Chapter Seven

A Brutal and Inventive Vitality


AT THE END OF 1883, Chicago’s business was booming like never before. Every day 800 freight and passenger trains came and left the city’s six busy terminals, hauling goods out and bringing people in. During the 1880s nearly 250,000 immigrants from Europe and Canada flooded the city looking for work in her roaring factories and mills. At this point, when labor was in high demand, the city contained forty foundries, fiftysix machine shops and five iron rolling mills, including the huge Union Steel Company on the edge of Bridgeport, where workers produced 180,000 tons of iron and steel rails each year during a decade of unprecedented railroad construction.1

Overall, Chicago’s industrial production advanced at a breakneck pace, multiplying twenty-one times during the decade. The net value of goods produced by the city’s leading manufacturers leapt from $28 million to a staggering total of $760 million in these halcyon years when Chicago’s economic growth set a pace that amazed the nation and the world. A spontaneously exploding center of force, it embodied, as few other places could, “the brutal and inventive vitality of the nineteenth century.”2

Nowhere was the creativity and brutality of “rough-and-tumble business Chicago” more obvious than in the slaughtering industry, where, as Saul Bellow wrote, progress was written “in the blood of the yards.” The “revolutionary newness” that made the city famous was indeed evident at the huge Union Stock Yards, where spectacular new forms of production and discipline yielded unprecedented outputs and profits. The city’s largest meatpackers, Gustavus Swift and Philip Armour, were true business revolutionaries whose innovations in industrial methods helped make Chicago “a world city.”3


Map of Chicago during the early 1880s, showing prominent industries, railroads and other important sites

Armour perfected the mechanized animal kill that became such a stunning spectacle to visitors, including writers like Rudyard Kipling, who later described the “pig men” who were “spattered with blood” and “the cow butchers” who “were bathed in it”—all working in a fearful stench with a furious intensity. Mechanization took command early and effectively in meatpacking, but soon other industrialists were following the packers’ lead.4

The results of this creative activity were spectacular for Armour’s company, which led the industry’s consolidation and expansion over the next decade. The size of the firm’s workforce doubled and the value of product grew by 344 percent, ten times faster than wages increased. In just nine years Armour’s profits leapt from $200,000 to $5.5 million.5

When the depression ended, Armour’s Irish and German butchers joined their fellow stockyard workers in demanding a larger share of the company’s marvelous growth. Their leaders also wanted the employers to agree to hire union members first and not to discharge them without just cause. Some small packers agreed to these terms, but Armour would have none of it.He rejected the butchers’ demands, locked out the union and reopened his plant with nonunion men. The strike leaders were blacklisted and never worked in the yards again.7

The city’s skilled workers faced a vexing dilemma in 1883. Chicago employers paid higher wages than they could earn in other cities, but if they, the employees, demanded or even requested increases to compensate for the losses of the depression years or to keep up with the rising cost of fuel, food and housing, they met with stiff resistance. Employers like Philip Armour assumed that fixing wages, higher or lower, was a prerogative that came with ownership.

The union molders at McCormick Reaper Works had been more successful than most skilled workers in obtaining what they regarded as a living wage. Cyrus and Leander McCormick owned an extremely profitable business and paid relatively high wages; and, despite periodic strikes by union molders, the brothers retained the respect of their wage hands. Indeed, when the long depression ended, the McCormicks agreed to the union men’s request to raise the wage rates they had reduced during the hard times.8

In 1880, Leander McCormick left the works after a feud with his brother Cyrus, who soon retired and put his twenty-one-year-old son Cyrus, Jr., in charge. Young McCormick immediately hired a new management team; but the men he entrusted with the direction of 1,200 restless factory workers lacked firsthand experience with a large industrial workforce. Hard feelings festered in the foundries and assembly shops. One employee wrote to the president and said the old hands were leaving because of harsh treatment: “We are treated as though we are dogs,” he moaned. 9

Cyrus, Jr., had attended Princeton, where he learned mathematics and economics. Applying this knowledge in 1881, he hired an accountant to calculate the firm’s manufacturing costs per machine, along with the cost of labor per unit. The results appalled him so much that he established a new hard line on wages. When the union molders petitioned for a raise in 1882, McCormick’s assistant superintendent told the men they were set on “a suicidal course.” As the molders’ union gathered its strength and prepared for a long struggle, McCormick’s managers began to explore ways of using machines to replace the union men.10

CYRUS McCORMICK’S NEW SOLUTION to his problems with skilled union men was a strategy scores of other Chicago manufacturers had chosen by investing millions of dollars in new machinery to replace certain hand-workers and to speed up the pace of work for the rest—all within a very short and decisive period from 1879 to 1884.11


McCormick Reaper Works on the Black Road in 1885, looking south

Some trades were devastated by the invasion of machines. In the slaughtering and packing industry, skilled butchers continued to give way to more advanced “disassembly lines” in larger and larger plants. Even small manufacturers mechanized their works, like one German sausage producer who let seventy-five of his workers go and replaced them with a single machine he claimed was more efficient than all of them combined. Owners of cooperages also installed new machines for making barrels that took the pride and joy out of the coopers’ work, according to one craftsman. When English curriers struck in support of German tanners in 1882, the tannery owner imported whitening and fleshing machines that he planned to use to halve the workforce. After Irish brick makers waged a battle for higher wages that year, their employer introduced a machine that allowed an individual worker to make three times as many bricks in a day.12 Fights over wage rates had been erupting in Chicago shops off and on for years; it was simply a fact of industrial life. But mechanization hit the skilled trades with such suddenness that it shocked craftsmen and filled them with dread.

New machinery made the greatest impact in the trades where German immigrants were concentrated, such as woodworking and cigar making. The city’s enormous army of carpenters also found their trade imperiled by contractors who bought windows, doors and other standardized wooden pieces made by machine and hired unskilled “green hands” to install them. Working for piece-rate wages, these installers were paid half the money earned by an experienced, all-around carpenter.13

The men who rolled cigars faced a similar threat. Proprietors of two sizable Chicago cigar shops installed newly invented machines operated by teenaged boys and girls who earned 50 cents to $1 a day. The producer could now have 1,000 cigars of the best brand made for $8 compared to the $18 it cost to pay union craftsmen to make the same batch by hand. In an analysis of the cigar industry, an Arbeiter-Zeitung reporter calculated that the manufacturers’ profits leapt 400 percent as a result of “plundering” their workers.14

The logic of capitalist enterprise made using machines instead of men an obvious choice for owners who could afford to mechanize. But among the craftsmen displaced by this logic a moral question remained: Would machines, driven by the endless hunger for profit, destroy a way of life that gave skilled workers a sense of pride in what they produced and gave the consumer a high-quality product as a result? Is this what progress meant? The German sausage makers insisted that machines could not do the work as well humans did, pointing out that bits of refuse remained inside the machine-made sausages. But such complaints seemed futile in the face of machinery’s “merciless advance.”15 In story after story, Arbeiter-Zeitung reporters revealed how machines ran the workers and how employers used machinery to tighten their control.16

Even after craftsmen lost their autonomy and entered larger shops and factories, many retained a moral code that governed how they worked, how they treated one another and how they ensured the quality of their products. Cheaper “green hands” who could be pushed and rushed by the boss often botched jobs and turned out shoddy goods. During his travels, August Spies had seen common laborers accept this kind of abuse; it seemed to him nothing less than an intolerable affront to their manhood. No self-respecting craftsman would allow himself to be driven or intimidated at work.17

By the same token, proud American and European craftsmen viewed other forms of unskilled or menial labor as degrading. Some men and women worked side by side in bookbinding and tailoring shops, but male garment cutters could not imagine performing the women’s work of sewing clothing. And no white workingman ever pictured himself doing the menial work assigned to “colored” men in service or to the despised “Chinamen” in the laundries. The corollary was that few of the white trades allowed access to women or men of color or to unskilled immigrants, except on a segregated basis. In the white world, however, self-reliant craftsmen often expressed “a defiant sense of egalitarianism” toward other men who acted as their superiors. Their code was based on a sense of self-worth gained through long apprenticeship and mature workmanship in an honorable trade. They believed their work was noble, even holy, and that they should be regarded romantically as “knights of labor.” Thus, manly workers refused to be put upon by their bosses or to accept any affront to their dignity. They also opposed efforts to pit them against one another. An honorable, respectable workingman did not steal work from his fellows or seek to undermine their customs and standards by rushing to please the boss or simply to make more money. Such were the ingredients of the craftsmen’s code, traits that young and inexperienced workers who entered a trade were taught to honor and obey. 18

The habits that craftsmen cultivated were first expressed in the early benevolent societies based on the principle of mutual aid and then in the first craft unions their members called “brotherhoods.” These “rituals of mutuality” fused readily with the practices of democratic citizenship that evolved during the nineteenth century among white mechanics and workingmen who came to see themselves as the backbone of the republic.19

Being a skilled tradesman, a competent craftsman and an intelligent citizen required, above all, enlightenment through self-edification. Many craftsmen took pride in the breadth and depth of their reading, and appreciated what they learned from each other on the job. Cigar rollers sometimes asked a literate one among them to read a book or a newspaper aloud to them while they worked. Samuel Gompers, who heard passages from Marx’s work from such a reader, wrote of his particular cigar shop as a little educational forum where he learned to think and speak critically. “It was a world in itself, a cosmopolitan world,” inhabited by shop mates from many strange lands, he recalled. Good cigar makers could roll the product carefully and effectively but more or less mechanically, which left them free to think, talk and listen to each other or to sing together. “I loved the freedom of that work,” Gompers recalled, “for I had learned that mind freedom accompanied skill as a craftsman.”20

Manufacturers exerted little control over the cigar makers, who worked by the piece, and some producers complained that many of their men would come into the shop in the morning, roll a few stogies and then go to a beer saloon and play cards for a few hours, willfully cutting the day’s production and voluntarily limiting their own earnings. These irregular work habits appeared in other trades as well, for instance, among German brewers, who clung to their Old World privilege of drinking free beer while they worked in the breweries.21 Coopers would appear at work on Saturday morning, like all wage earners did in those years, and then, in some places, they would pool their pay and buy a “Goose Egg,” a half barrel of beer. “Little groups of jolly fellows would often sit around upturned barrels playing poker . . . ,” wrote a historian of cooperage, “until they received their pay and the ‘Goose Egg’ was dry.” After a night out on Saturday and an afternoon of drinking on Sunday, the coopers were not in the best condition to settle down to a regular day’s work. They would then spend a “blue Monday” sharpening tools, bringing in supplies and discussing the news of the day.22

Into this world, with its honored traditions, its irregular work habits and its rituals of mutuality came the machine. It rattled on relentlessly “never tiring, never resting,” wrote Michael Schwab, dragging the worker along with it.23 And behind the machine stood a man, an owner or a foreman, who regarded the craftsmen’s stubborn old habits and craft union rules as nothing more than ancient customs, relics of medieval times in a modern world governed by the need for industrial efficiency and the unforgiving laws of political economy.

THE ARBEITER-ZEITUNG offered detailed reports and analyses of these new developments in Chicago’s workshops to its German readers. Many editorials simply pointed out how bosses were displacing good workers and “plundering” others because they were greedy capitalists; others were quite sophisticated. For example, in an 1883 article on “How Wages Are Depressed,” the author explained that “big capital” in Chicago had taken the lead in “employing the latest technology and imposing the division of labor” that came with it. The craftsman’s skill and intelligence were no longer as valued and rewarded, and in many places he was reduced to the status of a day laborer who tolerated his situation until he could move up to a higher-paying job. The classification of workers within the same trade into various subordinate groups was destroying “feelings of solidarity that existed within individual crafts.” A new spirit reigned within the city’s factories, the writer noted: “Each man for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost.” Moreover, existing trade unions that called themselves brotherhoods had failed to counter this self-serving attitude among employees in Chicago’s big industries.24

In 1884 the city’s small number of organized workers belonged to trade union locals affiliated with the city’s Trades and Labor Assembly and with the young national Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. Composed largely of skilled craftsmen, not common laborers, these trade unions were led by pragmatists increasingly irritated by the visionary Knights and by the socialists in their own ranks. They regarded their unions as ends in themselves, not as means to an end, not as a force for building solidarity among workers or for achieving a cooperative society such as the one envisioned by the social revolutionaries at the Pittsburgh Congress in 1883. “We have no immediate ends,” testified the president of the Cigar Makers’ International Union that year. “We are going from day to day. We fight only for immediate objects . . . that can be realized in a few years.” 25

This careful posture seemed suicidal to many craftsmen in Chicago, who saw themselves being replaced by machines and “green hands.” By June of 1884 the German socialists in the Chicago Cigar Makers’ Union had had enough of going from day to day; they broke with the national organization and formed a “progressive” cigar makers’ local. For this act of rebellion, they were expelled from the city Trades Assembly. Within a few months the German renegades had inspired eight other breakaway unions to join them in creating a new Central Labor Union closely allied with the International Working People’s Association and its objectives. The radical leaders of the new labor body accused the Trades Assembly of being “a bogus labor organization” led by businessmen, not by true union men; furthermore, its members were craft unionists who constituted an “aristocracy of labor” and who expressed concern only for their own welfare and not for the condition of the unskilled workers.26

Underlying these tensions over union politics were older religious and ethnic differences among Chicago’s workers. Most leaders of craft unions tended to be English-speaking Protestants of American, Canadian and British origins, although some were Irish Catholics. Religious hostilities had cooled during the Civil War, and by the 1880s Christian workers of all denominations readily joined the same unions. The Knights of Labor even abandoned their secret rituals to avoid condemnation by Catholic cardinals and to open their order to once-despised “papists.” The social revolutionaries in Chicago took an opposite tack, alienating devout Catholics and Protestants alike by criticizing their clergymen and their beliefs and by calling their followers to secular meetings on Sundays. One of the few things the city’s many ministers, missionaries, priests and rabbis agreed on was that the red internationals sounded terribly like the evil children of the godless French Jacobins and Communards.27

As the International Working People’s Association extended its activities into the city’s immigrant neighborhoods, Catholic priests in the German and Czech parishes swung into action against the heathens in their midst. The bishops of the church could be fairly sure that priests in Chicago’s Polish and Irish parishes would keep their flocks inoculated against the infectious ideas spread by socialist subversives. Catholic clergymen were more worried that German and Bohemian Catholics were being seduced by freethinkers and socialist agitators.28

Protestant ministers and missionaries expressed even more anxiety than Catholic priests about the spiritual lives of poor city dwellers. Even Chicago’s famous soul saver, the greatest of all evangelists, Dwight L. Moody, despaired when his big revivals failed to attract the downtrodden. 29 In a best-selling book, Our Country, Josiah Strong, a Congregational minister with midwestern roots, expressed the growing fear among native-born Protestants that immigrant workers in the great industrial cities could no longer be contained within their slums, where “volcanic fires of deep discontent” smoldered. The dangerous classes seemed ready, at any moment, to sweep like a flood over the homes of respectable Christian people. The city churches were asleep, Strong charged, citing one section of Chicago where thousands of children lived “without the gospel of Jesus Christ,” a “district of saloons and dago shops and other vile places,” where many more children were arrested than attended Sunday School.30

As concerned clergymen like Josiah Strong fretted over losing souls to the inner city, working-class reformers and radicals suffused their speaking and writing with biblical parables and verses, which they used to chastise their oppressors and arouse the spirits of their followers. For example, George McNeill, a founder of the first eight-hour movement and an influential figure in the development of young Knights like Albert Parsons, believed that the workers’ dream of an equitable life on earth was revealed in the gospels. The Bible foretold a time, McNeill wrote, when the “Golden Rule of Christ would govern the relations of men in all their duties toward their fellows, in factory and work-shop, in the mine, in the field, in commerce, everywhere.”31

This strain of Protestant millennialism even appeared in the speeches of August Spies, who admired the Protestant martyr Thomas Munzer and believed the Bible “commanded equality and brotherhood among men on earth.” Like most other nineteenth-century American radicals, the social revolutionaries felt compelled to illustrate their secular complaints with sacred texts and to connect their vision of a truly free society with the Christian image of a heaven on earth. Unlike the European anarchists, whose hostility to religion knew no bounds, the socialist internationals devoted little attention to the ministries of their clerical opponents. They had much larger quarry in their sights: the evil capitalists who lived, as they saw it, in a paradise of riches while they made life for Chicago’s workers a hell on earth. 32

WHILE NEW FORMS of mechanization and industrial discipline affected certain trades during the early 1880s, a massive calamity befell a far greater number of wage earners. Another depression enveloped Chicago late in 1883, and the hardships that followed proved far more severe than those experienced in the long depression that had ended just three years before.33

Once again social commentators appeared to analyze the causes and assign blame for the calamity, as they had a decade before, but now the criticisms came not only from voices of socialists and trade unionists but from the pens of journalists like the Chicago Tribune’s famous business writer Henry Demarest Lloyd. The journalist no longer blamed the market for economic distress, but pointed his finger at railroad barons like Jay Gould who hoarded land and wealth and refused to raise wages or reduce hours for their wage hands. Henry George, author of the enormously influential book Progress and Poverty, also accused railroad magnates like Gould of causing the nation’s worst social problems. The wealth created by railroads allowed a few “American pashas” to count their income by the millions each month while their employees survived on $1.50 a day. Even in the wealthy state of Illinois, where the nation’s railroads converged, workingmen could not earn enough for their daily bread and were forced to depend upon the labor of women and children to eke out an existence. “The people are largely conscious of this,” George observed, “and there is among the masses much dissatisfaction.”34

Nowhere in the nation were wage earners as conscious of the crisis as they were in Chicago; this had less to do with the sophisticated commentary of reformers like Lloyd and George than it did with the speeches of socialists like Albert and Lucy Parsons and the reports of journalists like August Spies and his new associate Michael Schwab.

When Spies became editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1884, he sent Schwab into the streets of Chicago. Already well read and well traveled, the former bookbinder proved to be a tireless investigator, who exposed the city’s dark side to tens of thousands of German-speaking workers. After a day in the South Side slums, he wrote of “hovels where two, three and four families lived in one room with little ventilation and barely a stream of sunlight” and of people he saw “living from the ash barrels where they found half rotten vegetables and from offal they were given by local butchers.” Pride kept the destitute from seeking aid, and so they were left “deep in the shadows.” He told a shocking tale of two cities: one city of overcrowded tenement houses and fetid streets where a smallpox epidemic took 2,000 lives, and another city of spacious mansions and well-groomed avenues where pedestrians caught the lake breezes. 35

Besides exposing extremes of wealth and poverty in Chicago, the socialists insisted on dramatizing the contrast and moralizing about what it meant. On Thanksgiving Day, 1884, the International Working People’s Association staged a “poor people’s march” to expose the self-indulgence of wealthy people who gave thanks to God for their blessings and blamed the poor for their own sufferings. While grateful families ate turkey dinners that day, the International marched its cadre of workingmen and workingwomen through the cold streets carrying “the emblem of hunger,” the black flag. They proceeded through the fashionable thoroughfares of the city, said one police observer, with two women as standard-bearers carrying red and black flags, stopping before the residences of the wealthy and “indulging in all sorts of noises, groans and cat calls.”36

Then the procession marched downtown to Market Street, where its leaders held forth. Albert Parsons began by saying, “We assemble as representatives of the disinherited, to speak in the name of 40,000 unemployed working men in Chicago” who had nothing for which to be thankful. To those who supped in their comfortable homes, he offered jeremiads, quoting first from the Epistle of James, Chapter 5, on the miseries that would come upon rich men when the treasures they heaped together for their last days became rusted and cankered, and then from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, who warned, “Woe to him who buildeth a town by blood, and establisheth a city by iniquity.”37

Hard times had returned to Chicago, but the consequent ordeal did not turn working people into socialists. In fact, unemployment depressed them and forced them to depend on local charities and patronage bosses, or to seek out saloonkeepers and police officers who might give them a place to sleep at night; and it often compelled them to beg for work and accept it on any terms the employer dictated. What roused many of the city’s workers from a state of hopelessness was the incessant activity of the socialists, because they offered thousands of unemployed poor people a way to understand the crisis they experienced and to identify who was to blame.38 Albert Parsons, for one, delivered many lectures about why periodic panics occurred and why they were growing more frequent and intense. The main cause of the current crisis, he said in 1884, was overproduction caused by the race for profit. In this competition among capitalists who wanted to corner the market, wage earners were the first to suffer because, during business panics, wage cuts and layoffs would always be made in order to preserve profits. 39

And yet social revolutionaries like Parsons believed that beyond the current crisis there was hope for the future. Insufferable conditions were making workers more conscious of common class interests. As a result, despite the many differences that divided them and the many delusions that clouded their thinking, wage earners would come together. When they did, workers would feel their power and grasp the possibility of creating a new cooperative society to replace the old competitive order. 40

IN THE EARLY 1880S, few American social commentators, other than the socialists, believed class consciousness could emerge in the United States, because of its open frontier, its endless opportunities for entrepreneurs and its vaunted democracy. Class hatred existed in Europe, but in America it existed only in the minds of deluded socialists. In 1883, however, some leading citizens remarked on an alarming deterioration of relations between a huge population of laborers and a tiny population of employers, investors, bankers and lawyers. Some even found themselves using the language of class to describe what they saw and felt in testimony before the United States Senate Committee Upon the Relations Between Labor and Capital.41

When asked by commissioners about the state of feeling between the laboring class and the employing class, the Chicago Tribune’s Joseph Medill said that a general feeling of distrust and dissatisfaction existed and was increasing fast enough to pose a serious threat to the country. “The trades unions of this country are feeling more and more dissatisfied with their position, and they are developing more and more of what might be called a communistic feeling—a tendency or desire to resort to what might be called revolutionary or chaotic methods for rectifying things. They are not satisfied with their division of the profits of business, and they look at the enormous and sudden acquirement of fortunes by a few speculators with feelings of anger.”42

Medill blamed these hard feelings on strikes by “trades union people” who seemed in unanimous agreement that employers could afford to pay higher wages without increasing prices, and that the bosses refused out of “pure selfishness.” Given this regrettable bias among union men, said Medill, it was no wonder that worker protests threatened “to rend the social fabric” and that every strike seemed like “a species of civil war.”43

The situation Medill described seemed particularly acute in Chicago, where he expected trade union people to cause a good deal of trouble in the coming years. The first sign of the big trouble to come appeared at the McCormick Reaper Works, where the union iron molders angrily grumbled over a 10 percent wage cut young Cyrus had imposed even though the company had earned record profits the previous fall. When some of the workers struck on March 16, 1885, McCormick’s general manager discharged men in the wood department to intimidate the rest of the workforce; he also ordered crews to build barracks inside the plant gates to house strikebreakers around the clock. Meanwhile, a call went out for nonunion molders, who were offered protection from the strikers by guards hired from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, headquartered in Chicago.

The agency’s founder, Allan Pinkerton, had become renowned eight years earlier when he hired a spy, James McParlan, to infiltrate the Molly Maguires, a militant cadre of Irish coal miners who had been fighting a guerrilla war against mine operators and their hired gunmen in Pennsylvania. Pinkerton’s famous informer testified against the Mollies in a murder trial that sent ten mineworkers to the gallows on June 21, 1877. The hangings provided a stunning demonstration of the state’s power to impose the ultimate penalty on militant workers, and it left a haunting memory of “Molly after Molly walking to the gallows in the pale light of dawn, often holding a single rose sent by a wife or girl friend.” This terrible day of retribution was known as Black Thursday not only in Irish mining patches but in urban ghettos across the land, places like Bridgeport in Chicago, where crowds of Irish iron molders and their supporters encountered the hated “Pinks” at the McCormick works in the winter of 1885.44

Young McCormick had made the decision to cut wages with no understanding of the possible consequences; nothing he had learned at Princeton or as an understudy to his father (who had died the previous year) had “given him any insight into the feelings or the temper of the 1,400 men who labored in his factory.”45 McCormick also failed to realize that hiring Pinkerton gunmen to protect strikebreakers would infuriate the Irish residents of Bridgeport. Indeed, confrontations between the strikers and the agents quickly turned violent. During one set-to, Pinkerton’s men fired off a few rounds from their Winchesters, seriously wounding several people, including some bystanders. The police viewed this action as cowardly and arrested four of the private guards, who were later charged with manslaughter, but McCormick’s general manager wrote in despair that, while most of the men wanted to keep working, a “fighting Irish element” was ready to knock down and beat anyone who wanted to work and not a policeman would stir a hand to offer protection.46

A climactic struggle erupted at the plant gates on April 28, 1885, when the Pinkertons failed to hold their ground after strikers attacked trolleys full of strikebreakers headed for the plant. The union forces then assaulted a busload of Pinkertons, beat them with fists and clubs, burned their vehicle and seized a case of rifles intended for use in guarding the factory. One of the agents reported back to the agency’s downtown office that the attack on the guards was the work of Irishmen employed as molders and helpers, “nearly all members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who have the most bitter enmity against the Agency since the hanging of the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania.”47

In 1885 many of the Irish workers employed at McCormick’s were members not only of the Hibernians but also of the radical Land League and the secret Clan-Na-Gael, whose nationalist cadre, led by Chicago’s Alexander Sullivan, had begun bombing government buildings in London. Both organizations were condemned as communistic by Catholic clergy, just as the Mollies had been condemned; nonetheless, all three groups remained popular among Irish workingmen in Chicago. Although the anarchism of the International won very little support in the city’s poor Irish parishes, Catholic laborers displayed passionate attraction to various forms of radicalism, including currency and land reform, as well as cooperation. All this developed alongside a growing nationalism spurred by the war for land in colonial Ireland.48

The Catholic Church governed the religious practices of the Irish, just as the Democratic Party determined their voting habits, but neither parish priests nor ward bosses were able to control working-class militants or radical nationalists (they were often one and the same) as their activities escalated in the mid 1880s. In 1885, German anarchist workers and Irish nationalist workers at McCormick’s swam in different streams of radicalism, but early in the following year, the two streams would join at the big farm machinery plant on the South Branch of the Chicago River.

In the midst of the April crisis in 1885, McCormick appealed to Mayor Carter Harrison for more police so that the plant could run at full capacity. The mayor refused, and instead called for a settlement of the dispute. He also praised the union negotiating committee, even though it included labor leaders the company regarded as prime movers in the disturbance. McCormick still refused to meet with the men in a body and insisted that the wage cut was necessitated by the business depression. At this point Chicago industrialists became alarmed that the rising tide of union defiance would produce a general strike. Philip Armour firmly advised Cyrus, Jr., to give in to the men because the strike was becoming an “open war.” 49


Cyrus McCormick, Jr.

At the risk of losing face in the business community, McCormick withdrew the wage cut he had imposed on his unionized craftsmen. The skilled molders refused to accept the offer, however, unless it was extended to the less skilled piece-rate men and unless all strikebreakers were removed from the works. McCormick again relented, but the harrowing experience convinced him that he must rid the works of the union molders by replacing them with machines.

After the settlement, Cyrus McCormick received a letter of rebuke from his mother, the estimable Nettie Fowler McCormick, who had run the works for a time after her husband retired. She had turned the company over to her son and then devoted her time to philanthropy, but from far away in Philadelphia she kept an eye on things at the reaper works. After the plant reopened, she wrote to Cyrus, Jr., with “a sore heart” that his actions were “all wrong” and that the violent strike had damaged the family’s relations with its workmen. As a result, trouble had come to hundreds of families and in consequence “fierce passions” had been aroused.50

Emboldened by the union molders’ triumph over McCormick and the Pinkertons, iron-ore shovelers in the nearby docks struck, as did printers and rolling-mill workers, and even hospital nurses. As this surge of worker militancy gathered force, news came of a horrible tragedy in the quarries just south of the city near Lemont.

When quarry workers walked out to protest a wage cut and employers imported strikebreakers, large crowds arrived to block the replacement workers. Local authorities, overmatched by the strike force, called on the governor to send in the militia. Richard Oglesby, who had been elected to another term in 1884, reluctantly gave the order. Soon after the troops arrived in Lemont, the general in charge wired the governor to report that A. R. Parsons, the “Chicago communist,” was there inciting the strikers and plotting to “organize a commune.” The agitator had apparently failed in these efforts, but he remained in Lemont to cover the story for his anarchist newspaper.51

On May 4, Parsons saw a crowd of quarry workers confront the militiamen who were protecting strikebreakers. When the strikers cast stones at the troopers, the troopers fired their Winchesters into the assembly, killing two men instantly and wounding many others. Parsons described the scene in an enraged newspaper report. “The shrieks of wounded and dying men filled the air,” he wrote, “the warm blood of the people bathed the flagstones of the sidewalks.” The shootings at Lemont made an indelible impression on Parsons and confirmed his belief that “without arms and organization, the worker is left to the mercy of those who rob, murder and enslave him.”52

On May 20 a group of social revolutionaries met in Chicago to condemn the militia for the killings at Lemont; they also vowed to organize themselves into an armed company to defend workers against the militia and to establish “a school on chemistry” where the manufacture and use of explosives would be taught. One speaker went far beyond this call for armed self-defense. A Tribune reporter reportedly heard “Citizeness” Lucy Parsons make threats “redolent with gore,” which she directed at the militiamen and at the men whose interests they served. She even called for a “war of extermination” against the rich, saying, “Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live as Sheridan devastated the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah.”53

The deaths at Lemont gave the anarchists fresh text for a storm of leaflets they dropped on the city. These circulars helped swell their meetings, but failed, one journalist noted, to create any great disturbance. In fact, when such a disturbance did erupt, the anarchists had little to do with it. It came on the city’s West Side during the sweltering month of July, when streetcar drivers and conductors, who were predominantly Irish Catholic, quit work to protest the sacking of fifteen union leaders who had demanded a wage increase. The company was an unpopular monopoly, so the strikers easily won public sympathy as West Siders, male and female, young and old, walked to and from their homes boycotting the line, while fervently hoping the car men would win.54

Mayor Carter Harrison joined the Knights of Labor in urging arbitration, but the president of the company said there was nothing to arbitrate, because, if the union men were reinstated, it would imply that the company could not dictate who should be hired or fired. The mayor found himself pressured as never before, as businessmen protested that the city was threatened with anarchy and insisted that the police take forceful action against strikers who controlled the streets and made moving the cars impossible. On the second day of the confrontation, company and city officials held a war council and devised a systematic plan to break the back of the strike and reopen the West Side line. Mayor Carter Harrison attended the secret meeting and voiced his concerns about the planned police action, but at the end of the day, he consented to it.55

SERVING HIS FOURTH consecutive term as mayor of Chicago, Carter Henry Harrison was widely regarded as the most popular and effective big-city mayor of his era. A much-loved figure in the city’s immigrant wards, saloons and trade union halls, he was personally responsible for keeping the city’s warring tribes at bay.

Carter Harrison was an unlikely populist hero. A Kentucky gentleman who lived in a grand house on Ashland Avenue, he dressed in silk vests, smoked the best Havana cigars, read literature in German and French and quoted Shakespeare from memory. He was thoroughly at ease with members of the city’s aristocracy of wealth, whose interests and concerns he readily understood. Towering above all other Democrats, he managed to keep the city’s corrupt patronage system from destroying public trust in city government. He was not personally corrupt, but he accepted and tolerated the “bummer” councilmen, the gamblers, the saloonkeepers and the policemen who protected their interests. The city’s big newspaper editors hated him for it and generally accused him of “being responsible for all the filth in the community.”56

A few businessmen and bankers realized, however, that Mayor Harrison had exhibited rare political genius following his election in 1879. He had co-opted leading socialists into his administration. He then created a labor-friendly regime that helped cast the Socialistic Labor Party into oblivion. Moreover, he restored social peace after five harrowing years of civil strife.57


Mayor Carter H. Harrison

Carter Harrison was a naturally gifted politician who loved “pageantry and display of almost any kind”—marching bands and ethnic parades, Irish wakes and high masses, German folk festivals and socialist picnics. He attended them all, usually riding upon his white thoroughbred horse and wearing a black felt hat tilted rakishly to the side. He was extremely insensitive to criticism and could be tactless around influential men, but these traits, along with “bubbling geniality,” his “sense of fair play” and his “social insight,” put him “in touch with the desires and aspirations of the masses.”58

Unlike his predecessors, Harrison recognized that Chicago was a foreign city, and he made the most of it. He spoke some German and a little Swedish, claimed Norwegian and Irish roots, and knew something about Bohemia from his European travels. He was a truly cosmopolitan man. “Harrison,” the Tribune observed, “is American only through an accident of birth.” He was also a crafty urban politico who earned and maintained the trust of Chicago’s immigrants.59

Harrison presided over a city with a huge working class of people who had endured a terribly long depression and now faced a second one. He knew that many of these people resented the high-handed editors who chastised the poor, and despised the hard-driving employers who turned the Pinkertons and police loose on their own employees. It was not surprising to Carter Harrison that skilled agitators like Spies and Parsons found an audience in the city’s working-class wards. The mayor was quite familiar with the socialists; he read their newspapers, observed their rallies and heard their speeches. They fancied themselves orators, he later recalled, and often “talked like damn fools,” but they did not seem like dangerous men. Better to let them speak than to arouse popular wrath by closing their newspapers and banning them from the streets.60

Harrison had succeeded year after year, performing like a seasoned ringmaster in Chicago’s human circus, but as he took office for a fourth term in May 1885, the mayor was a weakened leader. He had gained reelection by a razor-thin margin of 375 votes, and now he waited as the Republicans challenged the election results in court. In the meantime, the Citizens’ Association issued a report that denounced the police for their “flagrant neglect of duty” during the strike at McCormick’s and accused the mayor of being afraid to anger “any large body of rioters” for fear of losing their votes. In fact, the votes Harrison feared losing were those of businessmen and property owners, who helped provide him with the popular mandate he needed to keep the peace and attempt to govern an ungovernable city.61

HARRISON MAINTAINED HIS balancing act as usual during the first few months after his reelection, but then, on July 2, 1885, he lost control of the forces under his command. Before dawn that day 400 police officers reported to the Desplaines Street Station near the Haymarket to hear orders from their field commander, Captain John Bonfield, who was determined to break the strike of the streetcar drivers on the West Side line. City officials needed a hard man to head the strikebreaking force, and they found him in Bonfield, a failed businessman who had joined the force in 1877, just in time to see action in the great uprising that summer. He saw riot duty in Bridgeport, where he was humiliated after being disarmed and beaten by a gang of strikers. Following this traumatic incident, the ambitious Bonfield rose rapidly in the force. After being promoted to lieutenant, he was assigned to the West 12th Street Station, not far from where the Great Chicago Fire had started in 1871; this was a frontier police station in the midst of the sprawling Second Precinct, one that included Pilsen and the polyglot Southwest Side, home to more than 30,000 immigrant working people. Located in the heart of what the police called “the terror district,” it was a command center during the violent summers of 1876 and 1877, when the lumber shovers’ strike and the railroad workers’ uprising “were so admirably repressed,” in the words of the police department’s historian. It was here that Lieutenant Bonfield won fame by putting the nation’s first system of call boxes on street corners, so that patrol wagons could quickly be called into action when trouble began in a precinct where “scarcely a month passed without some kind of demonstration, strike or riot.”62

Bonfield joined the Chicago Police Department in 1877, just before it emerged as the nation’s first effective antistrike force, acting with a lethal effectiveness unmatched in any other city. But during the early 1880s the influence of Irish trade unionists and politicians on the mayor kept the police at bay during strikes. The force was so unreliable in the eyes of many large employers that they equipped small armies of militiamen as reserve forces or hired private guards to protect strikebreakers. In Captain John Bonfield, these employers found a man who would change all that. 63

As morning light broke and the temperature rose on July 3, Bonfield’s lead patrols found Madison Street lined with people looking as though they expected a great procession to pass. The captain ordered his men to keep people moving, but the crowds were too dense to budge. Many people on the streets, local residents and passengers as well as union workers of all sorts, came out to support the car men. Others in the throng appeared simply to witness what promised to be an especially exciting episode in the ongoing drama unfolding on Chicago’s turbulent streets.

In spite of the crowds that grew as the morning passed, Bonfield moved ahead with his plan to open the line by sending in nine horsecars loaded with a huge body of 400 policemen he had gathered. Very soon after the convoy got under way from the Madison Street barn at the city’s western limits, it halted before a barricade of lumber, gas pipe, cobblestones and beer kegs. “As fast as the police removed these obstructions others were raised,” wrote one journalist. This method of street warfare seemed “so decidedly Parisian and communistic in character” that the captain assumed anarchists were responsible.64


Captain John Bonfield

Bonfield, a “large, powerful, resolute, ruthless man,” believed that unarmed crowds could be dispersed by a sizable, well-trained force of men ready and willing to club protesters into submission. The patrolmen could carry revolvers, but if they executed their captain’s tactical instructions with disciplined brutality, they could prevail without using firearms. 65

Enraged by the blockades, Bonfield ordered his men into action as the convoy moved slowly down Madison Street toward the city. Officers were seen wading into the crowds lining the street, their “clubs descending right and left like flails,” said one observer, “and men falling before them, often frightfully injured.” The captain led the assault, beating down an elderly man who did not respond to his order to fall back. When some construction workers pitched shovels of dirt in front of the cars, the captain ordered them arrested. Two of them questioned Bonfield, and he beat them until they lost consciousness (one worker suffered permanent brain damage). Using these tactics, policemen cleared the streets and opened the line by nightfall, after taking 150 prisoners.66

The next day, the Fourth of July, Chicagoans flocked to their picnics and baseball games, but West Siders still seethed with anger over the brutal assault they had witnessed the day before. Some of them even left the holiday celebrations and joined several thousand workers on the lakefront, where the International Working People’s Association held its own Fourth of July celebration. Various speakers, including August Spies, denounced Bonfield’s “vicious attack” on the citizenry and, according to one report, “advised streetcar men and all other workingmen to buy guns and fight for their rights like men.”67

Looking back on these events eight years later, and trying to explain why the Haymarket tragedy occurred, the governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, offered a historical explanation. For a number of years prior to the bombing and the riot, there had been serious labor troubles, he wrote. There were strikes in which “some of the police not only took sides against the men, but, without any authority of law, invaded and broke up peaceable meetings.” And in many cases, officers “brutally clubbed people who were guilty of no offense whatever.” In the most notorious case, the invasion of a Harmonia Society meeting in 1877, one young man was shot through the back of the head; and in the streetcar strike on the West Side eight summers later, Governor Altgeld noted, “some of the police, under the leadership of Captain John Bonfield, indulged in a brutality never equaled before.” After the police assault on the West Side, leading citizens prayed for the dismissal of Bonfield, but, “on account of his political influence, he was retained.” (Indeed, a few months after the strike, Mayor Harrison had promoted the notorious captain to chief inspector, arousing the fury of organized labor.) In other cases, the governor continued, laboring people had been shot down in cold blood by Pinkerton men—some were even killed when they were running away— and yet none of the murderers were brought to justice. “The laboring people found the prisons always open to receive them,” he concluded, “but the courts were practically closed to them.”68

After reviewing the bloody history that preceded the violent clash in the Haymarket, Governor Altgeld drew what seemed to him an obvious lesson: “While some men may tamely submit to being clubbed and seeing their brothers shot down,” he observed, “there are some who will resent it, and will nurture a spirit of hatred and seek revenge for themselves.” 69

DURING THE FALL of 1885 a cloud of class hatred hung over Chicago; it seemed as thick as the smoke that darkened its streets. Yet no one in the resentful ranks of the working class, not even the bombastic speakers of the socialist International, took revenge against the police and the Pinkertons. Instead, the social revolutionaries urged workers to join a mass movement for radical change and to arm themselves for the next confrontation with the forces of repression. The next time Bonfield’s blue-coated “clubbers” and Pinkerton’s “blackguards” moved against strikers, the workers of Chicago would be ready for them. They would be prepared to defeat the armed forces sent against them with the best weapons they could find. Moreover, they would be prepared to act against the powerful men who ordered the policemen around like hunters calling out their bloodhounds. Workers would be prepared, in other words, to carry out the “social revolution.”

The social revolutionaries seemed to be everywhere in the city that troubled summer and fall—on the lakefront where they held “high carnival” every Sunday, in picnic groves where they delivered angry speeches, on the downtown streets where they led mass marches and demonstrations. They were, noted one alarmed observer, “free to come and go as they pleased, to hold meetings, parade in the streets, to expose their sentiments . . . to dispense their poisonous doctrines, to breed discontent.” 70

By the end of 1885, Chicago’s working-class districts were seething with discontent, and the socialists were doing their utmost to incubate it, but they were not its only breeders.

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