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The Trial in American Life$

Robert A. Ferguson

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780226243252

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226243283.001.0001

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Traitors in Name Only: The Haymarket Defendants

Traitors in Name Only: The Haymarket Defendants

(p.191) Chapter Six Traitors in Name Only: The Haymarket Defendants
The Trial in American Life
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

On May 4, 1886, a bomb from an unknown assailant was thrown into the ranks of policemen who had come to break up a peaceful labor rally near Haymarket Square in Chicago. Eight men were accused of murder and conspiracy to commit murder for the bombing. None of the eight defendants could be connected to the bomb that had been thrown, but all were anarchists organizing the labor force against deplorable conditions in the workplace, and seven of the eight were foreign-born. Four of the men were hanged the following year. The execution itself, on November 11, was bungled badly. All four men died by slow strangulation on the scaffold instead of receiving the quick death by broken neck that the mechanism should have given them. The important point to take away from the Haymarket trial and executions is not what happened, but how and why something like it could happen again.

Keywords:   Haymarket trial, Chicago, executions, strangulation, anarchists, bombing, Haymarket Square, defendants, murder

What Happened in the Haymarket?

Four men were hanged in Chicago in 1887 for an unsolved crime. The execution itself, on November 11, was bungled badly. All four men died by slow strangulation on the scaffold instead of receiving the quick death by broken neck that the mechanism should have given them. A fifth condemned prisoner ended his life even more horribly the day before the execution by exploding a hidden dynamite cap in his mouth; mutilated beyond recognition, he succumbed only after five hours of appalling agony. Two others, who had pleaded for executive clemency over crimes they never committed, had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment hours before their scheduled executions. These gruesome details and many more like them belong to what is called the Haymarket trial, “one of the most unjust in the annals of American jurisprudence.”1

Eight men in all were convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder after a bomb from an unknown assailant was thrown into the ranks of policemen who had come to break up a peaceful labor rally near Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886. None of the eight defendants could be connected to the bomb that had been thrown, but all were anarchists organizing the labor force against deplorable conditions in the workplace, and seven of the eight were foreign-born. The evidence against them proved so weak in retrospect that a subsequent governor, John Peter Altgeld, would grant full pardons in 1893 to the three remaining defendants in prison. The accused had been convicted as a political group for the ideas they held and for their differences from native-born Americans—not for anything that they might have done or planned on May 4.

(p.192) The inclination when thinking about a shameful event like the Haymarket affair is to cast it into the fallible past. Modern accounts document the injustices involved, but with few exceptions, they treat the case as a period piece, the by-product of growing pains during the country's industrial development. Labor in the 1880s fought for better conditions in factories, the eight-hour workday, and the right to unionize—goals it would slowly achieve through protest, organization, and legislation. Success of this kind tends to sugarcoat history. Through the cause of labor, the eight Haymarket defendants have become farsighted martyrs with an honored place in progressive views of history. The law, however, cannot afford to think in such terms, and neither should any citizen who wants to know the vulnerabilities of the legal process when it copes with controversial situations.

The important point to take away from the Haymarket trial and executions is not what happened, but how and why something like it could happen again. The circumstances that led to injustice in 1886 remain useful indicators for today because they point to breakdown within the structure of the legal system. What were the impulses that destroyed eight innocent defendants and countless others associated with them?

The relevant conditions included fear of the foreign, anxiety in the face of a limited but dramatic threat, the demand for quick answers to terrors aroused, the need to identify an immediate enemy, resort to patriotic discourse in seeking punishment, demands from authority for national solidarity in support of actions taken, and evasion of the conditions that led to aberrant behavior in the first place. Who can deny that similar preconditions exist today or that they might lead again to breakdown? We are what our ideological predilections have made us. Communal pressures against the values in a rule of law are permanent parts of the social condition, and they enter easily through the open door of the public trial.

What happened in the Haymarket is now a matter of common record except for one all-important detail. Labor rallies by mostly immigrant factory hands led to violent clashes between strikers, strike breakers, and police as the weather turned warm in Chicago during the spring of 1886. On May 3 police broke up such a gathering by firing indiscriminately into a crowd of strikers who had begun to fight with scab workers at the McCormick Reaper Works factory on Blue Island Avenue. Several workers were killed and many more wounded.

The next evening, at a peaceful rally held near the Haymarket in protest (p.193) of police brutality during the Blue Island incident, an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the ranks of policemen who had come to break up the meeting. One policeman was killed outright, the only death that can be traced directly to the bomb; six others would die along with many more civilians in the mayhem after the explosion, and scores on both sides were wounded. Under orders to “Fire and kill all you can!” the stunned policemen retaliated wildly with volley after volley. Studies now show that the overwhelming number of dead and wounded in the Haymarket, including the other officers, fell under gunshots and clubbings from the disordered ranks of the police.

Accounts at the time ignored the police role in the violence that had occurred. Initial reports turned the orderly gathering into “a Haymarket riot” of irresponsible riffraff. The label would stick, and it continued to dominate all subsequent narratives against available evidence that the police had provoked panic in the square and inflicted most of the damage after the bomb was thrown. Media coverage, official commentary, and intellectual circles joined in blaming the organizers of the meeting. All leading channels of information made the anarchist leaders the perpetrators of a riot, and many accused them of fomenting open rebellion.

The long-range result would be a nationwide backlash against radical politics, organized labor, and immigration that would fuel American politics and public opinion for decades. More immediately, animosity would dictate biased coverage and overthrow normal codes of professional conduct in court when the anarchists, only two of whom could be placed anywhere near Haymarket Square on May 4, were brought to trial on June 21, less than two months after the bomb attack.

Failure to identify the primary culprit is, of course, the crucial missing detail in this and every other account of the Haymarket. Who threw the bomb? Theories about the unknown assailant abound, but theories notwithstanding, no one has found an answer that would satisfy a court of law, and arguments over the possibilities have obscured the legal predicament of 1886. Courts are supposed to orchestrate the conflicting accounts of an event during advocacy with the objective of bringing them toward one answer in truthful judgment. To achieve this goal, they must explain the crime that occurred to general satisfaction. The greater the communal interest, the more confidently a court must project its knowledge of the crime. Regrettably, the events of 1886 did not lend themselves to the usual sequence. Ignorance of a controlling fact, the identity of the (p.194) bomb thrower, left the Haymarket court with procedural and rhetorical gaps that could not be ignored.

How could the law proceed so severely against defendants as accessories and co-conspirators when everyone knew that the criminal responsible could not be identified, much less found? Compelled to find an answer, the trial court responded by demonizing the anarchist defendants as a group and by making the nameless bomb thrower a minor figure somewhere within the defendants' ranks. It replaced the criminal act with conjectures that became legal assumptions. It assigned culpability to ideas it could not prove led to the crime. The law, in a word, lost its balance.

When a court visibly loses its objectivity, judgment loses its legitimacy, other voices take over, and those new voices claim the event. Dispute then turns on the law itself, which loses credibility in the process. Blame, the reflex reaction in all trials, shifts from the judged toward those who have judged erroneously, and competing claims attract ever-more dramatic narratives in cycles of explanation and continuing controversy. In this way, recognized lapses in the rule of law take on a profound literary dimension.

In the face of such acrimony, society still needs to think well of itself, and when it cannot, it tries to come to another understanding. It finds other ways to defend its sense of righteous well-being. When these conditions arise, as they did in the Haymarket affair, diverging points of view become a pivotal tool of interpretation across legal and literary dimensions. There is, however, an important difference. What the law holds separate—its methods of proceeding remain sequentially distinct from the conclusions it reaches—literature conflates with complete license to shape opinion in any way it wishes.

Competition over points of view between law and literature grew fierce over the Haymarket affair because the official perspective could not explain the facts. The absence of the bomb thrower (the unknown that had to be known) exposed the judgment in court to conjecture, and writers of all kinds benefited. With the law trapped in its own ignorance, the Haymarket affair entered the communal imagination, where creative literature could dominate through its more flexible use of perspective. This ability to dominate must be understood carefully. The realm of fiction creates a knowing reader by making a world instead of receiving one, (p.195) and in so doing, it projects its own desirable answers and understandings on the history that it seeks to correct.2

Three leading novelists of the period in particular were sufficiently vexed by the uncertainties and travesties they found in the Haymarket affair that they turned to fiction to explain their views. Frank Harris, Robert Herrick, and William Dean Howells each reinterpreted the case of the anarchists, each writing from a dramatically different point of view about the unacceptable in what happened. Together they present a composite of the versions of how later Americans would cope with the injustice in their midst.

An erratic Irish raconteur and radical spokesman, Frank Harris gained attention by pretending to solve the central mystery. The Bomb, published in 1908, tells the story of the Haymarket from the imagined perspective of the missing bomb thrower. Harris's mystery man turns out to be a tenderly loving, well-educated protagonist who sacrifices his own happiness in the name of principle. Admirable in every way as a kind of Robin Hood, he belongs to the only group in the novel that shows any real integrity, the radical wing of labor protest. The Haymarket affair is everyone's calamity, but it emerges in The Bomb as the tragedy of an idealist who acts to correct the ignored social conditions of the industrial poor.

Robert Herrick, the novelist as academic, offers a similar but much cooler first-person narrative couched within the same specifics of the event. This time, however, the Haymarket story is told from the perspective of a juror who sends the anarchists to their deaths without a second thought. His guilty verdict helps the juror to become a robber baron in the meatpacking industry and eventually a corrupt United States senator. The rise of this glib speaker is Herrick's real story, and it turns The Memoirs of an American Citizen from 1905 into an allegory of the price paid for national prosperity. Herrick's amiable but thoroughly amoral adventurer accepts unfair influence as a matter of course. He is the American everyman who takes what he can get and ignores injustice in the name of success.

A far more distinguished writer and member of the cultural elite, William Dean Howells uses omniscient narration to project a wider and more complicated sphere of concerns. In A Hazard of New Fortunes from 1890, the protagonist is an ironic literary journalist on the edge of the fray, (p.196) and yet Howells, who was closest to the Haymarket event, cuts nearest to the bone; it would be his best novel. Overview is the tool of satire. Howells offers up a detached critique of hand-wringing intellectuals who are themselves detached as they watch labor strife from the relative ease and security of the sidelines. The titular claim of “hazard” thus contains a rebuke over risks not taken. Howells is asking a larger question in A Hazard of New Fortunes, one that continues to haunt the American scene. What will a citizen hazard for justice in a society geared to the making of “new fortunes”?

Chicago and the Nation in 1886

A certain passive fatalism over what happened in Chicago is the common thread in all three novels, and we must begin by understanding why that was so. The Haymarket affair stands out for the immediacy, the universality, the power, and the virulence with which an entire nation turned against the falsely accused. In effect, each of the writers examined here trips over that fact in a different way.

What can be said about the levels of denunciation that killed innocent men in 1887? Can anything be done to avoid a comparable reaction sometime in the future? Once a decision had been rendered at trial, the law seemed helpless when it came to rectifying its own error. An elaborate appeal process reached to the Supreme Court of the United States, but none of the official efforts changed or even qualified an original decision that history soon found to be unjust. Why not? The answers to these questions require a closer look at the times, the nature of legal remedies, and deeper impulses in the country itself.

The poet Carl Sandburg grew up in Galesburg, two hundred miles south of Chicago, and he experienced the trial as a boy of eight. “We heard about it, read about it, and talked about it, from May 5 on through every day of that year,” he wrote later of the anarchists, or “arnashists,” as the term of choice for the eight men on trial. “We saw in the Chicago papers black-and-white drawings of their faces and they looked exactly like what we expected, hard, mean, slimy faces”; they “were not regular people and they didn't belong to the human race, for they seemed more like slimy animals who prowl, sneak, and kill in the dark.”3

(p.197) These words, the nub of a child's nightmare, bespoke an adult reality. “This I believed,” Sandburg recalls, “along with millions of other people reading and talking about the trial. I didn't meet or hear of anyone in our town who didn't so believe.” Galesburg wanted a world where there were no anarchists, and it was “more than happy” when the execution took place. Adults “sang it out with a glad howl.” Years later the poet would change his mind. “The feeling grew on me that I had been a little crazy ‘off my nut,’ along with millions of people like myself gone somewhat crazy.”

How did an entire population come to lose its balance in 1886? Newspaper articles like the ones the young Sandburg read made a difference, but they were symptomatic of registers already at work in communal thought. Media coverage across the country was as spontaneous as it was uniformly negative. The Detroit Tribune immediately saw the accused as “a loathsome and a hideous set of law-breakers and murderers.” The Duluth Tribune called them “red-mouthed devils” and “splendid targets for militia rifles.” “What Chicago needs just now is a police that will kill,” noted the Kansas City Journal, and the city was “fortunate enough to have that sort.”4

Everywhere the reaction was the same. The New York Mail and Express tarred the accused with a more sweeping brush. The arrested anarchists should have been stopped before they “openly threatened war against property and every institution that native-born Americans have been taught to regard as sacred.” The Bloomington Pantograph wanted all anarchists and socialists “hunted down … and brought to punishment.” Alarmed at how easily the accused had gained “the upper hand” in Chicago, the Globe-Democrat in St. Louis ordered them met with “the crank of the Gatling gun.” The Omaha Herald agreed with the same image: “Bring out the troops and sweep the streets with Gatling guns of the inhuman devils.” The New York Times urged “the promptest and sternest way of dealing with such outbreaks as that among the Chicago anarchists.” The Alton Telegraph warned that “this foreign invasion of the dregs of humanity … must be stamped out swiftly and sternly, or social chaos will result.” The Telegraph actually used the word “exterminate.” What the law would do was preordained in the press. Anticipated executions of the anarchists appeared in editorials and cartoons before the defendants were even charged in court.

(p.198) The media immediately assumed and dispensed the whole truth about a still mysterious event. All of the comments just noted were initial responses, and the Chicago Tribune reprinted them within three days of the bomb explosion, not that it needed confirmation for its own views. The Tribune had been against organized labor long before the Haymarket incident. The leading newspaper in the city, its standing policies condemned the right to strike and traced all labor turmoil to “the vile utterances” and “inflammatory harangues of a lot of rabid Anarchists,” also known as “a Rabble of Imbecile Foreign Fanatics.”5 The bomb, never mind who threw it, turned these certainties into something worse. The Tribune's editors claimed to be glad that a physical contest had been irrevocably joined. “Perhaps some such monstrous act as this was needed to arouse public opinion,” they explained. Their disagreements with labor could now become direct attacks on the accused and on any sympathizer who dared to maintain support in any form.6

The immediacy of these attacks implied assumptions already engrained in the reading public. The Tribune distinguished between “Americans and Americanized foreign elements of the working classes,” on the one hand, and “alien and un-American elements in the working population,” on the other, and it used the distinction to argue that “the amount of disorder, the commission of crime, the defiance of the law, and the use of brute force are in exact proportion to the numbers of this un-Americanized, ignorant, alien class of laborers.” Arrested shortly after the explosion, the anarchist leaders were “political mad-dogs” and should be chained like animals until “punished according to law.” The Tribune demanded full punishment without “mercy or regret.” Ideas about “the sacredness of free speech” could be dispensed with as “popular but delusive and misplaced notions”; radical newspapers were “to be suppressed by the police”; protest meetings had “to be broken up and the leaders sent home if need with broken heads.” The anarchist defendants were serpents from another world who struck with “poisonous fangs” at the true Americans who had taken them in. “STAMP OUT THE ANARCHISTS,” ran an editorial headline on May 7.7 The Tribune did everything it could to arouse its already-conditioned readership.

Most contemporaries believed the bomb was the harbinger of a massive plot by “un-Americanized foreign elements.” It was generally assumed that rioting workers murdered everyone who died in the Haymarket, that the fabric of the nation was in a precarious state, that (p.199) another extraordinary attack would follow, and that anyone even remotely involved deserved the severest punishment. The newspapers bolstered these impressions by falsifying facts to conform with popular opinion. In its first lead article on May 5, and against the eyewitness account of its own reporter in the Haymarket, the Chicago Tribune claimed that “the Anarchists and rioters poured in a shower of bullets before the first action of the police was taken.” It also claimed that “wiry whiskered foreigners” had been overheard planning the attack under instructions to “aim low.”8 The New York Times, under the banner “ANARCHY'S RED HAND,” followed suit. “Then from the Anarchists on every side, a deadly fire was poured in on the stricken lines of police, and more men fell to the ground.”9

Only part of such commentary can be explained on its own terms. Influxes of immigrant workers in the 1870s and 1880s did lead to exaggerated reactions against “wiry whiskered foreigners.” A depression of three years' duration, deteriorating labor conditions in factories, and an attempt on May 1 to mount a nationwide strike in support of the eight-hour workday were all contributing elements, but more disruptive earlier protests did not lead to such excessive reactions. It was peculiarly the Haymarket affair that “raised xenophobia to a new level of intensity, provoking the worst outburst of nativist sentiment in the entire post–Civil War period.”10

Something more subtle than economic conditions was at work, and the root of the matter lay in the fact that the anarchists were collective defendants in an extremely visible dock. Targeted as a group, they faced levels of abstraction in accusation that seemed to need no proof and, in requiring none, resisted efforts at counterproof. The accused were undone by arguments that were irrelevant to the formal charges but touched on deep-set communal fears and needs—the kind of fears and needs that cannot be met without creating more damage than the responses are worth. The heightened zone of scrutiny that always goes with accusation in court gave new focus and articulation to those anxieties, and only a designation of guilt was going to resolve them.

One of several arguments that could not be challenged in the Haymarket courtroom had to do with the claim of communal well-being, or, as the prosecution asserted in its closing address to the jury, “We live in Chicago, the metropolis of the great Northwest: the very center of the highest and best civilization on earth.”11 To the extent that the prosecution's (p.200)

Traitors in Name Only: The Haymarket DefendantsTraitors in Name Only: The Haymarket DefendantsTraitors in Name Only: The Haymarket Defendants

Figures 14, 15, & 16. (Upper left) Thomas Nast, “Advice to So-Called American Socialists: ‘You had better not attack this club,’” Harper's Weekly 30, no. 1523 (February 27, 1886), New York, NY. Engraving (ICHi-03660). Photograph courtesy of the Chicago History Museum. (Lower left) Thomas Nast, “Liberty Is Not Anarchy,” Harper's Weekly 20, no. 1550 (September 4, 1886), Haymarket Riot, Chicago, IL. Engraving (ICHi-31344). Photograph courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.(Above) “The Friend of Mad Dogs” (New York: Judge Publishing, 1893). Cartoon (ICHi-31336). Photograph courtesy of the Chicago History Museum. Highly pejorative depictions of unpopular defendants are a frequent phenomenon in high-profile trials. These cartoons from the period portray the Haymarket defendants as demons, collective vermin, and mad dogs. When a community thinks of its enemies as less than human in this way, it loses some of its own humanity. The figure shown unleashing the dogs on Liberty and her children is John Peter Altgeld, the once-popular governor of Illinois who knowingly sacrificed his political career by pardoning the remaining defendants in 1893.

(p.201) (p.202) paeans to progress held the floor, the defendants could only be wrongheaded, unpatriotic troublemakers, and yet to counter the assertion, to expose Chicago's sordid side, would hardly serve a jury taken from a proud community under unwarranted attack. The claim that there could be “no such thing as an American anarchist” created another rhetorical bind for the defense. If such alienation never came from indigenous Americans—if, as so many said, “the American character has in it no element which can under any circumstances be won to uses so mistaken and pernicious”—then blame for Chicago's turmoil had to rest with “un-Americanized” elements subject to the leadership of foreign-born leaders.12 One did not have to throw the bomb to be caught within the web of this logic.

A parallel contention, the claim that private property secured national prosperity, was similarly difficult to counter. The “sacred” principle of private property usually came with the charge that anarchist leaders had either violated it or failed to understand it. Most Americans in 1886 could not accept the fact that their prosperity depended largely on the hidden fact of cheap labor—labor kept cheap by the regular importation of immigrant workers into factories and mines under contract labor agreements.13 The ideology of prosperity asked immigrants to be patient in “the land of promise,” which by definition was “a region on the earth's surface where a few days' unskilled labor will purchase the fee-simple of an ample farm.”14 Mass immigration by subsistence-wage earners in factories offered no such trajectory, but the cultural finger of accusation could again assign the source of failure to anarchist leaders. Rabble-rousers with no understanding of property, anarchists spoke in ways that diverted their own kind from accepting the American dream.

To think otherwise required a reassessment of the changing circumstances in the nation, and it was a reassessment that most American-born citizens were either unwilling or unable to make in 1886. A majority resorted instead to what has been called “the paranoid style in American politics.” Its tendencies (“heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” especially regarding foreign elements) have always been strong in a culture where the need for constant adjustment has led citizens in each generation to feel “dispossessed” of their heritage. The formulations of the paranoid style include apocalyptic terminology, a threat of catastrophic proportions, an identified enemy who can be held responsible for every problem, and a crisis mentality that brings “fundamental15 (p.203) fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action.”

The paranoid style translated easily into the Haymarket situation. Chicago in 1886 was a city where dispossession touched everyone. “Anglo-Saxon Americanism,” “a kind of patrician nationalism,” remained the frame of reference, but other ethnicities were a majority of the population by the 1880s, and the percentage of foreign-born was rising with each passing year. To keep the upper hand, the holders of Anglo-Saxon Americanism looked with suspicion on any immigrant who brought “a divided heart” to Chicago. Americanization demanded “a process of elimination” through “denationalization of non-English descent.” Immigrants were to strip themselves of previous affiliations as the price of acceptance. “The real Americans were Anglo-Americans.” Sophisticated immigrants could challenge these pressures, and most brought coherent cultural affiliations with them, but to argue from them in an American courtroom meant “a divided heart” or worse.16

Too much was ideologically at stake for anarchist claims to be tolerated by the dominant culture. Acceptance of the plight of the immigrant in 1886 required an admission that the American experiment had gone awry. It was so much easier to extol an endangered heritage and blame present ills on alien ways of thinking and acting. The physical bomb in the Haymarket brought an intellectual explosion of nativism in reaction. Dynamite, newspapers and communal leaders announced, was the weapon of the foreign-born. It had been a European attack on American values, and an enraged citizenry was more than happy to have their designated enemies dragged into court.

Not the least tragedy in the Haymarket affair lies here. Communal animosity grew fat on the legal context. Already portrayed as despicable extremists in the press, the defendants suffered further harm from the exaggerations that always come in courtroom advocacy. They appeared as fiends and traitors in the arguments of the prosecution, and daily coverage of the prosecution's case fueled more communal hysteria. Victims on this level, the defendants contributed to their own downfall on another. Courts dislike arguments about sociological process. They assign responsibility for particular behavior in the individuals who are brought before them. In their radicalism, the Haymarket defendants could accept neither the thrust nor the legitimacy of this orientation. They saw themselves in an international struggle against capitalist oppressors, and (p.204) the particularities of the law ran against their most cherished ideological imperatives.

When the anarchists responded in court, it was with the assumed superiority of their own theoretical stance. They treated the trial court with disdain as the tool of the power elite, a view that left them ill-equipped for the give-and-take of trial performance. Automatically shrill as professional protesters seeking to be heard, they saw no reason to adjust their language as legal defendants. Ideological needs and group solidarity would prove especially disastrous as the legal process continued its ominous march after trial. Five of the convicted men on death row would refuse to plead for a pardon that required a tacit admission of guilt.

The idealistic defendants clearly hurt their own case. Even so, why were they not saved by others in a better position to understand their legal situation? The guilty verdict at trial is easy to explain. It was the logical, even automatic consequence of communal outrage. The Haymarket jurors listened for two months to complicated arguments based on an indictment that contained sixty-nine counts on eight very different defendants, and they convicted all eight men in less than an afternoon. But if juries reflect communal thought, they depend even more on trial performers and professional conduct, and that was the case here.

Questionable judicial and prosecutorial behavior contributed to the hasty verdicts in the Haymarket trial, and both were serious enough to require higher review. The most troubling questions come on appeal after trial. Were the defendants easily convicted? Yes, they were. But why were their convictions upheld? Why were four wrongly convicted men executed despite the cognizance of two higher courts, including the highest court in the land?

The Haymarket on Appeal

Leaders of the Chicago bar immediately saw what needed to be done through assigned error on appeal, and proper applications were made to the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois and then to the Supreme Court of the United States. Public opinion remained an intimidating force at these levels, but the law is not a consensual process, even though it breathes in a consensual culture; its leaders pride themselves on their (p.205) objectivity, their fairness, their special knowledge, and their professional immunity from outside pressure. Nevertheless, the upper reaches of the legal system ratified decisions that would soon be seen as unjust, and they ratified them unanimously. The trial of the Chicago anarchists has many facets, but the insidious vitality of injustice once committed may be the darkest.

The grounds for reversible error in the Haymarket trial have been described by others.17 On August 20, 1886, the Criminal Court of Cook County, with Judge Joseph E. Gary presiding, found all eight defendants guilty of murder as accessories before the fact in the death of Mathias J. Degan, the one police officer who clearly died from the bomb on May 4. August Spies, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, and Louis Lingg all received the penalty of death, while Oscar Neebe was given a sentence of fifteen years in prison under the same verdict. Judge Gary's handling of the case would receive so much criticism that he took the unusual step of publishing an article in defense of his actions.18 One disinterested and highly respected member of the Chicago bar left the following description of what took place:

Every principle and precedent of Anglo-Saxon law was outraged by the rulings of Judge Gary, and he so confessed in the remarks he made when overruling the motion for a new trial. He said, “This case is without precedent. There is no example in the law books of a case of this sort.” He manufactured the law and disdained precedent in order that a frightened public might be made to feel secure.19

The specifics that higher courts were asked to review can be summarized quickly. Judge Gary showed hostility to the defendants and their attorneys on numerous occasions, comparing the men in the dock to horse thieves and dismissing objections to his rulings with derision and contempt. He allowed a special bailiff to handpick the jury pool. His rulings during the selection of the jury led to biased individuals serving on the panel. He allowed the state to present inflammatory evidence beyond the scope of the charges before the court. Worst of all, he gave an overly broad definition of the crime of conspiracy to the jury as it retired to make its decision. Under Judge Gary's instructions, the defendants could be found guilty of murder as accessories without identification of the (p.206) bomb thrower, and the defendants' words at any time or place, whether in print or speech, could be used to convict if their language encouraged other individuals, left undefined, to commit murder.20

These instructions were unprecedented. They allowed the jury to guess at the affiliations and motivations of the unknown bomb thrower, they encouraged the jury to assign specific agency to words spoken loosely in an abstract context, and they tied all of the defendants to the crime through the language of any one of them. Judge Gary's further insistence on a joint trial over the protests of the accused—men held together only by membership in the International Association of Workingmen—insured that the standard for conviction would be set at the level of the most radical of the men on trial, Louis Lingg. Nothing in the Haymarket could be traced to Lingg, but he was openly defiant and dangerous looking. He could be shown to have made bombs with the threat of using them, and he openly challenged the validity of the court. Speaking in German, he would tell the court: “I despise your order, your law, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it!”21

The prosecution also engaged in prejudicial conduct. State's Attorney Julius Grinnell promised to show the court who threw the bomb when he knew that he could not do so. He roiled emotions unnecessarily by waving the bloody uniform of the victim, the dead policeman, in court. He reached beyond the indictment to pin all deaths in the Haymarket on the defendants, assuring the jurors that if he could only get them to “see the dead and mingle with the wounded and dying,” it would “steel [their] hearts against the defendants.” Grinnell used inappropriate terms about the defendants; they were “loathsome murderers,” “organized assassins,” “infamous scoundrels,” and “revolutionists.” He said the accused were “on trial for treason,” when they were not, and he compounded the impropriety by insisting that treason meant “no mitigation, no palliation, no chance for the jury to hedge on the offense.” Finally, he intimidated jurors by warning them. Their responsibility was “greater than any jury in the history of the world ever undertook.” They had to act. The Republic itself was at stake. “Law is on trial,” Grinnell told them. “Anarchy is on trial.”22

On appeal, the defense would prove how these and other irregularities crossed the line of fairness, but not one of the issues raised convinced either higher court to overturn or qualify the Haymarket decision. Part of the explanation can be traced to the narrow scope of the appeal process (p.207) itself. In acknowledging restraint, higher courts filter an appeal through all of the reasons for denying one. A refusal to act can be substantive or procedural, linguistic or strictly legal, professional or prudential, political or technical, or simply evasive. Appellate judges recognize that rulings of error undermine the credibility of the system. They work hard to guard the discretion of a trial judge, and there are good reasons for doing so. Protecting flexibility in the court of first resort allows justice to be done on the facts in individual cases. Thus, in one of the least understood elements of the legal system, real energy and power lie with the trial judge, and they almost always stay there.23

The Supreme Court of Illinois deliberated for six months before upholding the trial court in every particular, and when its unanimous decision finally came, it left the defendants with less than two months to live. A close execution date was set for November 11, 1887. At the same time, the court admitted it could not “approve all that was said by the trial judge.” Nor did its members find the trial record “free from error.”24 How, then, could the highest court in the state appear so certain in a flawed capital case based on circumstantial evidence and involving so many different defendants?

Justice Benjamin Magruder, speaking for his six colleagues, quoted extensively from the prosecution's collection of anarchist materials. He agreed that the International Association of Workingmen sacrificed some protections of the law as “an illegal organization, engaged in the making of bombs.” He granted without question the unproven contention that the bomb had been the first step in a concerted attack in the Haymarket: “First, a bomb was thrown among the policemen; next, shots were fired into their ranks by armed men, belonging to the organizations heretofore described.” Taken as facts, these assertions gave prima facie evidence of a conspiracy, and they allowed the Illinois Supreme Court to confirm the right of the state to prove its case in any way that it chose.25

Samuel McConnell, a skilled lawyer and a judge himself soon after these events, would write that the Illinois Supreme Court “ignored the major questions involved in the case.”26 Appellate courts control their decisions by what they will allow themselves to see, and in this regard, the foregone conclusion of a guilty verdict seems to have weighed heavily with Justice Magruder. The decision to try the defendants jointly and the instructions given the jury were matters of discretion for the trial court.

(p.208) The rhetoric of an official point of view took care of the rest. The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed with some of what Judge Gary had said but found “no such error” as “would justify a reversal of the cause.” Justice Magruder handled the largest problem with a statement supported only by itself: “We cannot see that the remarks of the state's attorney were marked by any such improprieties as require a reversal of the judgment.” Reliance in this way on an animate point of view—no institution actually sees—gave the court the power to adjust its priorities just as individuals see near or far depending on the occasion or whim. In this case, it allowed seven judges to push the line of error away from them; it kept them at the distance they needed to avoid the appearance of injustice.27

The U.S. Supreme Court had even less difficulty in rejecting the defendants' writ of error on November 2, nine days before the scheduled executions, and its language shows again how high the bar can be set on appeal. Chief Justice Morrison Waite delivered the opinion for a unanimous court. On the question of whether prejudiced jurors had been allowed to sit on the panel, he quoted precedent, saying: “It must be made clearly to appear that upon the evidence the court ought to have found the juror had formed such an opinion that he could not in law be deemed impartial”; nothing could be done “unless the error is manifest.” To overcome the judgments of two state courts, the error complained of had to be “so gross as to amount in law to a denial by the State of a trial by an impartial jury to one who is accused of crime.” The Supreme Court refused to look beneath the surfaces. There were no questions “on the face of the record” for it to decide.28

The roadblocks set up on appeal are necessary ones, but they also reveal that the best place to cope with injustice is at trial. A disturbing story unfolds in the upper reaches of the Haymarket case. Since facts are generally not reviewed at higher levels, a trial court that misuses them presents a difficult problem for the legal system to handle. Even when a judge bends the law, as Judge Gary did with a loose definition of the crime of conspiracy, the standards for reversing a trial decision remain narrow. Legal error must be apparent; “it must be made clearly to appear.” Reversible error must be “manifest”—“so gross,” in fact, as to amount to a denial of justice in law and not as a matter of fact. The constitutive metaphor of sight allows an appellate court to see only what it cannot avoid by holding to “the face of the record.” The privilege given to ostension below (showing at trial) qualifies point of view above, and (p.209) most problems remain, in consequence, “a matter of discretion in the lower court.”

The Haymarket trial from more than a century ago remains legally useful today because it illustrates two elements of continuing importance. On the technical level, appeal processes in the legal system are an essential but insufficient safety valve, and the nature of the insufficiency points toward a second and more tangled level of concern. Injustice flourished in Chicago in 1886 because communal angers with media encouragement infected “the court of first impression” and because fixed impressions are difficult to change. The subsequent appeals failed for additional reasons. There is great institutional energy and momentum behind a legal decision once reached. All the same, when a decision is flawed and sustained anyway on appeal, something else happens: the energy and momentum shift back to the community that triggered injustice in the first place. Debate over the Haymarket trial did not end with the death of the defendants in 1887.

As more and more people realized that eight admittedly unpopular men had been convicted when they were nowhere near the crime and that, despite every uncertainty, four of them had been executed on the flimsiest evidence, reactions set in. The legal system had failed to protect the innocent until proven guilty. One at a time, outside narrators began to appear with their own descriptions of the event. Trials that are perceived to have gone wrong in a republic of laws provoke acute responses. Is it helpful to measure a community by how it reacts to injustice in its midst? The imaginative literature of the Haymarket affair comes alive in the awkward responses it delivers to this question.

Frank Harris Writes the Bomb (1908)

Frank Harris, the Anglo-Irish writer and radical journalist, “dictated three-quarters of The Bomb in one night,” and aspects of the novel read that way. He could compose at such speed by forcing a familiar chronology of events through formulaic religious parallels.29 Louis Lingg, the most radical of the Haymarket defendants and the man who committed suicide in his cell to cheat the hangman, serves as a Christ figure for Harris, with the words “one man should die for the people.” This outsize characterization calls “for one of us now to do what Jesus did (p.210) with the cross, and by sheer loving-kindness turn the hangman's noose into a symbol of the eternal brotherhood of men.” Harris's Lingg enjoys the devotion of a Mary Magdalene (Ida Miller), knows he will be betrayed by a Judas, receives “reverence” even from his enemies, and names his judge Pontius Pilate. Harris's wish fulfillment of a bomb thrower, Rudolph Schnaubelt, narrates this radical version of the Haymarket affair as Lingg's disciple. They are bomb maker and bomb thrower acting in mutual sacrifice for humankind.30

The excesses of The Bomb are what make it interesting. Harris writes a promiscuous jumble of reality and fantasy that joins court transcripts and newspaper accounts to fantastic characterizations and his own “confession of faith.”31 The novel falters in these crossovers, caught between romance, history, and personal projection. Rhetorically, Harris's story is the negative to the photograph of prosecutorial bombast in 1886. Everything evil in the official and semi-official narratives surrounding the Haymarket affair appears in obverse as innocence in The Bomb. All of the praise for law and order in the Chicago Tribune becomes a source of iniquity here. The facts that drive the novel are ones that the Criminal Court of Cook County refused to consider when it punished the anarchist defendants.

Harris's protagonist, the escaped bomb thrower Rudolph Schnaubelt, is the prototype of the disillusioned immigrant. He comes to America believing that hard work will lead to success and finds himself trapped by vicious cycles of poverty and prejudice. His experience, chapter by chapter, exposes the dimensions of immigrant labor in nineteenth-century America. Child laborers, women, and other factory workers die horribly from disease and unsafe conditions. Capricious layoffs occur, and starvation stalks the urban ghettoes. Police suppress legitimate labor protest. The courts protect oppressive capitalist interests, and newspapers attack labor at every turn through patriotic rubrics.

In these conditions, responsible protest turns into “ineffective speech,” and the logic of the situation demands radical action (75–76, 93, 97). The theme is important because it figures prominently in all of the novels that deal with the Haymarket affair. In every case, contempt for mere words lends a vital tension and a scene of extremism to what the novelist has written. Predictably, Harris saves his harshest criticism for the trial of the Haymarket defendants, where words are understood to have maximal importance and where the articulation of justice is supposed to be a controlling (p.211) aspiration: “It seems only natural to expect human beings to be at their best in a trial where life and death hang in the balance.” Instead, the trial unfolds as “a horrible revelation of man's innate brutality” (263).

The Bomb reverses the ethical positions of the historical defendants and their accusers. Courage defines the anarchist defendants; “cowardice and stupidity” reign in court (258). The trial is “a cruel farce,” and the narrator's realization is significant. In fact, it is this legal travesty that destroys first the idealist and then the man (265–66, 288). Injustice meted out by the Haymarket courts triggers a personal spiral into complete disillusionment, and the rest of the novel becomes a critique of the radical temperament in decline. Corruption in the legal process has hurt the most because of the bomb thrower's original belief in it. If the law can be just and is not just, what then?

The sharpest proof of the power in injustice comes through an especially depressing source: the “indecent and shameless delight” of the multitudes who welcome the Haymarket death sentences. “That seven out of the eight men were entirely innocent seemed to concern no one, and interest no one in particular,” the narrator of The Bomb remarks as he enters a dismal world of “cold looks, unwilling attention, shrugging shoulders.” He sees that “the number of people in this world who care for justice or right, apart from their own interests, is very small,” and the recognition leads him to condemn humanity altogether, a step that drains him of all meaning (278, 291).

Early on this narrating persona declares that “the misery of mankind is as infinite as the sea” (26). His additional discovery is that no one cares enough to examine that misery, and so the misery spreads while the truly miserable suffer alone. In the end, everyone seems to deserve or at least receive some kind of punishment in this perspective, and the bomb thrower descends into an abyss of endless malevolence. “Nature comes and strikes our fingers one after the other,” he concludes, “till, unable to endure the punishment any longer, we loosen our hold and fall into the void” (26, 316).

Frank Harris's novel is valuable for the way it dramatizes a radicalism of despair. When protest becomes hopeless, it turns violent. The Bomb tells that story, and it is one that every complex society with a modicum of injustice in its midst had better hear. The task of law is to respond fairly to complaint, violence, ill-treatment, accusation, objection, infringement, violation, oppression, and discrimination. As the main locus of meaning (p.212) in a secular world, law is the civil religion of the state, and there is great ideological danger when it fails. The Bomb depicts the collapse in meaning when faith in a legal regime disappears. Harris records a form of disruption that annihilates everything in its wake and anything it can reach, including, quite willingly, itself. Any twenty-first century reader of The Bomb will recognize this appalling phenomenon and must fear the prospect of coming to know it too well.

Robert Herrick Writes the Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905)

The Memoirs of an American Citizen is at once a more sophisticated and a more parochial novel than The Bomb. A cosmopolitan journalist, Frank Harris attacks injustice in the capitalist system everywhere, with the Haymarket trial as a convenient example. Robert Herrick tries instead to write the great American novel, and as a displaced New Englander teaching at the University of Chicago, he cannot avoid the Haymarket as a comment on fundamental communal identity. He writes more subtly but with a simplistic dichotomy in mind. His America is “the most brilliant exponent of the democratic principle” but also “a hideous Shylock, obese, heavy-jowled, cynically selfish and callous, incapable of understanding even its own best interests.” Herrick tries to bring this double-natured beast to life in a unified work of literature. What, he keeps asking, are Americans doing to America?32

Harris and Herrick differ most strikingly in their treatments of the Haymarket defendants, and the contrast is an alarming one in light of Herrick's nationalist perspective. Harris, the amoral international adventurer, sympathizes with the downtrodden and falsely accused in his depiction of the anarchists and the laboring poor. Herrick, the national moralist as intellectual, remains aloof from all poverty and squalor in his eagerness to depict American idealism under siege.33

The difference stands out because of other similarities. Herrick and Harris agree about the nature of injustice in the Haymarket trial. The judge is just as biased, the jury just as handpicked, the capitalist influence just as manipulative of opinion, and the defendants even more innocent in The Memoirs of an American Citizen. “Few stopped to think of justice, and no one of mercy,” Herrick writes in his version of the trial, (p.213) but his outrage never translates into sympathy. His defendants are cardboard figures without personalities and “misguided fools” in court. Notably, Herrick chooses his protagonist from the other side of the fence. The comparable first-person narrator of his novel is a juror who convicts men he knows to be innocent.34

It is telling that both writers make the courtroom the essential forum for shaping character development. The juror as protagonist, like the bomb thrower, receives his most important lessons from the law. Herrick's first-person narrator, Edward Van Harrington, first encounters the law as an Indiana farm boy mistreated by a corrupt local judge. Innocent of wrongdoing, his attempts to get back at the judge land him in jail as a “good-for-nothing” and “a bit of a hoodlum,” and he escapes prosecution only by a lucky turn of events (21–30). In Chicago as an angry young man, Van Harrington runs afoul of another judge, and again he escapes through happenstance. These experiences lend an ugly wisdom. Van Harrington recognizes that he has been “a plain fool” acting on “sorehead feeling” (30–33). Energized rather than defeated, he begins a ruthless climb to fame and fortune. He has “the stomach to do the world's work” and no need for further reflection until his boss in the meatpacking business makes him serve on the handpicked Haymarket jury (50, 68–71).

Enforced idleness in the jury box brings introspection: “There in the courtroom, and later shut up in the jury quarters, day after day, cut off from my usual habits, I thought over some of the real questions of our life, and made for myself a kind of philosophy.” No fool, Van Harrington sees that the judge has manufactured the law to convict and that the defendants are innocent except for being “kickers who tried to upset the machine,” but he knows that capitalism controls the court, and he votes guilty anyway. Life in his point of view is “a struggle between sensible folk who went about their business and tried to get all there was in it—like myself—and some scum from Europe, who didn't like the way things are handed out in this world.” Hanging the anarchists completes a new identity. “[The trial] coming as it did, when I had my foot placed on the ladder of fortune, had something to do with making me what I am to-day.” A sincere but unreliable narrator throughout, Van Harrington makes this admission cheerfully and without a touch of regret (72–77).

The Memoirs of an American Citizen renders the narrator's thought processes about the Haymarket affair in painstaking detail for a reason, (p.214) and the tones of the speaker are the key. Herrick, high above his morally obtuse narrator, injects slang to undercut depth in the mentality that he has created. He uses this element of vulgar speech to control another point of view in the novel: the negative reaction of the reader. “It was a fine thing to live and hustle with your neighbors for the dollars,” Van Harrington says as a Haymarket juror. “I had done my part to make the game go on smoothly” (76). No reader, regardless of political affiliation, can sympathize with the flippant manner of Van Harrington as he describes his participation in the Haymarket tragedy.

Curiously, though, Herrick confirms the philosophical trajectory of his speaker, and this decision eviscerates every potential crisis of awareness in the novel. Those who join Van Harrington in his rise to wealth and status are invariably hurt by the ride and say so, but they have no impact on him. Humorless behind the veil of his own censoriousness, Herrick supplies no growth in his leading character, no breakdown, no relief from a picaresque march through similar incidents. The same Van Harrington moves through scenes and solves difficulties. His philosophical epiphany as the Haymarket juror—“Suddenly a meaning to it all came to me like a great light” (75)—has no sequel. True, he occasionally realizes “the fight I was waging with fortune was as cold as these ashes and doomed to failure.” But nothing really fazes him. An emptiness around the narrator never interrupts the new American citizen's enjoyment of his rightful success (266–79).

The result is an even deeper fatalism than found in The Bomb. Van Harrington thrives because Herrick validates his character's division of the world into the weak and the strong. A monotony of patterned contrasts fills the novel. Every strong character takes a weak mate in The Memoirs of an American Citizen, with the victory of the strong performed and cataloged. Herrick's major example of strength on the side of American idealism is beaten down by Van Harrington and the new economic order.

This idealistic figure, Van Harrington's first love May Rudge (rhymes with drudge), jousts with him throughout the novel over moral and religious principle, but she marries Van Harrington's pathetic older brother and dominates her husband while losing all influence in the major contest. Van Harrington, in turn, marries the fragile socialite Sarah Gentles, while his equally weak, querulous boss, Henry Iverson Dround, takes cues from another strong figure, his wife Jane, who inspires Van Harrington (p.215) in dirty dealing. “She is so strong, and I am so weak,” moans Sarah, fearing for her husband while acting out Herrick's major theme, but there is nothing to worry about (96). Herrick's women are sexless. The novelist cares only for power, not physical relation. Couples invariably present a ruler over a weaker ruled, and their children turn the pattern into a natural principle of selection (241).

The source of these patterns is also unsettling. Like many of the writers of his generation, Herrick takes his philosophy from Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Van Harrington is no intellectual, but he is made to read both authors avidly (52). Spencer is particularly valuable because he takes Darwin's theory of evolution and applies it to human relations in works like The Study of Sociology (1873) and Principles of Ethics (1879). Survival of the fittest in Darwin becomes in Spencer the capacity to adapt through the recognition of force in all phenomena. The Spencerian synthesis makes individual action worthy only when it recognizes power effectively; evolutionary force turns into morality when filtered through utilitarian ethics.35

In the economics of The Memoirs of an American Citizen, a Spencerian stance requires “a strong hand” that will use power ruthlessly in speculation (219). Words like “better” and “worse” figure as “childish” anachronisms and are replaced with an evolutionary spirit of adaptation. “Every age is a new one,” Van Harrington pontificates, “and to live in any age you have got to have the fingers and toes necessary for that age” (114). Now on the other end of the law, he doesn't hesitate to bribe a corrupt judge of his own when opposing forces have him cornered politically (154, 166–67). Force must be met with force by whatever means that will identify the strong; or in Harringtonian slang, “it's dog eat dog,” and “the big dog will eat up the rest” (94).

Herrick obviously disapproves of this voice, but he provides no alternatives to the logic it lives by. The Memoirs of an American Citizen tells the story of “strugglers on the outside of prosperity, trying hard to climb up somewhere in the bread-and-butter order of life” (41). It is dog eat dog in the world of the novel. Struggle is the novelist's theme, and irony over his character's moral obtuseness changes neither the nature of the struggle nor the fascination that success breeds. Elsewhere, Herrick bemoans “the relentless pressure in economic laws” as a force that obliterates the past and causes public discourse to be “almost insanely preoccupied with American wealth,” but he also concedes that “it is a waste of time” to (p.216) deplore these conditions. In this, his best novel, he proves the point over and over again. Ironic disapproval, yes; but real protest seems to be useless.36

The narrator-protagonist's “gospel of man against man” disarms even the ultimate enemy, an anarchist who has cornered him physically and prepares to kill him on the spot. Van Harrington saves himself not with threats but by persuading his adversary that capitalism controls the world. Convinced and depressed, the “loose-minded” anarchist vanishes from the novel as suddenly as he arrived, never to appear again (160–62). The inability of anyone to answer a character who builds his philosophy around a moment of injustice troubles the novel. Intellectual bankruptcy would not be too strong a term.

All of these problems can be traced directly to Van Harrington in the jury box. The casual nature of his decision shocks at all levels: “The world seemed to me so good a place to hustle in that I couldn't rightly appreciate the complaint of these rebels against society,” and so “guilty or not, these men must suffer for their foolish opinions, which were dead against the majority” (74). Rightly suffering whether guilty or not? A philosophy of inevitable force in the hands of the strong destroys innocent men who are at fault for being too weak and impoverished to defend themselves. The novelist gives us a new kind of American citizen, and it is one defined by prosperity through whatever means it takes.

In thinking about the role of law in this world of force, Herrick underscores the loss in values through Van Harrington's lawyer. Jaffrey Slocum is “a man of learning and a lover of the law for its own sake” from a line of distinguished New England judges. He represents American idealism but turns himself into “a trained prostitute” when he bribes the courts for Van Harrington. His sacrifice of legal meaning symbolizes the demoralization of law when courts act unjustly, and the worst of it is that Slocum acts not for gain but in acceptance of the new order in things. In Van Harrington's breezy account, “He sold himself to me, not just for money, but for friendship and admiration” (255–58).

Herrick's upright but embittered symbol of integrity, May Rudge, explains why the Haymarket affair will happen again. “I say, Van,” she accuses, “you are the devil's instrument! You and those like you—and there are a good many of them—are just plain big rascals, only the laws can't get hold of you” (192). Later in life, and sounding a little like May, Herrick will attempt to rekindle “the old urge of justice, the old cry of freedom (p.217) from tyranny—the desire of the individual man or woman to prove life under tolerable conditions,” but the younger and better novelist has already grasped a darker reality.37 Steeped in the tawdry details of the Haymarket trial, he cannot avoid an awful conclusion. If the pursuit of happiness is defined by wealth, what the law cannot help it will join.

William Dean Howells Writes a Hazard of New Fortunes (1890)

William Dean Howells congratulated Herrick for the “carefully guarded unconsciousness” of Van Harrington in The Memoirs of an American Citizen. Herrick had given life to a “‘pal’ of Providence” and deserved praise for keeping emotions in check and avoiding any sign of a “hectic flush” in his critique of American society. Howells's words indicate how much he agreed with Herrick in remaining high above their created characters. Both writers valued a quiet objectivity and understatement that would supply “an ethical impulse effecting itself by means of truth to life.”38 Realism demanded restraint and an unsentimental observer. It resisted excess. “Even with vice and crimes,” Howells declared, “[the novelist] should not be directly moralistic.”39 But what if a novelist felt excessively about a particular situation? What if truth to life had to challenge truth itself? What if life required more of the writer than the display of an ethical impulse?

Howells's approval of Herrick exposes the dilemma in his own treatment of the Haymarket affair. No other event in a long life, not even the Civil War, upset “the Dean of American Letters” as this one did. The trial of the anarchists had been “the cruelest wrong that ever threatened our fame as a nation.” Howells delivered his “very strong feeling in the matter” to anyone who would listen, including the newspapers, the courts, and the governor of Illinois. He would be the one major literary figure to protest in public and received heavy criticism for it. Normally matter-of-fact in his view of the world, he agonized over the execution of the anarchist defendants. “Annie,” he told his sister, “it's all been an atrocious piece of frenzy and cruelty, for which we must stand ashamed forever before history.”40

There could be no holding back. Engulfed in “the helpless grief and rage which seems to be my part in this business,” Howells claimed that the (p.218) Haymarket affair would never end for him. “All is over now,” he explained after the executions, “except the judgment that begins at once for every unjust and evil deed, and goes on forever.” He could not put it aside. “That is the devil of it,” he observed; “the train of evil seems to warp and twist all things awry as it goes on, when once its infernal impetus is given.” Undone, the writer confessed frustration and more. “It's no use. I can't write about it,” he admitted after trying. “Some day I hope to do justice to these irreparably wronged men.”

That day of reckoning came sooner rather than later with the publication of A Hazard of New Fortunes in 1890. Howells wrote in direct reaction to the Haymarket affair, and it would be his greatest novel, the hardest for him to write, and his most misunderstood work of fiction. Howells himself tied the book to “the bombs and scaffolds of Chicago.” He called it a “remission of sins” and “the most vital of my fictions.”41 A Hazard of New Fortunes became all of these things through an inner contest that dominates its pages. The distraught observer of 1887 vies with the aloof writer who proceeds from the distance of hindsight. When the book appeared, its recipients found the same wry, detached, even remote point of view that the writer brought to all of his novels of manners. Tonally, A Hazard of New Fortunes belongs to the genteel tradition of nineteenth-century American letters.42 Thematically and in its dialogues, it is a fierce satire of national values with the scars of the Haymarket trial all over it.43

Howells's radical early education in an abolitionist family had prepared him for a protest that could not be avoided in 1887. “They died in the prime of the freest Republic the world has ever known, for their opinion's sake.” Howells cried in bitterness and alarm over the anarchist defendants. He had to write about them. “It is useless to deny this truth, to cover it up, to turn our backs upon it, to frown it down, or sneer it down. We have committed an atrocious and irreparable wrong.”44 The fact of irreparable wrong deserved to be shouted to the rooftops. The health of the country depended upon it and so did Howells's integrity. If the cooler tones of the novelist never quite reach this level, there was a philosophical as well as an artistic reason for the difference.

The writer as realist has not forgotten the citizen-observer's mission, the promise “some day to do justice to these irreparably wronged men,” but he has added a larger question beyond protest. After all, protest had failed. A Hazard of New Fortunes never deals with the Haymarket trial directly, but its characters are arranged to answer the writer's larger query (p.219) about it. How could such an injustice take place in the prime of the freest republic the world had ever known? How could it happen in America? The question would not go away, and it held major ideological significance because Howells, even in protest, remained the clinical observer. He made himself see the largest truth about the execution of the Haymarket defendants. “I say, we,” Howells wrote, blaming everyone in 1887, “because this deed has apparently been done with the approval of the whole nation.”45

The man who had believed in a moral governor of the universe with the United States of America at the forefront of providential thinking changed his mind between 1887 and 1889, and it shows in the writing of his novel. The democratic idealist cannot be found in these pages. When Mark Twain wrote to Howells enraged over another political issue in 1889, Howells responded in measured tones. “I have just heated myself up with your righteous wrath,” he admitted as cool as ice. “But it seems to me that you ignore the real reason … which is that there is no longer an American republic.”46 These are strong words coming from one who consorted with the leaders of his day.

In the place of a once-shining beacon to the world, Howells announced that “an aristocracy-loving oligarchy” ruled the United States, and it had ruthlessly rejected the democratic agenda. “Why should our Money-bags rejoice in the explosion of a Wind-bag?” Howells asked Twain, over a deposed dictator in Latin America. “They know at the bottom of the hole where their souls ought to be that if such an event finally means anything it means their ruin next; and so they don't rejoice; and as they mostly inspire the people's voice, the press, the press is dumb.” Like Herrick and Harris, Howells blamed the media for much of what took place in the trial of the Haymarket defendants. More polite than they were about it, he would also be more subtly artistic and devastating in depicting it.

Howells's revulsion turned inward. If he and his wife, Elinor, were “theoretical socialists,” he knew full well that they were “practical aristocrats,” and the discrepancy filled him with disgust as he wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes in 1889. He wondered how it could be “a comfort to be right theoretically” when it was necessary “to be ashamed of one's self practically.”47 In his most famous letter from the period, written to Henry James, Howells unleashed an orgy of loathing over his own social hypocrisy, and his distress came from a progressively negative view of American culture:

(p.220) I'm not in very good humor with “America” myself. It seems to me the most grotesquely illogical thing under the sun; and I suppose I love it less because it won't let me love it more. I should hardly trust pen and ink with all the audacity of my social ideas; but after fifty years of optimistic content with “civilization” and its ability to come out all right in the end, I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end, unless it bases itself anew on a real equality. Meantime, I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all the luxury my money can buy.48

In Annie Kilburn, published in 1889, Howells described an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor in modern America and dramatized the failure of philanthropy to do anything about it. Immediately after, in A Hazard of New Fortunes, he turned on the upper-middle class to which he belonged for its own failure to act. The placid acceptance of class differences by his own kind, their blithe dismissal of labor unrest, and their evasion of the desperation they saw in the urban poor were fixed in his sights.49

A Hazard of New Fortunes opens with an alter ego of the novelist moving from Boston to New York to work on a magazine amidst labor unrest, just as Howells had done in 1888. Each character in the novel connects to this magazine venture in some way. Phonetic parallels on the names William and Elinor Howells, Basil and Isabel March are joined by Mr. Fulkerson, a fast-talking managing editor; Jacob Dryfoos, an upstart millionaire from the Midwest who finances the magazine for his unworldly son, Conrad; Berthold Lindau, the radical German socialist who translates for the magazine; Angus Beaton, a self-absorbed artist who provides layout and design; Alma Leighton, who drafts covers for the magazine; Margaret Vance, a socialite who entertains the others; and a former Southern Confederate, Colonel Woodburn, who writes for the magazine.

These characters and their appendages enter into the predictable conflicts we would expect of them, but in all of their careful differences, they are as one in their hopeless attitude toward the deteriorating social fabric of the city. The figures who care for social justice are peripheral and are either killed off (Conrad Dryfoos and Lindau, the socialist) or consigned to a nunnery (Margaret Vance). The omniscient narrator reveals that his characters will “grow too well satisfied with themselves, if not with each other.” In an omen of how his creatures will vacillate between self-interest (p.221) and principle, Howells gives the literary magazine at the center of his plot an ironic title: Every Other Week.50

Most critics make the mistake of tying Howells's point of view to that of the character patterned on his own life, Basil March—a fair assumption when applied to Howells's use of Basil in an earlier novel, Their Wedding Journey, but Howells explicitly rejected the connection here.51 He makes brutal fun of Basil and Isabel March in A Hazard of New Fortunes, hitting them hard at every turn. They are precisely the kind of people who will fret quietly, if they fret at all, when authority hangs radicals like the Haymarket defendants. Basil is “a man who had always been too self-enwrapt to perceive the chaos to which the individual selfishness must always lead.” He recognizes “the fierce struggle for survival, with the stronger life persisting over the deformity, the mutilation, the destruction, the decay of the weaker,” but he feels abstractly with “nothing definite, nothing better than a vague discomfort, however poignant, in his half recognition of such facts” (184).

Howells builds his novel around these half-recognitions. A good man, if not an especially courageous one, his protagonist Basil March would be on the side of the angels if there were angels to follow in A Hazard of New Fortunes, but there are none. Basil never knows quite where to turn in consequence. His “whimsical shrug for the squalor,” as he walks through a poor neighborhood, permits an ocean of condescension “It's curious, isn't it, how fond the poor people are of these unpleasant thoroughfares?” he asks rhetorically. Lest one miss the point, the narrator announces that Basil “sentimentalized the sweltering paupers who had crept out of the squalid tenements” (299).

The scene of poverty leads Basil to “pine for the society of my peers.” Half-jokingly, he asks to be “taken somewhere to meet my fellow-exclusives” but then finds them dull and wonders why. Howells uses the moment to skewer “the vast, prosperous, commercial class, with unlimited money, and no ideals that money could not realize.” Half-aware once again, the Marches want to know “whether this were the best that a great material civilization could come to” (299–302). Their supercilious responses are indeed the stuff of satire. Tentatively and sharply by turns, Howells is the first American novelist to fully see and send up the liberal temperament in urban life.52

Howells disarms the Marches on precisely the topics that he cares most about in the late 1880s. Basil admits that “his own life of comfortable (p.222) reverie” has left him without a moral compass. Asked about his convictions, he replies: “I don't know what they are” (194, 441). He and his managing editor, Fulkerson, agree that people of principle are “cranks” to be avoided (410). The two men laugh at Conrad Dryfoos's efforts at charity. Basil chuckles again when the radical socialist Lindau rages against the capitalist owner of the magazine for breaking a strike of workers by force with armed Pinkertons. Howells gives his protagonist an “American ease of mind about everything,” and this means that Basil approaches poverty and the other social problems of his day with “impartial interest” (190–91). “The burden of all the wrong in the world comes on the poor,” responds Lindau, but this and other cries of injustice are mere “ravings” to the literary editor of Every Other Week (300–301). When a policeman treats him rudely in the culminating scene of labor unrest, Basil identifies with the people but quells the anger that might lead to involvement: “He struggled with himself and regained his character of philosophical observer” (412).

Ridicule at Basil March's expense is also Howells's despair. Asked what he would do himself about repression of the transit strike that dominates the climax of the novel, Basil answers, “Do? Nothing.” “I find that I can philosophize the situation about as well from the papers, and that's what I really want to do.” His interlocutor in this scene is more chilling. Fulkerson, the huckstering managing editor, actually welcomes the butchery taking place. He is the symbol of the modern commercial temperament in A Hazard of New Fortunes, and because he identifies with “unalloyed prosperity,” he welcomes the “iron hand” and “splendid courage” of the police against the strikers (95, 406–8). Howells gives his characters neither the vision nor the capacity to cope with the unfairness around them; instead they are part of it. In the scene of police brutality that follows the exchange just noted, the good (Margaret Vance) increases the danger of the just (Conrad Dryfoos) by her presence. The good and the just are equally helpless, and the just sacrifices himself unwittingly, killed by a policeman, when he enters the conflict in the name of the good.

A typical exchange between the symbol of the artist, Angus Beaton, and Howells's representation of unaided goodness, Margaret Vance, indicates how satire works through dialogue without farther comment on it:

He could not help saying in natural rebellion, “Well, the man of one idea is always a little ridiculous.”

(p.223) “When his idea is right?” she demanded. “A right idea can't be ridiculous.”

“Oh, I only said, the man that held it alone. He's flat, he has no relief, no projection.” (396)

Accurate at the expense of the supercilious Beaton, Margaret has been thoroughly mocked herself in a previous scene: “She had a repute for good works which was out of proportion to the works, as it always is, but she was really active in that way, under the vague obligation, which we now all feel, to be helpful.” Women like Margaret Vance, Howells tells us in identification of social complicity, “are the loveliest of the human race, but perhaps the rest have to pay too much for them” (246–50).

The speaker of these last words, Isabel March, receives her own comeuppance with astonishing regularity. She's the butt of Howells's sharpest sarcasm. To take only the nastiest dig, she objects to the radical Lindau as a tutor for her children because her son and daughter “had been nurtured in the faith of Bunker Hill and Appomattox as the beginning and the end of all possible progress in human rights.” Isabel reprises Howells's self-flagellating letter to Henry James: “She was naturally an aristocrat, but as an American she was theoretically a democrat; and it astounded, it alarmed her, to hear American democracy denounced as a shuffling evasion. It shocked her to be told that the rich and the poor were not equal before the law in a country where justice must be paid for at every step in fees and costs, or where a poor man must go to war in his own person, and a rich man might hire some one to go in his.” In the hilarious denouement to this scene, the mother in Isabel deserts her love of equality as soon as it counts: “She had been comforted by the thought that if there ever was another war, and Tom were drafted, his father could buy him a substitute” (292–93).

Howells searches so mercilessly for targets because he is his own best source. After the Haymarket affair, he tried to teach himself “patience with conditions that I believe wrong,” even as he admitted, “I do not think there is any final hope of justice under them.” “I am neither an example nor an incentive,” he realized, and the insight left him staring at “my ugliness and fatuity and feebleness.”53 In A Hazard of New Fortunes, a pinch of authorial self-abasement appears in every character with the closest parallels in the figures who behave the worst. Jacob Dryfoos sounds like the people who executed the Haymarket defendants when (p.224) he shouts that a foreign protester is “a red-mouthed labor-agitator” who “ought to be hung!” (347). Yet, in the death of his son and wallowing in sorrow and guilt, Dryfoos resembles no one more than William Dean Howells, who grieved in similar terms over the death of his daughter Winnie while writing the novel.54 In an acrid moment that makes the identification especially raw, Basil March puzzles dryly over Dryfoos's bereavement. The literary man who lives vicariously wonders whether anyone is ever changed by “tremendous sorrow” (485).

Howells never lets up, and no one is safe. The artist, Angus Beaton, appears as the most despicable narcissist imaginable, which is perhaps why the novelist leaves him dithering over the same fur-lined overcoat that Howells spoofs in depicting his own hypocrisy to Henry James (382). Alma Leighton, the colorless sketcher of magazine covers, is a lively type for Howells's other daughter, Mildred. Both the real and the imagined daughters spend their time in one art school after another with little hope of anything more.55 Alma, meaning soul, comes just before Angus in the characterological alphabet, but the novelist as father allows her to resist the connection. He renders Alma just wise enough to reject Beaton's proposal after the most tedious courtship in modern literature.

The world of New York in which these figures move verifies their limits in scope, ambition, and social consciousness. More whimsical than Herrick's protagonist in The Memoirs of an American Citizen, Basil March comes to the same conclusion. “Some one always has you by the throat,” he complains to his wife, “unless you have some one else in your grip” (436). Only the terms of reference improve as Howells moves up the ladder. The pinnacle of class status in A Hazard of New Fortunes argues that civilization “would go to pieces, if people acted from unselfish motives.” Polite society wears a mask. It is, in fact, “a painted savage” offering favors that turn into merciless bargains. All of Howells's characters act out the cost of these propositions in one way or another. “You get what you pay for,” an aunt coaches her too-gentle niece. “It's a matter of business.” The niece, in turn, has no chance because the testing ground is tepid when not corrupt. As the narrator reveals, “She almost had opinions and ideals, but really fell short of their possession” (254).

The problem in this satiric vision is that the writer doesn't know quite where to stand on his subject, the lost efficacy of American idealism. Great satire requires a confident point of view as well as faith in a better possibility. Derision succeeds only if it accurately gauges the distance between (p.225) a fallen reality and the ideal that the target has failed to achieve.56 Dismayed to find injustice thriving unchallenged in America, Howells was too philosophically disoriented in 1889 to find a fixed platform.

This instability in point of view becomes clear in the one character who speaks as Howells himself wrote in his letters of disillusionment over the Haymarket affair. Berthold Lindau presents a special case as the solitary radical thinker in the novel. A foreigner in speech and thought, Lindau is the only character to have sacrificed anything of importance for the ideal of equality. He has lost a hand as a Union soldier in the Civil War, and he lives among the urban poor by choice while others conduct their well-meant observations from a convenient distance. Lindau never quibbles or dissembles on intellectual issues in the way that every other character in the novel does, and he invariably speaks his mind. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Howells wanted to be such a man but knew he could not manage it.

The radicalism of Lindau functions outside of the drollery and idle wit on almost every page of A Hazard of New Fortunes. The philosophical edge in the plot also comes from him. “How much money can a man honestly earn without wronging or oppressing some other man?” Lindau asks Basil March. The question gives substance to Basil's vague anxiety about how everyone seems to be at each other's throat (191). “What is American?” Lindau asks again, and he concludes there is no America “any more!” No man who works with his hands, he tells Basil, has the liberty to pursue the vaunted happiness promised in American thought. Working and living conditions for the urban poor have become impossible, and the courts as well as the newspapers have been bribed to keep matters that way by the countinghouse of commerce (318). When Basil speaks patriotically of country, Lindau replies with brutal candor: the poor have no country (94).

Basil March comes out worst in every exchange with Berthold Lindau. He manages, nevertheless, to evade the negative ideological implications by relegating them to Lindau's faulty reading habits, a defense mechanism that compounds his own ignorance. The omniscient narrator describes how Lindau lives by practical experience, which is more than any other character in the novel can claim (194). In the end, Basil will betray his friend Lindau even in death. When Basil's son Tom, tutored by Lindau, asks whether the German socialist in defending strikers had died in “a bad cause,” Basil responds, “Why, yes … he died in the cause of disorder; (p.226) he was trying to obstruct the law.” Tom listens and then delivers the most devastating line in the entire novel. If Lindau has died in a bad cause, Tom reasons, speaking as the representative of the next generation, “what's the use of our ever fighting about anything in America?” (451). The last line of the novel reifies Tom's conclusion. As Margaret Vance, the symbol of goodness, retreats into a nunnery instead of challenging the world, the Marches decide to trust not her works but “that look of hers” (496).

Howells sees the implications that his characters do not, and he means to convey them, but he cannot help pulling his punches. The novelist has almost as much trouble with Berthold Lindau as Basil March, and he shows his discomfort by undercutting his presentation of the power in radical thought through a cheap linguistic device. The character with the most ideas, the German Lindau, speaks in pidgin English so thick the reader must pause over just about every sentence. He asks:

What iss Amerigan? Dere iss no Ameriga any more! You start free and brafe, and you glaim for efery man de righd to life, liperty, and de bursuit of habbiness. And where haf you entedt? No man that vorks vith his handts among you hass the liperty to bursue his habbiness. He iss the slafe of some richer man, some gompany, some gorporation, dat crindts him down to the least he can lif on, and that rops him of the marchin of his earnings that he might pe habby on. (318)

This passage literally bespeaks the prejudice at the root of the Haymarket trial. Lindau's broken English conveys what many felt then: only a foreigner could think in such terms. Many realists of the day handled dialect to great advantage, but Howells's use of it here is an artistic failure of sizable proportions. Coleridge pinpoints the mistake in a discussion of Wordsworth on “low or rustic life.” Giving speech “from the mouths of men in real life,” Coleridge observes, does not admit the diction of “the cottager.” Bad language means “doubtful moral effect.” Rude speech encourages “the reader's conscious feeling of his superiority awakened by the contrast presented to him.”57 Lindau suffers this fate in A Hazard of New Fortunes, and it seems to have been a deliberate strategy. Other characters, the omniscient narrator included, ridicule Lindau's fractured English and the gravity of his “brincibles” (319–21).

The execution of the anarchists left Howells with “questions that carry (p.227) beyond myself,” and he admitted that his “horizons have been indefinitely widened by the process,” but it was also true that the new perceptions frightened him. “I don't know yet what is best,” he wrote querulously to Hamlin Garland, adding, “I am still the slave of selfishness, but I no longer am content to be so.”58 There is more to this discontent than meets the eye. As Howells's perceptions changed, they came to fit a mysterious pattern in the nature of American thought. Protest in the United States tends to grow out of the melodrama of particular situations rather than all-purpose, theoretical complaints about society, and a favorite zone for the social particular has always been the American courtroom.

Authorial distance from the poor in A Hazard of New Fortunes reveals a great deal in this regard. Howells did not turn protester over urban poverty. Nor did his disillusionment flow from any awareness of unfair treatment suffered by foreign workers in Chicago in 1886. It was the perception of injustice in the courtroom that changed him. Four months after the bomb exploded, Howells could still reject all “profoundly tragic” elements in American fiction as “false” and “mistaken.” Novelists were to concentrate instead on “the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American.” Serious writers needed to achieve literary success through “the individual rather than the social interests.”59

As late as the summer of 1887, Howells saw the economic situation as a cultural strength rather than a weakness to be addressed. “It is worth while, even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to our well-to-do actualities,” he advised in a gesture toward American prosperity. On the very edge of psychological transformations, he could even talk of writing “a labor-question romance” with a casual joke about anarchists.60 Alarm, when it finally came, drew powerfully from another source, and it would be intensely traumatic. Just before the execution of the defendants, Howells wrote in despair: “It has not been for one hour out of my waking thoughts; it is the last thing when I lie down, and the first thing when I rise up; it blackens my life.”61

What exactly was it that blackened the life? Howells's moment of self-recognition came when he realized that capital sentences had been imposed unjustly in an American courtroom and that no one was going to stop them from taking place as legal events. The first casualties in the actual Haymarket affair raised a tragic aspect, but it was the inexorable approach of another kind of death, wrongful death under official sanction, (p.228) that changed Howells. Debasement of the law was the real problem. Howells reacted only after reading a pamphlet on the procedural irregularities and judicial misconduct of the Criminal Court of Cook County. Sometime in the summer of 1887, he received a copy of A Concise History of the Great Trial of the Chicago Anarchists by Dyer Lum, a Chicago journalist. Through detailed reference to the trial transcript, Lum proved that the defendants had been convicted for their political protests rather than for anything done in the Haymarket.

Lum's pamphlet also underlined comparisons between John Brown's trial and that of the Chicago anarchists, and these resemblances struck home in Howells, the reader of them. “They are condemned to death upon a principle that would have sent every ardent antislavery man to the gallows,” Howells cried in support. Within two months of the execution, the Dean of American Letters was calling for a “new commonwealth … founded in justice even to the unjust, in generosity to the unjust rather than anything less than justice.”62 The reiterated term explains what had happened to him. The demoralization of William Dean Howells came through twin sources that would not go away. The republic of laws had been unjust, and the vast majority of Americans had enjoyed it.

The People Do Not Believe in Mercy

There is no silver lining in the Haymarket tragedy, and no end to it. From irreparable injustice what recovery? On June 26, 1893, the first foreign-born citizen to be elected governor in the United States, John Peter Altgeld of Illinois, made the amends that were possible by commuting the prison sentences of the three remaining defendants. Altgeld's executive pardon cut through the legalese that kept the higher courts from reversing on appeal. His assessment of the record ran to eighteen thousand words, and it revealed that “much of the evidence given at the trial was a pure fabrication.” Altgeld reported that “prominent police officials” had terrorized ignorant men into false testimony, that witnesses had been bribed, and that the prosecution failed to show any connection between the defendants and the bomb thrower, who remained unknown seven years after the event.63

The governor's report left no stone unturned. He proved that a prejudiced jury had been selected to serve in the case; that the presiding judge (p.229) misstated the law (“no judge in a civilized country has ever laid down such a rule before”); that the same judge “conducted the trial with malicious ferocity” while “pressing for conviction”; that “it was debatable whether the evidence tended to show guilt”; that “the verdict should not have been allowed to stand, because the law requires that a man shall be proven to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”; and that, in sum, “the trial was not fair.” The degree and extent of error in the legal process could not be ignored. “I am convinced that it is clearly my duty to act,” Altgeld concluded, and he granted “an absolute pardon,” without reservations of any kind, to Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab.

Altgeld's decision would make him a hero of law and literature to future generations. Vachel Lindsay immortalized him in “The Eagle That Is Forgotten.” Justice William O. Douglas extolled Altgeld as “a symbol of the clean, powerful force that we call American idealism.”64 At the time, however, the practical politician in the governor's mansion knew better and accepted a different reality. “If I conclude to pardon those men,” he told Clarence Darrow, “it will not meet with the approval that you expect; let me tell you that from that day I will be a dead man politically.” When the predicted storm broke over his head, Altgeld would nod and observe, “[The people] do not believe in mercy; they love revenge; they want the prisoners punished to the bitterest extremity.”65

Outrage over the pardon filled the country's newspapers. The Washington Post reviled Altgeld as “an alien himself” with “little or no stake in the problem of American social evolution.” Most accounts questioned Altgeld's patriotism and even his right to remain a citizen. “It is Altgeld's un-Americanism which unfits him for the office which he holds, or even for citizenship,” ran a typical passage from the New York Times. “He cannot forget that he is of foreign birth, and foreign ideas are at all times dominant in his mind.” “The American portion of this community feels outraged,” the Times concluded, arguing that “no rational lover of law and justice” could accept the governor's decision. Altgeld had become “an enemy to the safeguards of society” and “a reckless demagogue who is incapable of understanding the spirit and temper of the people of this Republic.”66 The pardon would indeed destroy Altgeld's career, as he had predicted it would.

Anger over a memorable trial can reappear in an instant. Fury over the release of the remaining Haymarket defendants became a major campaign issue three years later in the presidential election of 1896. Condemnations (p.230) of “Altgeld's anarchistic policies” helped William McKinley defeat William Jennings Bryan and cost Altgeld reelection as governor in Illinois. A popular choice in 1892, Altgeld was trounced in 1896. McKinley's vice-presidential running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, led the smear campaign. “Mr. Altgeld is a much more dangerous man than Bryan,” Roosevelt charged. “Mr. Altgeld condones and encourages the most infamous of murders and denounces the federal government and the Supreme Court for interfering to put a stop to the bloody lawlessness which results in worse than murder.” A vote for Bryan or Altgeld would bring “a red welter of lawlessness” upon the land.67

When defeat came, the New York Tribune announced “cause for national rejoicing.” The country was free of “Altgeld the Anarchist” with his “blood-imbued hands.” The Chicago Tribune reported that the voters had recognized Altgeld's “criminal sympathies, his anarchistic tendencies, his fostering of evil, his industrious, sedulous efforts to breed social discord.” Harper's Weekly made Altgeld “the most dangerous enemy to American institutions of all the ruffianly gang which has broken out of the forecastle of the ship of state.” This festival of censure at Altgeld's expense teaches a sober lesson.

What, in the scheme of things, had Altgeld done? He had freed three wrongly convicted men after seven years in prison, but he also had asked the American people to return to a scene of legal shame. It was too soon, and his contemporaries hated him for it. Altgeld's careful document in justification of the pardon gave the clearest evidence of a miscarriage in justice, but it went unread. No one who urged the execution of the anarchists, a huge majority in the country, wanted to hear his arguments. Even neutral observers found it psychologically more efficient to turn the governor into one more victim of the Haymarket. The law so poorly rendered in Cook County would continue to dominate public opinion. Anarchism had been identified as the enemy to be fought, and punishment of it would remain a trump card of political opportunism for the foreseeable future.

The spread of intolerance from the Haymarket affair remains its most extraordinary contribution—also, for the reader of today, its most disturbing effect. Blunders of the law in one local courthouse led to a national deterioration in intellectual exchange, a debasement in general political discourse, and a collapse in fundamental levels of public civility (p.231) everywhere. How could one legal decision cause so much damage across an entire nation? Courtrooms are the visible platforms that bolster or undermine the American rule of law, and the price of failure in them can be incalculable. It is hard to avoid a blunt conclusion. Once released, the genie of injustice does not return to the bottle willingly or easily. (p.232)

Traitors in Name Only: The Haymarket DefendantsTraitors in Name Only: The Haymarket Defendants

Figures 17 & 18. (Above left) Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as a married couple (ca. 1940s). ©. Michael and Robert Meeropol, reprinted with their permission. (Below left) The Rosenbergs as convicted defendants (1951). Photograph courtesy of Picture-History (item #1950.0036, Washington, D.C.). The far-fetched seemed real and the mundane impossible in the trial of the Rosenbergs. The ordinary lives of the Rosenbergs had no meaning next to the exciting story told by the prosecution of nerveless traitors who had stolen the atomic bomb. The photograph of the convicted couple on their way to prison satisfied deep-seated ideological fears. It was the only image Americans could see in 1951.


(1.) This quotation and the facts and quotations concerning the Haymarket affair in this section, unless otherwise noted, are from the definitive modern history of the subject, Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), xi–xii, 11–12, 208–39, 375–78, 393.

(2.) For point of view as a critical tool, see Henry James, “Preface to The Portrait of a Lady” (1908), in The Art of Fiction (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962), 46ff.; J. M. Lotman, “Point of View in a Text,” New Literary History 6 (Winter 1975): 339; and Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (1921; repr., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), 251–64.

(3.) For the quotes in this paragraph and the next, see Carl Sandburg, “School Days,” in Always the Young Strangers (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), 132–35.

(4.) For the quotations in this paragraph and the next, see “Voice of the Press,” Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1886, 4. For similar newspaper accounts, see Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 217–18.

(5.) “The Movement Not So General as Has Been Expected” and “Labor Troubles Leaving Their Impress on the Market,” Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1886, 11, 28; “The Catholic Church and the Knights [of Labor],” Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1886, 2; “The Season of Strikes,” Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1886, 27; “The Railroads Don't Know What the Strikers Will Do” and “The Great Cry of Labor,” Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1886, 1; “A Wild Mob's Work,” Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1886, 1, 4; “Storm of Strikes,” Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1886, 9.

(6.) “The Riot Comes to a Point,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1886, 4.

(7.) “The Un-Americanized Element” and “Stamp Out the Anarchists,” Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1886, 3.

(8.) “A Hellish Deed,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1886, 1.

(9.) “Anarchy's Red Hand,” New York Times, May 5, 1886, 1.

(10.) Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 218. See, generally, John Higham, “Crisis in the Eighties,” in Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 35–67.

(11.) George C. Ingham, “Argument for the Prosecution in The People vs. Spies, et al.,” in The Haymarket Affair and the Trial of the Chicago Anarchists 1886: Original Manuscripts, Letters, Articles, and Printed Materials of the Anarchists and of the State Prosecutor, Julius S. Grinnell (Grinnell's Own Collection), ed. John S. Kebabian (New York: H. P. Kraus, 1970), 39.

(12.) Quoted in Public Opinion 3 (1887): 49 (emphasis added); and Higham, Strangers in the Land, 55.

(13.) See Higham, Strangers in the Land, 46–50.

(14.) Edward Everett, “Discovery of America” and “Editorial,” Nation 35 (July 12, 1883): 22; quoted in Edith Abbott, ed., Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926), 785–86, 858.

(15.) Richard Hofstader, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1952; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 5–40.

(16.) Orm Overland, Immigrant Minds, American Identities: Making the United States Home, 1870–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 16, 26–46, 175; Higham, Strangers in the Land, 32–34.

(17.) Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 262–68; Samuel P. McConnell, “The Chicago Bomb Case: Personal Recollections of an American Tragedy,” Harper's Monthly Magazine, May 1934, 732–34.

(18.) Joseph E. Gary, “The Chicago Anarchists of 1886: The Crime, the Trial, and the Punishment,” Century Magazine 45 (April 1893): 803–37.

(19.) McConnell, “The Chicago Bomb Case,” 734.

(20.) For Judge Gary's conduct and rulings taken from the trial transcript, see “Brief and Argument for Plaintiffs in Error,” in August Spies et al., v. The People of the State of Illinois (Chicago: Barnard and Gunthorp, 1887), 381–408.

(21.) Quoted in Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 289.

(22.) “Brief and Argument for Plaintiffs in Error,” 408–15. Quotations of the prosecutor in this paragraph are taken from the record on appeal.

(23.) For the difficulty of overturning a trial judge in even egregious cases, see Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, “The Prejudice of the Trial Judge,” in The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (1948; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 142–48; and Dan T. Carter, “A Cold, Hard Vengeance,” in Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, rev. ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 274–329.

(24.) Spies and others v. People, 122 Illinois 1; 12 N.E. 865 (1887), quoted at 258 [990] and quoted in Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 334.

(25.) Spies and others v. People, 157 [941], 228–38 [975–81].

(26.) McConnell, “The Chicago Bomb Case,” 734.

(27.) Spies and others v. People, 244–47 [984], 255–66 [988–93], 261–66 [991–93].

(28.) Spies v. Illinois, 123 U.S. 131; 8 S. Ct. 22. Quoted at 131, 179–80, 181, 182 (emphases added).

(29.) Raymond Toole Stott, “Frank Harris's Last Interview,” Everyman, December 10, 1931, 665. See, as well, Robert Brainard Pearsall, Frank Harris (New York: Twayne, 1970), 64.

(30.) Frank Harris, The Bomb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 163, 313, 109, 152–53, 250–51, 310, 262, 268, 100–101, 300, 204, 179, 92, 320. All further references to the novel will be to the Chicago edition and noted parenthetically by page number in the text. Harris made Rudolph Schnaubelt his fictional bomb thrower after a real historical figure often accused of throwing the bomb. Schnaubelt was the one person named in the prosecution's indictment to elude capture and, thereby, to avoid trial. His absence made it convenient to charge him with the crime, although scholarship has shown that he was almost certainly not the bomb thrower. See Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 235–39, 437–35.

(31.) Frank Harris, “Afterword to ‘The Bomb’ Written in 1920,” in The Bomb, 323–24; quoted in Philippa Pullar, Frank Harris (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975), 247.

(32.) Robert Herrick, “America: The False Messiah,” in Behold America!, ed. Samuel D. Schmalhausen (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1930), 55–56 and, more generally, 53–66. For Herrick's obsession over writing the great American novel, see Herrick, “The Background of the American Novel,” Yale Review 3 (January 1914): 213–33. These writings come after The Memoirs of an American Citizen, but they summarize the writer's philosophy from first to last.

(33.) See Louis J. Budd, Robert Herrick (New York: Twayne, 1971), 123–24.

(34.) Robert Herrick, The Memoirs of an American Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 70–75. All further parenthetical references to the novel in the text are to this edition.

(35.) Paul Harvey, ed., “Herbert Spencer,” in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948), 742.

(36.) Herrick, “The Background of the American Novel,” 222–27, 233.

(37.) Ibid., 233.

(38.) W. D. Howells, “The Novels of Robert Herrick,” North American Review 189 (June 1909): 812, 815–17; Howells, “Editor's Study,” Harper's Magazine 74 (May 1887): 987.

(39.) WDH to Burt G. Wilder, August 26, 1889, in W. D. Howells: Selected Letters, Volume 3:1882–1891, ed. Robert C. Leitz III et al. (Boston: Twayne, 1986), 258. For an evaluation of realism in these terms, see Walter Benn Michaels, “Sister Carrie's Popular Economy,” Critical Inquiry 7 (Winter 1980): 378.

(40.) For Howells's despair over the Haymarket affair, see Kenneth S. Lynn, William Dean Howells: An American Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971), 282–303. For criticism of him, see Timothy L. Parrish, “Haymarket and Hazard: The Lonely Politics of William Dean Howells,” Journal of American Culture 17, no. 4 (1994):, 23–32. For Howells's own comments in this paragraph and the next, see WDH to John G. Whittier, November 1, 1887; WDH to Roger A. Pryor, September 25, 1887; WDH to Anne H. Frechette, November 18, 1887; WDH to William M. Salter, November 20, 1887; WDH to William C. Howells, November 13, 1887; and WDH to William M. Salter, December 25, 1887, all in Howells: Selected Letters III, 198, 197, 206, 208, 212.

(41.) William Dean Howells, “Bibliographical,” in A Hazard of New Fortunes (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 4. (Howells wrote this short retrospective preface in July 1909.)

(42.) For how the genteel tradition harmed Howells's reputation, see Jerry Herron, “Howells on My Mind: Reflections on the Dean's Sesquicentennial,” New England Quarterly 61 (June 1988): 183–200.

(43.) For a complete list of the parallels to the Haymarket trial in the novel, see Lynn Marie Messina, “Freedom or Anarchy, the Capital-Labor Struggle in William Dean Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes,” CEA Critic 58 (Fall 1995): 60–65.

(44.) See Edwin H. Cady, Young Howells and John Brown: Episodes in a Radical Education (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1985). WDH to the Editor of the [New York] Tribune, November 12, 1887, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 201. (Howells never sent this letter but kept it as a declaration of his views, which already had been expressed in an earlier letter to the Tribune.)

(45.) WDH to the editor of the [New York] Tribune, November 12, 1887, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 201.

(46.) For the quotations in this paragraph and the next, see WDH to Samuel L. Clemens, December 29, 1889, in ibid., 266. See, as well, Lynn, William Dean Howells, 294–97; and Arthur Boardman, “Social Point of View in the Novels of William Dean Howells,” American Literature 39 (March 1967): 42–59.

(47.) WDH to William C. Howells, February 2, 1890, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 271

(48.) WDH to Henry James, October 10, 1888, in ibid., 231.

(49.) See Richard Foster, “The Contemporaneity of Howells,” New England Quarterly 32 (March 1959): 54–78.

(50.) William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 25, 15. (All further references to the novel in the text are to this edition, which accords with the standard Indiana University Press edition from 1976.)

(51.) WDH to William C. Howells, December 23, 1888, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 241.

(52.) See, for example, Charles Harmon, “A Hazard of New Fortunes and the Reproduction of Liberalism,” Studies in American Fiction 25 (Autumn 1997): 183–95.

(53.) WDH to Edward E. Hale, October 28, 1888, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 233.

(54.) For the parallels in expression of grief, see Howells: Selected Letters III, 247–55.

(55.) For Howells's condescension regarding his daughter's artistic talents, see WDH to Auriella H. Howells, January 5, 1890, in ibid., 269–70.

(56.) Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift are the greatest satirists in the English language because, whatever their cynicism, they hold a vision of a better world. See, for example, John Paul Russo, “Homer and the Heroic Ideal,” in Alexander Pope: Tradition and Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 83–132; and Edward W. Rosenheim, Swift and the Satirist's Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963). See, more generally, Alvin B. Kernan, The Plot of Satire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965).

(57.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Chapter XVII,” Biographia Literaria (1817), in Criticism: The Major Texts, ed. Walter Jackson Bate (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952), 379–81. See, as well, Amy Kaplan, “‘The Knowledge of the Line’: Realism and the City in Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes,” PMLA 101 (January 1986): 76.

(58.) WDH to Hamlin Garland, January 15, 1888, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 215.

(59.) William Dean Howells, “Editor's Study,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine, September 1886, 641.

(61.) to Francis F. Browne, November 4, 1887, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 200; Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 301.

(62.) WDH to George W. Curtis, August 18, 1887, and WDH to Hamlin Garland, January 15, 1888, in Howells: Selected Letters III, 193–94, 215. See, as well, Clara and Rudolf Kirk, “William Dean Howells, George William Curtis, and the ‘Haymarket Affair,’” American Literature 40 (January 1969): 487–98; and Dyer D. Lum, “Preface” and “Captain Black's Address,” in A Concise History of the Great Trial of the Chicago Anarchists in 1886 (Chicago: Socialist Publishing, 1887), 6, 187.

(63.) The quotations in this paragraph and the next are from John Peter Altgeld, “Executive Pardon Issued at Springfield, June 26, 1893,” in The Mind and Spirit of John Peter Altgeld: Selected Writings and Addresses, ed. Henry M. Christman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960), 85, 95, 102–4.

(64.) Vachel Lindsay, “The Eagle That Is Forgotten,” in The Mind and Spirit of John Peter Altgeld, ed. Christman, 14; and William O. Douglas, Being an American (New York: John Day, 1940), 3. For a novel glorifying Altgeld, see James Marshall, Ordeal by Glory (New York: Robert M. McBridge, 1927).

(65.) Quoted in Ray Ginger, “The Pardon,” in Altgeld's America: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965), 77, 87.

(66.) The passage from the Washington Post and other condemnations of Altgeld can be found in Ginger, Altgeld's America, 85–86. The other quotations in the text are from “They Call Altgeld an Alien,” New York Times, June 29, 1893, 1; “Pardon for the Anarchists,” New York Times, June 27, 1893, 1; and “Altgeld and the Anarchists,” New York Times, June 28, 1893, 4. For a summary of newspaper condemnations across the country, see “Pardon of the Chicago Anarchists,” New York Daily Tribune, June 28, 1893, 7.

(67.) For these quotations and other attacks on Altgeld in the presidential and gubernatorial campaign of 1896 in this paragraph and the next, see Harry Barnard, Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1938), 383–93.