Response to Messer-Kruse, Haymarket Evidence, Wayne State, October 2005
History is always written as the present confronts the past, and as new evidence and new ways of looking at evidence emerge. Timothy Messer-Kruse has done us a small service in pouring over the evidence associated with the bombing that took place on the Haymarket Square on 4 May 1886, and led to the trial of eight social revolutionaries, the state execution of four of them, the in jail suicide of a fifth, and the imprisonment and eventual pardon of three others. I will offer Tim thanks for his contributions today, but dissent, and strongly so, from the overall conclusions of both this paper and the earlier research note he published with three scientists, and that appeared in LABOR in 2005. This has nothing to do with resisting new evidence, but rather, emerges out of disappointment that Tim is so resolutely one sided in his presentation of what he calls new evidence, some of which is not new and much of which is speculative and open to different readings.
Let me go through the issues of evidence and interpretation raised in Tim’s paper, one by one.
First, is his unsubstantiated, TOTALLY UNSUBSTANTIATED, assertion that scholars of the left REFUSE to consider new evidence on Haymarket. There are two parts to this claim. The original premise is that left scholars are incarcerated in a certainty that however much particulars of Haymarket as an historical experience change in the face of new evidence, “the general understanding of it never can or
never should.” NO left historian has ever said anything remotely similar to this. All would welcome evidence on the identity of the bomb thrower, the level of organization among social revolutionaries, and the way this structured developments leading to Haymarket. But to ignore the evidence of the trial as a concocted Red Scare, a judicial travesty, as Tim does, is not useful in leading us to appreciate the totality of issues associated with Haymarket. Tim cites my forthcoming rebuttal of his LABOR article as a particularly strident response to his insistence that new evidence be considered. In actuality, my response to Tim was anything but strident, and merely, blow by blow, established that the evidence Tim was bringing forth on the forensics of the bomb was NOT at all new, but was rather old wine in new bottles. It did not imply what he suggests it does. At two points in that article I state unequivocally that, “it is of course true that labor historians must stay on top of new scholarly evidence, following fresh material wherever it leads,” and that research into “new facts” on Haymarket is welcome as it could well “yield invaluable findings.” Does Tim tell you this is what my strident rejoinder says? NO HE DOES NOT. The concluding part of Tim’s claim about left scholarship and the refusal of new evidence, is that such scholarship demands that the HISTORICAL CONTEXT of Haymarket be addressed seriously in the presentation of any new evidence. This is true, for all historians, surely, are committed to a presentation of context as essential to the meaning of ANY particular piece of evidence. Tim sidesteps this as somehow a sham, and the, in his words, vaunted “context” of Haymarket, accepted as “an article of faith,” has, he claims, rationalized distortion, misrepresentation, even
fabrication in the writing of the histories of Haymarket. My discomfort with how Tim handles this issue of context is that he presents a paper that wants it both ways. On the one hand, historians of Haymarket, he claims, have got the contextual details wrong, and Tim intends to correct them. So he does agree that context matters. On the other hand, much of the context, he argues, must be put aside, so we can address who shot who and how, or assess evidence that was presented to secure guilt at trial. Yet in this contextual two-sidedness, in which Tim wants to both have his cake and eat it to, he never balances contextual material. If one demonstration did not take place on May 1 1886, does this mean that NO demonstrations took place between 1877-1886? Does Tim let you know that he regards his partial, corrective sense of context as superior, based as it is on uncovering error, but all other contextual evidence as not only irrelevant but a support for shoddy scholarship? NO HE DOES NOT. The central historian who Tim pillories in this paper is Paul Avrich, whose account of the events of May 1 1886 in his book The Haymarket Tragedy, Tim finds wanting. And apparently with good reason. Avrich seems to have taken at face value material presented by Carolyn Ashbaugh in her book on Lucy Parsons, constructing an 80,000-strong demonstration led by the Parsons and their children, and one that supposedly drew armed police monitoring. This event appears not to have taken place, and Tim is to be congratulated for establishing that it could not have happened as Ashbaugh and Avrich describe. Other historians, including myself, have too easily taken this error as actuality. We will not do so in the future.
But Tim is not content to let historians swing for the crime of mere error. Instead, he attributes to them motivations of fabrication and invention. He also scaffolds on the failure of this event to take place, a quite particular interpretive meaning. Since no May 1 parade of this magnitude happened, and police could not have been armed watching it, therefore the matter of police repression of workers and radicals in Chicago in 1886 and previously is, in Tim’s view called into question. Because a Gatling Gun was not present in Chicago on May 1, and was not scheduled to be delivered until May 2, apparently we are to believe that the police were not prone to violence. This is contextual smoke and mirrors, ignoring the quite detailed literature on radical parades, marches, demonstrations, and worker rallies and strikes, and the equally detailed accounts of police repression, that have been presented by many left historians from Henry David in 1936 to Bruce Nelson in 1988. Tim has our thanks for establishing that the 1 May 1886 demonstration alluded to by Ashbaugh and Avrich did not exist. But there were upwards of 60,000-80,000 workers and their supporters in the streets of Chicago over the course of late April/early May 1886, some on strike, some parading for the eight-hour day, a complicated mix of Knights of Labor, Central Labor Union, the Trades Assembly, and various socialist and anarchist organizations and movements, leavened by a general upheaval of the working class in its entirety. The police and the press and much of genteel Chicago society were in an upheaval about threatened class disorder, and a Gatling Gun was ordered, expected to arrive in Chicago on 2 May 1886. I am sure there were police monitoring the streets in Chicago in early May 1886. Since the Railway strikes and riots of 1877 and before, Chicago’s radical movement had paraded and picknicked,
and met to celebrate the Paris Commune and denounce the capitalist enemy. David Montgomery refers to the charivari-like atmosphere of revolutionary performativity in Chicago in these years, noting that it struck fear deep into the bourgeois psyche. Because Carolyn Ashbaugh, almost certainly relying on the faulty memory of Lucy Parsons and unpublished memories of revolutionary marches in Chicago in this period, mistakes one parade and who walked at its front, and Avrich indiscriminately picked up on this error, are we to assume no parades and marches and demonstrations and no police violence and no radical threat. Tim tells us to lean analytically in this direction. It is a dead end. And, by the way, does Tim tell you that Henry David, who wrote in detail on 1 May 1886 and its demonstrations, or Bruce Nelson, who wrote on this as well, essentially get the story right about May 1 and its events, absolutely factually right? NO HE DOES NOT.
On the immediate background of police brutality, the more important event was surely the police violence at the struck McCormicks works, on 3 May 1886, where workers were fired upon by police, wounded, and at least one shot dead on the spot. One has to be very careful, with Tim looking over our shoulders, to get body counts right. He assails August Spies and his, in Tim’s words, allegations that “six men were murdered by police on May 2 at the McCormick riot,” concluding that such numbers “have no foundation in the facts available.” But does Tim tell us that Spies, who was at the McCormick rout, saw police shoot, and saw workingmen drop in blood, and rushed back to his office to compose an account of the assault on the spur of the moment, calling on the working class to respond, reported these numbers as
he read them in an inaccurate report in the Chicago Daily News, which was the original source of the figure of six dead. Does he have anything substantive to say about the police brutality and shooting at McCormick’s? NO HE DOES NOT.
Spies’ error is understandable, and it has been corrected by historians. Avrich, Tim claims, is wrong about the body count after the bombing on the Haymarket Square. I’m prepared to accept Tim’s corrections. I will answer Tim’s citing of the account of the killings at Haymarket that appeared in Who Built America, because I had a hand in writing it. Twice in a short paper, Tim cites this text as evidence of what is terribly wrong in Haymarket scholarship. The exact quote is: “… without warning a bomb was thrown, killing one policeman. The police opened fire immediately … killed one person in the crowd and wounded many more, including some in their own ranks.” Tim evidently finds this problematic. I suppose it is a part of his fabrication, invention, falsification scenario. Yet I stand by it. And this is why. The account of the actual events of the Haymarket bombing and riot in this text of 700+ pages is one paragraph, approximately one-quarter of a page. Economy of words in such a text is essential. After all, Haymarket’s 4 May events constituted a few hours in a history that I and others were presenting that stretched over 100 and more years. When I read the secondary literature addressing the bombing and the body count I had some difficulty sorting through how many were actually killed and wounded, because the story, as Tim knows, differs from account to account. Moreover, the bulk of police who died, did so days and weeks after the actual bombing. Whether they died of bullet wounds or bomb fragments, as stipulated in
the Coroners’ Reports is an interesting matter for discussion, although whether Coroners, in the aftermath of Haymarket, were prejudiced and perhaps open to suggestion that would have been useful at trial is a point that Tim does not consider. What was beyond doubt is that on the actual night of 4 May 1886, as a result of the bombing and the shooting, the immediate body count was one policeman dead and one citizen who also succumbed. Many were wounded and died later, but when the bomb was thrown and the shooting commenced two were killed directly, dying on that evening. That is what I recorded. It was not falsification and it was not invention, and it got no facts wrong. It did not report everything, as textbooks covering the sweep of a century and more of history can not do. Does Tim allow for this kind of presentation? NO HE DOES NOT.
This leads directly to Tim’s most substantial evidence, the speculation on friendly fire and whether the Chicago police wounded were, for the most part, shot by their own counterparts, or succumbed to fire from those in the Haymarket crowd. Avrich is again Tim’s bete noir, for his book makes the case for the police shooting themselves most starkly. Tim offers a corrective to this, but as usual he throws the baby of Haymarket meaning out with the bathwater of Avrich’s error and overstatement.
Tim rightly demonstrates that 1) police and figures in the crowd fired. 2) that wounded police were, in significant numbers, although not necessarily a majority of the wounded, felled by projectiles that could have been a combination of bomb
fragments and bullets. Beyond this what he demonstrates is open to question because his use of evidence is one sided, partial, and unconvincing.
From his presentation one would conclude, as the state’s prosecution did in 1886, that the crowd was heavily armed, fired as if by conspiratorial rote when a signal was given from the speaker Samuel Fielden, and is thus responsible for the bulk of deaths and injuries that resulted on the evening of 4 May 1886. Does Tim present a reasonable and balanced accounting of all evidence and testimony, a serious hypothesizing about explanatory possibilities? NO HE DOES NOT.
First, he refers consistently to “anarchist guns” and to anarchists shooting into the police squadrons. It needs to be pointed out that there is no such thing as an anarchist gun and that we have no way of knowing, given the evidence that he presents and that I believe exists, of who in the crowd was firing and who of those firing were anarchists, as opposed to socialists or other kinds of radical, even possibly unaligned, workingmen.
Second, Tim accepts police testimony implicitly and unquestioningly that the firing came from the crowd immediately upon the explosion of the bomb. This was of course the prosecutorial claim as well, but does Tim note that even some police officers were uncertain as to whether the crowd versus the police fired first, as recorded in courtroom testimony? Does Tim note that some newspaper reporters who testified that the crowd fired first, developed conveniently better memories
months after the event than they exhibited in their writings on the bombing and its aftermath the next day? Does Tim inform us of some testimony that indicated that witnesses retreated to Crane’s Alley because it seemed a safe haven, even though police reported that is where the crowd was, in good part, firing from? Does Tim even gesture toward the at least 22 defence witnesses who stated, to a person, that the pistol shots came first from the police and NOT from the crowd? NO HE DOES NOT.
One defence witness, Dr. Taylor, provided testimony of the kind that excites Tim. He testified that he examined, after the Haymarket events, a telegraph pole on the west side of Desplaines Street, a pole riddled with bullets on one side, and untouched by gunfire on the other. All of the shot that lodged in the pole marked its south face, as if having been shot by officer squadrons as they advanced north on Desplaines towards Crane’s Alley and the Speakers Wagon where elements of the crowd gathered. No pistol shot defaced the north side of the pole, which would have been the case had the crowd been firing on the advancing police. The pole was, mysteriously, removed from the street subsequent to the bombing but before the trial. Does Tim mention this? NO HE DOES NOT.
Tim claims to be considering new evidence, but at every turn he privileges evidence presented by the state and discounts evidence offered by the defendants. Is it reasonable to assume that police tell the truth but working-class and radical testimony is not to be trusted? This is Tim’s implicit message, and it is not
unrelated to a context of panicked Red Scare, in which every level of municipal authority proved itself prejudiced, compromised, and capable of extreme action, including transgression of legal norms.
Third, Tim makes much about trajectories of bullets as they entered bodies, and about where, on bodies, bullets entered. Argument turns on an entirely speculative set of premises that the crowd was situated on sidewalks, the police in the street, the elevation of the curb placing the former 10 inches higher than the latter. Tim posits that given this differential the crowd would be firing down, the police firing up. This supposedly explains police wounds to the lower body, and the downward trajectory of bullets entering bodies. It is as if in this assumed logic of fire, the squads of police advanced in rigorous formation, and the firing took on the character of a target practice shoot, with bullet trajectories mapped in a controlled environment of predictability.
What this misses is what all witnesses, state and defence, stressed. When the bomb exploded all was chaos. Bodies fell, squads that had been advancing in precision, were, in the words of one witness, thoroughly demoralized, meaning they were broken up and dispersed. Chaos, not patterned predictability, ensued. Some lay injured in the streets, others were running amuck—officers and workingmen and spectators and newspaper reporters. Sidewalk and street were no longer separable terrains of the protesters and the police and others who were there. When revolvers were drawn and fired, as they were from both the police and the crowd, the shots
went off in undisciplined randomness; order was not what was happening, panic reigned on all sides. Testimony was later provided that police fired as “they happened to throw their arms.” Bullets were flying high and low, most likely richocketing off walls and streets and curbs. Guns were discharged as people stumbled over those bleeding in the streets and against the curbs, or as they fell, themselves wounded, and this was all, it should be accented, in the very close quarters of squads thrown into chaos as they proceeded, 26 abreast, five columns deep, up a street barely 80 feet wide, and narrowing as they marched and then ran in panic. At the point they reached the Speakers Wagon, and the bomb exploded, police and rally participants could touch one another. Yes, police were hit in the thighs and legs. So were people in the crowd. Fielden was shot in the knee. Henry Spies saved his brother August from being shot in the back by wrestling with a police revolver, point-blank, and, shoving it downwards, the gun discharging in his groin. As Tim notes, one of the officers in the rear seventh column was shot in the neck. By a fellow officer, likely, but the ultimate point is that there is no accounting, in the melee that resulted from the bombing, in knowing who shot whom or whether where a person was shot related to anything other than the tumult of the moment, which lasted less than a couple of minutes.
I have not probed the Coroner’s Papers, which are, to my mind, a less than 100 percent reliable source, but rely on the more readily available Schaack book, Anarchy and the Anarchists, which Tim considers reliable when it suits him and unreliable when it does not. The evidence relating to at least three of the police
offers who later died from projectile wounds, either bullets or shell, is consistent, and entirely so, with police shooting themselves. Michael Sheehan was shot in the back, Thomas Redden suffered a leg fracture, as well as bullet wounds in the left cheek, right elbow, and multiple wounds in the back; Timothy Flavin had shell wounds to the lower leg, two wounds just below the shoulder in the right arm, and two wounds in the back. Does Tim develop his argument with attention to these kinds of multiple wounds and how they would be sustained through crowd fire that some estimate included as few as 50 shots or as many as 100? HE DOES NOT.
What does make sense is to question Tim’s and the state’s claims that the crowd fired as much or more than the police. The police all had arms, and all were, at a certain point shooting. The crowd was far less likely to be armed to the teeth, and the notion that 50-100 rounds were fired by it before the police responded is unlikely. The one radical who is targeted by the police testimony as leading the crowd in firing on the police is Samuel Fielden. There is no doubt that he was armed. I would be prepared to believe that he fired shots. But defence testimony is fairly convincing that he could not have dismounted the Speakers’ Wagon, experienced the tumult of the bomb, positioned himself behind the wheel of the wagon, and commenced firing, in the time available to him to do this. Had the crowd shooting happened as police testimony suggests, the death toll and the numbers of police hit would almost certainly have been greater. But even this is speculation, in response to Tim’s speculation. The point really is that Tim tells us
too much and too little. Too much speculation, too little about what could well be reasonable counters to his suggestions.
In the end what can we conclude about what Tim has presented here. First, he calls into question some of the writing on Haymarket, especially Avrich. We are in his debt for this, BUT, his evidence does not alter at all our understanding of police and radical behaviour in the immediate context of Haymarket. Second, he suggests the need to acknowledge the extent to which some in the crowd fired on the police, but nothing he says is sufficient to alter the view that some, indeed many, of the police casualties of the night of 4 May 1886 were self inflicted. 180 police were armed and firing, whereas even granting fire from the crowd, it was likely coming from a small fraction of this number of shooters. How many police succumbed to bullets from the crowd versus the police remains, despite Tim’s speculations, an open question, although in my judgment it remains likely that the police shot more of their own than did the crowd, which could not have fired as many rounds as the police. Third, precisely because the body count of those who succumbed to either gunfire or bomb fragments remains shrouded in the obscurity of sources that failed to determine precisely the causality of death, and need to be interrogated, we can do no more than agree that the bomb had a devastating and destructive impact, but that this was worsened in the riotous confrontation that ensued, and that was precipitated by the police intervening in a meeting that was, prior to their aggression, peaceable. None of this alters our understanding of the meaning of Haymarket.
The only contribution Tim has made, then, is to suggest that historians need to consider more seriously the extent to which the Haymarket crowd, in the aftermath of the bomb explosion, fought back and inflicted some injuries on the advancing and threatening and shooting police. Who shot first is, I suppose an issue, but the testimony and evidence is conflictual, with both sides offering self-interested statements. No leftist would seriously deny that there were guns in the Haymarket crowd, and that some came to the meeting prepared to use them. But the initial act of aggression, even before the bomb was thrown, was undeniably that of 180 police advancing on a peaceable crowd of workingmen, numbering at the time perhaps 200, no more than 300, whose mindset was undoubtedly influenced by the events of the previous day, when police had shot into a larger crowd of striking workers, resulting in death.
Tim has thus produced a small advance in scholarship by pushing those who write on Haymarket to exercise more care with how they handle evidence. But he is as guilty as those he chastises for structuring his account in an ideological way, discounting significant evidence that does not happen to confirm his prejudices. He has not altered the conventional left accounts, where I believe the evidence remains convincing on the essential points.
Those who were convicted of murder in 1886 were legally lynched. We must not forget this forest for the trees Tim throws up before us. For of course the Haymarket martyrs --Spies, Parsons, Lingg, Fielden, Fischer, Neebe, Schwab, and
Engel—did not throw the bomb, and, aside from Fielden, there is no hint of suggestion, let alone evidence, that any of them were armed or fired into the crowd. Most, indeed, could not have done so because they were not on the Haymarket Square when the bomb exploded. The forensics of forgetting all of this are problematic indeed.
Tim wants us to pillory left historians for their motivations. Eventually he will have to answer as to what his motivations are, especially if he continues to present findings on supposedly new evidence in ways that fail to fully address the evidence as a whole in a balanced way. Having now responded to two pieces of writing from Tim that go over rather old ground to problematically argue the case of the 1886 prosecution, and seemingly suppress other evidence, I am beginning to feel like I am dealing with something of a used car salesman.
Selling us a beautiful car of revisionism, so attractive in our current climate, Tim’s response, whenever challenged about the state of tires, odometer, paint, etc is to move on to yet another piece of seemingly pivotal evidence. Upon examination this proves to be yet one more pea under the proverbial shell. Would you buy a used car of historical interpretation from this man, however attractively presented?