SEPTEMBER 1877–OCTOBER 1883
IN SEPTEMBER OF 1877, Albert Parsons, running hard for county office as a socialist, harangued crowds in saloons and railyards, in Turner halls where German immigrants still seethed over the deadly police attacks of July and on street corners in riot-torn Pilsen. Everywhere he went he spoke of the great uprising of July and its bloody suppression.1
When Parsons topped the Workingmen’s Party ticket, polling a total of 8,000 votes, his former employer at the Times simply dismissed his tally as “a riot vote” garnered by one of those “long-haired idiots and knaves” who denied the inexorable laws of political economy. 2 The socialists, however, were elated; they had gained favorable public attention and tapped into widespread popular indignation over the behavior of the railroad barons. Up to this point in his young but eventful political life, Albert Parsons had been a reformer, a socialist who believed that as long as workers lived in a republic, they had hope of gaining power through the democratic process. Over the next six years, however, a series of discouraging events would dash that hope and send him down a revolutionary road.
In December of 1877 the Chicago socialists sent a delegation to their party’s national convention, where they agreed to merge their party with a new organization, the Socialistic Labor Party. The following spring the party ran a full slate of candidates in all the city’s wards, calling for the circulation of paper currency (greenbacks) and for the enactment of an eight-hour day; the socialists also demanded the abolition of vagrancy laws used to punish the unemployed, conspiracy laws used to persecute unionists and convict-lease arrangements used to exploit forced labor and undermine free laborers.3
Albert Parsons, now residing in the 15th Ward, made another impressive showing in a race for a City Council seat, polling 744 votes, just 116 votes fewer than the winner. He believed, however, that he had actually won the election and that Republican election officials had counted him out.4Being cheated out of public office reminded Parsons of the blatant election fraud carried out by Democratic officials in Texas against his old Republican allies. It seemed to matter little which party was in power: the people’s will was denied either way. Having served his time as a militia colonel defending freedmen’s voting rights in Texas, Parsons was now prepared to take up arms to protect workingmen’s voting rights in Chicago. Indeed, some of the German workers who had voted for him in Ward 15 had already done so.
That spring, units of the Lehr und Wehr Verein began drilling in public and deploying their militiamen in defense of socialist meetings and picnics. By the summer, the workers’ militia could marshal four companies with several divisions (each with forty men). Its officers explained that the militiamen would act only if workers’ constitutional rights were violated, as the police had done when they invaded the cabinetmakers’ meeting at the Vorwärts Turner Hall that summer. These assurances failed to calm the nerves of worried city leaders, and when the Bohemian Sharpshooters were observed drilling on a prairie lot outside Pilsen, word spread that the socialists were preparing for an armed insurrection. The Sharpshooters’ commander ridiculed the rumor. Albert Parsons, however, spoke in a different tone. “If people try to break up our meetings,” he threatened, “as they did at Turner Hall, they will meet foes worthy of their steel.”5
The Citizens’ Association’s leaders took this warning seriously and accelerated their efforts to raise money to arm their own regiment and to push legislators to ban public drilling by the worker units. One year after the great uprising, Chicagoans were hiving off into armed camps.
The city’s businessmen, the Tribune reported, openly expressed their alarm at the possibility of “trouble with the Communists” that summer or fall. Perilous days lay ahead, warned the Chicago Inter-Ocean. Poor people were desperate for relief; they were listening to the socialists and questioning the conventional wisdom about economic laws. “There is distrust, dissatisfaction, discontent about us everywhere,” the paper’s editor declared. “Communism proper has little to do with it, but a common feeling of disgust, discouragement, and uncertainty feeds the flame that makes the communist kettle boil.”6
Albert Parsons at about age thirty
BY NOW LUCY PARSONS had joined her husband, Albert, in fanning the flames of discontent. The couple immersed themselves in the city’s lively socialist movement and in the cultural life it spawned. By the fall, the Socialistic Labor Party had established four German sections in various neighborhoods, as well as Scandinavian, Bohemian, French and English branches. The party’s German newspaper, Der Vorbote, expanded its circulation and its members started a Danish paper, as well as an English paper, the Socialist, which Albert helped to edit. Lucy contributed as well with a mournful poem about poor people “wandering up and down the cheerless earth, aimless, homeless, helpless,” as “the cries of their hungry children and the prayers of their despairing wives fell upon them like curses.” Lucy also joined Albert in debates sponsored by socialist societies, plunging into the discussions, speaking with her own resonant voice and arguing with what one male observer called “spirit and animation.”7
Propelled by young enthusiasts like Albert and Lucy Parsons, the Chicago socialists mounted an ambitious campaign aimed at the spring municipal elections of 1879. They nominated a popular and respected German physician, Dr. Ernest Schmidt, for mayor, and put candidates up for all major offices. 8 The campaign reached a climax in March at an ambitious rally and festival: a lavish celebration of the Paris Commune’s eighth anniversary. The socialists rented the largest meeting hall in the city for the event—the enormous Exposition Building on the lakefront, constructed after the fire to showcase the commercial and industrial accomplishments of Chicago. The pageant featured ceremonial maneuvers by 500 armed men who formed units of the Lehr und Wehr Verein, Bohemian Sharpshooters, the Irish Labor Guard and the Scandinavian Jaegerverein. People flocked to the event, and so many of them packed the hall—more than 40,000—that it was impossible to carry out the full program of speaking, singing, dancing and drilling. Still, the event was a spectacular achievement for the socialists and a reminder that the memory of the Paris Commune had acquired mythical power in the minds of many immigrant workers.9
The next day a Tribune editorial asked who were the thousands who had jammed the Exposition Building that night. The answer oozed with contempt. “Skim the purlieus of the Fifth Ward,” read the editorial, referring to Irish Bridgeport, “drain the Bohemian socialist slums of the Sixth and Seventh Wards, scour the Scandinavian dives of the Tenth and Fourteenth Wards, cull the choicest thieves from Halsted and Desplaines Street, pick out from Fourth Avenue, Jackson Street, Clark Street and State Street and other noted haunts the worst specimens of female depravity, scatter in all the red-headed, cross-eyed and frowsy servant girls in three divisions of the city and bunch all these together . . . [and] you have a pretty good idea of the crowd that made up last night’s gathering.”10
The socialists knew, however, that their pageant had attracted many respectable immigrants—merchants, builders, musicians, teachers, doctors, tradesmen and saloonkeepers who still resented the Tribune and its haughty editor. They remembered well that Medill, as mayor, had offended them, not only with his hostile words but with his attempts to close their saloons on Sundays and to stop them from rebuilding their wooden homes after the Great Fire.
City elections in Chicago were usually fought out over issues like tax rates, building codes, construction contracts and saloon regulations, but in 1879 the socialists addressed economic issues that concerned unemployed workers as well as consumers, saloonkeepers and home owners. Voters were startled by the socialists’ dashing confidence and the boldness of their proposals, such as municipal ownership of the streetcar lines and utilities, which were owned and operated by high-handed monopolists. 11
Dr. Schmidt finished third in the spring election of 1879, polling 12,000 votes. The socialist vote constituted only one-fifth of the total, but it was large enough to deny a victory to the Republicans, who, since 1860, had always prevailed in two-party races with the Democrats. Dr. Schmidt had attracted support from German and Scandinavian tradesmen and professionals who had traditionally supported the Republican Party, as well as from saloonkeepers and brewery owners angered by the Grand Old Party’s zeal for temperance reform. As a result, Kentucky-born Carter Henry Harrison became the city’s first Democratic mayor since the Civil War.12
The businessmen who led the city’s Republican Party were furious about losing control of City Hall so soon after they had won it back from the immigrant People’s Party, but socialists like Albert and Lucy Parsons were in high spirits, riding the waves of a surging political movement and anticipating the birth of their son, Albert, Jr., who was expected in September.
Lucy’s pregnancy did not slow her down; indeed, she escalated her political efforts by joining the new Chicago Working Women’s Union and helping to expose the plight of female domestic servants, who could be dismissed by their mistresses without notice if accused of “misconduct.” Here she encountered a small but brilliant constellation of radical women that included Lizzie Swank, a frail young woman of Yankee stock. Swank could have joined the Daughters of the American Revolution, but instead she adopted her mother’s libertarian beliefs and began writing for the provocative anarchist paper Lucifer. Attracted to Chicago from Iowa by the great uprising of 1877, Swank found work in a sewing shop and soon after joined the Working Women’s Union. There she met Lucy Parsons, who persuaded her new friend to join the insurgent socialist movement. The two young women bonded immediately and plunged into radical activism with abandon. In the summer of 1879 they took part in a joyous three-day festival around the Fourth of July, riding on top of a float decorated with pink cloth and ribbons bearing banners praising STRENGTH OF UNION and promising world peace in these words: WHEN WOMAN IS ADMITTED TO THE COUNCIL OF NATIONS, WAR WILL COME TO AN END, FOR WOMAN KNOWS THE VALUE OF LIFE.13
The high hopes of summer did not last, however, for in the fall elections the socialists’ vote plummeted. The German distillers, brewers, tavern owners and saloonkeepers who voted for Dr. Schmidt in the spring as a protest against the antisaloon elements in the Republican Party returned to the ranks of the Grand Old Party in 1880 after party leaders assured them their breweries and beer gardens would remain open. Democratic workers, who had favored the socialist program for public relief, found the demand less compelling when the long depression finally ended. The party’s ward bosses soon shepherded most of these stray workingmen back into the fold. What is more, the newly elected Democratic mayor, the shrewd charmer Carter Harrison, offered city jobs to socialists, who eagerly joined the mass of job seekers flooding City Hall.
Socialistic Labor Party militants angrily branded the office seekers opportunists and accused some of their leaders of corruption. Faction fights raged among former comrades. The quarreling socialists patched up their differences and put a ticket in the field for the spring elections in 1881, but the party had lost its dash and its sense of common purpose. Socialist vote totals fell in all but one ward on the Northwest Side, where Frank Stauber won reelection to the council—only to be counted out by two election judges who brazenly stuffed the ballot boxes. For many socialists like Albert Parsons, already dejected by the fickle habits of Chicago voters, this blatant case of fraud crushed what little faith they retained in the efficacy of the ballot. “It was then,” Parsons remembered, “that I began to realize the hopeless task of political reformation.”14
AT THIS POINT, disillusioned radicals like Albert Parsons and August Spies bolted the Socialistic Labor Party. The rebel faction, which included most of the Chicago party’s German members, believed that running candidates for office was futile without the thorough organization of workers into aggressive, unified trade unions. Incumbent party leaders, mostly English-speaking socialists, insisted that trade unions serve as auxiliaries to their party. There was another bone of contention. The dominant group objected to armed workers’ organizations because they frightened potential socialist voters, while the militants maintained that their meetings and rallies would be attacked if left undefended, and that, even if their candidates gained public office, they would simply be removed without an armed force to defend them. These debates hardened hearts and closed minds, leading passionate young socialists like Parsons and Spies to reject electoral politics completely. 15
The argument among socialists over the workers’ militia became even more heated when the Citizens’ Association succeeded in persuading the legislature to outlaw the activity of such militias. The Supreme Court of Illinois upheld this ban on armed marches of proletarian militiamen— a decision Parsons and Spies denounced as a clear violation of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protected citizens’ rights to bear arms.16
This court decision seemed like a seismic political event to both young men. Parsons, grandson of a patriot militia commander in the American Revolution and a militia colonel in his own right, and Spies, who had drilled with the Lehr und Wehr Verein, would frequently refer to what they regarded as a monumental injustice in the court’s decision: the businessmen’s First Regiment would continue to arm itself and conduct drills on public streets, but the workers’ self-defense groups would be banned. The decision provoked an enduring sense of anxiety and hostility among Chicago socialists, who now believed the Bill of Rights no longer protected them, but only their sworn enemies.17
In order to convince other workers that a crisis was at hand, the socialist militants took control of the party’s daily German-language newspaper, Arbeiter-Zeitung, which was nearly bankrupt. The dissidents hired August Spies to manage this publication as well as the weekly Vorbote and the socialist Sunday paper Die Fackel. Reviving the socialist press was a discouraging venture, because the party was so weak and divided, but Spies leapt at the challenge. He found a capable assistant in Oscar Neebe, a well-traveled young man who had left his birthplace, New York City, and come to Chicago at the age of sixteen. He worked first in a German saloon near the McCormick Reaper Works, where he heard molders and blacksmiths talk bitterly about the 1867 eight-hour campaign and its betrayal. Then, after several stints as a cook on lake vessels, Neebe found work at good wages in a stove factory, where he labored until 1877, when he was fired and blacklisted for defending the rights of other workers. Neebe endured months of near starvation before he found work selling compressed yeast, a job that took him all over the city and into the company of August Spies.18
Spies, who owned his own shop, and Neebe, who had worked as a salesman, used their business skills to boost sales of all three socialist newspapers, and in just a few years they turned their Socialistic Publishing Company into a flourishing business. In the process, the daily Arbeiter-Zeitung became for thousands of German-speaking workingmen what the Chicago Daily Tribune was for native-born businessmen. Spies’s mastery of German, his skill as a speaker and writer, his knowledge of world politics and his sense of outrage over injustice made his editorials and essays well known to thousands of immigrant workers in his adopted land. Indeed, in no American city did a radical journalist speak to an audience of the size August Spies reached in Chicago.19
August Spies (left) and Oscar Neebe
Using his influence as an opinion shaper, Spies helped convene a meeting of militants who shared a sense of urgency about what they viewed as a vast conspiracy to deprive working people of their rights. The congress at a North Side Turner hall in October 1881 aimed at attracting all socialists “weary of compromise and desirous of accomplishing the social revolution by means other than political action.”20 Some delegates who came from New York City had already given up on electoral politics and taken up the revolutionary banner. Indeed, a few of them reported with high excitement on a meeting just concluded in London, where a band of revolutionaries had decided to revive the International Workingmen’s Association, the organization Karl Marx had dissolved when he feared it would be captured by the anarchist followers of Mikhail Bakunin.
The London meeting had pulsated with talk about the Russian nihilists who had recently stunned the western world by assassinating Czar Alexander II. The result of this act was not the rising of the peasants envisioned by the conspirators, however, but rather a wave of savage repression that shattered the revolutionary movement. Still, this reaction from the czar’s forces did not discourage Bakunin’s London followers; indeed, they made the Russian conspirators into martyrs and vowed to follow their example. 21
The anarchists who formed the new International Working People’s Association in London acted on their belief that socialist propaganda could not effectively reach workers through trade unions and political parties; nor would revolutionary change result from strikes, mass demonstrations and election campaigns. If the Reichstag of Germany could ban the most powerful socialist party in the world and if the imperial troops could crush any demonstration or strike, then revolutionaries must resort to a new method—“propaganda by deed.” These revolutionaries believed that an attentat, a violent act planned by a secret conspiracy and committed by a dedicated militant, could impress the world with the evil of the despotic state and with the fearless determination of those who intended to destroy it. Many European anarchists believed such deeds would terrorize the authorities who were targeted, arouse the masses and trigger a popular insurrection.22
The new “Black International” formed in London would become a “fearful specter in the eyes of governments throughout the Western Hemisphere, which suspected it of being the directing power behind various acts of assassination and terror committed in the ensuing decades,” according to the historian Paul Avrich. These suspicions were “utterly without foundation,” however, because the International existed as little more than an information bureau that led a “phantom existence and soon faded into oblivion.”23 The one city where the Black International attracted an impressive following among workers was Chicago.
DURING THE 1880S Chicago’s total population increased by 118 percent— a rate of growth five times faster than that of New York City. The city’s foreign-born population doubled, reaching 450,000, a total that made immigrant Chicago larger than the total population of St. Louis or any other city in the Midwest, a total swollen by thousands of impoverished Polish Catholic peasants and Jewish refugees from the ghettos of Russia.24 To many native-born Protestants, who constituted but one-fifth of the city’s people, it seemed that Chicago had become “a foreign city,” a place that now contained “more Germans than Anglo-Saxons.” 25
Political refugees from Germany formed a small but outstanding segment of this new immigrant population. For example, among the embittered German exiles who escaped Bismarck’s police forces came the well-known socialist Paul Grottkau. Born in 1846 to a noble family of Brandenburg, he went to Berlin to study architecture but became a stone-mason instead. Grottkau soon became a prominent socialist editor and organizer, and was forced to flee Germany when the antisocialist law took effect in 1878. The exile made his way to Chicago and immediately joined the Socialistic Labor Party, whose members already knew him by reputation. A compelling speaker and writer, Grottkau became editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and a role model for August Spies and other young Germans who joined him when he led the revolt of socialist militants against the party’s leadership. Like Grottkau, these young Turks began calling themselves Social Revolutionaries.26
Another newcomer from Germany, Michael Schwab, would soon fall under Grottkau’s influence as well. Schwab was born along the Main River in northern Bavaria and raised in a prosperous family of devout Catholic peasants until he was orphaned at the age of sixteen. Forced to support himself, the youth became apprenticed to a struggling bookbinder for whom he worked sixteen hours a day. During the rest of the time he devoured books as fast as he could lay his hands on them. Soon after he joined a bookbinders’ union, its socialist leaders converted young Michael to the cause. Volunteering as an agitator in the weaving towns, Schwab was appalled by the condition of workers, who ate thin, brown bread and fat for dinner, and by the factory owners, who made young working girls their mistresses. After this disheartening life on the road as a traveling “trades fellow,” Schwab left his fatherland behind forever, having learned that political liberty without economic freedom was “a mocking lie.”27
The studious Schwab brought these views with him to America in 1879. When he first arrived in Chicago, the bookish Bavarian kept aloof from all organizations and spent his energy studying the English language and reading American history. Eventually he discovered that bookbinders were paid no better in his adopted city than they were in Hamburg and that, here too, thousands of children were “worked to perdition.” In 1881, when Schwab could get no work as a bookbinder, he found a job translating an American romance into German for Arbeiter-Zeitung. His skill impressed editor Grottkau, who hired him as a reporter for the daily. Before long, Schwab had resumed his life as a socialist agitator. He attended many meetings where German comrades delivered elaborate speeches and long denunciations of their rivals. But even a dedicated social revolutionary like Schwab was bored by all this talk. Yearning to be inspired, he joined a throng of German workers who packed into the North Side Turner Hall one night in October 1882 to hear a speech by the notorious firebrand Johann Most.28
Most, already well known to Chicago’s German socialists as a revolutionary agitator and bold provocateur, was born an illegitimate child to poor parents at Augsburg, Germany, in 1846. He lost his mother to cholera when he was a little boy, and then endured a bitter childhood under the rule of a stepmother. At age thirteen his miserable life worsened when a botched operation on his jaw disfigured him and crushed his hopes for a career on the stage. His misery deepened after he apprenticed himself to a cruel master bookbinder.29
Ridiculed and ostracized because of his deformity, Most found solace in reading books after he finished a long day of binding them. Resentful and embittered, he left Germany when he was nineteen and wandered through Switzerland, where he lived in isolation until, in Zurich, he met some socialist workers who befriended him and shared their ideas with him. “From then on,” he recalled, “I began to feel like a human being.” 30
Dedicating his life to “the cause of humanity,” Most returned to Germany and threw himself into the burgeoning socialist movement. A tireless organizer, orator, songwriter, pamphleteer and popularizer of Marx’s Das Kapital, he even won election to the Reichstag for two terms. But when Bismarck launched his assault on the socialists, Most was arrested and imprisoned. Upon release, he left Germany for London, where he published his own newspaper, Freiheit, and used it to attack all authority with boundless fervor.
When Most wrote an ecstatic response to the assassination of the czar in 1881, British authorities jailed him. After enduring sixteen months of hard labor, the agitator emerged from prison a hero and a martyr to German revolutionaries in exile around the world.
When Johann Most reached Chicago in 1882, 6,000 people came to hear him speak. The crowd spilled into the aisles and massed outside to hear his furious bombastic attacks on the capitalists and their government lackeys, who had already declared class war on the poor. Speaking in English with a heavy German accent and performing like a seasoned actor, Most elicited thunderous applause from the huge immigrant audience, who found him shocking, entertaining and enthralling at the same time. Many immigrant workers who heard him speak were thrilled by his acidic diatribes against the rich and powerful and excited by his talk of manning the barricades and dynamiting police stations. Utterly contemptuous of election campaigns and legislative reforms, he insisted on direct action and revolutionary violence.31
Most galvanized young German socialists like August Spies and Michael Schwab, who felt mired in the tedium of their own propaganda. Though they were thrilled by Most’s speeches, Chicago’s social revolutionaries did not form conspiracies or launch violent assaults on the authorities. Most appealed to them more on visceral or emotional terms than on practical ones; indeed, the city’s revolutionaries remained convinced by Marx and Engels that the road to socialism was a long one and that there were no shortcuts through individual acts of terror. And so, in 1883, Spies, Schwab and their comrades patiently set out to organize new clubs of Social Revolutionaries and to expand the circulation of their paper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung.
ALBERT PARSONS WAS ONE of the few Americans who played a prominent role in this activity because he shared the young Germans’ belief that workers needed their own clubs and newspapers to absorb revolutionary ideas just as they needed their own militia to defend their rights; yet a truly powerful and radical workers’ movement required something more as well: a unifying issue and a solidifying organization. Parsons found the issue in the old eight-hour demand, and he found the organization in a mysterious order called the Knights of Labor.
Founded in 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor existed secretly in a few eastern cities for several years and then emerged out of the shadows to hold its first national assembly a few months after the 1877 railroad strike.32 Albert Parsons had joined the order on July 4, 1876, a time when the organization was little more than a fraternal order of craftsmen with elaborate rituals, mostly borrowed from the Masons. The mystic aura of the Knights attracted him, as did their moral code, one that glorified chivalrous manhood and generous fraternity. The young printer also believed that the Knights could create a genuine “brotherhood of toil” among men of different crafts, religions, races and nationalities, even among men who fought on opposing sides in the Civil War. Furthermore, he shared the conviction of the order’s founders that the wage system created opposing classes and caused bloody conflicts, and that it should be replaced by a cooperative economy that would allow dependent wage workers to become independent producers. Soon after he joined the Noble and Holy Order, Parsons linked up with his comrade George Schilling and founded the first Chicago assembly of the Knights, later known as the “old 400.”33
Meanwhile, Parsons tried, almost single-handedly, to revive the eight-hour crusade Chicago workers had abandoned after their devastating defeat in 1867. He invited the legendary founder of the Eight-Hour League, Ira Steward, to the city and then joined the old man in an effort to create a new movement that would “band together all workers” of all races and all nationalities into “one grand labor brotherhood.” In 1882, Parsons’s hopes for such a movement suddenly rose when union carpenters walked out to reduce their workweek and German bakers struck to reduce their long, hot workday, which averaged more than fifteen hours and often stretched to seventeen or eighteen. These job actions confirmed the view of Parsons and other socialists that the eight-hour system could be achieved only through direct action by workers, not by laws that could be subverted by judges, ignored by elected officials and defied by employers.34
Such a transformation would not occur without a new kind of labor movement that amalgamated the fractured trade unions into one solidified organization. The few existing trade unions, based largely on the power of craftsmen like carpenters, cigar makers and ironworkers, had formed a new national Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881, but no unified action had taken place as a result. The first sign of change came in March 1882, when a group of German tanners struck and demanded a wage equal to that of the more skilled English-speaking curriers. When employers refused the demand, the curriers struck in support with the immigrant tanners. This action astounded the Chicago Tribune, because the curriers acted not on the basis “of any grievance of their own, but because of a sentimental and sympathetic feeling for another class of workmen.” The sympathy strike even surprised the editor of the trades council newspaper, who said it was “something new and wonderful.” The seventy-two-day exercise in solidarity was, according to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, “one of the most remarkable on record,” an action “conducted on the principle of the Knights of Labor which proclaims that ‘an injury to one is the concern of all.’ ”35 Suddenly, a group of divided workers actually demonstrated the ideal of working-class solidarity espoused by dreamers like Albert Parsons.
A few weeks later the Knights of Labor found a new constituency among Irish brickyard workers on the Southwest Side who took a job action to restore wage rates cut during the long depression. The Knights advised the strikers to refrain from the violence that had characterized earlier protests in what police called the “terror district.” After hearing these assurances, Mayor Carter Harrison ordered the police to stay out of the conflict. Unable to shield strikebreakers from running a gauntlet of verbal abuse by the strikers, their families and their neighbors, the brickyard owners conceded to their workers’ demands and the Knights’ prestige soared. 36
During the spring of 1882 hundreds of immigrant workers in Chicago became Knights of Labor—butchers and packinghouse workers in the stockyards, brick makers and iron rollers on Goose Island, blacksmiths and brass finishers on the West Side, dry-goods clerks and telegraphers in the downtown business district. Besides trade assemblies for skilled workers, the Knights created mixed assemblies to reach out to unskilled workers of all kinds: female bookbinders, shoe stitchers and carpet weavers, even 7,000 “sewing girls” who toiled in clothing factories.37
In the summer of 1883 one assembly of the Knights felt confident enough to challenge one of the nation’s most important monopolies, the Western Union Telegraph Company, controlled by railroad magnate Jay Gould. The telegraphers formed an assembly of the Knights, and when Western Union’s president refused to talk with them, the operators struck on July 19, 1883. Even the religious press, uniformly hostile to strikes and to unions, supported the walkout, because it was conducted peacefully, and above all because it was caused by a monopoly company under the control of the notorious speculator Gould. Harper’s Weekly expressed amazement that several thousand men and women in the United States and Canada had quit work at precisely the same moment and had then managed their strike with “great skill and marvelous precision.” The journal said that Western Union had displayed a “grasping and unscrupulous attitude” toward its operators, but its editor worried that the walkout would cause a disastrous breakdown of the nation’s communication system.38
The telegraphers’ unified action caused an enormous stir in Chicago, where Western Union was headquartered and where the nation’s railroads and commodity markets were centered. No city depended more upon instant telegraph communications. Yet the strikers won widespread public support, despite the “universal inconvenience” caused by their actions. All trade unionists and many small businessmen avidly supported the telegraphers in their brave stand against the mighty Gould empire. To Albert Parsons and the socialists, the strike represented far more than a moral stand against monopoly power. At one packed meeting of strikers and their supporters, Parsons likened the union telegraphers to his own printers, referring to both groups as “brain workers” whose fingers controlled the composition and flow of information so essential to modern business and government. These highly skilled workers were quite capable of running the nation’s communications industry without the likes of profiteers like Jay Gould in the way.39
Expressions of solidarity with the telegraphers, including Parsons’s eloquent outburst, did not, however, arouse tangible support in the form of strike relief or sympathetic action. When the aid the strikers expected from the Knights of Labor did not arrive, the head of the telegraphers’ union called off the strike and ordered the men back to work. Those who returned to Western Union were required to sign “an ironclad oath” pledging not to join any labor organization.40
The telegraphers’ defeat added to the woes of the Chicago Knights, who, after the spectacular strikes of 1882 and the heady months of expansion that followed, now faced employers who refused to recognize the order or to arbitrate disputes with them. By the fall of 1883 the Knights’ hopes of organizing 50,000 workers in Chicago had faded and their ranks had dwindled to a mere 1,000 members.41
IT WAS UNDER these sobering circumstances in October 1883 that Albert Parsons and August Spies boarded a train for Pennsylvania, where they would meet with other social revolutionaries to create a new organization that would prepare workers for what they saw as the hard and bitter struggle ahead. The Chicago militants joined other trade union delegates in Pittsburgh, where they announced the creation of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), a militant body dedicated to “agitation for the purpose of organization [and] organization for the purpose of rebellion.” The manifesto they addressed to the workingmen of America began by quoting Thomas Jefferson’s “justification for armed resistance” in a situation “when a long train of abuses and usurpations” created an “absolute despotism.”42
The Pittsburgh Manifesto, written in part by August Spies and Johann Most, rejected formal political institutions as agencies of a propertied class that was becoming richer every day by stealing the labor of others. This system of exploitation of the laborer by the capitalist would continue until “the misery of the wage-workers is forced to the extreme.” There was no possibility of voluntary relief: “all attempts in the past to reform this monstrous system by peaceable means, such as the ballot, have been futile, and all such future efforts must necessarily be so.” 43
Spies and Parsons returned to Chicago, distributed copies of the Pittsburgh Manifesto and organized about a dozen little clubs for the IWPA. But with business booming, the Knights of Labor fading from view and the socialist movement reduced to two small camps of warring sects, there seemed little likelihood that workers would notice, let alone respond to, the bold declarations of a few frustrated union militants with revolution on their minds.
The socialists realized that most workers in Chicago maintained ancestral loyalties to their own kind and endured their hardships with surprisingly little complaint; this passivity seemed especially pronounced among devout Catholics of peasant origin. Most of these wage earners, especially immigrants, remained intimidated by the police and the businessmen’s militia and indebted to their employers and local patronage bosses for their jobs. They yearned for lives of security and comfort, not for futures filled with struggle and strife. Even the best socialist propagandist in the city, August Spies, had not overcome his fear that most workingmen were “simply tools of custom”— “automatons incapable of thinking and reasoning for themselves.” And even the best socialist agitator in the city, Albert Parsons, did not hide his fear that the new eight-hour movement was doomed to defeat by its enemies. “I know,” he said, “that defenseless men, women and children must finally succumb to the power of the discharge, black-list and lockout . . . enforced by the militiaman’s bayonet and the policeman’s club.”44
And yet, despite their doubts and fears, Spies and Parsons remained active in the Knights of Labor and the eight-hour campaign because they wanted to be part of a broader class movement and not stand aloof from the mass of workers. Moreover, they had convinced themselves, against all sorts of discouraging evidence, that workers would rise up again, as they had in 1877, that workers would be impelled by forces they felt but did not wholly understand to move unconsciously and irresistibly toward social revolution. This, they believed, was the natural order of things, the logical outcome of the events they had witnessed during the violent years that had passed since they came to Chicago as young tradesmen hoping to improve themselves.