputation. You leave out Frank Donner’s explanation that the reason he wasn’t brought down on the corruptions charges was the ethnic community that supported him and his revelation that Schaack was bankrolled by the Chicago Citizens’ Association slush fund. You say his book had nice things to say about the Knights of Labor. You suggest it was written in part by somewhat neutral journalists who were not labor enemies. You leave out that Schaack’s book suggested that the quest for the eight hour day was part of an anarchist “Hun” subversive plot. You use hearsay to suggest anarchist Oscar Neebe said Schaack’s book was correct. You don’t mention that Lingg refuted his witness statement in the book, the very kind of evidence you cite as legitimate primary sources. I would suggest anyone who reads Lingg’s statement (p. 276) would question the certainty that these statements are all uncorrupted points of evidence.

    This is not to say that there wasn’t evidence against the Haymarket accused. There was, and your book does add to our picture. Or that it is not legitimate to use Schaack as a source. Some of what you use it for is on solid grounds and I didn’t find myself objecting and felt rewarded from having read it.

    Then again, we need to keep in mind that all the attention to evidence was in the end rejected by the prosecution, which eventually relied on speech and advocacy not deeds, to hang them. After reading all the affidavits in Schaack’s book, we might actually come out scratching our heads about the prosecution’s case, as well as the defense’s, unless we see the broader picture. The police target was on the leadership they had rounded up and an attempt to destroy the broader movement (an effort that started before Haymarket) not only a focus on those they could connect on evidence at hand. It’s a pattern of political repression that is all too familiar in U.S. history.

  • Justin Law
    Justin Law November 27, 2012

    I’ve just finished reading Prof. Messer-Kruse’s two books on Haymarket. First, let me say that I’m glad these books were written, I think they have added to the historical record a much needed counter-argument. However, as far as I can tell, the argument, and I think he is pretty clear on this, is that the prosecution was spot on. For Messer-Kruse to deny that the purpose of the books is not to re-try the anarchists seems to be disingenuous, at the very least.

    The reliance on court records is commendable; as for the utilization of Schaack’s book-see the Haymarket Conspiracy, pg. 223, note 19 for an example-it is clearly used as source material to complement the prosecution’s argument; and as for the use of other secondary source material, it seems he is more concerned with discounting it (although there are some useful corrections)then building upon it.

    All of this adds up to a set of books that serve as a reminder of what the anarchists were up against at trial, and on appeal, and in the battle for clemency. Their words and actions provided evidence that was (and is) hard to discount. It also shows what historians are up against in telling this story. It is indeed a challenge.

    Yet, I think it is important to remember that these men were on trial for conspiracy to commit murder, as accessories before the fact actually, and the prosecution’s case changed when the actual bomb thrower was never apprehended. That is why the focus of the trial changed from connecting the men to the bomb-thrower to demonstrating that the anarchists embraced the “arming question”. There is room for reasonable doubt here. Was it proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the men were connected with the actual throwing of the bomb? Are the meetings prior to the riot, the codes in the newspapers, and the state’s witnesses from the night of the riot enough evidence to convict? But is that our role as historians? To re-try the case? If so, I still have my doubts. And I think I’m not alone here-witness the amnesty movement, and the historical contention over the memory of this trial, and the debate these two books have brought forth. I don’t think its as easy as saying that Messer-Kruse has disputed one of the New Left’s sacred cows.

    Another point of contention here, is Prof. Messer-Kruse’s argument that because the anarchists answered the “arming question” in the affirmative they were guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Throughout his books he reminds the reader that the anarchists embraced arming (something the prosecution utilized at trial) and that they advocated the arming of the working-class for the social revolution. Yes, the anarchists did arm themselves-but this wasn’t a crime. And, with Messer-Kruse’s apt argument in relation to the legal norms of the day in regards to juries, I was surprised this wasn’t discussed. In fact, and this is absent from both books, the constitutionality of parading in public with arms wasn’t denied until the spring of 1886 by the US Supreme Court in the Presser case, which came directly out of Chicago, and involved members of the Lehr und Wehr Verein (the Presser case is mentioned in James Green’s book, pg. 91). And even in that case the right to bear arms wasn’t invalidated. The point is, the anarchists believed they had a right to arm themselves. And so they did. They also advocated the arming of the working-class and the social revolution.

    I think it is admirable that Prof. Messer-Kruse reminds us of that. We should remember that. But we should also remember that the men were on trial for their lives for conspiracy to commit murder, as accessories before the fact; and while their embracement of the “arming question” influenced the verdict, and was utilized by the prosecution for this very purpose, arming wasn’t a crime, and regardless it was never proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the advocacy of “arming” influenced the actual bomb-thrower because the actual bomb-thrower was never apprehended or tried.

    One last thing, about memory. Recently, while doing some research on a sedition case that came out of the Palmer Raids in Illinois, I was reading the trial transcript when I came across a reference to Haymarket. The memory of Haymarket served as an analogy for the prosecution for why those who advocate sedition should be punished (in this case prison terms, not the death penalty). Nearly forty years later, the memory of the Haymarket Riot could be utilized to influence a jury. If it is Prof. Messer-Kruse’s intention, and I believe it is, to make an argument to convict the anarchists, and if, we historians are the jury, I still have my doubts. But, and I think this is his intention as well, if the books are meant to stimulate thinking and discussion, and to answer that question-What did they talk about for so long at the trial?-then he has accomplished his goal. I’m just not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that these men conspired to murder policemen that night, and that they planned to initiate the social revolution that night at the Haymarket.

  • Jon Burack January 31, 2013

    I am interested in a single, very small, and very tangential issue related to Haymarket. I did research into it long ago, and I do not find Messer-Kruse’s approach at all problematic. It confirms my own view that, whether guilty or not as to Haymarket, the anarchists had a deep and abiding love of the idea of political violence, an almost loving appreciation of dynamite as the great equalizer in the police-worker contests of their day. It seems to me that should at least temper the harsh judgments that have since been made about any at the time who felt they did get justice. (For the record, I do not think they did get justice, but I am looking forward to reading Messer-Krause’s take.)

    However, my real curiosity is about Lucy Parson’s, her son Albert Jr., his reported apostasy (he apparently wanted to join the army and fight in the Spanish-America War) his supposed insanity and Lucy’s role in committing him to an asylum, where he later died. I fully realize this is, as I say, VERY tangential to the Haymarket incident itself. Nevertheless, I was struck, when researching that incident, at the absence of any curiosity at all about Lucy’s actions with regard to her son. I felt that, on the surface at least, her behavior might be evidence of a rather cruel and ideologically driven vindictiveness. I fully realize her actions might instead have been totally humane and understandable. I just sensed that, on the left in any case, there was no interest in digging into a matter that might sully the reputation of a supposed heroine and martyr. I still wonder if anyone knows of any research into this side bar or how one might go about learning more about it now.

    • Rosemary Feurer
      Rosemary Feurer January 31, 2013

      The story is covered in the only biography of Lucy, by Carolyn Ashbaugh. It includes the condemnations Lucy received by the likes of Emma Goldman for this decision, as well as the commentary that Lucy relied on property rights to gain the commitment as well as the interpretation that it was not a humane decision, but one that suggested that her ideological commitments may have been a part of her decision-making process, as you suggest above.

      So the assumption that those on the left have been reluctant to raise some of the same issues is really not a fair one.

      There are a very limited number of archives on the Elgin Illinois Insane asylum. I once had a student who was looking into this, but he didn’t turn up much to go on.

  • Jon Burack January 31, 2013

    Thanks, Rosemary Feurer. I will have to get Ashbaugh’s book. Sounds interesting. I am not sure it entirely answers what was and still is a “sense” I have about this. I’ve seen lots of glowing testimonials to Lucy from the left without any curiosity ever evidenced about Albert Jr. I actually find Lucy admirable in some ways, or awesome at least in her relentless fury and ideological indignation. She had some call for that, certainly. But ideological rage is a specialty of the left in general (though the right of late seems to be catching up), and this tragic side bar to Haymarket appears likely to have been an example of how wrong that can lead one astray. Perhaps the next time people assemble to remember the martyrs of 1886, they can also raise a glass to Albert Jr. a truly unsung victim of it all.

    • Ryan Poe January 31, 2013

      One of the more tragic aspects of Messer-Kruse’s recent popularity is how quick the narrative has turned from reexamining the role of violence in American history to concluding that “ideological rage is a specialty of the left in general,” or some such nonsense. Certainly that’s not Messer-Kruse’s point, nor is it his fault that the right has hijacked the narrative so deftly. But I hope most people get much more out of it than that.

      • Jon Burack February 1, 2013

        I do not know why you link my phrase to the right. especially as I accused the right of the same ideological rage. I also think it is silly to speak of “the narrative,” as if historians have some obligation to adopt a single (I hesitate to say, Party) line on Haymarket or any historical trend or phenomena. Nor do I feel a need to “re-examine” the role of violence in American history as I think that role has been well and properly examined already, often in fact, over and over. As it should be. I also said, and it is true, that I admire Lucy Parsons and her fury, even as I recognize it may have had its own demonic dimension. Is it impossible to hold these two stands toward it in balance? Is doing so betraying some obligation I have as a historian? I do not think so. Historians’ obligations are to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

        • Ryan Poe February 1, 2013

          Thanks for your input, Jon! I’m a bit confused at your point, though.

          One moment you say that it’s “silly to speak of ‘the narrative'” because historians don’t have to adopt a single line of thought about any event. (I agree!) Then by the end your comment, you’re arguing that historians obligations are to “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” (So now there’s a single truth?)

          The very discussion over Haymarket historiography is about several questions, but my point is the one that seems to be dominating headlines (see the recent piece in the National Review) is the one you casually dropped: that the left has some unique history of ideological rage that the right may only recently be adopting.

          That’s the part I find disappointing.

          As to the questions you’re raising about specific characters and side-characters, I’m afraid I can’t be of much assistance!

  • Jon Burack February 1, 2013

    It may be old fashioned to say so, but I have no problem with saying there is a single, whole truth. That does not mean there is any single narrative, however. It’s not even that no single narrative ever even could reveal the whole truth. Narratives, or historical accounts (or is it groups of accounts that all follow a common “narrative”?), are complicated texts that make truth claims, back up the claims, and offer details meant to clarify the claims or define concepts and terms related to them. As Mulder might put it, “the truth is out there,” but in the meantime we mortals can only make efforts to know it, and no one effort cancels out all others (though there is often some cumulative progress over time, I think). So that’s why I say finding out about Lucy and her son is an aspect of the Haymarket truth and is a relevant enough aspect to be worthy of investigation.

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to exchange views.

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