Chapter Fifteen

The Law Is Vindicated

APRIL 3, 1887–NOVEMBER 11, 1887

SAM FIELDEN READ the signs of the time correctly. His fate and that of his comrades was linked to that of the labor movement, as it had been since he arrived in Chicago. The United Labor Party disintegrated over the summer months of 1887, and the once-powerful Knights lost most of their remaining members. Chicago union members who had gained shorter hours in May 1886 now faced employers determined to stretch them out again. The building trades unions beat back contractors attempting to return to the ten-hour day in the spring, but the strikers were isolated now, no longer involved in a mass mobilization like the Great Upheaval that shook the city a year before. The Haymarket bomb, the Tribune reported with relief, had shattered the Internationals’ attempt to build a unified movement of the skilled and unskilled through a general strike.1

Equally distressing to the anarchists, and to other trade unionists, was the news that, on the first anniversary of Haymarket, the Illinois House of Representatives had enacted a statute providing that anyone who spoke to any assembly in public or private or who wrote, printed or published any words that “incited local revolution” or the “destruction of the existing order” could be found guilty of criminal conspiracy; and that, further, if a life was taken as a result of such speeches and writings, the person accused should be considered a principal in the perpetration of said murder.2 In other words, the unprecedented interpretation of conspiracy doctrine in the anarchist case had now been written into state law. This meant that the six state supreme court justices now reviewing the case would, if they ordered a new trial, not only have to discredit a prosecutor, a judge and a jury regarded as heroes in Illinois; they would also have to contradict the state’s new conspiracy law.

Nonetheless, Captain Black remained hopeful that the errors in the Haymarket murder trial would compel the justices to agree with his objections. Other Chicago lawyers agreed, men like Samuel P. McConnell and his father-in-law, John G. Rogers, the chief justice of the circuit court. Both men were critical of Judge Gary’s conduct and of his rulings. McConnell thought the presiding judge had treated the whole Haymarket trial like a holiday event, as had the well-dressed women he invited to sit on the bench with him. Judge Rogers believed Gary had made new law and ignored established rules about jury selection that were intended to assure fair trials. As a result, the two men were as shocked as Captain Black was when, after six months of deliberation, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the writ of appeal and affirmed the August verdict of the Chicago court. On September 13 the chief justice read the court’s ruling to an expectant throng. Before he had even finished, reporters raced each other to telegraph offices to transmit the news that the death sentence would be carried out on November 11, 1887.3 For the next two months the fate of the anarchists in the Cook County Jail captured the attention of the daily newspapers and the nation’s leading magazines.

When Sheriff Canute Matson received the execution order, he doubled the guard around the Cook County Jail and ordered his deputies to escort Oscar Neebe to Joliet State Prison, where he would serve his fifteen-year sentence at hard labor. The prisoner was spirited away in the dead of night with no chance to bid his comrades farewell, but somehow he talked to a reporter during his passage. Neebe repeated that his only crimes were organizing brewers and salesclerks and publishing a workers’ paper. “What I have done, I would do again,” he told the Daily News, “and the time will come when the blood of the martyrs about to be sacrificed will cry aloud for vengeance, and that cry will be heard . . . before many years elapse.” 4

Organized labor responded immediately to the news from Illinois as union groups met in many cities to decry the supreme court justices’ decision. In New York City prominent leaders of the Central Labor Union, led by Samuel Gompers, declared that the convicted workingmen were victims of “the misguiding and corrupting influence of prejudice and class hatred” and had been condemned to death without any conclusive evidence. The execution of the death sentence would, the labor chiefs declared, be nothing less than a “judicial murder prompted by the basest and most un-American motives.”5

Captain Black denounced the supreme court’s ruling as infamous, because it meant that nothing now prevented a citizen from being arrested, tried, convicted and executed for simply speaking as an anarchist. While the lawyers prepared to make a new appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, George Schilling and others on the defense committee created the Amnesty Association that they hoped would enlist a wide range of citizens in a petition drive asking Governor Oglesby to grant clemency. Robert Ingersoll signed on, saying there was hope because the governor was a courageous man with a good heart and noble instincts, even though he might be swayed by the general feeling among the upper classes in favor of the death penalty.6


Magazine cover of Cook County Jail cells at visiting time, with inset portraits of Nina Van Zandt and August Spies

Albert Parsons took his own case directly to fellow citizens in a public letter written on September 21. Commenting on the effort to prevent his “judicial murder” by seeking a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment, he wrote: “Knowing myself innocent of crime I came forward and gave myself up for trial. I felt it was my duty to take my chances with the rest of my comrades,” rather than “being hunted like a felon.” Since surrendering, he continued, “I have been locked up in close confinement for twenty-one hours out of every twenty four . . . in a noisome cell, without a ray of sunlight or breath of pure air.” He did not want to bear this for even a few more years and said he was prepared to die rather than plead for a life behind bars. And then with a flourish, he wrote: “No. I am not guilty. I have not been proven guilty. I cannot, therefore, accept a commutation to imprisonment. I appeal—not for mercy, but for justice.” He ended by quoting his favorite revolutionary, Patrick Henry: “I know not what course others may take, but, as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”7

Parsons’s letter was reprinted in many labor newspapers whose editors regarded it as a heroic demonstration of courageous manhood; it even appeared in some mainstream dailies. The bold declaration enhanced Parsons’s celebrity and convinced many readers of his innocence, but it caused dismay among leaders of the Amnesty Association. The clemency campaign proceeded, nonetheless, under the determined leadership of Parsons’s old friend George Schilling, who held out hope he could change the convict’s mind about pleading for his life. The tireless labor activist was assisted in this effort by Dr. William Salter and Henry Demarest Lloyd, two of the city’s leading intellectuals, men who dared to risk public condemnation as a result.

William Salter had been educated in the best divinity schools, but he then turned to secular free thought and became a lecturer for the Ethical Culture Society. An open-minded person, he even accepted invitations from the International’s American Group to debates about socialism. He had been one of the first citizens outside the International who came to the defense of the accused anarchists during the frightening days after May 4, 1886. When the verdict was rendered that August, Salter threw himself into defense work. After bravely venturing out to lecture against the death sentence at the Opera House, he endured a steady stream of condemnation, even from members of his own society.8

Henry Demarest Lloyd, who joined Salter in speaking for the defense effort, suffered even more tangibly. When he condemned the trial in a public forum, his powerful father-in-law, William “Deacon” Bross, an owner of the Chicago Tribune, denounced Lloyd and removed him as an heir to his fortune. Henry and his wife, Jessie Bross Lloyd, were drummed out of polite society and shunned in public arenas. Even an old friend gave him a “look of the most intense hatred possible from one human being to another.” Yet Lloyd did not shrink from the commitment he made to advocate for the men he believed were unfairly tried and unjustly condemned. Indeed, the writer seethed over the conduct of the trial in which Judge Gary acted like a prosecuting attorney, over the behavior of the police who set a precedent of arresting citizens without warrant and over the conduct of a jury that condemned men to death for being outspoken protest leaders. 9

Lloyd also knew that the anarchists were deeply involved in the eight-hour movement, a cause in which he placed great hope, and that his old enemies, Chicago’s barons of banking, trading and manufacturing, were using the bombing to discredit the entire labor movement. The Haymarket tragedy was a transforming event in Henry Lloyd’s life, propelling him into an alliance with the American labor movement and into a brilliant phase of his career as the most influential worker advocate and business critic of the early progressive era.10

Under his leadership, the Amnesty Association hoped to attract more support from the middle-class public, but at first the responses came mainly in the form of resolutions from labor unions and cash contributions from workers in many cities across the country, particularly from immigrant unionists in Chicago who were kept constantly informed by a revived radical press comprised of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, which had reopened under new management, Bert Stewart’s Knights of Labor and Joseph Buchanan’s Labor Enquirer, a popular radical newspaper the editor had produced in Denver until the Haymarket trial compelled him to move to Chicago and publish there. Buchanan was a major player in the national affairs of the Knights of Labor and one of Powderly’s main adversaries. A legendary organizer with anarchist sympathies of his own and an editorial voice that had national resonance, Buchanan led the way in making the anarchist case a cause célèbre in the national labor movement during the summer of 1887.

Meanwhile, in New York City, John Swinton, the most influential labor journalist in the land, attacked the death sentence as a judicial murder intended to “gratify the frightened bourgeoisie.” He then joined with fourteen union leaders representing various wings of the city’s union movement to condemn the verdict and to call for a mass protest on October 20. That night, a large crowd jammed into the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City to hear Samuel Gompers, the new president of the American Federation of Labor, denounce the proceedings in Chicago. Unlike Powderly of the Knights, who refused to endorse the campaign for clemency, Gompers joined the venerable Swinton and other trade union leaders in making an appeal for liberty, free speech and justice, expressing their belief that the impending execution would be “a disgrace to the honor of this country.” 11

That same month, trade unionists and reformers in London spoke out against the executions; they were primed by the editorials that appeared in Commonweal, the socialist publication edited by William Morris, the noted poet and designer who worried that, after rioting by unemployed marchers, Scotland Yard would adopt the repressive tactics of the Chicago police, who “hunted socialists like wolves.” 12 Other European socialist newspapers also devoted an enormous amount of coverage to the Haymarket affair, far more than to any other news story in the post–Civil War era.


Samuel Gompers (left) and John Swinton

Although socialist leaders in Europe regarded anarchists as dangerous provocateurs at best, they embraced the Haymarket defendants as heroic social revolutionaries and gave their hard-hitting attacks on American freedom wide circulation. At a time when most Europeans regarded the United States as a promised land, a “new Caanan,” the repressive red scare in May of 1886, along with the Chicago trial and the shocking death sentences that followed, proved, at least in the minds of radicals, that the same class struggle they observed on their continent was going on across the Atlantic. Coming in the same year as the French government’s gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States, the Haymarket events gave European radicals an unprecedented opportunity to challenge the popular view that the United States was an exceptional country, open, free and democratic.13

Coverage of the trial and the appeal hearings was especially extensive in Paris, a city with an active anarchist movement (though it was tiny compared to the International in Chicago). When word of the failed appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court reached France, the socialist newspaper Le Cri du Peuple announced a protest against what would be the most atrocious political crime since the hanging of John Brown. Public concern reached all the way to the municipal council of the Seine, whose deputies issued a plea for mercy to the U.S. legation, recalling the clemency that had been extended to the “vanquished leaders of the Southern rebellion.” Many of the same deputies also signed a clemency petition to Governor Oglesby. In October radicals called Haymarket protest meetings in London, The Hague and Rotterdam, in Vienna, Brussels, Lyon, Marseilles and Toulon. It was no wonder, then, that the Tribune observed on October 11 that “[t]he eyes of the world seem to be on the Chicago anarchists.”14

ON OCTOBER 27 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal prepared by Captain Black with the assistance of three nationally known attorneys, including former army general Benjamin F. Butler, loved by workingmen in the North for his labor radicalism and hated in the white South for his ruthless military rule of New Orleans during and after the Civil War. The attorneys argued that the police and prosecution had violated constitutional amendments that protected citizens from unlawful searches (the Fourth), against self-incrimination (the Fifth) and against being tried by a biased jury (the Sixth).15

Defense lawyers also argued that the trial violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. General Ben Butler proposed to the Supreme Court justices that the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments should govern state court cases, because they were the law of the land. “Any other meaning given to ‘due process law’ ” would, he declared, make the Fourteenth Amendment “simply ridiculous and frivolous.” But the old radical seemed resigned to defeat, concluding his Supreme Court presentation with the kind of histrionic remark that made him famous. “If men’s lives can be taken in this way,” Butler declared, referring to the Chicago trial and verdict, “better anarchy, better to be without law, than with any such law.”16

On November 2, 1887, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite read a unanimous decision of the court. The justices concluded that the constitutional violations cited by the appellants were relevant only in federal cases and, therefore, that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction because the case touched upon no federal law or national issue. In any case, the judges noted, “the defendants had not been deprived of a trial by a fair and impartial jury and had not been denied due process of law.”17

At this point, the defense movement directed all its efforts to the governor’s office in Springfield, hoping Richard Oglesby would commute the sentences of the seven condemned men to life imprisonment. Knowing the law required the convicts to write statements of contrition, defense lawyers, family members and other supporters persuaded Fielden, Schwab and Spies to write to the governor conveying their regret over the violence of May 4 and repudiating their own statements calling for the use of force. Spies was very reluctant to write such a letter, and when he did, he insisted on adding a statement that he deplored all violence, not only the loss of life in the Haymarket but also the violence suffered by strikers in East St. Louis, at McCormick’s and in the Chicago stockyards. All three prisoners wrote that they had never advocated the use of force, except in the case of self-defense, and had “never consciously broken any laws.” However, urgent efforts failed to move Engel, Fischer and Lingg to write letters of appeal. The three intransigents did write to Oglesby, but to demand liberation, not a commutation of their death sentences. Captain Black said of their letters, “They are manly and courageous, but I regret the men felt called upon to write them.”18

Albert Parsons also refused to change his mind and beg for clemency, even in the face of imploring visits from close friends and luminaries such as Henry D. Lloyd. Melville E. Stone, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News, also made a plea. Stone talked with the condemned man for two hours, but to no avail. As he prepared to leave, Parsons said that he told the publisher, who had initially taken the lead in urging State’s Attorney Grinnell to try the eight anarchists for murder, even though no bomb thrower could be brought to trial: “You are responsible for my fate. Your venomous attacks condemned us in advance. I shall die with less fear and less regret than you will feel in living, for my blood is upon your head.”19

Even longtime friend and admirer George Schilling could not sway Parsons from his stance; nor could a letter from his revered older brother, General William Parsons; nor could passionate pleas and compelling arguments from Captain Black, who explained to his stubborn client that leading men in Illinois now wanted his sentence commuted. Because of Parsons’s courageous surrender, many now believed the governor would grant him a reprieve if he would only comply with the state law that required a written petition for clemency from the condemned prisoner. Parsons heard him out but refused to renounce his beliefs. “I am an innocent man,” he told Black, “and the world knows I am innocent. If I am to be executed at all it is because I am an Anarchist not because I am a murderer; it is because of what I have taught and spoken and written in the past, and not because of the throwing of the Haymarket bomb.”20 Having accepted and then embraced his fate as a martyr, Albert Parsons was now staking out his place in history.

While these intense conversations took place in Cell 29, the flow of petitions that poured into the Amnesty Association included more and more signatures from prominent citizens, including the banker and civic leader Lyman Gage and the head of the Chicago bar, William C. Goudy. Attorney Samuel P. McConnell then took the petitions to judges and lawyers, and several of them added their names; this reportedly left Judge Gary “very much aggrieved.” When McConnell approached the esteemed Lyman Trumbull, a former U.S. senator and state supreme court justice, the old man carefully read the petition, then buried his face in his hands and said, “I will sign. Those men did not have a fair trial.” Trumbull was the most prominent political figure to lend his name to the plea.


George Schilling (left) and Henry Demarest Lloyd

Some pleas came from entire companies, such as one endorsed by 125 editors and reporters of the Boston Globe. Chicago druggists drafted their own appeal, as did two Jewish leaders, Rabbi Emil Hirsch and the attorney Julius Rosenthal. The Amnesty Association also set up tables outside City Hall where pedestrians could stop and affix their names to its petition for commutation; nearly 7,000 citizens did so on the weekend of November 5 and 6.21

Much of this public support for clemency was generated by the critical literature on the case produced to counter the uniform praise the prosecution had received in the daily press. General Matthew M. Trumbull wrote a widely distributed pamphlet called Was It a Fair Trial? The author, unrelated to the famous Republican senator with the same surname, had earned a distinguished reputation as a Union army officer and a respected Chicago attorney. The general had been a Chartist in England and an abolitionist in America, but he could not be accused of sympathy with the anarchists. Even so, after reviewing the case, the attorney bluntly stated that “the trial was unfair, the rulings of the court illegal, and the sentence unjust.”22 Far more influential inside and outside the city was Dyer D. Lum’s Concise History of the Great Trial of the Chicago Anarchists, in which the author, a highly skilled writer, dissected the trial proceedings after studying the court transcript and highlighted what he saw as the inconsistencies and contradictions in the prosecution’s case. Lum’s pamphlet helped convince the nation’s most prominent writer to join the movement for clemency.

William Dean Howells, the son of an abolitionist printer and an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, had reached literary heights by 1886, when he earned a princely sum of $13,000 a year as a columnist for Harper’s Weekly. The former editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, Howells was the “high priest of the genteel tradition” in literature and the author of popular novels like The Rise of Silas Lapham, a highly praised satire of the nouveaux riches. The nation’s most noted author became deeply concerned with the case as it went up to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the justices rejected the appeal, Howells sent a letter to the New York Tribune explaining why he had joined in the appeal for clemency. The High Court had dismissed the case on formalities, he explained, but it had not ruled on “the propriety of trying for murder men fairly indictable for conspiracy alone”; it had not “approved the principle of punishing men for their frantic opinions, for a crime they were not shown to have committed,” and it had not even considered the justice of the death sentence imposed on the men. This last question, wrote Howells, remained for history to judge, and he had no doubt about what the judgment of history would be.23

Howells’s letter startled people who respected him as the dean of American letters. For speaking out on the Haymarket case, for what his biographer called a “lonely act of courage,” the writer would endure a heavy stream of abuse. It was a time, Howells recalled in a letter to Mark Twain, that the public was betrayed by its press, and “no man could safely make himself heard” on behalf of strikers, let alone condemned anarchists. 24

No other American of comparable stature came forward to appeal for clemency. Indeed, during the whole appeal campaign, an even stronger wave of reaction set in so that Governor Oglesby received more death-to-the-anarchists letters than he did clemency appeals. Even the most influential radical writer and political leader of the time, Henry George, turned down a request to join the clemency effort. Reversing his earlier position as a critic of the trial, George now proclaimed that the conspiracy case had been proved beyond a doubt and that an appeal for clemency was groundless.25 This turnabout was probably motivated by George’s political ambitions. He had nearly been elected mayor of New York City as a radical in the spring of 1886, when he spoiled the chances of an ambitious young Republican office-seeker named Theodore Roosevelt.


Portrait of William Dean Howells on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, June 19, 1886

The following summer, while George campaigned for state office in New York, Roosevelt attacked his old rival for favoring clemency and insisted that it was in the interest of all Americans that the “Chicago dynamiters” be hanged. Henry George not only lost the election in November 1887; he also lost his reputation as a champion of workers when labor leaders branded him a turncoat.26

BY NOVEMBER 7 an estimated 100,000 American citizens had signed the clemency petition. In addition, Oglesby had received numerous messages from Europeans who had reacted with indignation and horror when the Supreme Court refused to overturn the convictions, notably a telegram from London including the names of renowned artists and writers such as William Morris, Annie Besant, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Walter Crane, William Rossetti, Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels. The gloom that came over the amnesty movement after the U.S. Supreme Court decision was dispelled by this response and by the support of prominent Chicago citizens such as Lyman Gage. 27

When Gage learned from Springfield that the governor would commute the sentences of at least four defendants if the most influential men in Chicago asked him to do so, the banker quickly organized a gathering of fifty of the city’s most powerful financiers, merchants and industrialists. Henry Demarest Lloyd was asked to represent the Amnesty Association. Gage opened the meeting by bluntly stating the question at hand to his fellow businessmen: Should they see the convicts “choked” or should they ask the governor to show leniency? He then made a well-prepared case for clemency, arguing that the law had been vindicated by the highest courts and need not be reaffirmed by executing the men. In any case, the anarchists were more dangerous as martyrs than as “hostages” the state could hold against further anarchist threats. Even Joe Medill, whose Tribune had tried and sentenced the anarchists the day after the bomb exploded, now wrote to the governor that commutation was the best course, so that “no martyrs will be made.” Finally, Gage drew upon his unusual understanding of the city’s labor movement, explaining that since working people generally believed the capitalists wanted the anarchists executed, a request for clemency would be seen as a generous act that would relieve some of the class hatred poisoning city life.

Gage’s arguments seemed to be well received by the businessmen gathered at his bank, particularly by some of the industrialists in the room who would have welcomed a relaxation of the tense relations they endured with their workers. But before a decision was reached, the most powerful businessman in the city, Marshall Field, intervened. He made his own opposition to clemency clear and then, unexpectedly, turned the floor over to a guest he had invited to the meeting. State’s Attorney Julius Grinnell rose and held forth at great length. He reiterated his closing arguments to the jury in the Haymarket case and concluded by saying that, since law and order hung in the balance in this case, the death penalty must be imposed.28 Grinnell’s powerful speech won hearty applause and the mood of the meeting shifted. No clemency appeal would be made by the city’s leading men. The anarchists would choke.

Henry Lloyd left the meeting dismayed but not devastated. After all, the leaders of the amnesty movement expected no mercy from men like Marshall Field, Philip Armour and Cyrus McCormick, Jr. They were counting instead upon increasing the tide of popular sentiment in favor of saving the anarchists’ lives. And that tide was running stronger than ever as petitions of all kinds continued to pour into the Amnesty Association offices. Chief Inspector Bonfield told the press he was disgusted that so many cowardly citizens signed these appeals, and he now feared that none of the men would hang.29

The organizers of the mercy campaign held out the hope that Governor Richard Oglesby would find a way to stay the executions of the unrepentant anarchists. These expectations were not unreasonable, said Medill of the Tribune, because the governor was a “humane and sympathetic man averse to the shedding of blood,” a man who had shown himself more than once to be “the warm friend of the working class.” Oglesby was also one of the last Lincoln men in public life, one of the last Radical Republicans holding major office. Moreover, it was rumored that Oglesby was troubled by the conspiracy case made against the anarchists. When he came to Chicago to dedicate Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s impressive statue of the martyred president in Lincoln Park, the governor told one amnesty supporter, “If that had been the law during the anti-slavery agitation all of us abolitionists would have been hanged a long time ago.”30

As all eyes turned to Oglesby, a stunning incident occurred that dashed the petitioners’ hopes: four bombs were discovered in Louis Lingg’s jail cell. The news of this shocking discovery spread far and wide on November 7, when Sheriff Matson shouted to reporters, “Merciful God! We have been on the brink of a volcano!” The bombs were quite small, but their sheer presence inside a county jail was what counted. “What a revolution in public opinion this will produce,” the sheriff exclaimed. Indeed, the discovery immediately put the clemency campaign in jeopardy. Everyone sympathetic to the anarchists assumed the police had placed the bombs under Lingg’s bed, but no proof could be found that they were planted there or that they had been sneaked in with the food and gifts prisoners received through the bars. In any case, the shocking news discouraged the leaders of the defense. The Tribune’s headline on November 8 said it all: COMMUTATION UNLIKELY. FINDING BOMBS IN LINGG’S CELL CHANGES CASE.31

Nevertheless, a large party of Chicagoans assembled at Union Depot the next evening to head for Springfield to plead the anarchists’ case before the governor. “It was a heterogeneous committee,” according to one reporter, consisting of men and women of many backgrounds. Captain and Mrs. Black were present, along with Attorney Salomon and General Trumbull and Amnesty Association leaders Dr. Salter and Samuel McConnell. A large labor delegation led by George Schilling included many Knights and Federation leaders who opposed the anarchists, as well as Germans of the Central Labor Union who called them brothers. The senior member of the trade union contingent, the battle-worn A. C. Cameron, was also there. The Scotsman had seen the whole pageant unfold, beginning in the years after the Civil War, when he inspired the first eight-hour movement and engineered the first eight-hour law in the land, only to see it defied by employers on May 1, 1867. Now, after the hopes of a second May Day movement had been crushed, it had come to this—a desperate plea for the lives of four workers driven to extremes by two decades of struggle and defeat. Several wives of the defendants, as well as Spies’s mother, sister and two brothers, also boarded the train. Even Chicago’s famous spiritualist, Cora Richmond, joined the traveling party. In the same article that reported the delegation’s departure, the Tribune pointed out that the carpenters would begin work on the scaffold outside the jail that night.32

Governor Oglesby was overwhelmed by his task of reviewing the 8,000-page record of the trial as well as the hundreds of letters and telegrams that arrived every day from all points. On November 9 alone he received 500 messages, half of them for commutation and half of them for execution. For example, the Republican editor of Chicago’s leading German daily, Staats-Zeitung, wrote a letter that concluded with the comment that the only good anarchist was a dead one. The Tribune editorialized sympathetically on Oglesby’s dilemma, saying no other amnesty campaign had ever subjected a governor to such an ordeal.33


Governor Richard J. Oglesby

On November 9, the delegation of appellants had swollen to nearly 300 with the arrival of a large contingent from New York City and smaller ones from Detroit and Quincy, Illinois. At 9:30 a.m., with everyone seated in the statehouse and the press gallery filled, Captain Black opened with a legal address. The governor listened judiciously, giving no sign of his feelings. General Trumbull spoke next and appealed to Oglesby “as an old soldier, who has fought with you on the battlefields of the Republic.” Then Cora Richmond, speaking for the Amnesty Association, invoked the forgiving spirit of the “martyred Abraham Lincoln.” Both petitioners knew, of course, that the governor had been at Lincoln’s bedside as he lay dying, that he had been on the funeral train that brought the president’s body home to Illinois and that Oglesby was considered “a high priest ex-officio in the cult of Lincoln” that flourished in the mid-1880s when several of the late president’s associates published affectionate reminiscences. The governor was then presented with an additional petition from the Amnesty Association with 41,000 names of Chicagoans who had signed during the past week, and others from groups in Cleveland, Kansas City and New York City, where 150,000 people signed.34

After a short recess, a much larger gathering convened at a nearby hotel, where George Schilling organized a cavalcade of speakers, none more impressive, in the Tribune’s view, than Samuel Gompers of New York City’s Central Labor Union and the new American Federation of Labor. A Jewish immigrant of small stature, this cigar maker had in less than two decades mastered English in the American idiom and acquired a sophisticated understanding of U.S. history and politics. Although he differed with the condemned men in theory and in practice, Gompers told the governor that they had nevertheless been “fighting for labor from different sides of the house.” These condemned men had been done an injustice and should be saved from the gallows as a matter of principle, but, as usual, Gompers assessed the real politics of the situation as well. “If these men are executed it would simply be an impetus to this so-called revolutionary movement which no other on earth can give,” he explained. “These men would . . . be looked upon as martyrs. Thousands and thousands of labor men all over the world would consider that these men had been executed because they were standing for free speech and free press.” Therefore, Gompers pleaded with Oglesby to use his power to avoid such a calamity. He concluded by saying that if this country could be great and magnanimous enough to grant amnesty to Jefferson Davis, who had committed treason and led a rebellion against the government that cost countless lives, then surely the State of Illinois could do as much for the anarchists.35

The governor listened to many other speakers that afternoon and met privately with the overwrought wives and siblings of the defendants; then, after all this, Oglesby responded to a request from the radical editor Joseph Buchanan, who asked for a private meeting. The labor leader requested permission to read letters he carried that had been written by Spies and Parsons. The governor agreed, and behind closed doors Buchanan opened and read Spies’s letter first. Spies explained that Engel, Parsons, Fischer and Lingg had not asked for clemency because they could not, in their innocence, accept commutation to a life sentence; and so, they would now die for their stand. Spies hoped to save them with a heroic act of self-sacrifice, saying he was ready to die in their place if it would allow the governor to spare the others. Buchanan, who found the letter difficult to get through, finished by reading these words from Spies: “In the name of the traditions of this country I beg you to prevent a seven-fold murder upon men whose only crime is that they are idealists. If legal murder there must be, let mine suffice.” After he finished reading Spies’s letter, Buchanan noticed “a deep look of sorrow” on the governor’s face and “his eyes were full of tears.”36

Buchanan then read a letter to the governor from Parsons, which he may have hoped would contain the legally required plea for clemency that Schwab and Fielden had made. Instead, the letter offered a parting shot, an ironic comment on the whole affair. Parsons wrote sarcastically that since his wife and children were also present at the Haymarket the night of the bombing, his own execution should be delayed so that they too could be arrested, tried and executed with him. Hearing this, Oglesby brought his hands to his face and cried, “Oh my God, this is terrible!” Buchanan, who knew how bitter Parsons had become, was nonetheless thunderstruck and nearly burst into tears.37

After this long emotional day, unprecedented in appeals process history, the delegations headed home, and Oglesby retired to ponder his decision. On the afternoon of November 10, while he deliberated over the case, the governor received the stunning news from Chicago that Louis Lingg had exploded a dynamite cap in his mouth that morning and lay dying in the county jail. Wild speculation circulated through the city that the police had assassinated Lingg. After all, the prisoner had been removed from the others after the jailers discovered bombs in his cell. Who knew what really happened to Lingg? With his face blown apart, the victim could not utter a word of explanation in his last hours. Since the police were certain that one of Lingg’s bombs slaughtered their fellow officers on May 4, they certainly had motive to seek revenge against the “anarchist tiger.”

However, most people, including many anarchists, believed that Lingg desperately wanted to take his own life before the state he hated could do it. But if the police did not assassinate Lingg, how did he kill himself? The mystery of how the prisoner got hold of a cigar with a fulminating cap inside remained unsolved. Later on, a story circulated indicating that the explosive had been passed to him by a comrade, the anarchist Dyer Lum, who said so in a letter that became known after his death. Lum had expressed a deep admiration for his young German comrade as a devoted and fearless anarchist who never allowed himself the false hope of salvation from the death that awaited him. And so Lum would have endorsed the Tribune’s comment that Louis Lingg had “eluded the disgrace of the hangman’s noose and the ignominy of a public execution.” Fischer, Engel and Parsons told reporters they envied him.38

Two hours after receiving the shocking news of the explosion in Lingg’s cell, Oglesby announced his decision. The governor commuted to life imprisonment the sentences of Fielden and Schwab, who had requested this in writing, and he upheld the death sentences for Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel, who had not begged for mercy. After he received the news from the governor, Captain Black sent a doleful telegraph message back to his office in Chicago, where the anarchists’ loved ones had gathered together to share their desperate hopes and their worst fears.


Louis Lingg

THE FOUR CONDEMNED MEN on death row in Chicago were not surprised by the governor’s decision; they had long expected it and prepared for it. Parsons even chose poems to recite for the occasion, one being John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Reformer,” in which the writer proclaimed that whether a man died “on the gallows high” or on the battlefield, the noblest place a man could die was a place where he died for his fellow man.39

A few women were allowed to visit the jail on the afternoon of November 10: Engel’s daughter Mary, Nina Van Zandt Spies and Adolph Fischer’s “delicate little wife,” Johanna, now evoked pity from onlookers, according to one reporter. But Lucy Parsons was denied entry to see Albert because she had reportedly acted deranged. Unable to see his loved ones for the last time, Parsons wrote Albert, Jr., and Lulu a letter to be read on the first anniversary of his death. In it, he implored them to love, honor and obey their mother, “the grandest noblest of women,” and to read his message each recurring year in “remembrance of he who dies not alone for you but for the children yet unborn.”40

After the night shift arrived for the death watch, Lingg’s body was packed in ice and placed in a coffin. A clergyman made the rounds. The Protestant minister heard no confessions, although Spies freely talked with him about life and death. Then the lamps went down and death row was dark and silent. All remained quiet until midnight, when Parsons began to sing one of his favorite songs, “Annie Laurie.” The jailers reported “there was in his tone a lonesome melancholy” as he sang the first stanza with the Scottish inflection:

Max Welton’s braes are bonnie,

Where early fa’s the dew,

And ’twas there that Annie Laurie

Gave me her promise true,

Gave me her promise true,

That ne’er forgot shall be:

And for Bonnie Annie Laurie

I’d lay me doon and dee.41

In the second verse, Albert Parsons’s voice wavered and broke, the jailers said, and he seemed “cast down.” After regaining his composure, he talked with them through the midnight hour. He told them how affected he felt about Spies leaving his new wife a widow and how worried Fischer was about the fate of his young and feeble wife. Parsons told his guards that he rejoiced that the wife he left behind was lionhearted and that his children were too young to “keenly feel bereavement.” And then, at about one o’clock, he said to his guards, “I will sing you a song, one born as a battle cry in France and now accepted as the hymn of revolution the world over.” As if to give them some encouragement, he sang in a low voice the English words of “La Marseillaise,” “which the guards commended as both inspiring and well performed.” Parsons slept little the rest of the night. Instead, “he chatted with the guards on the death watch and furnished them each with his autograph.” 42

The next morning at eight o’clock Parsons penned a letter to his friend Dyer Lum. “The guard has just awakened me. I have washed my face and drank a cup of coffee. The doctor asked me if I wanted stimulants. I said no. The dear boys, Engel, Fischer and Spies, saluted me with firm voices. Well, my dear old comrade, the hour draws near. Caesar kept me awake last night with the noise, the music of the hammer and saw erecting his throne—my scaffold.” Yet Parsons had learned one good thing from the sheriff: the state would not dispose of his body secretly. Sheriff Matson had assured him that his remains would be sent to Lucy at the home address he gave to his jailers.43

On the eve of hanging day “an unbearable anxiety gripped Chicago,” because citizens believed the execution would provoke an all-out anarchist attack on the courthouse and other targets. Newspaper men arrived from far and wide to file reports from the tension-packed city. When November 11 dawned, hundreds of reporters shivered in the dim morning air waiting to enter the courthouse. “To the spectacle that on the morning of that 11th of November Chicago presented, there has been no parallel in any American city in the time of peace,” wrote New York Worldreporter Charles Edward Russell as he re-created the scene many years later. Ropes extended for one block around the courthouse and all traffic was blocked. “The jail itself was guarded like a precarious outpost in a critical battle. Around it lines of policemen were drawn; from every window policemen looked forth, rifles in hand; the roof was black with policemen. The display of force was overpowering.”44

At six o’clock in the morning the reporters were admitted. They stood in one room, all 200 of them, cooped up while disturbing rumors played on their nerves. One morning extra edition was passed around reporting that the jail had been mined by the anarchists, who had buried great stores of dynamite beneath it, and that, at the moment of the hanging, the whole building would explode. The nervous tension rose to such a pitch that two of the reporters, tried and experienced men, turned sick and faint and had to be assisted to leave the room. “In all my experience this was the only occasion on which a reporter flinched from duty, however trying; but it is hard now,” Russell wrote in 1914, “to understand the tremendous infectional panic that had seized upon the city and had its storm center at that jail.” 45

None of the relatives or friends of the four anarchists were allowed to witness the execution that day, so they had bid them goodbye the evening before. Because Lucy Parsons had been denied access to the jail, she set out the morning of the hanging day determined to see Albert one last time. After rising early, she put on a handmade dress of dark cloth and wound a long black veil of crepe around her face and over her hat; and then she hurried downtown with Albert, Jr., and Lulu. At the Amnesty Association office, she met Lizzie Holmes, who accompanied her to the fortified courthouse. Never afraid to confront the police, the women approached the line and asked to be admitted to the jail, but at every point the women and children were told to move on. Boiling with anger and frustration, Lucy screamed, “Oh, you murderous villains! You forbid me to see my husband, whom you are about to kill and not let him take a last look at his children, whom you are about to make orphans.” In a rage she told the officers she had no bombs with her but that she could get them and use them if she wanted to. At this she was arrested along with Lizzie and the two children; they were put in a patrol wagon and driven off to Captain Schaack’s Chicago Avenue Station, where a matron strip-searched the women and children, looking for weapons and bombs.46

AT THE COURTHOUSE and all around it, huge crowds filled the streets. At 10:55 a.m., 250 newspapermen, the 12 jurymen and other selected witnesses filed quickly through a dark passage under the gallows and into a corridor behind the courthouse. The bailiff begged the reporters not to make a rush out of the corridor when the drop fell, but to wait decently and in order. There they sat for the next hour and waited. As noon approached, their conversations turned to whispers. The witnesses fell silent when, according to one observer, “the tramp, tramp of men’s foot-steps was heard resounding from the central corridor, and the crowd in front of the gallows knew the condemned men had begun the march of death.” Then all eyes turned toward the screen at the edge of the gallows platform that hid the four anarchists. 47


“The Execution”

At this point the news reporters, all seasoned witnesses of public hangings, made notes that would become nearly rhapsodic descriptions of the scene that unfolded after the first man appeared from behind the screen. “With a steady, unfaltering step a white robed figure stepped out . . . and stood upon the drop. It was August Spies. It was evident that his hands were firmly bound behind him beneath his snowy shroud.” He walked across the platform to the left side, where he stood under the dangling noose that reached down to his breast. His face, said a Daily News reporter, was very pale, his looks solemn, his expression melancholy, yet “at the same time dignified.” He glanced quickly at the noose and then gazed out on the hundreds of faces turned up to him. Fischer and Engel followed him and took their places on the line. Last came Parsons, who straightened himself before the fourth noose and, “as he did so, turned his big gray eyes upon the crowd below with such a look of awful reproach and sadness as it would not fail to strike the innermost chord of the hardest-heart there,” wrote one observer. “It was a look never to be forgotten.” 48

The bailiff then fastened leather straps around the ankles of the four men, who all stood straight and remained quiet. Guards first placed a noose around Spies’s neck, and when the rope caught on his right ear, he deftly shook his head so that it fell down around his neck. When the bailiff approached Adolph Fischer, “he threw back his head and bared his long muscular neck by the movement.” Then he laughingly whispered some words in Spies’s ear while Engel “smiled down at the crowd” and said something to his guard, “evidently some word of peace” that seemed to affect the officer. Parsons, however, looked angrily down at the witnesses.

The anarchists seemed to be choreographing their own final scene on the stage of life. They certainly planned to make the most of the ritual moment when they could speak their last words from the gallows platform. But the bailiff, perhaps unnerved by their behavior, broke with tradition and immediately started putting shrouds over their heads as if to block their words. In a few moments all four men stood upon the scaffold clad from head to toe in pure white robes. The executioner took up his ax and was poised to cut the cords that would trip all four trapdoors and send the men to their doom. As the hangman paused, awaiting the order, a “mournful solemn voice sounded” from the platform. It was Spies speaking from behind his muslin shroud. His words would become his epitaph. “The time will come,” he said, “when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Emboldened by this declaration, George Engel shouted in German, “Hurrah for anarchy!” and Adolph Fischer proclaimed, “This is the happiest day of my life.”

Then Parsons spoke from behind his mask, sounding sadder than the others: “May I be allowed to speak?” he beseeched the sheriff. “Oh, men of America! May I be allowed the privilege of speech even at the last moment? Harken to the voice of the people,” he was saying when the executioner cut the cord and the trapdoors snapped open with a crash, leaving four men dangling at the ends of ropes.49

The Tribune’s man on the scene spared nothing in his account of what he saw when the floorboards shot open and the bodies fell 4 feet down. “The light form of Parsons’ body seemed to bound upward” much more than those of the heavier men and, after a few minutes, his shrouded figure “settled into almost perfect quiet,” as did that of Engel. Then, “all eyes were directed to that of Spies, which was writhing horribly” as his shoulders twisted, his chest heaved and his legs “drew up to his chest and straightened out again and again” as he strangled to death. This scene continued for several minutes as physicians kept checking the pulse of each man. Seven and a half minutes after the bodies fell, the last man alive, Adolph Fischer, was declared dead.

None of the four men died from a broken neck, the form of death that was supposed to result from a state hanging. Instead, the convicts all strangled to death during what seemed to those present like a terribly long period of agony.50 “The spectators of the hanging, many of whom were visibly affected by the scene, remained seated even after life had been declared extinct in each dangling figure,” the Daily News remarked. “As the white forms hung in startling relief against the dark background of the wall behind the scaffold the sight was more ghastly than at any previous stage of the grim proceedings.” The spectators remained seated for some time, and the sheriff twice had to tell them to leave. Among the witnesses, the Tribune reported, the general mood seemed to be “one of pity and regret rather than exultation.” 51

While the coroners placed each body in a pine coffin, Lucy and her children remained behind bars in the Chicago Avenue Station, what she called “Captain Schaack’s Bastille.” Two hours after the execution, Lucy Parsons was told that her husband was dead and she could leave and take her children home.52

BY THIS TIME, runners had carried word of the deaths to the Western Union telegraph office and to newspaper row. The news was posted on billboards that had been placed all over the city. At the luxurious Palmer House Hotel the city’s wealthiest citizens gathered after lunch to read this notice: “Trap fell. Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engle [sic] expiate their crime and the law is vindicated.” One reporter described a palpable feeling of relief among downtown people, because the execution had occurred without a single hand being raised in violent protest.53

That afternoon the attorney Moses Salomon arrived at the jail with three union representatives to claim the bodies and carry the remains of the men to the undertakers. Barred from witnessing the execution, comrades and friends gathered to escort the five coffins back to the North Side. A large throng of mourners followed the remains of Engel and Lingg to an undertaker’s parlor, where a crowd of 1,000 formed waiting to view the bodies. At the home of August Spies’s mother a crowd of women and children lined the walk in front, many of them in tears, while at the Parsonses’ flat nearby, Lucy was being attended to by other women after she fainted. One observer said that “the fearless wife of Parsons had been absolutely prostrated by the violence of her emotions” and that, when she regained consciousness, “she raved and moaned in a most pitiable manner.” One of her comrades, Frank Stauber, told the journalist he had seen grief-stricken people before, “but never in my life have I seen such grief. I am actually afraid the woman is dying.”54

Friends and relatives, advocates and supporters of the defendants had been preparing themselves for the deaths of the condemned men, but on the afternoon of November 11 they still found themselves uncontrollably distraught over the news. Even those in faraway cities were deeply affected.

From Boston, William Dean Howells wrote of his “helpless feeling of grief and rage” over the “civic murder” committed in Chicago. “[T]his Republic has killed five men for their opinions,” he told his father. Howells believed the executions dishonored the nation and the memory of Abraham Lincoln, whose campaign biography Howells had written in 1860. After years of optimistic contentment with the progress of American civilization and belief in “its ability to come out all right in the end,” the writer now felt the nation’s story was “coming out all wrong in the end.” The death of the anarchists in Chicago shattered his faith in the triumph of Lincoln’s ideal republic, a republic with malice toward none and charity for all.55

In New York City many Jewish working people in the tenement houses and clothing shops of the Lower East Side were palpably disturbed by the news that four innocent men, three of them immigrants, had died on the gallows in a land to which these foreigners had come seeking freedom and justice. “Heartbroken, we walked for days like mourners,” the Jewish socialist Abraham Cahan recalled. The distress of these immigrant workers deepened, he reported, when they realized how many Americans applauded the verdict and its execution. 56

In Chicago the defenders were too devastated to speak in public or to put their feelings on paper. Joseph Buchanan later described seeking a quiet refuge from the immense throng that crowded the downtown streets, and waiting in a hotel lobby where a clerk read minute-by-minute accounts from a ticker tape of the death walk, the hoods and nooses being adjusted, the last words uttered. Buchanan watched the long hand on a clock as it moved to the fateful hour of noon; when it struck twelve, he broke down sobbing over an event that would haunt him for the rest of his life. After passing “a night of horrors” as he agonized over the impending executions, Sam Gompers spent the afternoon of November 11 meandering through Chicago’s streets, utterly depressed by the hangings and his failed efforts to win clemency for those now deceased. Captain William Black’s rage over the executions was mixed with a gnawing sense of guilt over Parsons’s fate. If he had not called the fugitive to return from Wisconsin and stand trial with the others, he might still be alive. Henry Demarest Lloyd, who was as disturbed as anyone on the defense team, wrote a poem dedicated to Spies and Parsons. That night, as tears flowed, his wife, Jessie, and his children joined Lloyd in singing his elegiac words to the tune of “Annie Laurie.”57

No one was closer to Parsons than George Schilling, who spoke with him in Market Square the night the great uprising began in 1877, campaigned with him as a socialist candidate and joined him in founding the “old 400” assembly of the Knights. Schilling quarreled with Parsons over the anarchists’ militant demands and violent words, but he loved and admired the charismatic Texan, and no one cared more about saving him and his comrades than Schilling did; no one, outside the families of the condemned men, bore a greater emotional strain during the long ordeal. As a result, Schilling was deeply shaken and thoroughly embittered by the hangings. Two years passed before he could gain some perspective on the event the anarchists would call Black Friday. “This 11th of November, 1887, has passed into history, and marks the chief tragedy of the closing years of the 19th century,” he wrote. “The trial of Parsons, Spies, et al is over and the verdict of the jury executed, but the trial of judgment is still going on.” 58

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