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Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America

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  • Posted April 22, 2009

    Death in the Haymarket is insightful, thorough, accurate, and surprisingly readable.

    I have read many non-fiction books, and specifically, many accounts of a famous incident such as this one, but this one is not only very informative, but surprisingly readable--surprisingly, because many works of non-fiction are overly formal, overly wordy, and take themselves much too seriously. The subject is serious, but this account of the Haymarket incident is factual and at the same time written in plain language.

    America is known as a melting pot, but the melting is not always done with a consistency that produces a smooth product. People from all over Europe were allowed to immigrate to the United States, and many of them settled in or around Chicago. No doubt, they were optimistic about their futures in this new country, but the freedom and fairness they read about in the Bill of Rights did not apply to everyone. Europeans of many political persuasions, such as Socialism, Communism, and Anarchism, worked for their rights as workers and as legal residents of the United States, and their work led to the successful rise of several Labor organizations, such the Knights of Labor. Conditions improved over the course of time, but in 1886 the dominant issue was an eight-hour day. Right on the verge of success for the workers, the police clamped down on them. There was more than one violent incident, including the one at the Haymarket, but Haymarket was shocking in that someone threw a bomb that killed several policemen. Anarchists were blamed for the incitement of the bomb-throwing incident, and several of them were hanged for it.

    James Green's treatment of the entire issue was revealing about the actions of all parties to the event. The United States has a long tradition of providing the death penalty for serious crimes, but Green's research revealed policemen who fired their pistols into the crowd in an attempt to control it, Anarchist speakers who preached a strong conviction for defending oneself and resisting oppression, but not for murder, and a judge and jury selection which was tailor made for conviction, not fairness.

    My feeling is that no one knows who threw the bomb in the Haymarket, and it is unlikely that anyone ever will. Everyone, however, in the United States, citizen or resident alien, deserves a fair trial when accused of some kind of wrongdoing. The incident and the trial also had far-reaching effects for workers in general and union members in particular. The discussion over the eight-hour day was tabled for a generation, the Knights of Labor were essentially neutralized and forgotten, and workers were again under the thumbs of their bosses.

    James Green brings the Haymarket incident alive for persons who were not even born when it happened, and his insight and excellent research brings all of the facts to the forefront, not to mention the style of writing which makes Death in the Haymarket very readable. The book makes it possible to read through the facts with a steady flow, and allows the reader to make up his/her own mind as to right and wrong, good and bad, and true and false.

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