On December 22nd, 1873, ten thousand jobless men marched in silence to Chicago City Hall. That year, the economy had collapsed, causing nearly one-in-four workers to lose their jobs. Now, they were turning to their government with a simple request: “Work or Bread.” But the Aldermen turned them away, and instead pointed them to a charity called the Chicago Relief and Aid Society.
A few years prior, after the Great Chicago Fire, the mayor had appointed the Society to be Chicago’s primary source of financial relief. But this time, in contrast to the zeal they had shown for rebuilding department stores and factories, the Society offered little sympathy to the human poor who needed help. Able-bodied men, they asserted, had no need for charity; and if a man had so little self-respect to ask for help, he certainly didn’t deserve it.
On top of this, the Society was not transparent about how it was managing the money it had. Many people began to worry that the funds were being siphoned off by bad actors for personal enrichment. A grassroots movement emerged calling for the Society to release their financial records.
Albert had been an IRS tax auditor for Ulysses Grant, and believed in the importance of financial transparency. After all, if the Society was using the funds in an honest way, an audit would reveal this. They had nothing to hide, right?
Apparently not. Rather than embracing the call for openness, the Chicago papers —Democrat and Republican alike— flew to the defense of the Society, and lashed out at relief-seeking workers with a vitriol that we recognized. It was the same hate that former slaveholders spewed at freed men and women who dared to ask for justice. They called the protesters “robbers.” They called them “loafers,” and now they were calling them “communists.”
We had heard about “communism” in passing, but were unfamiliar with what it entailed. The press described communists with images of France and their latest revolution, in hopes of frightening readers; but these rebellious connotations intrigued my adventure-loving Albert. Besides, when somebody pins a name on you, it behooves you to learn what it stands for. Therefore, Albert and I took it upon ourselves to research these communists.
We found that true communists —or Socialists, as they preferred to be called— were people who took the left-wing and progressive ideals of our republicanism seriously. Indeed, many Republicans that we once looked up to had socialist sympathies: Not just Radicals like senator Charles Sumner —who hosted Italian socialist visitors— but even the late, great moderate Abraham Lincoln had corresponded with socialist leader Karl Marx and read his column in the New York Tribune.
We found the logic of socialism was as follows: People create all things through labor. Machinery, clothing, houses, and food would not exist without building, sewing, farming, or cooking— but when a person transforms raw material into something valuable through work, does that person get to own what she creates? No, because the raw materials used to create the things had already been claimed by another owner, an owner who doesn’t work to transform the materials into goods himself, but rather pays to have other people to do it for him.
In the South, if a landowner wanted to pay to have someone else work his land for him, he would purchase that person in her entirety; and for her whole life, he would control her by the threat of whip and dog. We called this slavery, and a war was waged to destroy it. When a factory-owner elects to rent a worker from dawn to dusk —to buy her on the installment plan, for twelve, fourteen, up to sixteen hours at a time— how is this not also an act of slavery?
A socialist is one who campaigns to give the materials for labor, and the products of that labor, to those who actually perform it —So that none of us will ever again need to be hired or hirers, but instead work for ourselves in our own houses, shops, farms and factories.
From this knowledge flowed questions:
“When, oh, when will ignorance be dethroned, and reason and justice reign supreme? When will the masses learn that property is his and his only who has produced it—earned it?”
And even more importantly, how. Would we need to fight another war to end this other slavery? Or could we end it through the ballot box?
Our first foray into explicit labor politics was to join the Social-Democratic Party of the United States. The party changed names a number of times, as it seems socialist groups are wont to do, becoming the “Workingmen’s Party of the United States” shortly after we joined. However, the mission of our party would remain stable: To bring about economic justice via a two-pronged approach of running candidates for office and encouraging workers to unionize.
Albert volunteered his printing skills to the party’s German-language newspaper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Worker’s-Paper), and through the paper we met its editors George Schilling and August Spies. Albert and August would be friends for the rest of their lives.
I attended every one of the party’s weekly discussion groups and book clubs. I learned as much as I could about political economics, current events, and history; I also learned how to debate.
But beyond the serious and intellectual side of politics, the German activists in our neighborhood brought another sensibility. They brought a sense of fun! Albert and I had no friends when we arrived in Chicago, but when we joined the workers’ movement, we found our lives filled with picnics, and parades, and festivals; singing, dancing and laughing.
Through these activities, activists were able to not just tell us, but show us, how beautiful life can be when we work together to help one another. Cooperation and mutual aid were not abstract principles to them, but lived experiences. There was something magical about collective joy —deeply revolutionary and at the same time not political at all. It was a magic that Albert and I could never quite grasp.
Since we lived in a predominantly German-speaking community, Albert was the only member of the Party who spoke English eloquently enough to give speeches to the public. Because of this, he quickly rose to prominence by taking his words out of the pages of Arbeiter-Zeitung and turning them into soaring oratory. The party ran him for office six times, and even offered to nominate him for congress and president. But the truest testimony to his leadership was yet to come.
By 1877, the economic Panic had worsened into a Long Depression —the longest depression that the US had seen, and would ever see since. At the center of it all was the railway industry. Reckless investment in rail after the Civil War caused a bubble that burst and took the United States economy down with it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, railway workers (who had no union) were some of those hardest hit, with repeated layoffs and wage decreases. When railway companies gave all their workers a 10% pay cut (the third that year!) it was the final straw, and the Great Railway Strike began.
On July 14th, workers in West Virginia refused to let any trains leave the station. This prompted the Governor to send the National Guard, but the guardsman refused to fire on the strikers. In reaction to this, president Hayes sent federal troops. This was only the second time in history when federal troops were used to suppress a peaceful labor protest, the first being Andrew Jackson in 1834.
The reaction only fed into the strikers’ frustrations, and the strike spread to Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the national guard killed 20 people with their bayonetts, and in return, protesters set fire to over 100 trains and burned almost 40 buildings to the ground.
Here in Chicago, the news coming out of Pennsylvania inspired paranoia among conservatives that we would see a Paris-style revolution on our shores. The city’s wealthy elites, through an organization called the Citizens’ Association, began raising funds and amassing weapons for a private militia to protect their property.
It took about a week for this Great Upheaval to reach Chicago. When it did, Albert was ready to deliver the Socialist message to the workers. Over the weekend, Albert stepped up several times to speak to as many as 10,000 people at once.
He spoke to their sense of pride, encouraging them to rise up and vote for new leaders. He articulated that the government could have ended the economic crisis by nationalizing the railways and the telegraphs; they could have instituted an eight-hour workday. What did the government choose to do instead? They chose to close the bars and billiard halls where they asserted workers “squandered” all their wealth.
Albert told them that, while the Democratic and Republican Parties had abandoned them, the Workingmen’s Party was there to render all possible moral and material support to railway workers, and others, in their desperate struggle for existence, by any means necessary.
Where workers were silent on Friday, they freely discussed the practicability of a strike by Monday. Secret meetings were held through the night.
As the sun began to rise on Tuesday, Albert left home and made his way to the offices of the Chicago Times, where he worked as a typesetter; I set myself about my business as a seamstress for hire.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, 165 workers at the Illinois Central Railroad quietly stopped work. By noon, 500 workers paraded their way from station to station until no trains were left running by the end of the day. Meanwhile another group of 500 lumber workers began marching in solidarity. Workers across every industry set down their work; the march had ballooned into a general strike!
With all this action going on, it wasn’t a surprise to me that Albert didn’t return home at his usual time. But as the afternoon became the evening I began to wonder; by the time it was dark, I was afraid, and when the full moon was high overhead, I was mortified.
When Albert finally did come home, he was disheveled and pale, battered and bruised.
He told me how, when he arrived at the Times, he found that his name had been removed from the list of employees, and his fellow printers were afraid to speak to him.
Beside himself, he rushed to the Arbeiter Zeitung, hoping to tell his comrades what had happened. But as soon as he got there, he said, two men burst into the room.
‘Mayor Heath wants to speak to you,’
‘Is he here?’
‘No, you’re wanted at his office, downtown!’
Albert went with them, and as they escorted him the wind blew their coats, revealing their guns. At City Hall, they led him into a room full of police officers, and about 30 men in fancy suits.
“I didn’t know them, but I could tell they knew me!”
From the men’s glares, Albert knew he would never be the darling of these so-called “city fathers” who clucked their tongues, stroked their beards, and talked about “what’s to be done with this Albert Parsons?”.
Police Chief Michael Hickey sat across from Albert, and started interrogating him about his origins, his family; Albert answered quietly.
“I’m sorry I’m a bit hoarse, I gave a big speech last night, haven’t gotten a lot of sleep and have just been discharged from work.”
‘Don’t you know better than to come up here from Texas and incite a riot?’
“I’ve done nothing of the sort. I was a speaker at a meeting, and in fact, I encouraged people not to strike, but to go to the polls, elect good men to make good laws, and bring about good times.”
From around the room, Albert began to hear angry murmurs.
‘We can’t lynch him.’
‘Lock him up!’
‘If we lock him up, they’ll go even crazier.’
After about two hours, Chief Hickey grabbed Albert by the arm and escorted him to the door. At the door he stopped and said,
‘Parsons, your life is in danger. I advise you to leave Chicago at once. I will know everything you say, and everything you do, I have men shadowing you. At any moment you’re liable to be assassinated in the street. You heard those suits back there, they’d all love to see you dangling from a lamp post.’
“If I was alone, they probably would kill me,” Albert conceded, “but I’m not alone, am I? There are thousands of others just like me.”
Hickey cranked the latch, and shoved Albert into the hall.
“You’ve been warned.” He said, and slammed the door.
If that had been the end of his night, it would have been enough. He went to visit some printer friends of his at the Chicago Tribune, and was talking with them about the strike when suddenly two men grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to the stairs.
“What’s the matter? I came here as a gentleman and I won’t be dragged out like a dog!”
‘Shut up, or we’ll throw you out the window.”
One of the men produced a pistol and placed it to Albert’s head.
‘I’m of half a mind to blow your brains out.’
They shoved him, forcefully, down the steps.
“Now go. We don’t wanna see your face in this building again.”
This was the second day in Albert’s life in which he had been both threatened with lynching and thrown down a flight of stairs. The first time was by Klansmen in the South, for the sin of encouraging freed slaves to register to vote; now it was happening in the North for encouraging wage slaves to unionize.
But all the intimidation in the world couldn’t stop what was happening in the streets.
We slept remarkably deeply that night. Albert needed as much sleep as he could get to recover from his rough treatment. And as I slept, “I had a dream, which was not all a dream…” that the aimless, homeless, hopeless did gnash their teeth and howl, swearing dire vengeance against all tyrants.
We awoke to the news that there had been a Battle in the Viaduct!
Ten thousand men, women and children had gathered there, and stood together. The police arrived. The crowd split and began to flee. The police, drunk with power, took out their pistols and shot innocents in the back as they ran.
At this, the crowd had a change of heart —enraged, emboldened, they turned around and fought back. Some threw rocks, others fired pistols that they had seized from a nearby shop. The police emptied their weapons into the crowd for half an hour straight, killing three and wounding 16, but the greater the degree of violence they used to control people, the greater the demand for justice grew. The crowd grew ever-larger and gave chase to the policemen, who were only able to escape due to the arrival of cavalry forces and wagon-loads of reinforcements.
Once the state had assembled its spectacle of superior force focused on the viaduct, the crowd, as only crowds can do, dissipated like water and reformed in other parts of the city.
As the day turned into night, President Hayes sent regular army troops to place Chicago under lockdown, just as he had done for Philadeplphia, Baltimore, and the other uprisings. Soon the fighting ended, but the working people could never look at police the same way again.
Life appeared to return to normal, but beneath the surface, it had changed forever. It was the same for Albert and me.
It became clear that Albert had been permanently blacklisted from the newspaper industry as a result of the speeches he gave. I was to become our primary breadwinner, so I threw myself into my dressmaking work full-time, and started a dress shop out of our house. The sign on our door would read: “Mrs. A. R. Parsons & Co., Manufacturers of Fashionable Ladies’ and Children’s Clothing.” Albert would take orders for suits and uniforms from hotels and restaurants.
This was how we would provide for ourselves —and for our family, which would soon grow, since I was pregnant with our first child.
With the help of other seamstresses, servants, and store clerks, I founded the Working Women’s Union. We aimed not only to organize women in waged positions, but also to redefine housework as a form of productive labor. In the evenings, I would hold meetings in my dress shop. The meetings were always small, but they were a good way to meet good people —for example, it was through the WWU that I would eventually meet my best friend, Lizzie Holmes.
Nevertheless, we needed something bigger to reach the minds of everyday people. So we turned our attention once again to those parades and picnics. If we could organize a “Monster Picnic,” a great celebration —perhaps sometime in the spring or early summer, when everyone’s energy is returning and they have the excitement to act— we could attract a receptive and energetic crowd and introduce them to our messages. Our Socialist appeals for an eight-hour workday, an end to child labor, free public elementary school, or a body to supervise food safety were are not utopian pipe-dreams, but rooted in the American values of freedom and equality. Ideas worthy of marching for on, say, the Fourth of July.
Sometimes we did the fourth of July, sometimes we did Pentecost, Juneteenth, Thanksgiving —we had yet to find the perfect holiday for our purpose— but at our events we drew crowds as large as 50,000 with as many as 7,000 workers marching in our parades. But it seemed that the crowds were often more interested in hearing music than speeches.
Indeed, though our parades could draw 50,000, our party —which by then had changed its name yet again to the Socialist Labor Party— never had more than 870 members. When we ran candidates for office, we could win up to 15% of the vote —but never more. Why didn’t people’s enthusiasm on the streets translate into votes?
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that the overworked laborers we represented would be simply too busy to vote. Maybe they were afraid to vote against the interests of their bosses, in case their bosses would find out, and fire them. Plus, it was certainly the case that voters found themselves bitterly divided by race, religion, language, and whether they found the Democrats or the Republicans to be the lesser evil.
Even inside the Socialist Labor Party, we began to find ourselves divided. Differences of opinion over which policies were “achievable” would turn into fierce schisms. We were even divided over whether the 8-hour workday was a worthwhile goal or simply a symbolic reform. And no issue divided the party as much as the issue of armed struggle.
After seeing what workers were capable of during the Great Railroad Strike, the Citizens’ Association continued to stockpile weapons for the government militia: 600 rifles; four cannons; a gatling gun! They were preparing to bust the next strike as if preparing for a war. In this climate, the German workers of our community reasoned that it only made sense to raise a militia of their own. They called themselves the Lehr und Wehr Verein (Education and Defence Society). They would attend our meetings, picnics and parades while openly carrying their firearms, and they would perform their own marches and drills —naturally accompanied by much singing and merrymaking, in typical German Socialist style.
The party couldn’t make up its mind on whether to endorse these drills or condemn them. As it turns out, we didn’t get to make that decision, the state made it first. The Illinois state legislature passed a law declaring “any and all military organizations not organized under the Governor’s command” to be illegal. The Verein would stage a march, its leader would be arrested; we challenged the law’s constitutionality; the Supreme Court would rule that the primary purpose of the 2nd Amendment is to allow the government to defend itself, not to allow people to defend themselves from it.
Amid all this infighting, the party had become so riddled with division that the different factions took to nominating different candidates from one another, splitting the already miniscule socialist vote.
If not even dedicated socialists could get their shit together enough to vote for themselves, how could they hope to unite the entire working class around a third party candidacy?
More pressingly, if we try to defend ourselves against the rule-makers while following the rules, and they simply change what the rules are, how can we expect to survive?
I started to publish my own essays in the Socialist newspaper for the first time. Now I knew why Albert liked it so much. I wrote about the struggle of working women —since employers work together to keep wages low, shouldn’t we band together to make them high? I wrote about the indignities suffered by veterans —who shed their blood to protect the rich man’s union, but have nothing but poverty as their reward. And most importantly, I wrote about the law: How those who hold property do so under the plea of the laws which they themselves have made, and by the sanction of the very men they have locked out to starve; and further… these so-called laws would not be worth the paper they are written on, twenty-four hours after the producers of all wealth had willed it otherwise.
By 1880, we had a new, healthy son and a new, healthy skepticism towards government. The latter earned us the bitter resentment of many of our fellow Socialists, who still held out hope that a powerful dictatorship —if only it was administered by the “right people” (as if there were any)— would one day end poverty and manumit its slaves.
They called Albert and me “Anarchists”
To tell the truth, we took to Anarchy as happily as we took to communism in the first place. After all, when somebody pins a name on you, it behooves you to learn what it stands for. And what does Anarchy stand for?
An anarchist is a communist who doesn’t hold her breath waiting around for the government to write the right law, for parties to choose the right candidates, or for the majority to choose the right party; but who takes direct action to bring about the change she wants to see in the world right now.
I am an Anarchist.
To be continued…
[editor’s note: July 25th 1877 really was a full moon – look it up!]