Altgeld and the Anarchists
In June, 1893, Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld, a Democrat, pardoned three Anarchists, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab. They were among eight Anarchists arrested following the Haymarket affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886. On that day a rally was held to support workers striking for an eight hour day and to protest the killing of several workers by police the previous day.
A bomb was thrown into the crowd by a person still unknown. In the ensuing melee of panicked shooting, seven policemen and four civilians died. Only one death was attributable to the bomb itself. The Anarchists were charged with being accessories to murder. Seven were sentenced to death, the eighth to fifteen years in prison. Four of the seven were ultimately hung, one committed suicide.
Altgeld not only pardoned Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab but blasted the judge for conducting an unfair trial and the Chief of Police for a faulty investigation. The Kansas City Times noted that there had been strong demands for the three Anarchists’ release among what it called “the great mass of Germans, the Turner societies and the foreign element generally.” It cited the reaction of Chicago papers, one saying that Altgeld – of German origin himself – was in his right constitutionally to release the men but that it was “without excuse, and positively outrageous” on his part to criticize the judge and police detectives “who ferreted out the testimony in the case.”
The next day the Times ran a story under the headline “Helps Anarchy Along” implying that Altgeld was an anarchist ally. The evidence was a telegram allegedly sent by Justus H. Schwab, editor of the Anarchist newspaper Die Freiheit, to Governor Altgeld expressing gratitude. “Anarchy is only in its infancy,” Schwab is quoted as saying, “but Governor Altgeld has helped it on to maturity. “
The Times story cites the opinion of the New York World that Altgeld’s pardon and criticism of the court “makes martyrs of the men who paid the penalty of their revolting crime on the gallows and sanctifies hereafter the devotion of the day of their execution to memorial services. Let us hope that Governor Altgeld’s act may be as powerless to breed mischief in the future as it will be to soil the reputation of the nation, of the judge who presided at the Anarchists’ trial and of the jury who rendered the verdict in the past.”
This was typical of the rhetoric directed against Altgeld and the Anarchists. Another Chicago paper is quoted in the Times piece as expressing surprise that Altgeld, in office only six months, had discovered a truth about the event of May 4 that had eluded his predecessors for seven years, as well as by the supreme courts of Illinois and the United States, both of which affirmed the conviction. “Anarchy in this country never received a more deadly blow than when justice was meted out to the diabolical bomb throwers who terrified Chicago some years ago,” the editors wrote. “It is no time to silence the warning given to Anarchists now that the cable almost brings news of Anarchistic unrest in various parts of Europe and we even read of a monument to Anarchy just erected in Chicago.”
That the trial and execution of the four was a “warning” from respectable society to “diabolical bomb throwers,” rather than a criminal trial involving actual evidence, persisted in Kansas City newspapers, Democratic and Republican. The Times made this point in an editorial claiming that Altgeld must be in the wrong because he put his opinion above thost of the highest courts in the land and the “public sentiment of the great commonwealth of Illinois, and above the entire nation, above sacred meaning and spirit of American institution.” Altgeld was a “self-imposed censor, advocate and dictator,” wrote the editors, “rewarding with liberty and the halo of martyrdom the three Anarchists, who after a fair and impartial trial, with every opportunity of defence, had been pronounced by a jury of their fellow citizens to be guilty of a willful and murderous attack upon life and organized society.”
Driven by anti-immigrant fears and a desire for vengeance, the trial was anything but fair and impartial. The jury was chosen from a jury pool handpicked to exclude immigrants, laborers or radicals; most of the jury expressed prejudice toward the defendants before the trial. The judge, Joseph Gary, was openly hostile to the defendants and consistently ruled for the prosecution. No evidence was presented showing the accused had been responsible for the bomb throwing. Only two, Spies and Fielden, had been present at the rally, and both were on the speaker’s wagon when the bomb was thrown from the perimeter of the crowd.
The Republican Kansas City Journal commented in an editorial that the spirit of vengeance was not appropriate since the pardoned Anarchists were only “dupes of a doctrine that grows out of abnormal social conditions. But the remedy proposed destroys both property and life, and endangers public order.” This more rational, patronizing tone soon gave way to claims that pardoning the three was the result of a conspiracy between Altgeld and Grover Cleveland. Altgeld, the editors surmised, had pardoned the three in fulfilment of an agreement with the Democrats that the electoral vote of Illinois would go to Cleveland in the 1892 election and Altgeld would become governor.
The post hoc evidence for the conspiracy: Altgeld became governor, Cleveland became president, and “the Anarchists are free.” The election of Democrat Carter Harrison as mayor of Chicago was, the editors insinuate, probably part of the same nefarious Democratic Party agreement. “There are elements in this country anti-American in education, traditions and purpose,” wrote the editors, beating the anti-immigrant conspiratorial drum, “ignorant, selfish, without patriotism, that know no inspiration born of human liberty or democracy, and all these elements are pandered to, courted and used by the Democratic leaders to give them power.”
Becoming yet more alarmist, the editors warn of a “crisis coming in the affairs of this country” comparable to the “dark hours of 1861,” resulting from “a political organization” – the Democratic Party – fostering “incipient and incendiary and illegal military organizations now existing and forming for the avowed purpose of seizing power.” It was the “violent anarchist, criminal classes,” allies of Democrats, who got Altgeld elected, the editors allege. Altgeld paid off the favor with his pardon.
The Journal took up the theory of conspiratorial “bargains” again the next day, using Cook County, Illinois, voting figures to argue that the presidential campaign of 1892 had been “the most corrupt ever known in American history.” Anarchists, the paper's story ran, assured that Cook County would go Democrat. while the electoral votes of defeated Populist candidate James B. Weaver went to Cleveland in another illicit bargain.
Governor Alteld was hanged in effigy by indignant residents of Naperville, outside of Chicago; the effigy held a card with two hands grasped in friendship, one with the word “Anarchy,” the other “Altgeld.” Questions were raised as to whether Altgeld was a citizen. The Junior Order United American Mechanics, a nativist, anti-Catholic organization described uncritically in a Mail story as “upholders of the public school system and defenders of the glorious stars and stripes,” was trumpeted by an admirer of the group as the antithesis of Altgeld and his anarchist pals: “If there were more juniors the country would never need to blush with shame, “he told the Mail. “When such atrocities can be perpetrated by an official in so high a trust,” he declared, trailing off into vague threats, “it is time that the people formulated a plan whereby the country’s laws could be upheld.”
Fear of imminent explosions, assertions of the hidden power of conspirators waiting to rise up, or busily undermining society from within, dominated stories about Anarchists. They were seen as a worldwide threat needing to be suppressed, “enemies of society and civilization,” as a story in the Star put it, with whom Governor Altgeld was in cahoots. And it was not only in the U.S. that a vast “conspiracy” was imagined: the Spanish government, in the aftermath of a bombing in Barcelona that caused the death of twenty-three people, called on nations around the world to “crush out the Anarchist movement in the old world,” and it was probable, another Star story averred,[ 11-13-1893-Nov 13-p. 1- At the Graves of the Reds ] that "the result will be an international commission to draft a general code of measures against the reds.”
The Germania Club of Chicago, described in a Times story as the city’s “most influential German social organization,” voted not to hang a portrait of Altgeld in its clubhouse. Altgeld then refused to speak at a club banquet. Some members objected to the interference of German authorities in the matter, but others, the donor of the portrait thought, feared being classed as “Anarchist sympathizers.” It was, ultimately, political, he thought, “a truckling to purely partisan Republican sentiment.”
An analysis of the pardon published twelve years later in The Public: A Journal of Democracy (Vol. 8, Issues 366-417, p. 559), held that Altgeld, by showing that the conviction of the anarchists had been obtained by packing the jury, “did more than release the imprisoned men. In effect he also acquitted the hanged men.” For revealing that truth, he was hounded by the press and public opinion across the country.
Yet, observes the same analysis, “the case he made was invincible. It could not be refuted and no attempt at refutation has ever been made. The press, the ‘better element,’ and even the judiciary of Chicago, stood convicted and condemned by Gov. Altgeld’s historic pardon – convicted of lynching under the forms of law, condemned for judicial murder.”
March 27, 2017