I ‘SHOOT, STAB, BURN, POISON AND BOMB’:
THEORISTS OF TERROR
Anarchists, including some who never touched a stick of dynamite, theorised a violence that Fenians and nihilists practised, although there were more obscure precursors. In organisation and spirit nineteenth-century terrorist groups owed something to organised banditry and the conspiratorial societies of late-eighteenth - and early-nineteenth-century Europe, notably ‘Gracchus’ Babeuf’s ‘Conspiracy of the Equals’ against the bourgeois Directory that ruled France after 9th Thermidor and the execution of Robespierre. This failed attempt to restore the dictatorship of the purest of the pure had some of the salient characteristics of modern terrorism, not least the infatuation with the most sanguinary phase of the French Revolution. The conspirators had faith in the redemptive powers of chaos: ‘May everything return to chaos, and out of chaos may there emerge a new and regenerated world.’ Babeuf and his co-conspirator and biographer Buonarroti pioneered the view that ‘no means are criminal which are employed to obtain a sacred end’. This became a founding commandment of future terrorists, even when they practised something resembling an operational morality.
The Italian anarchists Carlo Pisacane, Carlo Cafiero and Errico Malatesta, and more especially the French doctor Paul Brousse, would convert this into the slogan ‘propaganda by the deed’, meaning the mobilising and symbolic power of acts of revolutionary violence. After an abortive rising in Bologna, Malatesta claimed that ‘the revolution consists more in deeds than words … each time a spontaneous movement of the people erupts … it is the duty of every revolutionary socialist to declare his solidarity with the movement in the making’. The obvious inspiration for this was the 1871 Paris Commune, in which twenty-five thousand people were killed, an event with huge symbolic value since it epitomised the most polarised form of class struggle. Malatesta may have been an advocate of insurrectional violence, believing that ‘a river of blood separated them from the future’, but he condemned acts of terrorism and regarded revolutionary syndicalism as utopian.
A further crucial anarchist contribution to the matrix that comprised terrorism was prince Peter Kropotkin, the leading anarchist ideologue. Although Kropotkin was widely regarded as a figure of almost saintly virtue, who condemned the ‘mindless terror’ of chucking bombs into restaurants and theatres, he was nevertheless keen on the multiplier effects of force, in which one evil deed was repaid by another, setting in motion a spiral of violence that would duly undermine the most repressive of governments. Kropotkin was also a leading apologist for terrorism, justifying anything motivated by the structural violence bearing down on desperate people. ‘Individuals are not to blame,’ he wrote to a Danish anarchist friend, ‘they are driven mad by horrible conditions.’ What Kropotkin’s own apologists seem to be saying is that the prince was a more decent, honourable fellow than Bakunin, who as we saw in the previous chapter swam in the deceitful depths of the maniacal Nechaev.1
Kropotkin was a leading theoretician of anarchism, rather than of terrorism, which has a less involuted theoretical history of its own. The dubious honour of originator belonged to a German radical democrat who revised classical notions of tyrannicide so as to legitimise terrorism. Karl Heinzen was born near Düsseldorf in 1809, the son of a Prussian forestry official with radical political sympathies. He studied medicine at the University of Bonn, before being rusticated for idleness. Another legacy of that time were the nine duelling scars on his face; one, shaped like an inverted L, ran down beside his chin, and was still clearly visible in later life. Heinzen served briefly with the Dutch foreign legion in Java and Sumatra, before returning to the Prussian army. He fell in love with the widow of an officer, who died before Heinzen could marry her, although he would go on to wed the widow’s eldest daughter. Released to civilian life, he slogged his way up the hierarchy of the Prussian customs and excise service. This involved eight years of sheer drudgery, and his mounting alienation from the Prussian state. He was a petulant subordinate, frequently passed over for promotion, who resigned from the civil service in a sour mood.
Heinzen wrote a coruscating attack on the Prussian bureaucracy, so intemperate that he had to flee over the border to Holland to evade arrest. His radical republicanism deepened in exile in Belgium and Switzerland. In 1847 he made his first trip to America, where his various articles advocating republican revolution led to his being feted as ‘an authority on revolution’ in the German-language press. He became editor of New York’s Deutsche Schnellpost on the eve of the 1848 Revolutions which convulsed most of Europe, but he raced back to Germany to take part in the rising in Baden before standing, unsuccessfully, for election to the Frankfurt parliament. Inevitably an exponent of the most radical measures, he fell out with his more liberal-minded colleagues, and was obliged to flee as the forces of reaction regrouped.
During this turbulent period, Heinzen wrote ‘Murder’, an essay in which he claimed that ‘murder is the principal agent of historical progress’. The reasoning was simple enough. The state had introduced murder as a political practice, so revolutionaries were regretfully entitled to resort to the same tactic. Murder, Heinzen argued, would generate fear. There was something psychotic in the repetitive details:
The revolutionaries must try to bring about a situation where the barbarians are afraid for their lives every hour of the day and night. They must think that every drink of water, every mouthful of food, every bed, every bush, every paving stone, every path and footpath, every hole in the wall, every slate, every bundle of straw, every pipe bowl, every stick, and every pin may be a killer. For them, as for us, may fear be the herald and murder the executor. Murder is their motto, so let murder be their answer, murder is their need, so let murder be their payment, murder is their argument, so let murder be their refutation.
In a later rehashing of the essay, now entitled ‘Murder and Liberty’, Heinzen elaborated his thoughts on murder into a philosophy of tyrannicide that ineluctably slid into a justification of terrorism. Being German, he had to flourish analytical categories to give his obsessions the simulacrum of scientific respectability. There was ‘the mere passion of annihilation’ as when the Conquistadors wiped out the Amerindians, followed by ‘the murder of pitched battle’ such as the Carthaginian slaughter of the Romans at Cannae. Next came ‘the murder of stupidity’, by which Heinzen, the Catholic turned atheist, meant religious wars that might have led a resurrected Jesus to proclaim ‘my kingdom is the cemetery’. Employing the accounting skills he had acquired in the Prussian tax offices, he claimed that there had been 2,000,000,000 murders in four thousand years of human history. The vast majority of these were the crimes not of ordinary individuals, but of princes and priests; by contrast, the number of murders committed by ‘the champions of justice and truth’ was insignificant, perhaps as few as one victim for every fifty thousand slain by the powerful. Heinzen next displayed his knowledge of classical tyrannicide to highlight the contrast between posterity’s knowledge of the killing of a single man, say Julius Caesar, with the innumerable anonymous people that tyrants slaughtered. The despot was like a rabid dog or rogue tiger on the loose, an outlaw against whom any counter-measures were justified. However, Heinzen was not content to rehearse classical teachings on tyrannicide.
Arguing that the 1848 revolutionaries had been too weak-willed, he insisted on the need to kill ‘all the representatives of the system of violence and murder which rules the world and lays it waste’. By these grim lights, ‘the most warm-hearted of man of the French Revolution was - Robespierre’. The spirits of Babeuf and Buonarroti inspired his hope that ‘History will judge us in accordance with this, and our fate will only be determined by the use we make of our victory, not the manner of gaining it over enemies, who have banished every humane consideration from the world.’ It was now a matter of ‘rooting out’ the tyrant’s ‘helpers’, who, like the disarmed bandit or the captured tiger, are ‘incurable’. The entire people were to help identify and kill these aides of tyrants. Heinzen added aphoristically, ‘the road to humanity lies over the summit of cruelty’.
In the writings of Heinzen, the ancient doctrine of tyrannicide was amplified into one of modern, indiscriminate terrorism. Although he never terrorised anyone, he had a fertile imagination as a writer. Putting himself in the shoes of a future reporter, he imagined a series of terrorist killings. A royal train snaking around an Alpine precipice would be hurled over the edge by a massive explosion caused by a revolutionary laying a thimbleful of ‘fulminating silver’ on the track. Another fictional report had revolutionary guerrillas armed with heavy guns which would emit showers of poisoned shot. A third had Prussian soldiers fleeing from iron tubes that fired showers of molten lead; but as they retreated they stepped on pressure mines set beneath the pavements. Other psychopathic reveries included the use of poisons delivered in every conceivable manner from pinpricks to glass bullets. Copper explosive balls would blast every palace, and all those, from cleaners to kings, dwelling within them. One day ballistic missiles and mines might be powerful enough ‘to destroy whole cities with 100,000 inhabitants’.
These were the violent fantasies of a life that settled into agreeable domesticity after the initial difficulties of exile, for in October 1850 Heinzen and his family returned to New York. He reverted to editing and lecturing, settling in Louisville, Cincinnati, and finally back in New York, where the family’s chronic money troubles were partially alleviated by Mrs Heinzen’s millinery and needlework trade. In early 1860 they moved to Boston, where they lodged for the next twenty years in the home of a fellow radical, a Polish woman doctor who founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children. There Heinzen enjoyed something like peace of mind, tending his garden and growing vines to remind him of his native Rhineland. Having enjoyed robust health all his life, in late 1879 he suffered an apoplectic stroke and slowly died.2
Heinzen’s younger German contemporary Johann Most was more a man of action than a theoretician. For anarchists of his persuasion, violence was attractive because it was unencumbered with theories that seemed designed to frustrate action. It hardly needs to be said that many anarchists - notably the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy - were opposed to violence, thinking there were other routes to the federalism and mutualism their creed desired.
Born in 1846 in Bavaria, Most experienced terrible facial disfigurement at a young age when a disease resulting from parental neglect was treated by incompetent surgeons. He became a bookbinder as well as a committed Social Democrat, being sentenced in Austria in 1870 to five years’ imprisonment for high treason. He had played a leading role in a rowdy demonstration before Vienna’s parliament building. This was the first of many spells in jail that Most underwent on two continents; like Kropotkin, he became something of an authority on comparative penology. After his early release, he caused further provocation by going about with a group of ‘Jacobins’ threatening the extermination of ‘mankind’s’ enemies.
Deported to Germany, Most quickly became one of the leading figures in the Social Democratic Party. In 1874 he was elected a member of the Reichstag, which he attended by day, while editing socialist newspapers at night. His rhetorical intemperance meant that the sergeant at arms frequently had to eject him from the chamber where even his own comrades dreaded his interjections. In 1874 he was sentenced to eighteen months in Plötzensee prison for inciting violence during a speech commemorating the Paris Commune. In 1878, Bismarck’s introduction of anti-socialist laws, following two failed attempts on the life of the Kaiser, meant that Most had to flee abroad. He chose England; as the Berlin Political Police claimed, ‘The whole of European revolutionary agitation is directed from London,’ in ominous anticipation of the delusional laxities of contemporary ‘Londonistan’. Most founded a paper, called Freiheit, whose revolutionary stridency embarrassed German Social Democrats trying to negotiate the twilight of legality and illegality that Bismarck had consigned them to by allowing them a presence in the Reichstag while suppressing their larger organisation and its propaganda organs. The German Social Democrat leadership began to mock Most as ‘General Boom Boom’, slinking about London with his red scarf and wide-brimmed black hat, a dagger in one hand and a pistol in the other. The Party leadership duly expelled their erstwhile comrade, who reacted by moving from being a socialist revolutionary to an anarchist-Communist under the influence of people he met in London, though his grasp of anarchist theory was shaky as he did not have French. He became a convinced advocate of ‘propaganda by the deed’ or as he vividly put it: ‘Shoot, burn, stab, poison and bomb’. In England, his intemperance was ignored - much to the annoyance of foreign authorities - until he responded to the assassination of Alexander II (‘Triumph, Triumph’) by calling for the death of ‘a monarch a month’.
At the instigation of a German teacher shocked by his paper, Most was arrested and charged with seditious libel. Convicted by an English jury, he was sentenced to sixteen months’ hard labour, which he served at Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell on the site of what is nowadays the Mount Pleasant Royal Mail sorting office. Despite being in solitary confinement, he managed to write articles for Freiheit with the aid of needles and lavatory paper which were smuggled out of the prison. The paper contrived to celebrate the Phoenix Park murders in Dublin - ‘We side with the brave Irish rebels and tender them hearty brotherly compliments’ - a stance that led to police raids on the temporary editors and the impounding of their typesetting equipment. Upon his release from prison, Most resolved to take himself and Freiheit to America. He sailed for New York in December 1882, quickly setting himself up among the foreign radicals huddled together in the slums of the East Side. Schwab’s saloon was where Most held court, with a bust of Marat glowering from amid the bar’s rows of bottles glinting in the gaslight and the fug of cigar smoke. In this milieu, with its cacophonous revolutionary talk in German, Russian and Yiddish, the bushy-haired and bearded Most would meet ‘Red’ Emma Goldman, an uneducated seamstress of Russian Jewish origin who fell in love with the short and grim veteran revolutionary.3
The violence of American labour disputes in the 1870s and 1880s was visceral in the smudge-like cities where vast impoverished immigrant populations speaking a Babel of tongues seemed like a threatening alien race to comfortable native elites. Wage cuts, layoffs and mechanisation were every employer’s solution to downturns in profits. Strikes were met with extreme violence, reminiscent of a modern banana republic. In Pennsylvania, militant miners of Irish extraction nicknamed the Molly Maguires shot it out with the strike-breaking Pinkerton Detective Agency and ten of the former were hanged. During major emergencies when club-wielding or pistol-firing police or militias proved inadequate to quell violent disorders that arose during strikes, sun-burnished regular infantrymen were given a break from annihilating the Sioux. For weren’t alien anarchists the white equivalent of anarchistic Apaches or ravening packs of wolves?
The press contributed to an atmosphere of hysteria. In Chicago, newspaper editors openly called for the throwing of grenades into the ranks of striking sailors or advocated lacing the food dispensed to the city’s army of tramps with arsenic. By the same token, anarchists equally openly called for a ‘war of extermination’ against the rich: ‘Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live as [the Civil War general] Sheridan devastated the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah’. Many anarchists were inspired by a murderous, exterminatory resentment towards the rich, and especially those gathered at fancy dinner parties, where their own bombs lurked ‘like Banquo’s ghost’. Anarchist papers like the Alarm advocated the assassination of heads of government and the use of dynamite against those ‘social fiends’ the police. Such papers contained detailed descriptions, many translated from Most’s Freiheit, of how to manufacture bombs and handle explosives. ‘The dear stuff’, as anarchists called it, ‘beats a bushel of ballots all hollow, and don’t you forget it.’4 If this anticipated the ease with which contemporary terrorists can access information about explosives on the internet, future co-operation between far-flung terrorist groups was evident in how in the 1880s the US based Clan na Gael extended a thuggish hand to striking Bohemian or German factory workers in North American cities, while apparently taking instruction in explosives from immigrant Russian nihilists.
Most was in his element here. He was a great crowd-puller on speaking tours organised by American radicals, his punch-line in either German or broken English being ‘I shall stamp on ruling heads!’ According to the Berlin Political Police, whose agents monitored some of the two hundred speeches he delivered in his first six months in the United States, ‘he promises to kill people of property and position and that’s why he’s popular’. In 1883 at Pittsburgh, he proclaimed an American Federation of the International Working People’s Association, or Black International for short, his solution to the problem of how to avoid organising loose federations of anarchist groups, whose cardinal tenet, after all, was to resist the authoritarian impulse reflected in the word organisation itself. He also systematised his long-standing interest in political violence. He published a series of articles in Freiheit which were subsequently published as The Science of Revolutionary Warfare. This was a terrorist primer, replete with details of codes, invisible inks, guns, poisons and manufacturing explosives, including his own favourite device, the letter bomb. He did much original research for this publication, poring over military manuals freely available in public libraries, and finding temporary employ in a munitions factory. He claimed that dynamite would redress the asymmetric inequalities which anarchist insurgents faced against regular forces.
In Chicago, Most’s faith in dynamite was echoed in anarchist circles. The leading anarchist August Spies provocatively showed a newspaper reporter the empty spherical casing of a bomb. ‘Take it to your boss and tell him we have 9,000 more like it - only loaded,’ he added with much bravado. Lucy Parsons, the African-American wife of the charismatic anarchist war veteran Albert Parsons, proclaimed: ‘The voice of dynamite is the voice of force, the only voice that tyranny has ever been able to understand.’ Beyond the ‘bomb talk’ of these prominent figures, a handful of dedicated anarchists drew lessons from the contemporaneous terror campaigns of the Irish Fenians and the ‘tsar bombs’ of the Russian Nihilists, a fateful turn as America underwent the Great Upheaval of co-ordinated labour unrest in the winter of 1886.
Commencing in the spring, the Upheaval saw the country hit by fourteen hundred strikes involving over six hundred thousand employees. The strikers wanted an eight-hour working day, paid at the going rate for ten. In Chicago, where some forty thousand men went on strike, the epicentre was at the McCormick Reaper Works, a combine-harvester plant, which its intransigent boss turned into a fortress with the aid of four hundred policemen stationed to protect strike-breaking ‘scabs’. These strikes became very ugly. In nearby Illinois, sheriff’s deputies shot dead seven striking railwaymen and wounded many more. Inevitably, violence reached what was known as Fort McCormick when a gathering of striking railwaymen whom August Spies was addressing near the plant turned on strike-breakers as they were escorted from work. The police opened fire and shot dead several of the assailants. Spies hastened to his newspaper office to produce an incendiary ‘revenge’ circular which urged: ‘To arms, we call you. To arms!’ Although a colleague thought better of this and had the circular reprinted with this exhortation deleted, a few hundred copies of the original were nonetheless distributed.
A group of militant anarchists meeting in a saloon cellar resolved that night to bomb police stations and to shoot policemen if the latter persisted with violence against the strikers. They began putting explosives into pipes or into metal hemispheres which when screwed together formed grapefruit-sized bombs with ten inches of protruding fuse. In the meantime, there was to be a big protest rally in Market Square the following day. In his Arbeiter-Zeitung Spies argued that the striking McCormick workers would not have been slain so promiscuously had they possessed guns and a dynamite bomb. Unknown to him, two young anarchist carpenters, Louis Lingg and William Seliger, were concurrently manufacturing thirty or forty small bombs in Seliger’s home. Large numbers of policemen under the conspicuously implacable inspector Bonfield were gathering at Desplaines Street police station near where the rally was held. The rather liberal governor decided against the deployment of militiamen in the city, arguing that the police could cope. This combination of factors proved fatal.
That evening Spies was the first speaker to mount a wagon in the Haymarket before a crowd of about three thousand strikers. Because of his poor English, he quickly turned the podium over to Albert Parsons, who had returned that day exhausted from agitating among striking workers in Cincinnati. Since Parsons had brought his wife and two young children to the rally, it seems unlikely that he anticipated bombs. In their speeches, both Spies and Parsons were mainly concerned to disclaim any personal responsibility for the recent violence at the McCormick plant. The mayor of Chicago, a genial Kentucky gentleman who frequently showed his presence by lighting cigars to illumine his face, was so sure that nothing untoward was being said that he mounted his horse to return home, after telling the police that the event was pretty tame.
By this time, Lingg and Seliger had moved their bombs in a trunk to the vicinity of the Haymarket, where they were distributed to persons unknown. The final speaker at the rally, an anarchist workman called Samuel Fielden, was inveighing against the police and the law in general, crying, ‘Throttle it. Kill it. Stop it. Do everything you can to wound it - to impede its progress.’ A plainclothes detective relayed a version of these incendiary remarks to Bonfield. The inspector set nearly two hundred blue-coated policemen on a rapid march along Desplaines Street, using their drawn revolvers to force a passage through the crowd. When he reached the rally, a police captain called out, ‘I command you in the name of the people of the state of Illinois to immediately and peaceably disperse.’ After a pause, Fielden got down from his podium, grudgingly remarking, ‘All right, we will go.’ At that moment, people were distracted as a round hissing object arced overhead, falling as a bright light at the feet of the policemen. There was a vivid orange flash and a loud detonation. One officer was killed instantly although a further seven would die of appalling wounds and many more had to have limbs amputated. Terrified out of their wits, the police started firing so indiscriminately that many of their victims were from among their own ranks. Someone tried to shoot the fleeing Spies with a revolver shoved into his back, although the anarchist leader managed to grapple with the gun so that when it went off the bullet penetrated his thigh. Sam Fielden was shot in the leg as he fled the scene. Albert Parsons, convinced he was a marked man, fled Chicago for Geneva, Illinois and then, heavily disguised, to Waukesha, Wisconsin.5
Over the following days, the press filled with murderous exhortations: ‘Let us whip these Slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue, or in some way exterminate them.’ In the financial district, brokers and traders offered personally to lynch anarchists and hang them from the city’s lampposts, while businessmen financed the police investigation. The prosecuting attorney Julius Grinnell urged the police not to bother with such niceties as warrants: ‘make the raids first, and look up the law afterwards’. The police descended on the offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, dragging August Spies and Michael Schwab to Central Police Station where the leading officer fell upon Schwab screaming, ‘You dirty Dutch sons of bitches, you dirty hounds, you rascals, we will choke you, we will kill you.’ The paper’s assistant manager, Oscar Neebe, was picked up the following day. The police then came for Fielden, who was nursing his leg wound at home. The chief officer pointed his finger at Fielden’s head and said: ‘Damn your soul, it should have gone here.’ Next the police pulled in Seliger and Lingg. Lingg put up a desperate fight in his hidey-hole; a policeman had to bite the anarchist’s thumb to stop him cocking his revolver. The police managed to detain and then release the person most widely suspected of throwing the bomb, who of course was never seen again. A middle-aged anarchist toy-shop owner, George Engel, was arrested and thrown in a police sweat-box to encourage him to talk. Eventually, eight anarchists were indicted for conspiracy to commit murder. Sensationally, on the opening day of the trial, a relaxed Albert Parsons walked into the courtroom, his previously dyed hair restored to its black sheen. His defence counsel had persuaded him to surrender himself as his continued flight seemed like an admission of guilt. Although the accused had decently courageous defence lawyers, both the judge and the jury were openly biased against them. The jury selection dragged on over twenty-one days in order to weed out any working-class men who might view the anarchists with sympathy. Once the defence had exhausted its right to query some 160 candidates, the court bailiff was allowed to go out into the streets to select jurors who had already condemned the defendants.
The charge of murder was outrageous, because how could one have a trial of accessories without the bomb-throwing principal? The star prosecution witness, a Swiss anarchist cabinet-maker, had been given money and immunity from prosecution for his testimony that two of the accused had conspired to use bombs at the fateful meeting in the saloon cellar. The prosecution was allowed to lay before the court lavish displays of bomb-making paraphernalia with obscure connections to the matter in hand. Inevitably, Most’s bomb-making manual became People’s Exhibit 16. As the prosecution and defence witnesses testified to the events of that night, it seemed that they were recalling two entirely unrelated scenarios. On 19 August the jury retired, rapidly reclining in armchairs to smoke cigars, after apparently reaching an instant verdict. The following morning they announced that seven of the defendants were guilty of murder and would hang, while Oscar Neebe should serve fifteen years’ hard labour. Parsons was allowed an incredible eight hours to address the court, further adding to the theatrical nature of the proceedings. After the appeals process had been exhausted, the four men, who refused to seek clemency, on the grounds of their belief in their innocence, were hanged wearing white shrouds. There should have been five executions, but Louis Lingg - a search of whose cell had earlier revealed four sticks of dynamite - cheated the hangman by exploding a small detonator cap in his mouth which blew away half of his face, a scene that became an illustrators’ favourite. It was an agonising death.
II THE BLACK INTERNATIONAL
These dramatic events in Chicago were symptomatic of the near-global panic that the anarchist Black International inspired in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such an entity did exist, for in July 1881, a few months after the assassination of Alexander II, forty-five radicals gathered in London to form an International Anarchist Congress, although it failed to reconvene until 1907. While use of violence was controversial in these circles, it was nonetheless resolved by the participants to pay greater attention to explosives chemistry and technology so as to match the evolving forces of repression. This gathering, replete with loose talk about dynamite, ‘the proletariat’s artillery’, gave substance to the widespread fear that there was a single controlling intelligence behind each and every manifestation of political violence that could not be attributed to Fenians or nihilists.
It has long been almost axiomatic to regard a ramified anarchist conspiracy as the product of fevered bourgeois imaginations. Certainly, people in authority thought there was a single conspiracy animating anarchist deeds just as today Al Qaeda is blamed for, and opportunistically takes credit for, a welter of terrorist atrocities. The Spanish ambassador to Rome wrote of an ‘international anarchist impulse’ which informed the spirit if not the letter of anarchist deeds. The Italian press was convinced that the killing of king Umberto was part of ‘the vastness of the plan of the anarchists and of the aims they propose, the assassination of all of Europe’s monarchs’.
Although in reality there was no single directing conspiracy, and no single anarchist party, there were good reasons for contemporaries to believe that individual anarchists were acting in response to generalised injunctions to destroy bourgeois civilisation. That anarchists were often foreigners, with unpronounceable names like Bresci or Czolgosz, automatically fostered the impression of a very cosmopolitan conspiracy, as did the international circulation of the multilingual anarchist press, copies of which were invariably found in the homes of dynamiters and their sympathisers. That press also sedulously propagated the idea of a worldwide army of anarchists willing to avenge suffering humanity. In other words, the anarchists themselves propagated the notion of a worldwide conspiracy. Improved telegraphy and successive daily newspaper editions updating the cycle of atrocity, arrest, trial, speeches from the dock, imprisonment or execution meant that readers could quite justifiably conclude that the activities of bomb-throwing maniacs were being co-ordinated on behalf of sinister objectives across Europe or North and South America, for Argentina too was not spared propaganda by the deed. Detailed and extensive press coverage had its drawbacks, since even the most hostile newspapers invariably printed the courtroom justifications of convicted anarchists virtually verbatim, fuelling the lethal ardour of anarchists everywhere. The reporting of the killing of king Umberto of Italy directly inspired the assassin of US president William McKinley. As Sir Howard Vincent, one of the founders of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), put it: ‘The “advertisement” of anarchism, as of many other crimes, infallibly leads to imitation.’ That was why the French Chamber of Deputies made serious legislative efforts to prohibit reporting of trials of anarchists.
The sheer repetition of high-level assassinations also inclined people to think a vast conspiracy was abroad, even though the politics of the assassins - assuming they were not madmen - were hardly uniform. In 1878 Hödel and Nobiling made successive attempts on the life of the German emperor, the second of which resulted in his being badly wounded. That year a republican cook stabbed king Umberto of Italy, twenty-two years before his eventual assassination, while there was a bomb attack on a monarchist parade the following day. In 1881 a young French anarchist and unemployed weaver, Emile Florion, shot a total stranger having failed to find the republican politician Leon Gambetta. Florion then unsuccessfully tried to shoot himself. In the autumn of 1883 an anarchist plot was uncovered to blow up the German Kaiser, the crown prince and several leading military and political figures as they gathered to open the monument to Germania on the Niederwald above Rüdesheim. Sixteen pounds of dynamite were concealed in a drainage pipe beneath the road so as to blow up the imperial entourage as it passed overhead. Luckily, one of the terrorist assassins had decided to save a few pfennigs by purchasing cheap fuse cable that was not waterproof; the cheap fuse was so damp it could not be lit. The chief anarchist plotter, August Reinsdorf, and an accomplice were beheaded two years later. In January 1885 the chief of police in Frankfurt, who had played a major role in capturing Reinsdorf, was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant; circumstantial evidence was used to convict the anarchist Julius Lieske of the crime. Instead of an unending chain reaction of terror and counter-terror, these events resulted in the virtual demise of the German anarchist movement. Foreign policemen hastened to Berlin to discover the secrets of Prussian policing.
In France, meanwhile, anarchists were responsible for a series of random attacks, some of them indicative of the perpetrators’ mental derangement. Too inept to make a bomb, the young cobbler Leon Léauthier simply sat down in an expensive restaurant and knifed a neighbouring customer who turned out to be the Serbian ambassador. Charles Gallo threw a bottle of prussic acid on to the floor of the Stock Exchange, crying ‘Vive l’Anarchie!’ at the startled traders, as he fired a revolver into their midst. The lethal suppression of labour disputes served as a pretext for anarchist attacks. On 1 May 1891 police used a newly invented machine gun to break up a demonstration for the eight-hour day at Fourmies in the Nord department. Nine people were killed, including four women and three children. Simultaneously at Clichy the police employed excessive violence to break up an anarchist procession following a woman bearing a red flag. Despite being unlawfully beaten by the police, two men received considerable sentences of hard labour. By way of revenge for these incidents, the anarchist former dyer François-Claudius Ravachol placed bombs in the homes of Benoit, the advocate-general, who lived on the smart Boulevard Saint-Germain, and Bulot, the judge who had presided in the Clichy affair. In the second incident, a smartly dressed Ravachol walked up to the second floor of the building with a bomb in a briefcase, set the fuse and left, bringing the entire four floors crashing down, although the judge survived unscathed. A little too exultant about his recent accomplishments, the thirty-two-year-old Ravachol was betrayed by a waiter in the Restaurant Very. A brave police detective was summoned, who after scrutinising his fellow diner apprehended Ravachol before he could draw his revolver or deploy his sword cane.
The restaurant was bombed the day before Ravachol stood trial. The proprietor died a slow death after losing most of a leg, while an equally innocent customer, rather than the waiter, was killed. Ravachol - whose name became the verb ravacholiser (to blow up) - was sentenced to life imprisonment for these offences. He blamed unemployment for his criminal turn: ‘I worked to live and to make a living of my own; as long as neither myself nor my own suffered too much, I remained that which you call honest. Then work got scarce and with unemployment came hunger. It was then that great law of nature, that imperious voice that allows no retort - the instinct for survival - pushed me to commit some of the crimes and offences that you accuse me of and that I recognise being the author of.’ He was subsequently tried in Montbrison for offences committed long before he became a bomber for murdering and robbing ‘the Hermit of Chambles’, an elderly miser called Brunel with much gold and silver hidden in his cupboard, and for profaning the grave of baroness de Rochetaillée where he hoped to find the jewels she had reportedly been buried with, but which instead contained a wooden crucifix and a single medal. When he recommenced his lofty claims to being the arm of justice for the oppressed, the judge snapped back: ‘Do not pretend to speak for the working men, but only for murderers.’ Ravachol was guillotined before he had time to make further speeches. One of his admirers, the novelist Octave Mirbeau, described him as ‘the peal of thunder to which succeeds the joy of sunlight and of peaceful skies’, one of a number of instances when idiot liberal artists and men of letters glorified common criminals, such career felons increasingly describing themselves as anarchists so as to bask in refracted acclaim.6
The anarchist response to Ravachol’s execution came from Auguste Vaillant, who on 9 December 1893 threw a bomb hidden in an oval tin box on to the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, although the accidental jogging of his arm meant that the bomb exploded over the deputies’ heads, causing cuts and fractures rather than fatalities. In addition to installing iron grilles in the public gallery, and prohibiting the wearing of coats or cloaks inside the building, the Chamber promulgated the ‘scroundrelly laws’ proscribing publications that incited acts of terrorism. One of the first to be convicted as a ‘professor of Anarchy’ was Jean Grave, who received two years’ imprisonment for passages in a book that appeared to incite anarchist violence. Vaillant had his admirers in an artistic milieu where, among others, Courbet, Pissarro and Signac were anarchist supporters. The poet Laurent Tailharde shocked a literary supper when he exclaimed: ‘What do the victims matter, as long as the gesture is beautiful?’ - a view he probably revised when a random anarchist bomb took out one of his eyes in a restaurant. The execution of Vaillant allegedly provoked the young anarchist Emile Henry to detonate a bomb in the Cafe Terminus in the Gare Saint-Lazare, killing one person and wounding twenty. He chose this target after failing to get in to a theatre that was sold out, and after inspecting a restaurant with only a scattering of diners. The station cafe was full of commuting workers, a fact that did not disturb the workers’ advocate unduly. Henry was a cold-blooded killer whose avowed intent was to murder as many people as possible. At his trial he confessed to a murderous moralism with his infamous remark ‘there are no innocent bourgeois’: ‘I wanted to show the bourgeoisie that henceforth their pleasures would not be untouched, that their insolent triumphs would be disturbed, that their golden calf would rock violently on its pedestal until the final shock that would cast it down among filth and blood.’
That resentful desire to inflict chaos on ordinary people going about unremarkable lives would become a recurrent terrorist motive; what the victims of terrorists usually have in common is often overlooked. Henry warned the jury that ‘It [anarchism] is everywhere, which makes it impossible to contain. It will end by killing you.’ He was guillotined early on the morning of 21 May 1894. In retaliation for his refusal to grant Henry and Vaillant pardons, president Marie François Sadi Carnot was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist Santo Jeronimo Caserio as he rode through Lyons in his carriage.
This was the first in a spate of assassinations of heads of state that made the years 1894-1901 more lethal for rulers than any other in modern history, forcing them to use bodyguards for the first time. Following the killing of Carnot, the prime minister of Spain was assassinated by Italian anarchists in 1897, in retaliation for confirming the death sentences passed on anarchists who had been rounded up and tortured after a bomb flew into a Corpus Christi procession in Barcelona. He was followed by Elizabeth empress of Austria, stabbed by an Italian anarchist drifter in 1898; king Umberto of Italy, shot dead in Monza by an Italian-American anarchist Gaetano Bresci in 1900; and president McKinley, assassinated in 1901. McKinley’s assassin was an Ohio farmboy turned factory worker called Leon Czolgosz, although he sometimes used the aliases John Doe and Fred Nobody. He was inspired by Emma Goldman’s passionate espousal of anarchism, although the direct inspiration to shoot McKinley at the Pan-American Expositon in Buffalo came from his reading of a newspaper report of Bresci’s shooting of king Umberto that July. Czolgosz approached McKinley outside the Temple of Music, where he shot him at close range; one bullet was deflected by the president’s breast bone, but the second went so deep into his abdomen that surgeons could not recover it. The president slowly bled to death. A search revealed that Czolgosz not only had a folded newspaper clipping in his pocket of Umberto’s murder, but that he had used the same .32-calibre Iver Johnson revolver as Bresci. Narrowly surviving the beating he received from McKinley’s security officers as they pummelled him to the floor, Czolgosz went to the electric chair after a trial that lasted eight-and-a-half hours from jury selection to verdict.
In 1892 Alexander Berkman had been inspired by Emma Goldman to stab Henry Clay Frick, the managing director of Carnegie Steel, in Frick’s Pittsburgh offices. Henry’s attack on commuters nursing a beer or glass of wine had already been preceded by the bombing of Barcelona’s Liceo Opera House during a performance of Rossini’s William Tell that killed more than thirty people, one of several bomb attacks in major European cities. The assassin chose the opera house as a target because it seemed to epitomise bourgeois conspicuous consumption. Six anarchists were subsequently shot by firing squad at the Montjuich fortress for this outrage. In the same year, 1893, Paulino Pallas threw two bombs at the military governor of Catalonia, to avenge the torture of hundreds of anarchists detained in the wake of the Corpus Christi attack and the garrotting of their five colleagues. The would-be assassin warned at his trial that ‘Vengeance will be terrible!’ In Italy, government repression of demonstrations in Sicily and of a rising by Tuscan quarry workers resulted in a bomb attack outside the parliament building and an attempt on the life of the prime minister. Anarchists also stabbed to death a journalist who had condemned the Italian anarchists responsible for killing president Carnot. When a Portuguese psychiatrist certified an anarchist insane, after the latter had hurled a rock at the king, a bomb tore apart the asylum building in which the doctor dwelt.
Even the tranquillity of London’s Greenwich Park was not immune from anarchist activity. On a wintry February evening in 1894 park keepers heard the muffled thud of an explosion from the winding path leading up to Wren’s Royal Observatory. They raced to the scene where they saw a young man kneeling on the ground with agonising wounds to his abdomen and thighs and a missing hand. This was Martial Bourdin, a young anarchist, who had accidentally set off the ‘infernal machine’ he was carrying towards the Observatory, embedding iron shards in his own body. His brother-in-law probably gave him the bomb, in his sinister dual capacity of anarchist cum police agent, the basis for ‘Verloc’ in Conrad’s Secret Agent. Bourdin expired in the delightful Seamen’s Hospital down on the river front fifty minutes after the explosion. A search of his clothing revealed a membership card for the Autonomie Club, a notorious haunt of ‘cosmopolitan desperadoes’ on Tottenham Court Road. Emile Henry had allegedly been seen there a few weeks before the Terminus bombing. The Times took the commonsense view that perhaps the theory of ‘liberty for everybody on British soil’ had been taken ‘a little too far’, although no British government was disposed to address this, then or now.7
These multifarious acts of anarchist violence achieved nothing beyond the individual tragedies of those people killed and maimed. They had no significant impact on the domestic or international politics of any of the countries concerned, and certainly did not collapse the social order in favour of whatever infantile arrangements the Henrys, Ravachols and Vaillants of the time desired.
The burghers of Chicago probably took things too far when they built a huge fortified Armoury in the city and insisted on basing a regular army division only thirty miles away from the seething alien helots of the South Side. President Theodore Roosevelt fulminated against anarchism, this ‘daughter of degenerate lunacy, a vicious pest’, and in 1903 introduced laws prohibiting anarchists from entering the United States, along with paupers, prostitutes and the insane. Immigrants who ‘converted’ to anarchism during their first three years in the country could be deported, an interesting example of conditional citizenship. Similar expulsions of dangerous foreigners were adopted in France and Italy, and in France two thousand anarchists were simultaneously raided by the police in twenty-two departments, resulting in a host of prosecutions for petty offences that kept some of them in jail. Refusing to take lessons in good governance from concerned friendly governments, the British persisted in maintaining liberal asylum laws that anarchists were manifestly abusing. One minor concession was that the Metropolitan Police hauled in anyone looking like an anarchist (and there was indeed an almost obligatory sartorial code in such circles) in order to photograph them -thereby making them less elusive in future - while drawing up a list of anarchist suspects, whom they encouraged to talk freely in East End pubs. They gave these lists to employers in the expectation that, impoverished by chronic unemployment, these men might be forced to leave Britain’s welcoming shores. There were a few fitful attempts to organise international police co-operation - notably the 1898 International Anti-Anarchist Conference of police chiefs and interior ministers - but Britain and Belgium insisted that anarchist violence could be adequately contained by existing domestic laws. Inevitably, in their dealings with the subterranean world of anarchist conspiracy, the police forces of Europe recruited agents or involved themselves too deeply in financing anarchist journals, lending some substance to Chesterton’s surreal vision in The Man Who Was Thursday of the police chasing anarchists who were themselves.
Anarchist terrorism did manage to generate widespread fear of a single conspiracy, with fake threatening letters from ‘Ravachol’ or suspicious boxes and packages contributing to urban psychosis. Fanciful journalists and novelists imagined weapons of greater destructive power rather than the modest explosive devices that anarchist plotters disposed of, although that may not be how the patrons of the Cafe Terminus or the Liceo Opera House would have seen things. Politicians and monarchs could no longer go among their citizens and subjects with relative ease, and government buildings took on some of the forbidding, fortified character they often possess today. Above all, perhaps, anarchist violence served to discredit political philosophies whose libertarian impulses might otherwise strike some as praiseworthy, by associating them, however unfairly, with the murderous vanity of sad little men labouring over their bombs in dingy rooms. A philosophy which regards the state as nothing more than the organisation of violence on behalf of vested interests came to be universally identified with murderous violence, obliterating the more harmless aspects of the underlying philosophy. One observer of these anarchists felt that ‘All these people are not revolutionaries - they are shams.’ This was the Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, a man too admiringly grateful to England to breach its unspoken etiquette by publicly criticising how it had afforded asylum to ‘the infernal doctrines born in continental back-slums’. Edward Garnett paid him an immense (backhanded) compliment when he reviewed The Secret Agent: ‘It is good for us English to have Mr Conrad in our midst visualising for us aspects of life we are constitutionally unable to perceive.’8
Partly inspired by Bourdin’s death in Greenwich Park, in 1907 Conrad devoted The Secret Agent to the theme of ‘pests in the streets of men’, notably the pain and suffering they inflicted on everyone they touched in their immediate private circle. Although in the wake of 9/11 many commentators rightly discovered precursors of the Saudi hijackers in Conrad’s depiction of squalid anarchists blindly following a plot elaborated by a tsarist diplomat in 1900s London, this was not where the author’s primary interests lay. The chief focus is Winnie Verloc, who commits suicide after murdering Adolf Verloc, her anarchist, agent-provocateur and pornographer husband who acts on behalf of a sinister Russian diplomat seeking to make London inhospitable to terrorists by inciting them to blow up Greenwich Observatory as a symbol of bourgeois belief in scientific progress. Winnie inadvertently discovers that her husband was responsible for the death, while carrying a bomb destined for the Observatory, of her simpleton half-brother Stevie, the other innocent victim in a tale that Conrad invested with little political significance. The anarchists depicted in the book are composite characters drawn from several real people we have encountered already. The character of Verloc was indebted to the fact that Bourdin’s brother-in-law was a police agent as well as editor of an anarchist paper. Karl Yundt is based on Mikhail Bakunin and Johann Most. Michaelis is a fusion of the Fenians Edward O’Meagher Condon, who attacked the prison van in Manchester in 1867, and Michael Davitt, like Michaelis author of a book about his experiences in prison. The ‘Professor’ is probably none other than the eponymous ‘Russian’ bomb-making genius who figured in O’Donovan Rossa’s newspapers.9
The private moral squalor, shabbiness and smallness of the men who terrorise a major city are among the novel’s most striking features beneath their grandiose apocalyptic talk: ‘no pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity - that’s what I would like to see’, says Yundt. ‘They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex, organised fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident,’ opines the Professor. In reality he was not a ‘Professor’ at all, but the meanly countenanced son of a preacher in an obscure Christian sect who had discovered in science a faith to replace that of ‘conventicles’ so as to realise his limitless ambitions without effort or talent. Conrad continues: ‘By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearance of power and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his bitter vengeance.’ He believed in nothing: ‘ “Prophecy! What’s the good of thinking what will be!” He raised his glass. “To the destruction of what is,” he said, calmly.’10