Legacy

By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University


For the next two years Bonfield and his associate Captain Michael J. Schaack continued to fascinate and terrify the public with revelations of supposed anarchist plots. The revelations extended the red scare and fixed in the public mind the image of a wild-eyed foreign-born anarchist brandishing a bomb. But, in 1889 the two officers were disgraced and released from the force on corruption charges. The Chicago Times exposed the politics of fear they had perpetrated: "To create the impression that [Mayor John P.] Roche and his favored police officials alone stand between the city and destruction, and that to defeat his re-election is to encourage an uprising of anarchists, the department has resorted to extremes with the satisfaction of finding that its inventions are swallowed in certain credulous quarters as momentous facts." With the end of the Haymarket-induced period of public fear, the way was cleared for a reassessment of the trial and executions.1

In 1893, the German-born Democrat John Peter Altgeld was elected governor of Illinois, the first to be elected with the strong backing of organized labor. On June 26, 1893, after poring over the records of the trial for weeks, Altgeld issued a full pardon to Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe. The pardon was compatible with the widespread wish of many in the city, who believed that the law having been vindicated, it was in the best interests of social peace to extend mercy to the imprisoned anarchists. But Altgeld went much further. He demonstrated in his pardon message that the trial was a travesty of justice. He stated his opinion that much of the evidence used by the jury had been fabricated, and he condemned Judge Gary for egregious bias. Altgeld also exonerated the four men who had been hanged and stated his belief that Bonfield was the man responsible for the deaths of the police at Haymarket.2

The Chicago press responded with a hail of vituperation. Altgeld was called "a foreigner," a "fomenter of lawlessness," and a disgrace to the city. He would not be elected again to a public office, though he never regretted the pardon or its accompanying message. In time, Altgeld's decision came to be seen as a mark of public courage, and at his death Vachel Lindsay wrote a famous poem in his memory entitled, "The Eagle That is Forgotten."3

Lucy Parsons, the last surviving link to the anarchist martyrs, unrelentingly bore the torch for the cause of her beloved husband. Speaking at May Day rallies well into the 1930s, she continued to condemn state violence against workers and extol the "Chicago Idea" of revolutionary unionism.4 But, the anarchist legacy of violence in a revolutionary cause had always been problematic. In a private letter to Lucy in 1893, her old friend George Schilling wrote: "When you terrorize the public mind and threaten the stability of society with violence, you create the conditions which place the Bonfields and Garys in the saddle, hailed as the saviors of society. Fear is not the mother of progress and liberty, but oft times of reaction and aggression. Your agitation inspires fear; it shocks the public mind and conscience and inevitably calls forth strong and brutal men to meet force with force."5

As the Schilling letter suggests, the Haymarket Affair and the anarchist role in it has left a contested legacy rich with possibilities for learning. It will likely remain that way, reminding us of the recurring issues of freedom of assembly and the right to a fair trial in a time of public panic; the use of state violence to suppress workers' strikes and the movements of dissenters; and of the limits that movements fighting for social change in a democratic society must impose upon themselves.


Notes
1. Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 277-79; Chicago Times, Jan. 20, 1889.

2. Harry Barnard, Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld (Secaucus, N. J.: Lyle Stuart, 1938), 183-235.

3. Ibid., 236-49; Lindsay's poem is on the frontispiece of Barnard's book.

4. Lucy Parsons' life is discussed in Carolyn Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1976); her actions in the 1930s are discussed in Green, Death in the Haymarket, 305-10; on the further development of anarchism following Haymarket see Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs, 201-42. 

5. Quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 454-55; in his conclusion Avrich emphasizes the deficiencies of anarchism as a movement, see esp. 454.