Friday, April 25, 2008

May Day’s Forgotten Martyrs

A reign of terror followed the Haymarket bombing in early May, 1886. Offices, meeting halls and private homes were invaded. The Arbeiter-Zeitung and The Alarm were shut down, while the business community’s newspapers screamed in headlines about “Bloody Brutes,” “Red Ruffians,” and “Dynamarchists.” Like the months after 9/11, the mood of panic ran deep.

Over the next weeks dozens of people were arrested, interrogated, and sometimes tortured while in custody. The press and the legal system agreed, as one judge put it, that “anarchism should be suppressed.” Among those arrested were August Spies and Samuel Fielden, who had spoken at Haymarket that night; George Engel and Adolph Fischer, two organizers of the event; Michael Schwab, Spies’ co-editor at the newspaper; Oscar Neebe, an outstanding organizer and leader of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA); and Louis Lingg, a young anarchist who had arrived in the US only ten months before. Albert Parsons initially went into hiding but returned to stand trial. These eight had been selected to satisfy the public’s thirst for revenge.

Of the eight Haymarket defendants, six were German. The oldest, Engel, was 50. Born in Cassel, he’d become a socialist after settling in Chicago in 1874 with his wife and daughter. Unsatisfied with the “moderate” views of Spies and Parsons, he joined the “autonomist” faction of the city’s radical community, and, with Fischer, founded a German magazine, Der Anarchist. He hadn’t even attended the Haymarket meeting.

His political comrade, Fischer, was 27, also married, with three children. Growing up in Bremen, he had emigrated in 1873 and reached Chicago nine years later. A nervous, individualistic type, he worked in the Arbeiter-Zeitung officer as a typesetter.

Thirty-two-year-old Michael Schwab was a Bavarian who had come to Chicago in 1879. Married with two children, he was a mild, intellectual man who had turned to socialism after witnessing the excesses of capitalism in Europe. At the time of the bombing he was speaking at another demonstration across town.

Oscar Neebe was actually born in New York, but his German parents had returned to Hesse-Cassel when he was quite young. He came back to the US as a teenager, eventually marrying and settling in Chicago in 1877. With his brothers he ran a small yeast company, working for the labor movement in his spare time. Along with Spies and Parsons he was an IWPA leader. He knew nothing about the bombing until the morning of his arrest.

Louis Lingg, born near Manheim, had become an anarchist after meeting August Reinsdorf, who was beheaded in 1885 for plotting against the Kaiser. An outspoken believer in “rude force to combat the ruder force of the police,” Lingg quickly moved into the armed section of his Chicago union after reaching the city in 1885 at the age of 21. Though he spoke little English his good looks and strong views made him a popular figure. Of all those ultimately charged with responsibility for the Haymarket tragedy Lingg was the only one who had actually manufactured bombs. But the Haymarket bomb wasn’t one of his products.

With little more in common than their radical views, these eight became the convenient targets of official revenge. Although only a few were present at the event and none could be directly linked to the bombing, they were all charged with murder. Clearly, however, it was their views, not their actions, that faced judgment. The prosecutor, Julius Grinnell, made this obvious when he said at their trial, “Law is on trial…Anarchy is on trial.”

The defendants understood the dynamic and had little faith that justice would prevail. Most didn’t suspect, however, that all but one of them would be sentenced to death. Even these radicals had underestimated the paranoia and vindictiveness of a fearful public.

Part four of “May Day, Labor, and the First Red Scare”

Next: Haymarket – The Legacy of Injustice

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