- Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America
The Haymarket affair is one of those momentous historical events pregnant with drama and rich with implications for the present no less than the past. James Green has written a well-paced and compelling account of the Haymarket events that succeeds in placing it in the broader context of social upheaval that characterized the period. [End Page 89]
Green begins his narrative on May 1, 1866, when Chicago workers celebrated Governor Richard Oglesby's signing of the nation's first 8-hour law, and it seemed that the promise of the nation's "new birth of freedom," would extend to wage workers as well. This achievement became the inspiration for the nation's first national labor union. However, as powerful employers in Chicago refused to obey the law, breaking strikes with the assistance of the police, the 8-hour movement foundered.
The depression of the 1870s witnessed a steep rise in unemployment and a massive strike wave in 1877, in which a young organizer named Albert Parsons emerged. In the next few years, American-born radicals like Parsons, as well as numerous radical immigrants such as August Spies were, as Green notes, "the flame that [kept] the kettle boiling" in Chicago. Green is especially good at mapping the contours of Chicago's class, ethnic, and political landscape in the 1870s and 1880s, linking it to the making of the tragedy at the Haymarket in 1886. Chicago in the 1880s was a city that epitomized the best and worst of American capitalism. Vibrant ethnic neighborhoods with rich working-class traditions abutted noisy, often foul-smelling industrial zones that churned out much of the commerce—and the wealth—of Gilded-Age America.
The gap between the opulence of America's new fortunes and the impoverishment of those whose labor made it possible was nowhere wider than in Chicago. The windy city's police department, militarized by the city at the behest of its commercial elites, became notorious for the use of violence to put down strikes or other forms of working class dissent, and its newspapers fueled the rise of a vicious antiradical and anti-immigrant hysteria.
Green skillfully relates the story and builds tension as the event draws near. His coverage of the bombing and the trial guides the reader through the welter of claims and counter claims that have surrounded this case for over a century. Green reminds us of not only the awful injustice of the trial and execution, but the pervasive fear that gripped "polite" society in the wake of the bombing, and the disturbing ease with which American citizens jettisoned a broad range of civil liberties.
Working-class immigrant radicals were routinely depicted as "savage," "vermin," "inhuman rubbish" by the city's editorialists. Even the city's clergy suggested that Americans might have to trade their liberty for security from those who preached "the gospel of disorder" (200-01). Without romanticizing the anarchists, Green also reminds us that the bombing and police terror delivered a blow to what was essentially an idealistic movement to emancipate workers from "the tyranny of wage labor."
One might ask whether we need another book on the Haymarket. The answer, especially given the historical amnesia that continues to exist in the [End Page 90] United States about this case and its broader implications, is a resounding yes. This study is written for, and deserves to be read by, a wide audience. Students as well as scholars will find this book well worth their time.