Understanding an opposing view is critical if true civility is to be achieved

A depiction of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago.
A depiction of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Northwestern University

“But, professor, if the trial went on for six weeks and no evidence was presented, what did they talk about all those days?” asked an alert student in Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse’s class at Bowling Green University.

The professor had told his class that there was no evidence presented at the trial of the eight men convicted for causing the infamous “Haymarket Riot” in Chicago in 1886.

Nonetheless, this question caused him to re-examine the case during his writing of two excellent books, “The Haymarket Conspiracy” and “The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists.”

Terry Scambray special to the Bee Fresno Bee file

The riot occurred on May 4, 1886, near Haymarket Square in Chicago as a group protested the previous day’s killing of six men by the Chicago police during a battle between strikers and strike breakers at the McCormick Reaper Works.

As the Haymarket protest ended, the police, fearing more trouble, ordered the crowd to disperse. Then a bomb was tossed at the police while almost simultaneously gunfire erupted from the crowd, suggesting the two actions were coordinated.

Chaos ensued. Seven policemen and three civilians were killed while many others were severely injured.

The subsequent investigation resulted in the arrest of eight anarchists for conspiracy to commit murder. Rudolph Schnaubelt, who probably tossed the bomb, was arrested and released for lack of evidence though known as the maker of “czar bombs,” so called because an anarchist used one to murder Czar Alexander II. Such murders were called “the propaganda of the deed” and were meant to terrify the authorities of their impending doom.

Bomb fragments at the scene matched the bombs found at the residences of Chicago anarchists, which were made according to the manual, “The Science of Revolutionary Warfare” by the exiled German, Johann Most, America’s most notorious anarchist and a friend of the convicted.

The trial also revealed that the Haymarket was chosen for the protest because it was intersected by avenues that could be escape routes when the planned riot began. Then a mob would form, led by armed cadres of anarchists to take control of Chicago.

Messer-Kruse found this information in the trial record, which no one seems to have read, historians relying instead on an abstract of the case written by the anarchists’ defense team. Indeed, the most-relied-on source for the case was “A Concise History of the Great Trial of the Chicago Anarchists,” written by a leader of the campaign for amnesty for the convicted anarchists.

Considering that these were the sources for the case, it is understandable that the evidence presented during the trial was buried beneath the lie that the convicted were victims of intolerance during “America’s first Red Scare.”

Though this way of telling America’s story is not new, it has intensified in the last 60 years. So perhaps it’s time to realize that history is not melodrama and, invariably, ironies abound.

For example, while political revolution was a part of 19th century history, a productive revolution was taking place in agricultural technology, making it possible for the first time to feed everyone. And the McCormick Harvester was a major part of this transformation.

When Cyrus McCormack took his harvester to London’s World Fair in 1851, The London Times mocked it as, “a cross between a wheelbarrow and a flying machine.” Then people saw how much grain it could harvest! Afterwards McCormick received The Great Medal from the fair and was elected to the Legion of Honor in Paris and the French Academy of Science.

Frank Norris’ “The Octopus,” the novel about wheat farming in the San Joaquin Valley, describes the machine as a fierce engine of production: “The harvester, shooting a column of thick smoke, hissed and clanked; the header knives cutting a 36 foot swath; insatiable, swallowing an entire harvest.”

Though as much of the past should be told, choices have to be made about what to include. Without a more complete picture, however, people have little basis for thought, for it is largely by comparing and contrasting that thinking takes place.

Yes, encouraging civility in public discourse is worthy advice.

But John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, goes beyond platitudes with this demanding advice: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

Terry Scambray taught English at Fresno City College and has been published in New Oxford Review, Commonweal, New English Review, Touchstone, American Thinker and other venues.