In 1886 a bomb killed seven policemen during an eight-hour day demonstration in Haymarket Square in Chicago. The subsequent conviction of eight anarchists for allegedly inciting the attack began a chapter in labor history celebrated on May Day and commemorated annually at the graves of the martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery. Duberman, a labor historian, focuses his story on the American-born radical Albert Parsons and his wife Lucy, who survived him to become a leader of the American left.
Narrating much of the story through Parsons’ diary emphasizes the love story between the former Confederate and his assertive mixed-race wife. Normally a character in a 19th century novel who speaks for racial and gender equality would be an anachronism, but the record supports the idea that Lucy Parsons held her advanced views passionately. In response to brutal exploitation, the Parsons and their associates organized unions, published radical critiques, sought elective office and generally agitated for change. In addition to politics the book re-creates the material culture of late 19th century Chicago with its streetcars, German beer gardens and impossible women’s fashions.
The subsequent trial convicted the eight on flimsy evidence and novel legal theories of responsibility. Duberman sets out to bring the martyrs to life and makes clear where his sympathies lie. The scenes from the trial closely follow the historical record with more personal encounters added to humanize the defendants. The courageous Chicagoans who stood up to the inflamed local passions and defended the anarchists come off well in this book. When the American public feels threatened, the justice system fails, but history remembers.