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Chapter 9: Incendiary Agent

Suddenly, the Haymarket filled with a flash of white light. Then silence.


In the spring of 1886, I was so much in the habit of writing articles and giving speeches that I was planning to take a page from Albert’s book and go on a national speaking tour.   Soon though, I had reason to change my mind.  I would be needed in Chicago: The movement for an 8-hour workday was finally picking up steam.

Among Anarchists, the 8 hour workday was considered a quaint, centrist reform, but Albert and I still believed in it.  We didn’t harbor any illusions that shortening the workday would somehow “free up” more jobs for the unemployed, but we figured that, if workers had more free time in the day, they could spend some of it on more radical pursuits.  What if people were no longer “too busy for a revolution”?

Although some of our comrades gave us grief for our commitment to the 8-hour movement, we could count on the support of our best friend, Lizzie Holmes.

Lizzie grew up fated to be a radical, raised by feminist parents in a free-love commune in Ohio.  After she heard the news of the Great Railway Strike, Lizzie left her job as a schoolteacher, as well as her first husband, and moved to Chicago with her mother, her siblings, and her daughter.  Her mother had taught her to believe in a woman’s absolute right to self-ownership, and Lizzie hoped to help working women reclaim that right.

Unable to find teaching work, Lizzie became a seamstress.  She found herself working ten hour days, in sweatshop conditions, making luxury clothes to adorn the bodies of richer women, in exchange for a mere $5 a week —barely enough for a single load of groceries.1

In response to this, Lizzie led one of the first successful needlewomen strikes in Chicago —though she was fired for it, of course.

That was how Lizzie found us:  She was intrigued by our vision of One Big Union, helping workers everywhere organize across industrial lines.  We became fast friends through the SLP and the WWU.  When those organizations split up due to animosity between the Authoritarian Socialists and us Anarchists, Lizzie joined August Spies, Albert, and me in founding a new, wholly Anarchist group: the International Working People’s Association —IWPA for short.

In the years since Albert and I met Lizzie, she would become our closest confidante.  We introduced her to Mr. Holmes, her future husband, and together the four of us had many adventures.  I was especially fond of the walks we would take, when Albert would often keep us entertained by doing silly impressions of our friends.  But Lizzie and I were the most in our element when we were getting down to work.

Lizzie and I sewed slogan-banners together, we marched together, and we were partners in organizing our group’s great “monster rallies.”  And none were ever more impressive than the parades we planned for holidays:
On Christmas Day, we led a march of the homeless through the mansion district on Prairie Avenue.  

On Flag Day, we proudly waved our flags —but instead of the red, white and blue, we waved the Black Flag of mourning, for the poor, the hungry, and the beaten-down; and the Red Flag, for the common blood that flows through all our veins.

One November, we observed a “No-Thanksgiving,” where we looked upon the world the capitalist class was offering us and said, “no thanks.”

These demonstrations often made the news, but primarily because they made reporters angry —we were desecrating their sacred, patriotic traditions.  Still, they were talking about us, taking us seriously.

Other times, we didn’t make anybody angry, didn’t make any headlines, and hardly made an impression.  Albert would give a speech to the workers about the importance of arming themselves, and they’d walk away to “arm themselves with beer.”  Honestly, we preferred the anger.

Year after year, we would try different holidays, looking for one that we could repeat, that we could make into a tradition of our own.  So far none had really fit, but this time, the labor unions chose to conduct their 8-hour strike on a date that coincided with a holiday that had a lot of potential:

May Day.

The first of May seemed to be a very sensible choice for a number of reasons:  It was easy to remember, it was a Saturday, and the weather would be ideal —with all danger of frost fully passed, people would be eager to get outside and stretch their legs with us, whether they supported our strike or not.

A parade on May Day wouldn’t be piggybacking off the symbolism of any already-existing American holiday, so instead of competing for public attention with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, the Working Class and their calls for justice could take center stage.

At the same time, the German immigrants who made up our community would be full of residual excitement from their raucous celebrations the night before.  Walpurgisnacht, or Saint Walpurga’s Night, was a night of mischief-making, pranks and bonfires; A night when it was believed that witches walked the earth, and gathered in huge numbers atop a mountain, where they would engage in a wild orgy, led by none-other than the devil himself.

I found superstitions like this, of course, salacious.  But I can’t help but wonder if Lizzie, who was a frequent contributor to the feminist, free-love newspaper Lucifer, the Light Bearer, might have found them amusing.

On Saturday, May 1st, the general strike began.  300,000 working men from 13,000 workplaces walked out, declaring “Throw down your arms, throw down your tools and come out; we’ll be damned if we go back to work under these conditions.”  Albert and I marched at the head of the parade with our two children, Albert Jr. and Lulu, singing along with the crowd:

“We want to feel the sunshine

We want to smell the flowers;

We’re sure that God has willed it.

And we mean to have eight hours.” 

It was a rousing success. The May Day demonstrations would continue through the weekend and into the next week.  One strike was inspiring another, the movement was gaining momentum.

By Monday, May 3rd, while Albert was out of town for a speaking engagement in Ohio,  Lizzie Holmes and I were helping groups of working women to join the walkouts.  We were sure we had conjured images of marauding Walpurgisnacht witches, when the newspapers told panicked tales about hordes of “shrieking amazons” led by “two tall bohemians” that went door-to-door in the garment districts, enticing young seamstresses to come away with them, singing and dancing with a big brass band.

 We were gleeful.  We could only hope that we might be able to do another May Day the next year.  If we were lucky, maybe even several years after that.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, August Spies was giving a speech.  That spring, the unionized workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine factory had all been locked out of their workplace by Mr. McCormick, who opted to replace them with machines and non-union labor.

Spies had been keeping the strikers cool, encouraging them that if they stood their ground, and with their union, the tide would turn in their favor.  But when the factory bell rang, and the strike-breakers began to file out of the building, the crowd rushed to the gates.  Some people began to throw rocks at the building —even though it wasn’t the building that turned them out on the streets with the stroke of a pen.

In a flash, the police descended upon the rally, beating the stone-throwers with their clubs —Perhaps the officers, too, mistook the building for the man they served.  Soon, the police drew their pistols, and opened fire.  When the gunpowder smoke had cleared, two of the many strikers who had been shot lay dead.

After attending to the wounded and picking up the pieces, Spies stormed, enraged, to the office of our newspaper, Arbeiter Zeitung.  There, through the night, Spies drafted plans for another assembly to take place the following evening: It would be a gathering to grieve the two murdered men, and an opportunity to start a conversation around police brutality.  The meeting would take place near the Haymarket on Randolph Street.

Meanwhile, in a saloon across town, other men made plans to take revenge.


That night, I was called upon by the neighbor girl who sometimes babysat for us. Frieda was her name.  She was beside herself, in tears, bearing news that someone had been stockpiling dynamite bombs.  Word on the street had been that a codeword —Ruhe, meaning “quiet”— would be published in the Arbeiter Zeitung, to signal to these men that the Revolution had begun.

At first, I dismissed these rumors as mere wishful thinking on behalf of excited comrades, worked up from days of successful strikes.  I retired to bed, excited in my own right to greet my husband when he returned from Cincinnati early the next morning.

It was midday on May 4th, 1886.  Albert, spent from his day of traveling, rested in our bedroom.  I collected our daily issue of the AZ.  That’s when I saw it: 


The codeword, printed in a single line all by itself in the letters column.  

The rumors were true.

I rushed to wake Albert.  Soon a messenger came from August Spies.  He said he had been tricked.  He had printed the codeword on request without knowing what it meant.  He urged the readers to stand down, but we gathered he knew it was too late.  Someone out there had a plan.  Something was going to happen.
A sense of dread came over us.  Not because we feared the conflict, but because we knew who would be given the blame:

“Keep August Spies and Albert Parsons in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble occurs.”  These were the words of the Chicago Mail, several days prior.

We knew that if dynamite became involved in the Haymarket protest, the press would attribute it to us, rightly or wrongly, because we had spent the last two years deliberately, passionately, making our names synonymous with dynamite.

In 1884, our anarchist group, the International Working People’s Association, began an elaborate ruse to convince the media and the police that we were positively swimming in dynamite, and that we were ready and willing to use it at a moment’s notice.

With every major strike, police surveillance of labor organizations increased, and we soon found our Association had been infiltrated by a number of laughably obvious undercover cops.  We decided to perform targeted hoaxes on these officers, as well as on any reporters who dared to attend our public (or as they would have it, “secret”) meetings.  If you came to us looking for a story, we would tell you a story.

Albert would invite these “new comrades” into his office at the IWPA newspaper, which we called “The Alarm”, in order to “let them in” on our “secret plan”: We had, he told them, accumulated enough dynamite to exterminate any militias and police forces that stood in our way.  

Then, August Spies would lead the “secret” agents into his own office, where he had filled the drawers of his desk to the brim with (empty) bombshells.  Our credulous marks would then hasten back to the police station and report on everything they saw —all according to plan.

In 1885, the Chicago Board of Trade unveiled a new headquarters for itself: a multi-million-dollar skyscraper bathed in a sea of electric light.  Stockbrokers, diplomats, and captains of industry gathered there to celebrate their success at profiting off the toil of others.

Lizzie and I led a march around the building, waving the red and black, singing the Marseillaise, and chanting “Blow it up!  Blow it up!”

Afterwards, at the Alarm offices, we hosted reporters and Albert treated them to a live demonstration of a blasting cap explosion.  We let them handle the explosive powders, while boasting that we had enough supply to knock down a hundred cops like bowling pins.  It was as good a humbug as any P.T. Barnum showed in a dime museum.

Albert and I both gave speeches and wrote articles about the egalitarian power of dynamite.   We called it the weapon of the people, because unlike any gun, you could make your own dynamite at home from easy-to-follow instructions.

Even Alfred Nobel, the inventor of Dynamite, wrote: “the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”  We reasoned that, therefore, when dynamite could be carried by the “army” of the oppressed, the law-enforcement “army” of capital would be the ones to recoil and disband.

In the end, we hoped to use the same scare tactics against our oppressors that they used on us.  Since threats of force are evidently the only language they speak, we assumed that, if we made our own threats, they would finally listen, and take us seriously.

As it turns out, they did listen to our threats.  They did take us seriously.

But, instead of being comforted by our willingness to fight for them, working people were terrified of becoming collateral damage to our explosives.  Instead of being frightened into timidity, the ruling class was frightened into anger.

We weren’t fools. Deep down, we expected that any use of dynamite would invite harsh repression.  After all, no amount of offensive power can ever “defend” or “protect” you so long as your opponent still has offensive power of their own; and no matter how many bombs went off, there would always be a barracks or an armory still standing.

In the face of this, we always hedged our bet with the hope that, if the government did crack down on the workers’ movement in response to an attack, that they would be so cruel to innocent people in the process that they would lose their aura of legitimacy, and make anarchism that much more attractive to people in the future.

If our speaking and writing about dynamite was going to be our undoing, would future generations look back on us and say that we were martyrs for a noble cause?  Or would they tell us that were were playing stupid games, and that we were bound to win stupid prizes?

But we didn’t have time to think about that.  The moment demanded action.


As happy as we may have been to know that somebody would be taking action, we needed to keep ourselves and our family safe.  If the papers would be looking for Albert, then we would control where, and how, they saw him.  He would make himself seen someplace public, someplace far away from the action, speaking words of peace, his arms holding his wife and children, rather than laden with dynamite.

This was the plan.

It was known that Lizzie and I had already scheduled an indoor meeting at the Arbeiter Zeitung that evening to discuss unionizing the sewing girls, following our positive experience with them the day before.  We had Albert draft the announcement for the meeting himself and deliver it to the Chicago Daily News, so it was known that he would be there with us.

After dinner, we left our house en masse: Lizzie Holmes, myself, Albert, Lulu and Albert Junior, as well as Frieda, the neighbor girl who took care of them and tipped us off to this whole business.  However, instead of going straight to the AZ office, our group swung by the Haymarket Square, several hours before Spies’ rally was to begin.  As we expected, there were reporters buzzing about, scanning the crowd for “leaders” as people causally began to gather.  

Edgar Owen, one of Albert’s old coworkers from the Chicago Times, was strolling about with his friend Henry Heinemann from the Tribune.  The two reporters recognized us and we struck up a conversation.

“Say, Al, there’s a lot of folks milling around but nobody seems to be taking charge, are you finally here to stir ‘em up?”

Albert shook his head.  “To be honest, Ed, I can’t say I know anything more about what’s been planned here tonight than you do.”

“Tell us you’re planning to give one of your red speeches at least!”

“I won’t be here!  We’re on our way across town.  My wife and Mrs. Holmes here are conducting a lecture series on the oppressive material conditions of seamstresses.  Between the two of them I’m sure there will be enough ‘red speeches’ for all of us.  You’re free to join us if you like!”

“Sounds thrilling.”  Heinemann interjected.  He wasn’t thrilled.

Owen sighed.  “We’re planning to stay.  Rumor has it that there could be a pretty big riot here tonight.  We’ve got to be where the action is.”

Albert laughed and slapped Owen on the back, “Listen to Ed talking like he’s in a war zone.  Have you even taken my advice and armed yourself yet?”

Owen was laughing now too, “Nope!  How about you, packing any of your dyn-o-mite?”

I took Albert’s arm, “He is a very dangerous-looking man, isn’t he?

We all shared a belly laugh.

When we’d had our fun, we boarded a trolley headed for downtown.

We arrived at the AZ around 8:30 —about an hour late to our own meeting, but in truth that wasn’t so uncommon in our circles.  It was a small meeting anyhow.  Beyond Lizzie, Albert, the children and myself, there were only a half dozen attendees.  Among them was the anarchist pastor Samuel Fielden.  He had made another commitment to speak to some workers that day, but because he was our group’s treasurer, he felt honor-bound to come to this meeting instead.  We could tell that he was disappointed with the turnout and anxious to move on to something more exciting during such a historic moment.

Our small group had been talking for about an hour when a few activist acquaintances of ours arrived, bearing the news that August Spies’ Haymarket rally had drawn 3000 people, but that there was nobody there with anything to say except August himself.  He was in desperate need of more speakers, and wanted to know if Samuel Fielden and Albert would be able to join him.

This was just the sort of news Fielden had been waiting for all day.  He jumped up from his seat, beaming, and straightaway suggested we wrap our meeting up early.  Albert and I exchanged glances.  We weren’t about to express our fear to the already-impatient Fielden.  Haymarket had caught up to us, and now Albert couldn’t stay away without leaving his best friend standing alone.  

Besides, I could tell he wanted the adventure.

Lizzie and I adjourned our meeting while Albert took the children to get some water, and then handed them off to Frieda with instructions to take them home where they would be safe.  When the kids were on their way, Albert, Lizzie and I followed Fielden out the door —leaving the Arbeiter Zeitung for what we didn’t know was the last time.  We walked together, not saying much to one another, through the tunnel and across the river to the Haymarket.

We squeezed our way through the crowd until we reached several empty wagons that had been parked near the end of the square.  Spies helped Albert up onto the one he was calling the “speaker’s wagon” and began introducing him to the situation; meanwhile Lizzie and I sat in a nearby wagon with a spring seat that looked comfortable-enough.

Albert spoke for a grand total of forty-five minutes, about the same things he usually talks about: Encouraging workers to keep the faith and stick to their union, even in the face of police brutality.  The reporters in attendance found his speech “ordinary.”  The meeting as a whole seemed quiet and peaceful.  The Mayor and the chief of police were there, and agreed between themselves that “everything seemed to be in order.”

Albert stepped down from the speaker’s wagon, and Fielden eagerly hopped up and took his place.  Albert rejoined Lizzie and me.

“That went more smoothly than I thought it would.  How are you two enjoying yourselves?  Staying interested?”

“To be honest, it’s been quite… boring!” I sighed, with palpable relief.

Then we all sighed, had a small laugh, and looked around.

You know your sense of threat has lifted when you find yourself opening up to your surroundings again.  For the first time all day, we could notice the birds, the weather. There were storm clouds brewing in the distance.

“Damn.” Albert said, “It looks like rain!”

As quiet as it was, we still wanted to get out of there.  

There was a little tavern a block north from the Haymarket called Zepf’s Hall that we figured would be an ideal spot to relocate.  We could stay dry, get some drinks, and keep an eye on the square all at once.  Albert invited Spies and Fielden to join us and continue their speeches inside, but was informed that Zepf’s was too full to accommodate an audience.  So Albert, Lizzie and I went by ourselves.  On the way out of the crowd we crossed paths with an acquaintance of ours named Thomas Brown, and invited him to join our party at Zepf’s.  

Soon we had settled in with our drinks and a bench located just inside the door of the hall, so that we could look down the street and watch the rally continue.  It was ten o’clock and people were still lingering.

“Fielden’s going over-schedule with his sermon, as usual,” Albert said.  “They’ll be heading home any minute now…”

Suddenly, the Haymarket filled with a flash of white light.  Then silence.

In the moment after came a deafening roar.

Then came the gunshots.  The moonless night lit up with Hundreds of tiny bursts in the distance, like fireworks.  Fifty police officers emptying their pistols into the darkness, simultaneously.

Stray bullets from a block away thunked into the wooden door inches away from us.  One ricocheted off of Zepf’s Hall’s sign, and one whizzed through the window.  Lizzie and I froze perfectly still.  Albert and Brown stood bolt upright.

Within moments, frightened, wounded people began rushing into the building.  The four of us got up from where we were seated and huddled together in the back of the hall for about twenty minutes.

When the chaos had diminished, we exited onto the street and made our way into a nearby viaduct, where we were able to collect ourselves.

This was it.  We didn’t know exactly what had happened —we feared at the time that the police might have turned their Gatling gun on the crowd— but we did know that some kind of conflict had taken place.  We knew what the papers had been saying, we knew that people would be looking for Albert.

We knew that he needed to get out of town.

Albert wanted to stay, not only to be there for his family, but to protect his friends who might be in danger.  But Lizzie put it perfectly.  

“If any of our boys are in danger, you are.  We can’t spare you yet.”

Eventually Albert was convinced.  He would go, just for a day or two, we thought.

Thomas Brown gave Albert five dollars for his travels, before rushing off into the night.

Albert and I both knew what this could mean for us.

We held each other tight, and kissed.  We didn’t know when we would meet again.

Lizzie offered to take Albert to the train station.  I told Albert I would head to our apartment immediately to check on the children.

I watched my best friend and my husband walk into the darkness and vanish.

Then I fell to my knees and cried.

1  Author’s note: Lizzie Holmes’ wage of $5 a month would be $128.93 a month today, adjusted for inflation.  The dollar a week earned by teenage garment workers would be $27.98, for 55-hour weeks.  Imagine making the equivalent of fifty cents an hour!  By contrast, US Congressmen paid themselves a salary of $5000 a year, which would be about $130,000 today —only slightly less than the $174,000 they pay themselves now.

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