Friday, February 8, 2013

Haymarket Revisionism

I don't know much about the Haymarket Riot  of 1886 beyond a general knowledge that one might have when teaching a U.S. survey course.  But I still found this discussion of the work of Haymarket scholar Timothy Messer-Kruse to be absolutely fascinating.  (You may recall that about a year ago we did a post on Messer-Kruse's problems with Wikipedia).

Messer-Kruse, a labor historian at Bowling Green State University, has challenged the liberal orthodoxy of Haymarket historiography and has received some pretty harsh reviews of his work in return. (Interestingly enough, Messer-Kruse is himself a liberal).  

However, as John J. Miller notes in his story in The National Review, Messer-Kruse has persevered. In the process he has brought some significant changes to how we understand this landmark event in 19th century labor history. His book, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists; Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age was recently chosen as the book of the year by Labor History journal.  He has also published The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks.

Here is a taste of Miller's piece:

Timothy Messer-Kruse doesn’t remember her name, but the question she asked in his college classroom a dozen years ago changed his career — and now it may revolutionize everything historians thought they knew about a hallowed event in the imagination of the American Left. “In my courses on labor history, I always devoted a full lecture to Haymarket,” says Messer-Kruse, referring to what happened in Chicago on the night of May 4, 1886. He would describe how a gathering of anarchists near Haymarket Square turned into a fatal bombing and riot. 

Although police never arrested the bomb-thrower, they went on to tyrannize radical groups throughout the city, in a crackdown that is often called America’s first Red Scare. Eight men were convicted of aiding and abetting murder. Four died at the end of a hangman’s noose. Today, history books portray them as the innocent victims of a sham trial: They are labor-movement martyrs who sought modest reforms in the face of ruthless robber-baron capitalism. 

As Messer-Kruse recounted this familiar tale to his students at the University of Toledo in 2001, a woman raised her hand. “Professor,” she asked, “if what it says in our textbook is true, that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever connecting them with the bombing,’ then what did they talk about in the courtroom for six weeks?” 

The question stumped Messer-Kruse. “It had not occurred to me before,” he says. He muttered a few words about lousy evidence and paid witnesses. “But I didn’t really know,” he recalls. “I told her I’d look it up.” As he checked out the standard sources, he failed to find good answers. The semester ended and the student moved on, but her question haunted him. “My interest grew into an obsession.” As Messer-Kruse began to look more closely, he started to wonder if the true story of Haymarket was fundamentally different from the version he and just about everybody else had been told.

Read the rest here.