National Review / Digital
What Happened at Haymarket?
A historian challenges a labor-history fable




This unusual approach seems to have paid off: Messer-Kruse believes that although it’s impossible to rule out lethal friendly fire, several policemen were probably shot by armed protesters — a fact that chips away at the belief that the anarchists were peaceful. Messer-Kruse also worked with chemists to study the forensic remains of Haymarket’s violence. He determined that the original trial experts brought in to study the bomb and bullet fragments had done their jobs well. He furthermore concluded that one of the Haymarket defendants — Louis Lingg, who killed himself before authorities could carry out his death sentence — almost certainly built the bomb.

These findings made their way into Messer-Kruse’s first formal work of scholarship on Haymarket: a 2005 paper printed in Labor, a top academic journal. Around the same time, Messer-Kruse organized a symposium on his work at an annual labor-history conference at Wayne State University, in Detroit. “I expected skepticism,” he says. “Instead, I encountered utter and complete denial of the evidence.” The standing-room-only crowd refused to question what had become an article of faith in left-wing mythology. “They seemed to think that our purpose as historians was to celebrate Haymarket, not to study it or challenge it,” he says. The most provocative attack came a year later, when Bryan D. Palmer of Trent University, in Canada, published a rebuttal to Messer-Kruse. The Haymarket anarchists, he wrote, were “humane, gentle, kindly souls.” Evildoers oppressed them: “The state, the judiciary, and the capitalist class had blood on their hands in 1886–87,” he wrote. Those of us who “drink of this old wine adorned with the new label of Messer-Kruse . . . may end up with the sickly sweet repugnance of blood on our lips.”

These fighting words convinced Messer-Kruse that he needed to continue his work. He envisioned a magnum opus on Haymarket — a large book that would ask hard questions and exploit new sources. “A lot of labor historians think they must be deeply engaged with the prospects and agenda of labor unions,” says Messer-Kruse. “But we have an obligation to represent as best we can the objective reality of the past.”

For several years, Messer-Kruse toiled away. He produced a thick manuscript, only to find that publishers didn’t want a big book on the subject. They feared a commercial flop. So he broke it into three parts, delivering his reinterpretation of Haymarket in a long academic paper and two peer-reviewed books: The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists, published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2011, and The Haymarket Conspiracy, published by the University of Illinois Press last summer.

“My aim is not to prove that the police and the courts were right and the anarchists and their supporters were wrong,” writes Messer-Kruse in the introduction to Trial. Yet the sum of his work appears to do just that. He shows that Chicago’s anarchists belonged to an international network of left-wing militants who believed that only bloodshed could bring social change. They plotted to incite violence at Haymarket. The person who threw the bomb was almost certainly Rudolph Schnaubelt, a close confederate of the defendants. He was never brought to justice because he fled Chicago and vanished from history, though Messer-Kruse suggests that he lived out his days as a farm-equipment salesman in Buenos Aires. The eight men who were arrested received a fair trial by the standards of the day. Finally, most of the blame for their being found guilty lies with a defense team that seemed more committed to political theater than to providing competent legal counsel.

Once again, Messer-Kruse encountered the closed-minded hostility that he had experienced at the Wayne State conference. When a press release for The Haymarket Conspiracy appeared on an online discussion board for labor historians in August, within days of Mitt Romney’s acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination, Norman Markowitz of Rutgers University delivered this deep thought: “Perhaps Romney will put the book on his reading list.” Dissent, a left-wing quarterly, attacked Messer-Kruse’s work, and most mainstream publications have ignored it. Messer-Kruse even battled Wikipedia editors when he tried to update the entry for Haymarket.

Yet Messer-Kruse is also starting to receive a strange new respect. Last May, the Labadie Collection — the nation’s premier archive of anarchist documents, housed at the University of Michigan — asked Messer-Kruse to deliver the keynote address at its centennial exhibit. In August, the academic journal Labor History picked Trial as its book of the year. In the fall, Labor, the scholarly periodical, published a symposium on his work. Colleagues offered criticism, but they also praised his “careful,” “well-argued,” and “impressively nuanced” scholarship. The January 2013 issue of Choice, the professional magazine for college librarians, listed Trial as an outstanding academic title.

Even the best revisionist scholarship can take a long time to influence the way teachers and schools treat history, especially when the authors of leading textbooks show little interest in examining new evidence. “I haven’t read Messer-Kruse’s book and so can’t comment,” says H. W. Brands. Bryan Palmer, who wrote the blistering “blood on our lips” attack in 2006, says he hasn’t read the new material. James Green, author of Death in the Haymarket, also demurs.

Yet change is coming, according to Eric Arnesen, a labor historian at George Washington University. “This is going to make people pause when they get to the Haymarket part of their courses,” he says. “They won’t be able to use their old lecture notes anymore. They’ll have to bring up Timothy Messer-Kruse.”

February 11, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 2

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Mackubin Thomas Owens reviews Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, by Max Boot.
  • Ronald Radosh reviews Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, by Anne Applebaum.
  • David G. Dalin reviews Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism, by Gil Troy.
  • Robert VerBruggen reviews The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.
  • Andrew Stuttaford reviews Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium, by Mark Edward.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Zero Dark Thirty.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .