November 11, 1887

was a Friday and four of the eight defendants convicted in connection with the Haymarket Affair were executed — hung — in the alley behind Chicago’s old City Hall: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons and August Spies. The evening before, another of the convicted, Louis Lingg, had committed suicide by biting down on a blasting cap while in his cell. Two others, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab, had their sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard James Oglesby. Oscar Neebe had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned Fielden, Schwab and Neebe.

The Haymarket Affair grew out of the struggle for an 8 hour work day. A predecessor organization to the AFL-CIO, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, had proclaimed that as of May 1, 1886, the 8 hour day would be “the law” and a series of strikes and demonstrations were organized to enforce the proclamation or it was included as a part of ongoing disputes, such as the strike at the McCormick harvester plant in Chicago that had been ongoing since February. On May 3, 1886, a rally at the McCormick plant was violently suppressed by police, killing at least two of the striking workers.

A protest rally was hastily organized for the next evening at Chicago’s Haymarket on the near west side. It was poorly attended, about a tenth the size organizers had hoped. As the rally sputtered to an end in the face of oncoming rain, Inspector John “Black Jack” Bonfield arrived with a large contingent of police, despite having been instructed by Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., to stand down. A bomb was thrown at the police, killing several and severely wounding many others. The police responded by shooting indiscriminately, hitting several of their own and many of the crowd. It’s not known how many of the demonstrators were killed or injured.

If you work a 40 hour week, you can thank the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and the Chicago anarchists for your leisure time. If you live anywhere but in the United States, you can thank the Haymarket Affair for making May 1st your Labor Day.

There are three points that I think are worth making this year.

First, present day histories of the Affair tend to downplay a simple fact: Most of the Haymarket defendants were revolutionaries. They would have been seriously disappointed to be presented as anything else. They generally came to that position as much through experience as anything else. I don’t mean this as an endorsement of insurrection, but whatever you might think of it in the present, they were making a reasonable assessment of their own times and of the immediate possibilities for change. It shouldn’t be downplayed.

Second, the case against the defendants had scarce physical evidence. The suicide, Louis Lingg, was apparently a bomb-maker and the physical remains of the thrown bomb were consistent with his product. How much you want to trust this is up to you. The law was not well respected by much of Chicago, not just by the anarchists. And there is some doubt, of course, about whether or not Lingg’s death was actually suicide.

Most of the case against the Haymarket defendants was their own rhetoric. For example, Samuel Fielden, the last speaker at the rally, was winding up his speech with:

“A million men hold all the property in this country. The law has no use for the other fifty-four millions. You have nothing more to do with the law except to lay hands on it and throttle it until it makes its last kick… Keep your eye upon it, throttle it, kill it, stab it, do everything you can to wound it — to impede its progress.”

Incendiary language, certainly. Worthy of the death penalty? Yes? No? Now tell me: What should be done about Donald Trump’s rhetoric?

Ah well, that was then and they were poor. This is now and Trump is rich.

Finally, Inspector John Bonfield is a bigger player in this story than most accounts provide. While he was not in charge of the earlier police action at the McCormick harvester plant, he was a participant. He got the nickname “Black Jack” through his liberal use of the same in putting down other labor strikes in Chicago. He was later accused of stealing Louis Lingg’s clothing and property to sell. This accusation led to his resignation from the Chicago Police. Perhaps he had supplied the blasting cap as well?

For all that the left and labor justifiably hated him, Bonfield is an interesting character. You can find a good summary of his life and misadventures HERE, but there’s a good deal more available on the web, including his testimony at the Haymarket Affair trial. He’s buried under a modest stone in Oakwood Cemetery on Chicago’s southeast side.

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Happy Birthday, Debs!

On this day in 1855, Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He is notable as having been a leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, an Indiana state legislator, a founder and President of the American Railway Union, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, and a founder and five time Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.

The Eugene V. Debs Foundation maintains his home in Terre Haute, Indiana, as a museum.

Debs saw himself, and the Socialist Party, more as a catalyst than as a vehicle. My currently favorite quote from Debs illustrates this nicely:

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now, the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”

The Spider’s Web

It’s a really dark web…

This is a full length documentary but worth your attention. It mostly focuses on Britain and its tax havens, but the United States is revealed as a player as well.

If you watch this critically, you’ll note that not all the dots are well connected. For me, at least, it inspires a desire for further investigation. It’s also worth contemplating the connection between economics and politics.

Nickel Plate 765

nkp765
Nickel Plate 765 @ Roosevelt Road pulling into Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, September 16, 2018. Photo by Roman.

Trainspotters won’t like it, but railroad photography has a lot in common with pornography. While trains ain’t sexual (for most of us, I assume), the photography is representing what is otherwise a sensual experience: the rumble and the roar of the Wabash Cannonball, as the song goes. The same for photographing sex. (Though if there’s a rumble and a roar, it’s probably theatre.) Likewise, there aren’t many camera angles that make sense for either trains or sex so the photography for both tends to be awfully repetitive. But there I was, along with a few dozen other enthusiasts and curious onlookers, on the Roosevelt Road overpass above the METRA tracks. We lined up on the south and north sides of the bridge, waiting in the sun for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s restored steam engine, Nickel Plate #765, to come by on its fourth (and final for the season) “Joliet Rocket” excursion run between Joliet and Chicago on the old Rock Island tracks.

The camera most definitely got in the way of the experience. I’m almost sorry I brought it along.

For those who might be wondering, the old Nickel Plate railroad is now a part of the Norfolk Southern system. No. 765 is a member of the last generation of steam locomotives, built in 1944. It was designed for fast freight service, and performed well by all accounts, but diesel-electric locomotives proved more economical. Steam locomotives actually develop more power at higher speeds, diesel-electrics the opposite, making diesels more useful in more situations. By the time 765 passed under the Roosevelt Road bridge, it was probably travelling at around 10 miles per hour. You’ll note the METRA diesel at the tail end of the train. It provided electrical power for the passenger cars. I’m not sure if there’s any way of turning the train at LaSalle Street Station (probably not), so it may have piloted the train back to Joliet also.

765, incidentally, is a large piece of equipment, weighing over 400 tons. It’s big even by today’s standards. Back in 1944, freight cars were typically 30 or 40 feet long and carried… 50, 60 tons of cargo, IIRC. Imagining 765 at the head of fifty to a hundred of these smallish freight cars travelling at 60 miles per hour… Impressive. Plus back then freight cars were not equipped with roller bearings but had journal bearings lubricated¬† with oil soaked rags. They were seriously noisy compared to rolling stock today. Talk about the “rumble and the roar” thundering by in a cloud of coal smoke and dust!

I’d recommend Roosevelt Road as a train watching location in Chicago: hardly a news flash for local trainspotters but maybe useful for outatowners. There are the METRA Rock Island tracks, and just a block or so west, you’ll find the AMTRAK yards and the south tracks into Union Station. In the distance to the south, there’s the St. Charles Air Line. It’s easily accessible and there’s always something going on. Since much of it is passenger trains, it’s also scheduled.

 

The Other 9/11

Time to rub your nose in it.

The other 9/11 was the coup in Chile, 1973, and the United States was deeply involved, to the extent that it makes Vladimir Putin look like a piker with his interventions. Putin’s cynicism, alas, has some justification: If you’re sufficiently powerful — if you’re the winner — war crimes go unpunished. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger (among others) should have ended in prison.

This video is from a Canadian video series Rare Earth, hosted by Evan Hadfield who happens to be the son of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield… you know, the cat who sang David Bowie songs from the International Space Station. The series is a real mixed bag in terms of quality, the main problem being that Evan Hadfield imagines himself to be an essayist in the same league as Ian Brown of CBC Sunday Morning fame. Sometimes that’s even true. That’s approximately a complement, by the way. When it’s not true, the pain is eased by the work of Rare Earth’s videographer, Francesco Petitti.

For those inclined to separate Pinochetism and Nazism, there are organic links, including to the sort of Evangelicalism fuelling the religious right here in the States:

The coup in Chile had repercussions and consequences far beyond that country, far beyond the South American continent; some would argue it changed the world. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine makes a convincing case:

I do believe Klein’s documentary ends on far too optimistic a note. We chant “The people united will never be defeated” as we consistently get our asses kicked, when in fact “There ain’t no power like the power of the dollars and the power of the dollars don’t stop!” I would call for revolution but the 20th Century experience has been that revolutions change far less than advertised. In a strange sort of way, that may be the main justification for optimism.

Well, one way or another, a change is gonna come. Even if it’s only the mass extinction of the anthropocene.

Wrapped in Steel

This is a portrait of a Chicago community in transition circa 1982-1983 while it was still somewhat in denial about what was in store:

Produced and directed by James R. Martin, written by James R. Martin and Dominic Pacyga, with some original music by William Russo (!). The more you know about Chicago history during the last third of the 20th Century, the more you’ll take away from this documentary.

The movie cries out for a retrospective essay… or even a retrospective documentary. It isn’t something I’m prepared to do, so I’ll be limited to making a few observations.

The then-Alderman of the 10th Ward, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak makes an early appearance. It’s worth mentioning as Vrdolyak was the Darth Vader of the Chicago City Council wars that raged after the election of Harold Washington as Mayor of Chicago. Some time later in the documentary, United Steelworkers leader the late Ed Sadlowski, Sr. (a DSA member) makes a number of appearances. The current 10th Ward Alderwoman is Susan Sadlowski Garza, Ed Sadlowski’s daughter. She was one of the early candidates to be endorsed by Bernie Sanders as his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination got going.

As an aside, the 10th Ward was the place where I first did canvassing for a candidate. I was volunteering for Saul Mendelson, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois State Senate and for Leon Chestang, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois House of Representatives. Chestang was Black. Mendelson was a Southshore Jewish socialist. I don’t recall the reaction of the voters we canvassed though I doubt we recorded many “pluses”. The reactions were probably better than if we had been canvassing for Republican or third party candidates. We ran into workers from Vrdolyak’s office canvassing for their slate. They were cordial but that was mostly because they did not feel at all insecure with their prospects for victory.

This is a compelling documentary, not for any sentimental nostalgia (though if you grew up in Hegewisch around that period, you may end up a puddle) but because in this portrait of southeast Chicago, you will see the early 21st Century in birth.