A historian challenges a labor-history fable
Timothy Messer-Kruse doesn’t remember her name, but the question she asked in his college classroom a dozen years ago changed his career — and now it may revolutionize everything historians thought they knew about a hallowed event in the imagination of the American Left. “In my courses on labor history, I always devoted a full lecture to Haymarket,” says Messer-Kruse, referring to what happened in Chicago on the night of May 4, 1886. He would describe how a gathering of anarchists near Haymarket Square turned into a fatal bombing and riot. Although police never arrested the bomb-thrower, they went on to tyrannize radical groups throughout the city, in a crackdown that is often called America’s first Red Scare. Eight men were convicted of aiding and abetting murder. Four died at the end of a hangman’s noose. Today, history books portray them as the innocent victims of a sham trial: They are labor-movement martyrs who sought modest reforms in the face of ruthless robber-baron capitalism.
As Messer-Kruse recounted this familiar tale to his students at the University of Toledo in 2001, a woman raised her hand. “Professor,” she asked, “if what it says in our textbook is true, that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever connecting them with the bombing,’ then what did they talk about in the courtroom for six weeks?”
The question stumped Messer-Kruse. “It had not occurred to me before,” he says. He muttered a few words about lousy evidence and paid witnesses. “But I didn’t really know,” he recalls. “I told her I’d look it up.” As he checked out the standard sources, he failed to find good answers. The semester ended and the student moved on, but her question haunted him. “My interest grew into an obsession.” As Messer-Kruse began to look more closely, he started to wonder if the true story of Haymarket was fundamentally different from the version he and just about everybody else had been told.
The 49-year-old Messer-Kruse now teaches at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His father was a minister, so he moved around a lot as a kid, eventually winding up in Oshkosh, Wis., where he graduated from high school. After that came the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but he needed nearly seven years to earn his undergraduate degree because he kept taking time off to make money as a taxi driver. These days, he prefers jogging to driving, and he has qualified to compete in the Boston Marathon this April. He posts running times on his office door. Messer-Kruse is in many ways an ordinary academic liberal. He mentions anti-poverty activist Michael Harrington as an inspiration, calls himself a “social democrat,” and says he voted twice for Barack Obama.
In 1986, when he was a senior in Madison, a buddy suggested that they drive down to Chicago for the weekend. “I just wanted to hang out with friends,” says Messer-Kruse. His companion also proposed a side trip to a cemetery, where labor activists planned to commemorate the centenary of the Haymarket protest. “I had been aware of Haymarket in passing,” says Messer-Kruse. “But I didn’t have any special knowledge or appreciation.” He doesn’t remember much about the day, which featured a roster of speakers including populist author Studs Terkel. Yet the number of young people in attendance and their passion for working-class causes affected him. “The whole day made a deep impression,” he says. It stayed with him as he entered graduate school and specialized in labor history. A framed poster for the event now decorates the wall of his cramped office at Bowling Green. “Partly because of that experience, I became a labor historian,” he says. Haymarket lit a fire in the mind of the young scholar, but Messer-Kruse devoted his doctoral dissertation to a completely different topic. “I assumed that there wasn’t anything new to research or write about Haymarket,” he says.
He also accepted a version of events that had been written into the history books long ago. The details vary, but the broad strokes of the story are the same. A group of workers, most of them German-speaking immigrants, assembled near Haymarket Square to appeal for an eight-hour workday. Many called themselves anarchists, but they were mainly a peace-loving bunch who simply wanted to improve their wretched conditions. As police arrived to bust up the crowd, someone tossed a bomb. No one knows who did it — perhaps an anarchist agitator or, as Howard Zinn suggests in A People’s History of the United States, perhaps “an agent of the police, an agent provocateur.” Regardless of the culprit’s identity, police panicked and opened fire, accidentally killing several of their fellow officers. The incident left seven cops and a handful of protesters dead. In a fit of xenophobic hysteria, authorities rounded up political radicals, showing little regard for civil rights or criminal evidence. At a trial with hostile jurors and a biased judge, eight defendants who could not be connected to the bombing were nevertheless declared guilty. Seven received death sentences. One committed suicide in prison. Four went to the gallows. The other three eventually were pardoned.
Ever since, Haymarket has occupied a central place in progressive lore. The international labor movement honors May Day as its holiday in part because of its proximity on the calendar to Haymarket’s anniversary. In the United States, Haymarket ranks alongside the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs as a fable of anti-radical persecution. Well into the 20th century, its notoriety provoked violent rage. In 1969, Bill Ayers and an accomplice from the Weather Underground engaged in their own Haymarket terror, bombing a statue that honored the fallen policemen of 1886. “This is too good — it’s us against the pigs, a medieval contest of good and evil,” wrote Ayers of the affair in his memoir, Fugitive Days.
The Haymarket legend became more than a preoccupation of red-diaper babies. It entered mainstream education. A common college textbook — America: A Concise History, by James A. Henretta and David Brody — says the Haymarket defendants were “victims of one of the great miscarriages of American justice.” Another textbook — American Stories, whose authors include best-selling historian H. W. Brands — claims that there was “no evidence of their guilt.” Worst of all, the episode was thought to have exposed the nation’s highest ideals as gross hypocrisies: “The Haymarket case challenged, like no other episode in the nineteenth century, the image of the United States as a classless society with liberty and justice for all,” wrote James Green in Death in the Haymarket, a popular account published in 2006.
“I believed all of this,” says Messer-Kruse. “I had drunk the Kool-Aid.” Then his student asked her vexing question: If the trial was a sham, what did everyone talk about for week after week? Driven by curiosity, Messer-Kruse wanted to find out.
His first step was to consult the conventional scholarship — works published by labor historians Henry David in 1936 and Paul Avrich in 1984. “I thought it would be easy to learn what happened,” he says. Yet neither account satisfied him. Then the Internet came to the rescue: Messer-Kruse discovered that the Library of Congress and the Chicago Historical Society had just digitized a large collection of material on Haymarket, including a transcript of the trial. He slogged through thousands of pages, consulting other primary documents to gain a sharper picture of what lay buried in the historical record. Along the way, he realized that earlier researchers had not consulted this transcript. Instead, they had relied on an abstract of the trial prepared by defense lawyers, drawing their conclusions from a flamboyantly prejudiced account of the bombing and its aftermath. “The best source had been hiding in plain sight,” says Messer-Kruse.
Here was a scholar’s dream: untapped evidence about a landmark moment in history. Messer-Kruse looked at Haymarket from brand-new angles, embarking on the CSI: Haymarket phase of his research. The trial transcript made him question the claim that friendly fire was at least as deadly to the police as the actual bomb, so he consulted old maps and built a scale-model diorama in his basement. Cardboard cutouts represented buildings. Plastic green soldiers stood in for police and protesters. One time, his wife came down the steps to find him fixated on his miniature scene. “A beautiful mind,” she said before turning around and heading back up, in an allusion to the then-current movie about John Nash, a brilliant professor who sinks into madness. “I was just trying to understand the evidence,” says Messer-Kruse.
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.”