Messer-Kruse's Contentious Haymarket History
Historians have been known to remark that we write history in the context of present concerns. Timothy Messer-Kruse’s recent revisionist histories of the Haymarket anarchists are written in a time when reality is framed by what many scholars call the carceral state, and produced for a competitive academic marketplace.
This context might explain why the author misrepresents the work of other historians, reads the trial transcript with a prosecutorial bias, and attacks the characters and political commitments of the Chicago anarchists of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) in a sectarian spirit.
In both The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists (Trial) and The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transnational Anarchist Networks (HC), Timothy Messer-Kruse asserts that he is representing the true ideals of the Haymarket anarchists whose legend has been defanged, and portraying them as actors instead of victims of history. In his portrait the Haymarket anarchists did, as the prosecution argued, aid and abet an unknown bomber (probably Rudolph Schnaubelt) in throwing a bomb at the police on May 4, 1886.
In addition, they provoked the police to attack them because they believed the moment for revolution had come. He claims further that the anarchists did not really support the labor movement but instead used it as an opportunity to stir up violence, and finally, that their trial was fair.
What Other Historians Wrote
Messer-Kruse writes that previous historians have found the Haymarket trial to be unfair because they followed the accounts of the original defense campaign instead of impartially reading the trial record. He sees today’s historians, both academic and popular, as misrepresenting the anarchists: “bomb talkers filled with revolutionary fervor but actually pacifists at heart” (HC, 5).
This claim is easy to disprove; the example of Messer-Kruse’s reading of Paul Avrich is typical of his representations of other historians. Messer-Kruse describes Avrich’s Haymarket Tragedy as making a “brief reference to the fact that police officers discovered bombshells in the home of one defendant, Louis Lingg,” to argue that Avrich downplayed the anarchists’ revolutionary ideology.
In the 17-page chapter “the Cult of Dynamite,” Avrich describes the Haymarket anarchists’ belief in armed revolution and their celebration of dynamite as a social leveler. He draws from Captain Michael Schaack’s account, Anarchy and Anarchists, and writes of Lingg:
“There were some, however, for whom the impulse to violence was strong, and who were ready to immolate others as well as themselves in the service of what they believed to be just. Lingg, for example, is known to have made and accumulated bombs, and possibly Engel and Fischer as well. According to Captain Schaack, moreover, Neebe lost all five fingers of his right hand by the premature explosion of a bomb with which he was experimenting.”(1)
Avrich’s chapter concludes that by the time of the eight-hour day strikes, anarchists were ready to “answer violence with violence” and that the “stage was set for the Haymarket tragedy” before the bomb was thrown.(2)
James Green also comes in for a drubbing for downplaying the importance of violence to the anarchists, even though Green describes Engel and Fischer, in Death at the Haymarket, as “ultra-militants” with “apocalyptic views” and calls Lingg a “disciple” of the German assassin August Reinsdorf.(3)
Opportunistic Followers of Bakunin?
On the question of anarchist support for the labor movement, Messer-Kruse makes the case that the Chicago group were closer to Bakunin than Marx, and that they were not genuine labor movement advocates.
In The Haymarket Conspiracy, Messer-Kruse describes Marx’s revolutionary theory as a kind of elitest gradualism involving the tutoring by socialists of the “benighted masses.” (HC, 33) For Bakunin, by contrast, he argues, revolution was not a future “abstraction” but an immediate goal.
Thus, if the anarchists made an argument for the use of force rather than advocating a gradual and “intellectual” process, they were neither Marxists, nor genuine members of the labor movement. Instead, he reaches the damning conclusion that they were using the Chicago labor movement as a “Trojan Horse” to carry out Bakuninist ideology.
Rather than responding to police violence, he argues, they tried to “fan strikes into violence” in order to provoke revolution by propaganda of the deed. He extrapolates from their speeches and writing criticizing the limitations of trade union reforms under capitalism, reading statements such as “Whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave,” to mean that the anarchists’ relationship to the labor movement was simply opportunistic. (HC, 156)
Despite this argumentative purpose, The Haymarket Conspiracy does have the value of producing a new narrative of 19th century anarchist history in the United States that includes the influence of German propagandists of the deed including August Reinsdorf, Johann Most, and Edward Nathan-Ganz, all of whom were mentioned in the American anarchist papers of the time, and two of whom came to America where they influenced not only German socialists, but also, as Messer-Kruse notes, “Yankee” anarchists in New England.
Reading the Transcript
The most sensational claim Messer-Kruse makes, and why his book was promoted in such unlikely places for left history as The National Review, is that when he read the trial transcript he became convinced of the Haymarket anarchists’ guilt. He finds the prosecution witnesses credible, the defense witnesses not so, and accepts the prosecution’s theory of the bombing.(4)
That is: The anarchists met in Greif’s Hall, formulated a plan to attack the police to ignite revolution, put the secret code “Ruhe” into the newspaper as a signal that the moment for revolt had come, and then acted on May 4, 1886, first by throwing a bomb and then immediately by shooting the police.
Although Messer-Kruse goes to some length to show that it had to be anarchists who shot the police after the bomb was thrown, he qualifies his case by arguing that “according to the law that was operative at the time of the Haymarket trial, the most relevant act was not the throwing of the bomb but the meeting at which the attack was planned…every man present in the cellar was as legally culpable as the bomber himself.” (HC, 24)
Based on this theory, it was the prosecution’s task to prove that the chain of events from the meeting of the Lehr und Wehr Verein (“Education and Resistance Association”) in Greif’s Hall led to the May 4 meeting, bomb throwing and subsequent shooting attack. According to the key prosecution witnesses, all of whom were originally among those indicted for the crime, the only defendants present at the meeting were Adolph Fischer and George Engel.(5)
William Seliger, who was named in the Grand Jury indictment as late as June 4, 1886, gave damning testimony. He said Louis Lingg was furiously making bombs as part of the Greif’s Hall plan, and said that Lingg commented that if the word “Ruhe” appeared in the paper it meant that everything would go “topsy-turvy.”
Seliger switched sides late and it seems likely that the defense team knew that he would testify about Lingg. Thus on June 21 the defense moved to separate the other four defendants from Fischer, Engel and Lingg. (Haymarket Affair Digital Collection [HADC] v. I, 128)(6) Messer-Kruse describes this defense motion as a mystery both for its timing and for the way the defense argued for separation — but Seliger’s move to testify for the prosecution and thus escape being a defendant himself, is likely to have been the decisive factor. (Trial, 43)
Although Messer-Kruse presents the testimony about the Monday night meeting as conclusive, a review of the trial transcript shows it to have left room for reasonable doubt (in a fair-minded jury). Bernardt Schrade testified that there were about 30 people present. Speakers said the Lehr und Wehr Verein should “be prepared” if police were to “go beyond their bounds” but that there was no talk of bombs, dynamite, or shooting police. (HADC v. I, 140-167)
William Seliger testified that 70 members of the Lehr und Wehr Verein were at the meeting and swore to attack the police with force of bombs and pistols if the police attacked the workers. Gustav Lehman tells a similar story: the plan was to be ready and armed in case of police attacks on demonstrations. Gottfried Waller said the plan was more proactive — to attack police stations by throwing bombs into them, and then shooting down the police as they ran out. (HADC v. I, 53-75, 96-100, 101-140)
On cross-examination, neither Schrade nor Seliger said that they anticipated that the police would come to the Haymarket. They did not believe that an attack would take place there, nor did they understand the moment of revolution to be nigh on May 4th.
Messer-Kruse ends his discussion of Waller’s testimony on page 111 of the transcript. (Trial, 206, fn. 22-25) However, Waller’s cross-examination continued for another 28 pages, including this dialogue:
Q: And you say that nothing was said at the Monday night meeting with reference to any action to be taken by you on the Haymarket?
A: We should not do anything; we were not to do anything at the Haymarket Square.
Q: Wasn’t the plan that you should not be present there at all?
Q: And you also say that you did not anticipate that the police would come to the Haymarket?
THE INTERPRETER — He said simply, no.
Q: What do you mean by no — it was not anticipated?
A: We did not think that the police would come to Haymarket.
Q: And for this reason no preparations were made for meeting any police attack on the Haymarket Square?
A: No; not by us.
Q: And you say that the word “Ruhe” was adopted as a signal to call all the members of the armed section to their meeting places in case of a downright revolution. That is what you want to be understood as saying?
A: It was to be the signal to bring the members together at the various meetings in case of a revolution, but it was not to be in the papers until the revolution should actually take place. (HADC, v. I, 112)
If Waller’s testimony is accurate, the most that can be concluded from this testimony is that Adolph Fischer, who put the word “Ruhe” in the paper, believed that the moment of revolution had come. In The Haymarket Conspiracy Messer-Kruse speculates that if Spies asked Adolph Fischer, who was after all the Arbeiter-Zeitung’s typesetter, about why the word “Ruhe” had been inserted, it meant that Spies “recognized this signal was associated with the planned Haymarket meeting” or at least knew of Fischer’s association with it. (HC, 19)
During the same cross-examination, Waller described how he and several other men who had been at the Greif’s Hall meeting, and had their names published in the paper as being indicted in the bombing, were blacklisted from work and living in fear of going on trial for bombing the police. Waller describes how, in this context, Captain Schaack got him off that blacklist to allow him to work and also paid his rent (HADC v. I, 123-125).(7) He describes a meeting of 14 of these indicted men in Folz’s Hall with District Attorney Grinnell, Captain Schaack and some prominent Germans. On redirect, Grinnell made sure again to remind Waller of the content of the meeting, asking:
Did he not say to you people there then in German that the act of the 4th of May had been a disgrace to the German Nationality?
Q: And it was now time in this free country for the laboring man, if he had any rights, to get them by agitation, legitimate agitation and proper legislation?
Q: And not by bloodshed and riot?
Q: And did he not say to you then, there, that if you told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, that the police of the town would see that your person was safe, and that you would be fairly dealt by with the State?
A: Yes. (HADC v. I, 128, 135)
In Messer-Kruse’s reading, the pressure of the indictment and the publication of the names of these indicted men in a city newspaper is minimized in favor of the theory that the witnesses had to overcome a much greater fear of murder by other anarchists for being squealers.
While Messer-Kruse makes sure that the reader knows about every threatening word uttered by an anarchist, nowhere does he discuss the context of police violence against the Chicago labor movement, the violent suggestions made in newspapers about strikers and union activists from the 1870s up to the events of May 1886, or the possibility that individual police might pose a threat to anarchists associated with the bombing.
From the beginning, the author removes the presumption of innocence for the men on trial and replaces it with his own certainty of guilt, swaying readers by describing the anarchists — but not the police whose attack on the demonstration preceded both the bomb throwing and the shooting that followed — as “rioters.” Instead, we read that perhaps that the entire event that night “was planned to lure the police into an ambush.” (Trial, 106)(8)
To supplement the transcript, Messer-Kruse relies extensively on testimony recorded in Captain Michael Scaack’s Anarchy and Anarchists, a book containing references to anarchist women as six-foot tall “squaws” and described by Chicago Police Superintendant Ebersold as a “complete fabrication.”(9) While he argues that it is notable for how well it backs up the prosecution’s case, this should not be surprising given that the book was published after the executions by the chief investigating officer in the case.
While Messer-Kruse defends the trial’s legality with the argument that it met the legal standards of its time, he does not include much legal scholarship in his analysis. Most left commenters have argued that it does not make sense to convict and sentence to death seven people on the charge of “aiding and abetting” a principal actor who was never identified.
This was a key point raised in Governor Altgeld’s pardon. (Trial, 174) Messer-Kruse argues that it is not really a problem because by the standards of the law of Illinois in 1886, accessories were seen as equally guilty as principals. He does admit that “no amount of lawyerly explanation could ever make a conspiracy trial without the main perpetrator in the conspiracy seem completely legitimate.” (Trial, 181)(10)
Until 1820 it was not possible to convict an accessory without finding the principal guilty. While lawyers and legal historians agreed at the time that it was legal to try people as accessories where principals had died or “escaped justice,” they did not discuss what it meant to try a case against an accessory without positively identifying the principal or providing evidence to connect a specific principal actor to the accessories.(11)
In light of this point, Lingg’s own instruction to the jury (rejected by the court) that they should not convict him of the bombing unless they could tie him to the bomber, rather than to the bomb, makes sense. (HADC v.O, 39-40)
Messer-Kruse also argues that the defense lawyers’ accusations of juror bias were irrelevant. Although the trial transcript reveals that many of the jurors expressed a belief in the anarchists’ guilt during voir dire, he points out that the Illinois law at the time allowed the seating of jurors who believed in the guilt of the defendants.
While it is true that the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the jury process on appeal, it is precisely because of the efforts of defense lawyers that standards for jury selection have changed. Today’s legal standards are different because of activist lawyers who said the old standards were unfair, even if they lost the legal arguments until later in the 20th century.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the case’s legal history was the anarchists’ argument that it was legal to use armed self-defense against the police.(12) Messer-Kruse writes that making this argument was a concession to the prosecution.
Given the ongoing anxieties of the time, when urban police forces were relatively new and often seen as corrupt, and when armed vigilantism was sometimes endorsed in the national press, the case could be seen as a test of the legality of workers’ fighting against police who were deemed to be “unlawful” in their actions.(13)
To modern eyes it seems amazing that the judge entertained argument on the point, suggesting that it was a legal possibility to establish the right to armed self-defense against unlawful police action.
Messer-Kruse returns again and again to the notion that since the anarchists advocated force of any kind they were legally guilty of the May 4th bombing, erasing any distinction between calls for armed self-defense against the police and the advocacy of revolution by propaganda of the deed. He argues that they are guilty because their advocacy of force inspired someone to act that day.
An entire history of First Amendment law has tried to define the limits of the political advocacy of armed struggle. The Haymarket anarchists and their lawyers fit squarely within this history. In fact this case was one of those that influenced legal thinkers as the court moved from the “Bad Tendency” to the “Clear and Present Danger” doctrine.(14)
Judge Gary argued that the defendants had “excited the people…to sedition, tumult and riot, and to use deadly weapons against, and take the lives of other persons. “ Gary later wrote that he had to make this argument because no law existed to preserve order against the dangerous ideas of the anarchists.(15)
Messer-Kruse seems to conclude that advocating revolution as anything other than an “abstract” notion in the far distant future should be illegal, and writes that the anarchists’ advocacy of revolution was “well beyond the liberties of the first amendment” without consulting a single work of First Amendment history. (Trial, 124)
The State Supreme Court did find Gary to be in error on his instruction to the jury because of this description of general incitement. However wrong it was, the court concluded, it was not a significant error, since Gary also gave them more specific instructions later on. This is tortured reasoning.
Unsurprisingly, Messer-Kruse agrees with the court. (Trial, 127) After four hours of deliberation and a good night’s sleep, the legally unbiased jury, according to the laws of the time, pronounced their sentence of “guilty” on all eight defendants.
Messer-Kruse is right that most historians have not consulted the full trial transcript, and that their work could benefit from doing so. It is also time for a book which takes the legal points involved in the Haymarket Affair into greater consideration. Neither The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists nor The Haymarket Conspiracy has accomplished this historical work.
[Rebecca Hill is associate professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. Her publications include Men, Mobs and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History (Duke, 2009). Her current research is on anti-fascism in American politics and culture from the 1930s-2000s.]
Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 175.
Green, Death in the Haymarket, 139-141; 142; Messer-Kruse really goes after Green in matters of minute detail in order to cast aspersions on his scholarship. He shows how Green misquoted Henry David’s own mis-quotation of DA Grinnell as follows: Henry David left out the words “for their lives” from the original statement in court, making it “For the first time in the history of our country are people on trial [for their lives] for endeavoring to make anarchy the rule, and in that attempt for ruthlessly and awfully destroying human life.” Green’s slip is to phrase it “are people” instead of “people are” and to change the phrasing at the end from the original to: “to ruthlessly and awfully destroy human life” Green also makes minor errors in switching “a case of this kind” to “this kind of case” and substituting the word “to” for “should” (Trial, 205). In contrast with Messer-Kruse claim that Green’s book contains no mention of the code word “Ruhe,” it appears on page 172 of Death in the Haymarket. Later on, in reference to his own representation of the trial record, Messer-Kruse informs the reader that he has “combined” two different witness accounts about Lingg into one quotation even though they “had slightly different accounts” of what had happened, a difference that in a trial of course has actual significance. (Trial, 192, fn. 43)
One example of Messer-Kruse’s treatment of defense claims and police sources is his effort to undermine Avrich’s claims, based on those of Lucy Parsons and Sigmund Zeisler that Capt. Schaack had subjected suspects to “indignities” or conducted a “sweating shop” in an effort to get witnesses to testify against the anarchists. He pooh-poohs the validity of testimony produced during the Altgeld pardon from two potential witnesses who said they had been jailed, intimidated and offered money in exchange for testimony on the basis that the men who gave it were testifying as part of the pardon, and that they had been prosecuted for attacking the police during the McCormack Reaper Works strike. (Trial, 194)However, when it suits his own view of the case, Messer-Kruse treats Zeisler’s recollections and memories as well as those of others much further removed from the case, as iron-clad truths, just as he treats other “unindicted co-conspirators” as especially trustworthy witnesses.
The Lehr und Wehr Verein was a worker’s rifle club and drilling team. See Roediger, in The Haymarket Scrapbook, 86. Messer-Kruse refers to these as “defense assertions that Lingg did not attend the secret meeting,” but Messer-Kruse’s own favorite prosecution witnesses also testified to Lingg’s absence, HC, 191; in Messer-Kruse on these witnesses, see Trial, 27.
Seliger says that he wrote a statement claiming that he was promised his freedom if he testified for the prosecution and gave it to the defense because he believed he was “not safe at liberty. I had been told at various times that I was a traitor.” Messer-Kruse writes that the letter was “retrieved from the evidence hopper” by the defense because it went from being evidence of his unreliability to evidence of his intimidation, but what appears to have happened, based on the trial record is that the prosecution objected to the letter’s entry into the record, and the objection was sustained.
Messer-Kruse writes in The Trial, page 27 that only one witness referred to being without work during the trial; but both Seliger and Waller mention that people whose names had appeared in the newspaper in association with the case had been blacklisted or denied work, and police helped them get jobs as a result of their participating and agreeing to testify following the Folz Hall meeting.
Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department, 234, 270.
Trial, 181. Also note that Messer-Kruse slips between using the term “conspiracy“ and aiding and abetting throughout the book, even though these charges mean different things and though the standards of evidence for them are different.
“Conviction of an Accessory After the Acquittal of the Principal,” Columbia Law Review, v.18, n. 5, (May 1918), 471-475.
I address this point in my chapter on the Haymarket in Men, Mobs and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 83-86. It is especially relevant for labor history because arguments about the police from the Haymarket later made their way into arguments for reforming both city police and the private army of Pinkertons in the Populist Platform of 1892.
- Messer-Kruse, Trial, 79-81.
The classic work, not consulted by Messer-Kruse who is not interested in legal questions about free speech arising from the trial is Zechariah Chafee, Free Speech in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1941).
- Elizabeth Dale, “The People Vs. Zephyr Davis: Law and Popular Justice In Late Nineteenth Century Chicago,” Law and History Review, v. 17, n. 1 (Spring 1999), 27-56.