On May 4, 1886, a peaceful labor protest turned violent after a bomb exploded and police fired on the protesters. Eight activists were subsequently indicted and, according to the conventional account, railroaded at trial. All were convicted and four were subsequently executed.
What if the conventional account of the Haymarket protest and trial are wrong? The February 11 issue of National Review has an interesting article by John Miller on the scholarship of Timothy Messer-Kruse, author of two books (The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age and The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks) that challenge the dominant Haymarket narrative. Specifically, Messer-Kruse’s research questions whether the initial protests were peaceful, documents links between the protesters and violent anarchist networks, and — perhaps most importantly — shows that they were not railroaded by the state. Late 19th century justice would not pass muster under today’s standards, but — given the standard of the time — the Haymarket protesters received a fair trial. Prosecutors presented extensive evidence against them during the six-week trial, including forensic evidence that the allegedly peaceful anarchists were, in fact, responsible for the initial bombing.
Miller’s article also recounts the initial reception to Messer-Kruse’s research among labor historians. Whereas most prior historians had relied upon an account of the trial prepared by the defense, Messer-Kruse combed through the actual trial records. More importantly, he was willing to follow the evidence, even if it undermined an ideologically convenient narrative about an important event in labor history. Yet old myths die hard. As Messer-Kruse recounted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it took some time before Wikipedia editors would allow revisions to the Haymarket Affair page, even though Messer-Kruse was citing original source documents.