MAY 1874 –MARCH 1876
WHILE COLD WEATHER lingered into the spring of 1874, unemployed people thronged the West Side. They looked for free lunches in saloons, surrounded the city’s police stations seeking shelter in the night and prowled the factory districts hoping to find the odd job. And despite it all, trains and boats still arrived bringing more job seekers and fortune hunters to Chicago. Among the new arrivals were militant nationalists from Ireland and Poland and, in even greater numbers, socialists from Germany, Bohemia and Scandinavia. Many were admirers of the Paris Commune, and some were willing recruits for the International and its new Workingmen’s Party. The Tribune expressed alarm over this influx of political exiles who swore loyalty not to their new nation, but to the Communist International formerly headquartered in London. Its leaders, the paper charged, were secretly manipulating the new socialist party and were “maturing plans to burn down Chicago and other large cities in the United States.”1
Given these anxieties about the arrival of internationalists from European cities, no one noticed the small eddy of former Confederate rebels who made their way to Chicago, and no one would have guessed that one of them would become the most feared agitator in the city.2 He came not from London, but from Waco, Texas, and his name was Albert R. Parsons.
Sometime in 1874, Parsons, accompanied by his wife, Lucy, arrived at the old St. Louis Depot wedged between Canal Street and the Chicago River. As they stepped out of the smoking station, the great pounding city would have assaulted their senses: steam engines hissing and clanging behind them in the depot, boat horns bleating on the river, horse-drawn trolleys careening down Canal Street, men shouting at each other to be heard above the unceasing din.
Albert was a slender young man with a sunburned face and the long mustaches favored by ex-soldiers. Though short in stature, he carried himself with a self-assured bearing. His young wife no doubt attracted the eyes of passersby: Lucy was a stunningly beautiful dark-skinned woman, with high cheekbones that accentuated her prominent brown eyes. She walked with an erect posture and seemed a well-fashioned lady, though she wore clothing of simple cotton she had made into a dress. An interracial couple was an odd sight on the Chicago streets. In the Levee District to the south on Harrison Street, white men consorted with black women in bordellos, but few respectable white men in Chicago were ever seen in public with a woman of color. 3
Albert Parsons, who was twenty-six years old in 1874, had learned the printing trade in Texas, and possessed a set of valuable skills that made it possible for a typesetter to tramp around the country and find work with relative ease, even during a depression, because every small town had at least one newspaper and the big cities had far more. In 1874 eight dailies were published in Chicago, including the Times, where Parsons found permanent work setting hot type in a building that had survived the fire. He immediately became a member of Typographical Union No. 16, where some old-time union printers had followed Andrew Cameron in his crusade for the eight-hour day and still read his Workingman’s Advocate.4
The legendary publisher and editor of the Times, Wilbur Storey, was a cranky, fiercely independent man who loved controversy. He became notorious during the Civil War as a “copperhead” Democrat who hated Lincoln and his draft, and who defiantly locked out Andy Cameron and his union printers in 1863. Storey was also a pioneer of modern big-city journalism, whose daily paper covered national and world politics in minute detail while featuring gruesome reports of murder, rape and mutilation. Public hangings created the most exciting news of all. For instance, in 1875, when four murderers repented their sins on the gallows, the Times headline read JERKED TO JESUS.5
Storey believed city people were on their own in a world where fear and disorder ruled. If workingmen were unemployed, they deserved nothing from the city, and if their demonstrations turned violent, they deserved to be put down with force such as the French army used against the communists in Paris. Rejecting all public solutions to the problems of the poor, Storey called instead for a “dismantling of city government.”6
In his first months as a typesetter at the Times, Albert Parsons took a special interest in the heated public debate over the use of fire relief funds. He read the words of critics who charged the Relief and Aid Society with misusing its funds and denying them to the needy, and he read the furious editorials of Wilbur Storey, who dismissed the critics as “communists, robbers, loafers.” Intrigued by the controversy, Parsons decided to investigate the matter. After studying the case, he concluded that the complaints against the Relief and Aid Society were “just and proper.” Indeed, as the depression deepened during the hard winter of 1875, Parsons saw that the Chicago socialists were the only people who dared to protest on the behalf of the unemployed or to propose public remedies for their plight. The radicals’ protests, and the abuse heaped upon the “communists” by the “organs of the rich,” convinced him that “there was a great fundamental wrong at work in society.”7
Albert Parsons had been born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1848 to Yankee parents who died when he was a boy. He was cared for by a slave woman he called Aunt Ester until his older brother William brought him to Texas. There the youngster enjoyed an adventurous youth on a ranch in the Brazos River valley, where he learned to ride and to shoot from the saddle. His brother, a wealthy, influential landowner, sent Albert to school in Waco and then to Galveston, where he served as an apprentice “printer’s devil” in a newspaper office until the War for Southern Independence captured his soul.8
Socialist-led march on Relief and Aid Society headquarters on LaSalle Street, 1875
At age fifteen Albert talked his way into a famous company of cavalry scouts commanded by his brother. He saw action in battles along the Mississippi against federal troops and fought in one of the last skirmishes of the war, which occurred just before the news of Appomattox reached rebel units in the Southwest. After the fighting ended, Albert returned to his home county in East Texas and traded a mule he owned for 40 acres of corn in a field that was ready for harvest. He hired two freed slaves and paid them the first wages they had ever earned to bring in the crop. He used the rest of his earnings to enroll at a college in Waco and then found work practicing his trade as a printer in a local newspaper office.9
The columns Parsons set in type in the first years after the war carried news of stunning events in the Lone Star State. The first provisional governor found Texas in a state of anarchy, and in the worst condition of all the Confederate states because of the white population’s unrelenting hostility to the federal government and its policies. Federal officials reported that “Union men and Negroes were fleeing for their lives and that murders and outrages on Negroes were on the rise, and that the criminals were always acquitted.”10
In the midst of the white terror in Texas, Parsons started a little newspaper in Waco he called the Spectator, and, much to the amazement of his friends and neighbors, he used it to advocate for “the political rights of the colored people.” The daring editor explained years later that he had been influenced in taking this step by the respect and love he had for the slave woman who raised him. In any case, Parsons became a Republican partisan and a supporter of federal reconstruction policies in Texas. It was an audacious stance for a Confederate veteran to take, and it earned him the hatred of his former army comrades, who stigmatized Parsons as a “scalawag”—a white southerner who betrayed his race. Displaying a boldness he had shown as a volunteer in the rebel army, the twenty-year-old veteran took to the campaign stump to vindicate his convictions. As a result, he was completely ostracized by his friends and associates and barred from shelter and lodging in white men’s houses on the campaign trail.11
Parsons had picked a dangerous spot to start his political career. Waco was the county seat of McLennan County, the most violent place in Texas. When the county was protected by federal troops, several blacks were elected to the legislature, but soon Republican officeholders and Freedman’s Bureau officials found themselves overwhelmed by the forces of terror.12
Nonetheless, during the fall of 1869 Parsons rode through East Texas campaigning for the interracial Republican Party. It was an unforgettable experience, “full of excitement and danger.” Many years later Parsons wrote to a comrade of those days of bitterness and the hostility filled with attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and reprisals from blacks. “On horseback, over prairie, or through the swamps of the Brazos River, accompanied generally by one or two intelligent colored men, we traveled,” he wrote in a memoir. “At noontime or nightfall our fare was only such as could be had in the rude and poverty stricken huts of the colored people.” When night fell, former slaves from nearby plantations would gather in a field to hear young Mr. Parsons speak. There, amid the rows of slave huts, he would mount a wagon or a bale of cotton and, by the faint glow of a tallow tip, harangue the hundreds assembled around him.13
After the campaign, Parsons volunteered to become a militiaman, as his Connecticut Yankee grandfather, Samuel, had been in 1775. He saw plenty of action, including a standoff in one county seat, where he led twenty-five militiamen in defense of black men’s right to vote, “a most warlike and dangerous undertaking.” His career as a Radical Republican had begun in earnest.14 However, he became so “odious” to the local whites that he had to shut down his unionist newspaper in Waco. Instead, Parsons found work as a traveling reporter and salesman for a Houston newspaper.
On one long trip for the paper, he returned to Johnson County, where he had spent his adventurous boyhood along the Brazos. He wrote later of stopping at a ranch on Buffalo Creek owned by a Mexican rancher named Gonzales and meeting the owner’s beautiful niece, Lucy. He lingered and then left the ranch reluctantly, only to return and ask her to be his wife. She agreed, and they were wed at Austin in 1872.15
This was the story Albert and Lucy told of their union when they arrived in Chicago, but they invented some of it. Lucy identified herself as the daughter of John Waller, a “civilized” Creek Indian, and a Mexican woman named Marie del Gather, and denied any African ancestry, even though most people who met her assumed she was black. It is possible that Lucy did descend from Native American and Mexican people, but there is no direct evidence of this, or of a Hispanic uncle who raised her on a ranch. Lucy’s biographer speculates that she was probably born a slave on the plantation of James and Philip Gathings, who owned more than sixty slaves, and that she may have been the daughter of one of the owners. Other evidence suggests that Lucy may have lived for a while with a slave from that plantation named Oliver Gathings (and this is perhaps why she might have invented the name “del Gather” for her mother). When newspapers began to pay attention to Lucy’s activities, reporters described her as “colored” (or “bright colored”), indicating, as the Chicago Tribune suggested, that Lucy, despite her denials, had “at least one negro parent.”16
Albert and Lucy probably met not on a Johnson County ranch, but in the contested terrain of nearby McLennan County, where Albert had become a hero to newly emancipated blacks and where a local newspaper later reported that Lucy was well known. There is no evidence to confirm young Lucy’s whereabouts during slavery days or during the events of Reconstruction, but she later recalled knowing of the atrocities committed by white terrorists against emancipated blacks in Texas.17 Lucy’s family history and that of her earlier years will remain forever clouded; it is clear, however, that she chose to deny any African ancestry and to identify herself with what she saw as two proud peoples who had escaped slavery and resisted the European “invader.” 18 In any case, Albert found in her the perfect mate, bold and beautiful, as fearless and righteous as he was. Friends and foes agreed that this man and woman of such different physical complexions and social backgrounds exuded a passion for each other rarely seen in married couples of their era.
By 1872, the year the Parsons said they were wed in Austin, Albert had not only won the trust of emancipated blacks in East Texas, he had earned the admiration of his fellow Republicans in Austin. These officials helped this fearless, articulate young southerner win a federal appointment as a revenue inspector. If Reconstruction had endured in Texas, Albert Parsons might have gone far in state politics. This was not to be, because in the summer of 1873 the Democratic Party, armed with the guns and the votes it needed, “redeemed” Texas from the black officials and their scalawag allies.19
After the Democrats returned to power in Texas and restored white rule by brute force, Parsons resigned as a federal revenue official and revived his career as a newspaperman. In that role he joined a group of editors on a trip through the Midwest sponsored by the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway, no doubt to promote trade and train travel between the regions. During the trip, the Texan saw Chicago for the first time. He was impressed, as everyone was, by this booming city that had gloriously risen from its ashes. When he returned to Texas, Albert persuaded Lucy to come with him to start a new life in the big city up north.
Parsons’s Republican Party career in Texas meant nothing in Chicago; there would be no federal appointment there. His skills as a typographer stood him in good stead, and so with modest prospects he and Lucy began the search for lodgings all newcomers faced. They found a small flat on Mohawk Street north of the downtown, where three-quarters of the residents had been born in Germany. The young interracial couple experienced some hostility, but they chose to remain on the North Side, a place where almost everyone was from somewhere else.20
DURING THE 1870S, Chicago’s overall population growth raced ahead of all other large American cities because young men like Parsons flocked there from the South as well as from the East, but mostly because 60,000 Europeans flooded the city, their numbers reaching a total of 204,859 by 1880. At that point, foreigners constituted 40 percent of the overall population and 56 percent of the workforce. By far the largest number of these newcomers—163,482—came from the German Empire.21
Immigration from Germany to Chicago before 1860 originated mainly from the southern provinces of Bavaria, Baden, Hesse and Württemberg. Many of these newcomers were traditional Catholics from peasant and small-town backgrounds who were drawn into the ranks of the Democratic Party. This influx also included many talented, educated people who had been engaged in the skilled trades and professions, including a few thousand German Jews and political exiles who had mounted the barricades in the failed revolution of 1848. Many of these immigrants broke with the Democrats in the 1850s and became active in the antislavery movement and in the formation of the Republican Party. Chicago German workers formed an Old World society (Arbeiterverein ) during these years to provide for their health and welfare; and, before long, they deployed it in New World campaigns to elect Abraham Lincoln president in 1860, to raise troops for his army, to agitate for the total emancipation of slaves and to call for universal military conscription, because, as one German put it, the “patricians of Michigan Avenue” thought their sons could evade the hardships of military life, and that “only the sons of plebeians” were fit and “worthy to be slaughtered.” 22
After the Civil War, a new group of Germans migrated from the Prussian provinces that stretched east of Berlin beyond the Oder River as far as the Vistula: these were mainly peasants from large families whose incomes had been devastated when cheaper imported grain flooded the European markets. Soon after arriving in Chicago, they were sucked into the city’s jobs machine—the men into the construction projects, factories, foundries and packinghouses and the young women into cigar shops, garment lofts and the servant quarters of well-to-do American families. During the 1870s the number of Germans in the city’s labor force grew to 40,000. They congregated on the North Side close to the grain elevators, lumberyards and furniture shops along the river, the tanneries and rolling mills on Goose Island, and the breweries, bakeries and clothing shops that dotted the area.23
The new wave of German arrivals also carried with it a few highly literate young immigrants with idealistic beliefs and great aspirations. Augustus Vincent Theodore Spies was among them. A well-tutored youth of seventeen, Spies left his home in Landeck, Germany, in 1872. By the time he arrived in New York City, he had already read deeply in German history; it told the story of a people with a “rebellious spirit,” a “liberty-thirsty people” who rejected the pessimistic religion of the Roman Catholic Church after Martin Luther set off “a mighty wave of Reformation” from the town of Wartburg, a place the young Spies could see from his mountain home.24
Once in New York, Spies quickly found a situation in a German-owned upholstery shop, where he learned the trade and then joined the wandering mass of young immigrants traveling the rails looking for their best chance. He tried farming but found it discouraging, and so he returned to shop work. Living in the mountains of Germany, Spies had little contact with wage earners, and he was puzzled by the ones he met on his American travels. They seemed to be slaves to work, powerless to resist the “arbitrary behavior of their bosses.” Spies was dismayed by their “lack of manhood” and by their refusal to protest harsh treatment. He wondered why workers were “so servile,” so willing to suffer silently from the “humiliating dictates” of their employers.25
Like so many wandering young Germans, Spies found himself pulled to Chicago, the vibrant capital of Teutonic life in America. His education, ambition, verbal facility and dashing good looks made it relatively easy for him to make a living in his new home, even during that grim first winter after the panic, when thousands of jobless men and homeless wanderers passed through Chicago looking for work, begging for bread and searching for shelter from the brutal cold. Unlike the subservient laborers he met on the road, Spies remained an independent man and was, he proudly recalled, never “put upon.” His training as an upholsterer allowed him to fit into an emerging sector of Chicago manufacturing: the furniture business. Drawing on the vast hardwood forests of Michigan and Wisconsin, craftsmen turned cherry, oak and maple planks into chairs, tables, cabinets and church pews as well as pianos and organs that filled thousands of homes, offices and hotels in the Midwest and the great West beyond. When August Spies arrived in Chicago to ply his trade, 150 furniture factories employed more than 4,000 workers, while several hundred more skilled hands toiled in 19 upholstery shops like the one in which the ambitious young German found employment. 26
Spies joined a large community of Germans who settled on the North Side, which they made into their own town, erecting Catholic and Lutheran churches, opening hundreds of saloons and stores and then naming streets, parks, clubs and businesses after renowned German poets, composers and artists. To the west, Milwaukee Avenue ran out toward Wicker Park, a settlement for prosperous Germans on the Northwest Side—a thirty-minute ride on an omnibus of the Citizens’ Line. Along Milwaukee Avenue lived even more Germans, together with a large concentration of Swedes. There were scores of groceries, butcher shops, bakeries and tobacco stores as well as more than 100 saloons and beer gardens where Germans congregated to sing and talk. Some of these places, like Thalia Hall on Milwaukee Avenue, offered workingmen free lunches with “union beer” and back rooms for their organizational meetings. 27
Chicago’s Germans created a profusion of societies to satisfy their desire to congregate, celebrate and help one another. Mutual-aid societies such as the German Society for the Protection of Immigrants and the Friendless, and the Workers Association, meant that newcomers need not rely upon American charities for relief.28 The Turner Society (Turnverein) erected numerous halls for gymnastic activities that also provided meeting places for all sorts of groups and served as venues for balls and concerts. The impressive Aurora Turner Hall on Milwaukee Avenue was the most important German cultural center in the city.29
An enthusiastic gymnast, Spies reveled in activity at the Aurora. A well-proportioned young man of twenty, Spies kept himself in excellent shape, even though he drank several schooners of lager beer each day. Blue-eyed, of light complexion, he had a high forehead and sharp features.
Thalia Hall on Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue
His hair, light auburn in color, was well coiffed, his long mustachios fashionably curved. He loved dancing at the Saturday balls and was well known around North Town as an attractive bachelor and a “ladies’ man.” 30 Everything about him indicated that August Spies was a young man who would make good in Chicago just as so many of his gregarious and hardworking countrymen had done.
The Turners epitomized the rich tradition of associational life Germans brought from the old country to Chicago, where they created a sphere of life outside the workaday world of established structures and institutions. Unlike Americans, who thought the special nature of women’s feelings made the world of men’s entertainment offensive, Germans welcomed women into the realm of festivity because they were seen as having a special gift for expressing their feelings.31 On Fridays and Saturdays men and women flocked to music and concert halls where brass bands and full orchestras played. On other nights they could be found at numerous clubs devoted to song, band music and dramatics, places where they performed for their own pleasure. 32
Because all aspects of German working-class culture involved performance, many forms of theater flourished in immigrant neighborhoods, where groups of amateurs enacted folk dramas, which offered up stories of the heroic common man, as well as comedies and farces, which provoked laughter. In some midwestern cities strict Protestants opposed the German theater with its libertine characters and profane Sunday performances, but it flourished in Chicago.33 Like many of his country folk, August Spies adored the theater and yearned to display his own flair for the dramatic.
The city’s large Scandinavian population came together in similar ways. By 1880 more immigrants from Denmark, Norway and Sweden lived in Chicago—nearly 26,000 people—than the combined total of Scandinavians in all other large American cities. Norwegians labored as lake sailors and shipbuilders, while the Danes and Swedes gravitated to trades such as house carpentry and cabinetmaking. Immigrants from the three Nordic nations created a vibrant cultural life for themselves, forming singing clubs, a Scandinavian Free Thinkers Society, Turner lodges and dramatic clubs.34
Scandinavians usually learned English readily, registered to vote, read American newspapers, sent their children to public schools and expressed a devotion to their new homeland. They appeared to be easily Americanized, but this perception deceived many casual observers. What is “this Americanization process we hear so much about?” asked the editor of the Svenska Tribune. “Did it mean shedding one’s cultural identity like a snake skin?” No, he declared, it meant that in America “one could become more elastic” and “learn to view a matter from several angles.” 35
The Scandinavians, like the Germans, wanted to become Americans on their own terms, not those dictated by the city’s native-born elites who thought their festivals overly expensive and ostentatious. Some Americans even suspected that immigrant parades on the Fourth of July were intended less to inspire loyalty to the United States than to re-create the joyful sociability common to the Old World.
Scandinavians from different lands and Germans from various states created new, broader ethnic identities for themselves in Chicago. One mass meeting at Aurora Turner Hall was held by all Scandinavian groups to “encourage greater cooperation and agreement among Nordic sister peoples in this place.” On another occasion, these groups turned Norwegian Independence Day into an all-Scandinavian event, decorating Milwaukee Avenue with Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and American flags. The Germans also forged new kinds of ethnic solidarity in Chicago, overcoming deep provincial and religious differences, especially when they celebrated Germany’s victory over France in 1870.
During the two decades that followed, a time when the nationalist fervor aroused by the Civil War faded, immigrants in these huge Scandinavian and German domains expressed multiple ethnic and patriotic loyalties and began to work out their own versions of American nationalism at their own pace. 36 In any case, while effusive demonstrations of American nationalism took place principally on July 4, immigrant expressions of sociability, festivity and fraternity took place nearly every weekend in Chicago’s Turner halls and saloons, and, from May to October, in the city’s various groves and beer gardens—attracting Scandinavians of all nations as well as huge, passionate crowds of Germans from every part of their homeland.37
THE JOYOUS CONSUMPTION of beer and wine at these immigrant celebrations raised deep concerns among the city’s Yankee elites, who were for the most part staunch advocates of temperance. The immigrant mob that intimidated the Common Council to protest the closing of saloons on Sunday afternoons steeled the city’s moralists in their determination to recapture City Hall from the rebellious immigrant tribes who constituted the People’s Party in 1873. Powerful businessmen and their temperance allies called for a referendum to hold a new election rather than allow the People’s Party administration to serve a full term. Court challenges followed, a crisis ensued, and for a brief time the city had two mayors. Eventually the “best men” prevailed, and the People’s Party disintegrated.38
German Turner gymnasium in Chicago in the mid-1880s
Meanwhile, the city elites acted on their fear that the Chicago Police Department was undermanned, corrupted by saloonkeepers and gamblers, and filled with Irish immigrants who cared little about protecting wealthy Yankees and their property. They not only formed their own militia regiment, they also pressured City Hall to appoint a police superintendent who would ensure that the officers in his department faithfully performed their duties. 39
This show of force confirmed the German socialists’ fear that the city’s top businessmen would stop at nothing to suppress protest and to protect their own interests, even if it meant forming private armed forces outside the boundaries of republican government. In reaction, German workers created their own militia company, the Lehr und Wehr Verein, aimed at mobilizing laboring men for the purpose of defending themselves and preparing to take on the militia created by the business elites.40
In the following months, energetic fund-raising in ethnic communities and in the ranks of the Workingmen’s Party enabled officers of the Lehr und Wehr Verein to order rifles and the kind of colorful uniforms favored by volunteer militia in the Civil War. The soldiers were outfitted in blue blouses, white linen pants for the summer, red sashes and black Sheridan hats, made fashionable by the dashing Union general who now resided in Chicago. Volunteers sang while they drilled in order to spread Gemütlichkeit and to create a festive mood at the drills, which often included political rallies as well as band music, dancing and copious beer drinking.41
By the end of 1875 the city’s small band of predominantly German socialists exerted a political presence in Chicago by stirring up a heated debate over public relief, organizing massive parades to demand bread or work and responding militantly when businessmen created their own militia. In the process the socialists attracted the attention of many newcomers searching to find their way in the great city.
August Spies, for example, made contact with the socialists about this time when his curiosity drew him to a lecture delivered by a young mechanic. While unimpressive from a theoretical standpoint, the socialist speaker nonetheless moved Spies with what he said about how wage earners experienced work under capitalism. A voracious reader since early childhood, Spies devoured every piece of literature he could find on the “social question.” He had already studied the classic Greek poets, philosophers and historians, as well the modern German ones. He admired the “great thinkers,” Schiller and Goethe, and he cherished the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity spread by Napoleon; but until he came to Chicago, Spies had not read the works of Karl Marx.42
Like Spies, Albert Parsons had been drawn into socialist meetings, which attracted larger and larger audiences as the depression lengthened. The young printer was impressed by the criticisms the internationalists made of the private relief effort, as well by their proposals to create public works; and he was appalled by attacks made upon them by his own employer, Wilbur Storey, who abused advocates of the poor in ways that reminded him of the attacks made by the southern slaveholders upon newly enfranchised blacks. Storey’s Republican rival, Joseph Medill, was equally outrageous, in Parsons’s view, when he falsely accused the socialists of planning to burn down the city and warned: “Every lamp post in Chicago will be decorated with a communist carcass, if necessary, to prevent whole sale incendiarism.” When Medill predicted the return of vigilante justice, he reminded Parsons of how the Ku Klux Klan treated the Radical Republicans who sought to defend the rights of poor black citizens during Reconstruction. Years later, the young man who left Texas as a Republican would recall that his conversion to socialism was accelerated by the words of Chicago editors who recommended throwing hand grenades into the ranks of striking sailors and putting arsenic in the food distributed to tramps.43
The most decisive moment in Albert Parsons’s political transformation came in March of 1876, when the charismatic socialist Peter J. McGuire came to speak in Chicago. Born of Irish parents in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, McGuire was converted to a passionate brand of radicalism when police attacked a peaceful demonstration of the unemployed at Tompkins Square two years earlier. He then embarked on a career that would make him the most effective socialist agitator and union organizer of the late nineteenth century. McGuire, a captivating orator, told his Chicago audience of the socialist program of the Workingmen’s Party of America and how it would lead to the creation of a cooperative commonwealth to replace monopoly capitalism. When the speaker finished, Parsons sharply questioned him. Would such a communistic society, he asked, become a “loafer’s paradise” in which the “parasite” would live “at the expense of the industrious worker”? McGuire responded that under the socialist system there would be true freedom of opportunity in which individual producers would receive the full product of their efforts, depending on time and energy expended. Parsons was satisfied. He signed up with McGuire’s party, along with several other workers, including a cooper named George Schilling, who would become his friend and comrade in the struggles ahead.44
Schilling had arrived in the city shortly after Parsons, at a time when the depression was at its worst. He had been born in Germany to parents of peasant stock and was raised in Ohio. When he was still a teenager, Schilling began to wander, taking work on the railroad that lasted until he reached Chicago in 1875. Despite depressed conditions, Schilling found a job making barrels at a meatpacking company near the Union Stock Yards. An engaging, persuasive man with a jolly personality, the little cooper would become Parsons’s best friend in the movement and would remain loyal to him even when they parted political company. Parsons and Schilling, bursting with confidence and conviction, traversed the city together speaking for Pete McGuire’s new Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party in front of small crowds of workers on dusty street corners and in the noisy back rooms of beer halls whose rental sometimes cost them their last nickel.45
George Schilling, who played Boswell to Parsons’s Johnson, was immediately struck by the Texan’s gifts as an orator. Now in his late twenties, Parsons was already a practiced public speaker, well trained by his risky campaigns to defend the rights of emancipated blacks in Reconstruction Texas. He spoke in a sonorous voice with enough volume to carry in open-air meetings and enough energy to last for the length of one- and two-hour orations. He gesticulated, and articulated his words like an actor, stringing them together like musical notes. A witty man, he loved to poke fun at the rich and powerful, drawing instinctively on a southwestern brand of humor that could evoke subversive laughter.46
Parsons was the first socialist orator who attracted English-speaking audiences in Chicago and the first American speaker to appeal to Germans, Swedes and other immigrants. He also gained the attention of police detectives and newspaper editors, including one who denounced him as a Texas rebel, one of “a parcel of blatant Communist demagogues” doing the work of “the Commune.” Parsons raged over these new assaults, but he was already accustomed to being notorious, and so he also found the hostile publicity energizing: he said it only added to his zeal for “the great work of social redemption.”47