NOVEMBER 1885–DECEMBER 1885
AS THE TUMULTUOUS MONTHS of 1885 drew to a close, the Chicago Internationals looked back on a year of astonishing progress. They had enrolled nearly 1,000 core members into fifteen groups or clubs in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago ranging from the North Side to the South Side areas of Bohemian Pilsen and Irish Bridgeport. The IWPA expanded in other cities as well, but by 1885 one-fifth of all its members lived in Chicago, where the association had attracted 5,000 to 6,000 sympathizers, most of whom were immigrant workers recruited to militant trade unions grouped together in the Central Labor Union, with a membership of 20,000 that rivaled that of the established Trades Assembly.1
Nearly all the workers who joined the International or supported it read the newspapers published by the Socialistic Publishing Company. A year after August Spies became editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1884, the German daily reached a circulation of 20,000, matching that of the Republican Staats-Zeitung. The society also printed an English paper, the Alarm, edited by Albert and Lucy Parsons, and unleashed a blizzard of literature in 1885, including speeches by Albert and Lucy Parsons, the writings of Marx and Engels, Bakunin and Johann Most, as well as thousands of copies of the Pittsburgh Manifesto translated into German, Czech and French.2
The blossoming of the International in Chicago owed something to serendipity. The severity of the depression and the rapidity of mechanization, the hostile activity of Cyrus McCormick, Jr., and his riflebearing Pinkertons, as well as the brutality of Captain John Bonfield and his club-wielding police divisions—all of these experiences generated potential recruits for the insurgent movement within Chicago’s various immigrant working-class districts. But what transformed that discontent into social protest was the “intrusion of subversive propagandists.”3 The International’s surprising growth in Chicago came about because socialist agitators, particularly Spies and Parsons, possessed the ability to articulate workers’ grievances, as well as the unflagging energy it took to engage in relentless political activity. No other American city had ever witnessed anything like the agitation the Internationals created.
ON APRIL 28, 1885, the day strikers routed the Pinkertons at McCormick’s, the IWPA conducted an audacious protest over the dedication of the palatial new Board of Trade Building. Elaborate and gorgeous ceremonies were planned that night to open this majestic monument to Chicago’s economic power. The building dominated the financial district at the end of LaSalle Street with its 310-foot clock tower. Thick granite walls punctured by the austere stained-glass windows of the trading floor gave a churchlike look to this “temple of commerce.” To critics like the journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd, however, the Board of Trade seemed like “a great gambling shop,” where syndicates of traders cheated the market to keep commodities scarce and prices dear. The fixing of prices for essential commodities like bread invited big trouble, he feared. In a famous article, “Making Bread Dear,” Lloyd warned that just such “crimes” had provoked the sans-culottes of Paris to take to the streets and ignite the French Revolution.4
Before marching to LaSalle Street, the Internationals rallied, as usual, in Market Street, where they heard Albert Parsons describe the Board of Trade as “a Board of Thieves” and a “robber’s roost,” and, according to a police reporter, declare that the new building ought to be blown up. When he finished, the band struck up “La Marseillaise,” the anthem of the French Revolution, and then Parsons linked arms with August Spies to lead the march downtown. Lucy Parsons and Lizzie Swank joined them in the lead, holding their red flags on lofty poles. As they marched toward the Board of Trade Building, the band’s music and the marchers’ shouts bounced around in the canyons formed by the tall, dark stone buildings. Curious spectators lined the sidewalks, and some of them fell in line with the marchers. The Internationals had become the most engaging troupe performing in Chicago’s colorful theater of urban life.
The protesters never reached their destination that afternoon, because they were stopped and turned away by a formidable squad of 200 policemen. Many of the marchers, expecting a police assault, had armed themselves, but thanks to a cool-headed police captain, William Ward, no conflict erupted because the captain kept his men in line and persuaded Spies to turn his followers around.5
Gaudy demonstrations and tense confrontations of this kind made exciting news and attracted enormous public attention, not only from downtown businessmen, but also from workingmen in the factory districts. But in the working-class precincts of the city, it took more than street-level theatrics to convert wage-earning people to socialism; it took hour after hour of serious political and philosophical discussion.6
IWPA club meetings were organized so that various members would present thirty-minute prepared talks on assigned topics, to be followed by comments and discussion. Thus, the socialist clubs served as arenas for group learning and for individual intellectual growth, as well as settings in which to recruit new members among workers who had enjoyed little schooling. Each group elected its own librarian and allocated funds to buy literature. Members could also borrow books from the central library located at the Arbeiter-Zeitung offices on Fifth Avenue.7 Some of the more educated Internationals also volunteered to instruct children in socialist “Sunday Schools,” partly in response to aggressive efforts made by Catholic priests in German and Bohemian parishes to recapture the souls of wayward immigrant children. The socialist instructors offered such children “reading, writing, natural history, geography, literature, general history and morality,” and as much of “ethics as young minds are capable of receiving.” 8 Of course, these instructors also taught their pupils about socialism and, more specifically, about what they called anarchism.
AT SOME POINT in 1884 the militant socialists of Chicago began identifying themselves as anarchists. This caused confusion among observers as well as among members of the International, because the movement’s leader, August Spies, insisted he remained a follower of Marx, and not of Marx’s anarchist enemy, Bakunin. It was true that Spies and his Chicago comrades had given up hope of finding a peaceful path to socialism via elections and legislative changes, that they had broken decisively with their former comrades in the Socialistic Labor Party. Yet the Internationals continued to label their publications socialist in 1885, because they adhered to Marx’s belief that capitalism would be destroyed by its own contradictions and by the inevitable emergence of a class-conscious movement of workers prepared to abolish private property along with the forms of government that sanctioned and protected it. The Chicago militants thought of themselves as socialists of the anarchist type—that is, as revolutionaries who believed in liberating society from all state control, whether capitalist or socialist. Anarchists proclaimed that true freedom in a socialist society could be gained in self-governing communities and workplaces where working people determined their rights and responsibilities democratically, without the domination of a powerful national state with its judges and laws, its police forces and armies. This was the freedom anarchy promised, said Albert Parsons, in contrast to the vision of his old socialist party comrades, who still embraced “State Socialism,” which meant “the government controlled everything.” 9
Johann Most, the world’s leading anarchist in 1885, exerted a strong hold on Parsons, Spies and the Chicago Internationals, but they did not fully embrace his view that individual acts of violence would provoke a revolution; indeed, they faithfully adhered to the lesson they had learned from Karl Marx: that socialism could be achieved only through the collective power of workers organized into aggressive trade unions—the “great lever by which the working class will be emancipated.” The anarchists imagined militant workers’ organizations as more than movement building blocks; these unions could be “the living germs of a new social order which would replace the bourgeois world,” or, as Parsons put it, the “embryonic” groups of a future “free society.” 10
This concept of revolutionary unionism, later known as “the Chicago idea,” appealed to European artisans like Michael Schwab who were familiar with the watchmakers and other artisans in Europe who embraced Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anarchist ideas about free association and mutual aid. A few of them had even put these cooperative ideas into practice in their own shops and benefit societies. The notion of workshops controlled by intelligent craftsmen was not a utopian dream to them. Furthermore, the idea that artisans, shopkeepers and other ordinary citizens could govern a city was not simply a theoretical possibility, because this, they knew, was precisely what the people of Paris had done with some success during the days after they created the Commune in 1871.11
American craftsmen like Parsons were also quite familiar with practical experiments in cooperative production and exchange, because the Knights of Labor and, on a much larger scale, the Farmers’ Alliance were busy creating them all over the country in 1885. Through these efforts, the popular movements of the time instilled a new kind of collective selfconfidence in working people and a new kind of hope that they could reconstruct the economy on a democratic basis. Thus, the dream of a self-governing community of equal producers articulated by Parsons and the Chicago anarchists had something in common with the idea of a cooperative commonwealth embraced by labor reformers and agrarian populists in the 1880s.12
In any case, Parsons and his fellow agitators devoted themselves far more to practical activity—writing, speaking, agitating and organizing— than they did to creating coherent revolutionary theory. The Chicago anarchists applied Marx’s axioms when they seemed to explain what was happening before their eyes, but they also salted their speeches and pamphlets with songs and mottoes from the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man; from the writings of Proudhon, who believed property was theft; and from the anarchist pronouncements of Mikhail Bakunin and Johann Most.
The Chicago anarchists also drew inspiration from American revolutionaries: from Thomas Paine, the most influential of all propagandists; from Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed the right and the duty to rebel against unjust authority; from Patrick Henry, whose words “Give me liberty or give me death” were often quoted; and from John Brown, the most heroic of all revolutionary martyrs. Albert Parsons, though raised in the slave South, considered himself an abolitionist at heart; that is why he devoted himself to winning political rights for emancipated blacks, why he never abandoned the language of Radical Republicanism he acquired in Texas and why he often cited John Brown and other abolitionists in his attacks on “wage slavery.” 13 In the process of cooking this stew of radical ideas, the Internationals of Chicago invented a peculiar, in some ways American, brand of revolutionary socialism they called anarchism.
Parsons once wrote that the Chicago socialists initially accepted the anarchist label in defiance of their enemies who branded them with the name, but this bizarre explanation may have reflected his own pugnacious personality. In any case, adopting such a political identity seemed virtually self-defeating, because, to most Americans, anarchy simply meant chaos, violence and disorder. The word had been used, for example, to describe Paris in the last horrible days of the Commune and Pittsburgh in 1877, when enraged crowds surrounded the militia and set fire to the railyards. Anarchy was even thought to have appeared in the Arizona Territory, where, as one newspaper had it, the “savage” Apaches, “the Reds of America,” fought to preserve their “communal system of government.”14
The anarchists, however, regarded such outbreaks of violence as unnatural behavior provoked entirely by the oppressive actions of the state and the forces of private capital. They argued that anarchy, a society without a state, was natural to humanity, as compared to monarchy, the kind of rule that still prevailed in Europe, or as compared to democracy as it had evolved in the United States. Even with an elected government, they insisted, American citizens could be tyrannized by the police and the army just as they were in Europe. They lived in a society that called itself a democracy, but it was a sad state in which lords of industry behaved like monarchs who mocked democracy with their imperious actions.15 In the midst of the “great barbecue” held by the robber barons and politicos of the Gilded Age, agitators could produce plenty of evidence that money and influence had polluted the great republic, if not poisoned it to death. 16
STILL, IT WAS a daunting endeavor, this anarchist effort to create an alternative intellectual and moral world in a city devoted to the pursuit of private property and personal wealth, a place that thrived on speculation and competition of every kind, a city that epitomized American capitalism. At times, Parsons and other movement evangelicals saw themselves acting out roles played by the early apostles of Jesus Christ as they led a sect of true believers out of a wilderness of sin and corruption. In fact, the anarchists were atheists, or at least freethinkers, who regarded organized religion as little more than a drug clergymen gave workers in order to pacify them. Yet, for all their contempt for churchmen, Christian charity and Victorian decency, the anarchists of Chicago were men and women who believed in monogamous marriage and craved respectable home lives. No talk of free love was heard among them. But this did not mean the anarchists were joyless puritans. In fact, they indulged in endless entertainments and celebrations and made performing, singing and dancing essential ingredients of their social and cultural lives. 17
Each year the anarchists’ festive calendar began with the annual commemoration of the Paris Commune in March and continued until the Oktoberfest, when the dark beer arrived. By 1885, Die Commune Fieren had become too large to contain in a single hall, so the IWPA organized two memorials in Turner halls on the North and West sides that attracted international crowds. The Czechs sponsored their own “Paris Communal” at a new hall in Pilsen. The anarchists paid no attention to Easter and Passover, and instead eagerly waited for the spring Maifest, which came along with the bock beer. May 1 festivities inaugurated a high season of excursions, picnics, pageants, concert performances and poetry readings, as well as colorful demonstrations, parades and mass meetings on the lakefront, where city officials allowed the anarchists to congregate outdoors every Sunday. Come summertime, the IWPA groups and local unions picnicked together whenever possible—often at the conclusion of a rally and march to Ogden’s Grove on the North Side, where there would be a great deal of sausage to eat and beer to drink along with a lot of dancing and singing to enjoy after the speeches ended.18
The Fourth of July, the one public holiday all Americans celebrated in the nineteenth century, was a grand occasion everywhere. The anarchists used the holiday to interpret the Declaration of Independence their own way and to honor their own red flag, not a star-spangled banner. “The flag of America” had “become the ensign of privilege,” the banner of monopoly, Albert Parsons proclaimed in 1885. “Wage slaves of Chicago,” he declared, “turn your eyes from that ensign of property and fix them upon the emblem of liberty, fraternity and equality—the red flag.”19
Like his idols Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, Parsons believed in honoring two revolutions, the American and the French. And so when Chicago’s colony of French immigrants celebrated Bastille Day in 1885, many of the anarchists joined them; but when the city’s American families enjoyed the Yankee holiday of Thanksgiving that year, the Internationals arranged for “an indignation meeting” at Market Square, where Parsons asked sarcastically what in the world “plundered workers” and “hungry tramps” had to be thankful for.20
Given the anarchists’ penchant for theatrical street performances, it was not surprising that they created their own dramatic societies and performed their own plays, such as a popular melodrama, The Nihilists, in which Spies and Neebe, the managers of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, played minor roles. This production, which re-created the scenes from the lives of Russian revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the hated czar, was so popular that it was later performed in a commercial theater; so too was The Proletarian’s Daughter, the story of a working-class girl who falls in love with a factory owner’s son, only to be spurned by her class-conscious father.21
Anarchist banners displayed in a Thanksgiving poor people’s march in 1885 and in other street demonstrations
During most of these demonstrations and festive occasions, the air was filled with music, often performed by German and Bohemian anarchists who created their own brass bands and singing clubs. IWPA club meetings and rallies usually opened and closed with songs that aroused a sense of collective confidence and martial spirit, most especially the much-loved “Marseillaise,” a song that Parsons often sang solo at meetings and rallies in his lilting tenor voice.22
The International also sponsored dances in various halls every weekend, often to celebrate anniversaries and to raise money for the workers’ militia or the socialist press, or to celebrate the club’s founding date or an occasion like the Maifest or the birth of a movement hero like Tom Paine or Karl Marx. The German members usually chose the venue and the band, and the dances were frequented by various nationalities, such as the one described by a Chicago Times reporter who saw every couple at one anarchist ball enjoying a variety of European dance steps from waltzes to polkas.23
Friedrich Sorge, who had served as Marx’s most trusted representative in the United States, described these festivities as “wonderful events” that drew enormous crowds, far more people than he had seen at similar socialist occasions in Europe. They highlighted what he called an “extraordinary and effective propaganda campaign carried on in public meetings held in halls and in the open”—a sustained effort “to shake up the people, the workers, and to frighten the philistines and the politicians.” 24 Through it all, even through the endless club meetings, the threatening speeches and noisy street demonstrations, the anarchists seemed to be having fun.
In the early days of the IWPA’s development, Albert and Lucy Parsons appeared an odd couple of Americans in a German cultural world of beer gardens and concert halls, singing societies and drama clubs. Then, in 1885, their speeches and articles in the Alarm began to attract some English-speaking workers to the American Group they had formed. By the end of the year the group had grown to 150 activists, including a broad-shouldered Englishman named Samuel Fielden, who would become the anarchists’ most effective evangelist. 25
Fielden joined the group in 1884 after spending fifteen years in the city digging ditches and hauling stone. He had learned about injustice from his father, a Lancashire handloom weaver who became an agitator for the ten-hour day, and had encountered it firsthand when at age seven he followed the children of other poor Lancashire folk into the cotton mills—an experience that left him with a memory of cruelty he called “satanic.”
Young Fielden also received passionate religious instruction from his mother, a devoted Methodist, and before he turned twenty he had become a popular speaker at revival meetings in Lancashire. A restless youth who hated the cotton mills, Fielden left England in 1868. Landing in New York, he traveled far and wide, always working with his hands, and always reading and learning while listening to Americans. When he settled in Chicago, Fielden spent his days at hard labor and his free time in libraries and at meetings of the Liberal League, a group devoted to free thought and critical debate on social questions.26
When business improved in 1880, Fielden bought a team of horses and used them for hauling stone to Chicago construction sites. He joined a fledging teamsters’ union and met George Schilling, the socialist labor activist, who became his mentor. Having gained a reputation at the Liberal League as a powerful speaker, Fielden was asked to address a labor meeting at the lakeshore in 1883, and there he met Parsons and Spies, who recognized his talent as an orator. By 1884 the stone hauler from Lancashire had become a devoted socialist and a popular speaker for the International.
In the American Group, Fielden encountered a bevy of restless, intellectually voracious men and women, as dedicated to anarchism as he had once been to Methodism. He participated in lively group meetings at Grief’s Hall on Lake Street, where members delivered papers on political economy and anarchy followed by intense debate, and where they heard reports about ongoing strikes and assaults on workers. On occasion, he also listened to Albert Parsons and Lizzie Swank discuss the struggles of Indians, particularly the Métis, people of mixed French and native blood who rose up against British rule in the Northwest Territory of Canada, and the Apaches, who were making a last stand against the U.S. Army in the Arizona Territory.27
Meetings of the American Group were organized by Lucy Parsons’s close friend Lizzie Swank Holmes, who usually closed gatherings at the piano and led the members in singing “La Marseillaise.” She maintained a leading role in the group’s political affairs, even after she moved out of the city to Geneva, Illinois, to live with her sickly new husband, William Holmes, who served as secretary of the group. A slender, pale young man who had been a woodworker in Wisconsin, Holmes chaired meetings, moderated debates, kept records and with Lizzie contributed much to the growth of the American Group. In the process, he came to know and admire Albert Parsons, and the two men grew as close as their wives had become. 28 The two couples joined a small inner group of devoted comrades who loved one another’s company. Lizzie Holmes later wrote of many occasions she and William spent in lively communion with their friends. “I used to believe nothing could be more pleasant,” she recalled, “than to gather with Mr. Parsons and his wife, Mr. Spies, Mr. Fielden, and others around a table, or in a small circle, and listen to conversation that flowed and sparkled on so smoothly.”29
By now Albert Parsons had become a notorious figure in Chicago, a working-class hero admired for his courage as a bold character who suffered the blacklist for speaking out. His infamy among employers only added to his allure among workers. He cut a dashing figure in public appearances, taking the lead in huge street marches of people carrying crimson banners as they wended a long red line through the downtown streets. Sometimes he rode on horseback as a marshal, displaying the impressive riding form he acquired as a young cavalryman. On a podium Parsons struck reporters and critics as a vain character who dyed his hair black, coiffed his mustache and put on the airs of a gentleman; they also found him arrogant, insulting and audacious. Plebeian audiences, however, loved his dramatic persona, his blunt talk, his cutting sarcasm and his angry temper.
At the age of thirty-seven Parsons had reached the height of his growth as an orator. He displayed a scholarly command of history and demonstrated a remarkable memory for statistics. He often expressed his love for poetry and for the legacy of the French Revolution; these qualities appealed immensely to the German workers in his audience who were, in many cases, avid readers and “enlightened” thinkers themselves. Even those who did not share his passionate belief in anarchism often found Parsons impressive. 30
In great demand as a speaker not only in local working-class venues but in other cities, the “famous labor agitator” even aroused curiosity among wealthy Chicagoans of a liberal bent. Early in 1885 he was invited to address a meeting of the West Side Philosophical Society. The hall was filled with well-to-do, respectable people. “I am the notorious Parsons, the fellow with long horns, as you know him from the daily press,” he said with a smile. It was odd, he continued, for him to speak before an audience of gentlemen with nice white shirts and ladies wearing elegant and costly dresses. He usually spoke before meetings of people dressed in “coarse and common garments,” people whose labor allowed these swells to wear fancy clothes and live in fine palaces. “Are not these charitable people—these sans-culottes—very generous to you?” he asked, as hissing resounded through the hall. Undaunted, he pressed on, telling them that 35,000 people in Chicago went hungry every day and that on such a cold winter night the Desplaines Street Police Station sheltered “as many as 400 homeless, destitute men.” Then, his tone rising in anger, he exclaimed: “Listen now to the voice of hunger, when I tell you that unless you heed the cry of the people, unless you harken to the voice of reason, you will be awakened by the thunders of dynamite!” The hall exploded with angry cries and the speaker could not continue. 31 There would be no more invitations from respectable societies.
Lucy Parsons joined her husband in many of his Chicago activities, contributing articles to the Alarm, marching by his side in parades, engaging in debates at meetings of the American Group and speaking at lakefront rallies. She did this while keeping up her dress shop on the North Side to supplement her husband’s meager earnings and caring for six-year-old Albert, Jr., and their daughter, Lulu Eda, who was born in 1881. Lucy’s activities started attracting the attention of reporters, who were not used to seeing married ladies, let alone black women, making such angry public displays. An Inter-Ocean reporter who heard her give a furious speech at a Sunday rally described Lucy as “a very determined negress” who insisted on speaking even with her two “anarchist sucklings” at her side. 32 Albert and Lucy Parsons expected to be harshly treated by the press; if anything, the abuse made them more heroic in the eyes of the American Group, whose members treated them with special affection and admiration.
THE AMERICAN GROUP was an exceptional piece in the mosaic of Chicago’s anarchist club life. Other groups consisted largely of Germans and Bohemian immigrants who were not for the most part recent arrivals or political refugees. The largest single element in the anarchist movement were workers from Germany who had become naturalized citizens after living in Chicago for five to ten years; in other words, they were foreigners who became radicalized after they arrived in America.33
Some of the Internationals made good as small proprietors, particularly the saloonkeepers—men like Charles Zepf, Moritz Neff and Thomas Grief, who advertised their taverns as meeting places for the city’s socialists. These “red saloons” would become targets of police surveillance in 1886, when movement activity reached a fever pitch— places like Bohemian Hall in Pilsen, where the Czech workers’ militia met; Neff’s Hall on the North Side, where the Lehr und Wehr Verein gathered; and Thalia Hall on Milwaukee Avenue, where the largest North Side group of the IWPA congregated. 34 These socialist beer halls were some of the 5,000 drinking establishments that existed all over the city in the mid-1880s. The Chicago saloon exuded an atmosphere of freedom, serving as “the workingman’s school,” a discussion center, a free space where the immigrant laborer learned the real rules in the game of city life.35
A group of worker militiamen of the Lehr und Wehr Verein with the socialist saloonkeeper Moritz Neff lying down
With the exception of the saloonkeepers and a few teachers, musicians and journalists, the Chicago anarchist movement was composed of immigrant wage earners like the lean young printer Adolph Fischer. Fischer had settled into the North Side with his wife and three children after arriving in Chicago during the spring of 1883. Already a well-assimilated immigrant, he had worked ten years as an apprentice in the print shop of his brother, who published a German paper in Little Rock, Arkansas. When he left Bremen, his birthplace, at the age of fifteen, the blond youngster had already enjoyed eight and half years of school, much more education than most immigrant workers received. As a boy, he had absorbed the doctrines of socialism from his father, so Fischer, like Spies and Schwab, arrived in Chicago a self-taught intellectual, exceedingly well read in philosophy, history, literature and political economy. Soon, the twenty-five-year-old newcomer joined their company, after hiring on as a compositor at the Arbeiter-Zeitung.36
A tall man with the body of a long-distance runner, Fischer appeared light in complexion and wore a wispy blond beard and mustache on his thin face. He sat silently at socialist meetings with a faraway look in his blue eyes, but the quiet young man was always ready to perform any task. “He kept himself and his little family nearly destitute because he gave the greater part of his wages to the cause,” Lizzie Holmes recalled. “He did not think life worth living as things existed, and cared only for the time when all should have justice and equal opportunity.” He was “in every fiber of his being, the man of action.”37
Fischer joined the Lehr und Wehr Verein soon after he arrived in Chicago, in order to prepare for the armed struggle he believed to be inevitable. “Would a peaceable solution to the social question be possible, the anarchists would be the first ones to rejoice over it,” he wrote later. But the fact was that, in almost every strike, militia, police, even federal troops, were dispatched to protect the interests of capital. So, it seemed unlikely to Fischer that big employers would give up their power and their property without going to war.38
Late in 1885, Fischer linked up with a group of ultramilitants who shared the same apocalyptical views. George Engel was their leader. Born in Kassel, Germany, Engel was the son of a mason who had died, leaving his wife a widow with four young children.39 George suffered a hard and bitter youth. No one would take him in and give him training in his chosen trade, shoemaking, a situation that would have provided him with food and clothing. Without money, Engel wandered through northern Germany, working in various cities at different jobs until he married and settled in Rehna, where he started a toy business in 1868. Unable to make much of a living, he decided to leave for America in 1873. After several desperate years in Philadelphia, where he suffered from illness and his family endured constant hunger, Engel made his way to Chicago, where he found work in a wagon factory and met a German wheelwright who showed him a copy of Der Vorbote, the socialist weekly. The newspaper held “great truths” about the capitalist order, Engel wrote, truths that explained his own life of misfortune.40 When he met the workers who supported the newspaper, he was astonished to see that men could work so eagerly without pay for the cause of humanity. Even during the depression, Engel worked steadily and saved enough money to open a little toy store on Milwaukee Avenue with his wife and daughter. Freed of hand-work in the factory, Engel found much more time to read and to participate in socialist activity.41
Engel seemed like an old man among young followers like Adolph Fischer. At age forty, the anarchist toy maker was a stolid figure with a flat face and a mild, genial way; he looked more like an ingratiating waiter in a Wursthaus than a dedicated insurrectionist. George Engel had, however, moved a long way to the left since the time he canvassed the North Side wards for Albert Parsons and other socialist candidates. Indeed, in 1885, Engel had fallen out with his International comrades, Spies and Schwab, whose efforts to create a mass movement of organized workers now seemed like hopeless gestures; and by the time the new year dawned, Engel had decided it was time to prepare workers for “a violent revolution” that would begin when the capitalists declared war on working people.42
THE CALL FOR revolutionary action was gaining new converts in Chicago in early 1886, especially among hundreds of German anarchists who had read Johann Most’s extremist views in his provocative newspaper Freiheit and in his notorious pamphlet Revolutionary War Science: A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, etc. etc. Most offered up various recipes in this cookbook of destruction, but he emphasized the special value of explosives because they would be the “proletariat’s artillery” in a revolutionary war—and the surest means of gaining a victory. Success would be assured if revolutionaries stocked adequate quantities of dynamite bombs that could easily be concealed in their clothing. Most even imagined that these explosive devices would allow insurgents to defeat a fully equipped army.43
The Chicago anarchists fell in love with the idea of dynamite as the great equalizer in class warfare. “One man with a dynamite bomb is equal to one regiment,” wrote one of the Alarm’s correspondents in a typically exaggerated claim. On several occasions in public speeches and newspaper articles, Parsons and Spies advocated its use in revolutionary warfare; they seemed enamored of its scientific mystique, but they also valued dynamite because its potential power promised to instill a sense of courageous manhood in workers intimidated by the police and the militia. No one outdid Lucy Parsons in her fantastic claims for the importance of explosives: “The voice of dynamite is the voice of force, the only voice which tyranny has ever been able to understand,” she proclaimed.44
In January 1886, talk of bombs took a more dramatic turn when August Spies showed a newspaper reporter a piece of tube he said could be used as a casing for a dynamite bomb. “Take it to your boss,” he said with his usual bravado, “and tell him we have 9,000 more like it—only loaded.” He repeated this demonstration to other reporters later, to show that the anarchists were deadly serious. Many years later, after these reckless gestures helped tie a noose around Spies’s neck, the writer Floyd Dell suggested that the anarchists and the newshounds served each other’s purposes. Dell, who had been a Chicago reporter, knew how much his fellow “bohemians” of the press loved a “lurid story,” and he knew how much the anarchists wanted to create the impression that they were dangerous men. He doubted that Spies actually made any bombs; what he needed most, Dell suggested, was the “symbolism of dynamite.”45
If anarchists like Spies and Albert and Lucy Parsons indulged in “bomb talking” to frighten the authorities and to encourage their followers, there were, among their comrades, other men, men of few words, frustrated militants who were prepared to make and use bombs in the showdown they expected to come.46 One of these men was a young carpenter named Louis Lingg. Born in Baden, Germany, to a father who toiled in a lumberyard and a mother who kept a laundry, he suffered a miserable childhood. His father almost died following his employer’s instructions to retrieve a heavy oak log from the surface of a frozen river. The ice broke and the lumber shover nearly drowned in the frigid water. Before Lingg’s father could regain his health, he was discharged by his employer. By the time he reached the age of thirteen, Lingg had seen his father’s health deteriorate while his former employer’s wealth accumulated. These experiences, he recalled, left him with what he called “a bitter hatred of society” and all its injustices.47
As a teenager, Lingg entered an apprenticeship with a master carpenter, but before long he left Germany for the freer atmosphere of Switzerland. On this sojourn as a tramping artisan, the young carpenter became a freethinker and joined a workers’ club, where he received food and companionship and benefited from what he called a kind of “practical communism.” Lingg was supposed to return home to serve in the army, but he refused and became a wanted man. Now alienated from his fatherland, Lingg found a place in Zurich’s community of exiled revolutionaries; and there he met the outcast leader of the German anarchists, August Reinsdorf, at the time Reinsdorf was planning to assassinate the king of Prussia. Lingg, still in his teens, was captivated by Reinsdorf and became his disciple.48
In 1885, at the age of twenty-one, Louis Lingg left his fugitive life behind and made straight for Chicago, where, he knew, there was a large community of German anarchists. The new arrival found work and immediately joined the new International Carpenters and Joiners’ Union organized by revolutionaries. Despite his youth, Lingg quickly won the admiration of other German carpenters, who elected him as a delegate to the Central Labor Union. Soon afterward, he was hired as a full-time organizer for the burgeoning new union movement. Though he spoke little English, Lingg’s ardor and stunning physical presence attracted attention among anarchists. William Holmes remembered Lingg as the handsomest man he had ever met. His well-shaped face, “crowned with a wealth of curly chestnut hair,” his “fine blue eyes” and peach white complexion, his athletic body and his physical vigor all made Lingg seem like a Greek god to Holmes. When Spies and Schwab met this newcomer, they too were impressed by his charisma and physical courage, though they found Lingg’s ideas so peculiar and puzzling that “they never knew how to take him.”49
Although he worked as a union organizer of German and Bohemian carpenters, Louis Lingg harbored no illusions about the ultimate success of trade unionism or about the odds faced by unarmed strikers when confronted by the employers’ armed forces. Talk of reviving the eight-hour movement did not impress him, but bomb talk did.
BY THE END OF 1885 the Chicago anarchists had frightened the city’s philistines and politicians. The revolutionaries’ public speeches and demonstrations seemed threatening enough, but when word leaked out of their private discussions, anxieties rose even higher.
The Internationals were aware that spies were infiltrating their meetings, and so they made halfhearted efforts to identify strangers. Nonetheless, Pinkerton agents hired by businessmen and plainclothes police detectives attended meetings of the International without being noticed. The private spies brought back lurid stories of bloody threats and plots to dynamite buildings like the Board of Trade. Many of these reports were wildly exaggerated, and some were fabricated to please the men who paid the detectives, but when these stories appeared in the press, they fed a growing fever of anxiety among middle- and upper-class Chicagoans that a vast anarchist conspiracy was in the works.50
At this point, the Chicago anarchists’ threats remained rhetorical. No mansions had been bombed, no police stations had been attacked, no member of the workers’ militia had fired a shot in anger. But Chicagoans had reason to fear that dynamite bombs would explode in their city, as they had in London that year—not ignited by German anarchists but by Irish-American nationalists.
Early in 1885 a cadre of the secret Clan-Na-Gael had bombed Westminster Hall, London Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London, wounding scores of people. The popular Irish republican paper Irish World, along with three other Chicago Irish papers, supported the bombing attacks. Indeed, the editors of the influential World “took great delight in every blast, declaring that dynamite was the only means of retaliation the Irish had against a tyrannical power.” Europeans, however, were appalled by this new use of dynamite as an instrument of terror; they were painfully familiar with the actions of nihilists and other revolutionaries who assassinated imperial rulers and police officials. But the actions of the bomb-throwing anarchist seemed at least intelligible to the London Times. By comparison, the evil work of the “Irish-American ‘dynamite fiend’ ” seemed incomprehensible because he chose to assault crowds of innocent civilians and ordinary travelers in order “to inspire terror.”51
Despite all the talk of bomb throwing by revolutionaries in Chicago, no one had suffered from any anarchist attacks. Nonetheless, by the end of 1885, the city’s businessmen had not only come to fear the Internationals in their midst, they had grown “to hate them and wish for their destruction.” The anarchists’ rhetorical threats were not the only reason for this antipathy. The city’s most powerful men were less afraid of bomb talk than they were of the large working-class following the anarchist-led Central Labor Union had attracted in various immigrant districts. The Internationals embodied the worst fears native-born Americans harbored of aliens who refused to profess their loyalty to God, country and private property. The daily press, Republican and Democratic, magnified this hostility with dehumanizing descriptions of the immigrant revolutionaries, who were called “long-haired idiots and knaves.” Their women, the papers said, acted like harlots and amazons, marching brazenly down the streets and cheering speeches by a “determined negress” who said she wanted to “devastate the avenues of the rich.” The communists were bilious immigrants, libertines with no self-control, people who were drunk with beer and intoxicated by the fumes of revolutionary talk. They were heathens and homicidal maniacs, incendiaries and bloodthirsty worshipers of La Commune. They were not humans, but wolves from the darkest dens in Europe, beasts worthy of extinction.52
The anarchists played their own part in this degrading war of words, branding Board of Trade men as gamblers and thieves, and industrialists as bloodsucking “leeches.” They castigated policemen as obedient “bloodhounds,” militiamen as heartless mercenaries and the Pinkertons as common criminals paid to gun down innocent civilians. The Internationals also nursed their own conspiracy theory: that the city’s wealthy men were plotting to turn all the armed forces at their disposal against workers in some imminent attack. Certain of this, the anarchists beseeched workers to arm for their own self-defense and prepare to meet force with force. In response, more immigrant workingmen joined the Lehr und Wehr Verein and began drilling in secret, and more began talking about making bombs, if not actually manufacturing the infernal devices. No wonder a Chicago police reporter recalled the last months of 1885 as a time when “everything pointed to a dreadful culmination.” 53