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A nation's growing pains intensify, and Chicago erupts

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America
By James Green
Pantheon, 383 pp., illustrated, $26.95

In the 35 years that were left to the 19th century after the Civil War, the US economy went through one of the most astonishing periods of growth in world history. In 1865 the United States was a major exporter of agricultural products, such as cotton, and raw materials, but it still imported many basic industrial products, like steel, largely from Britain, then the world's leading industrial power.

By 1900, however, the US steel industry was larger than Britain's and Germany's combined, and American industrial exports of everything from steel to sewing machines to locomotives were growing quickly. By the turn of the century the United States had by far the largest and most powerful economy on earth, a status it has comfortably maintained .

But this extraordinary growth did not come without much social and political conflict. In the late 19th century the United States and the other major industrial powers had to invent the rules by which modern industrial economies could be successfully governed and the vast wealth created equitably distributed. This was no easy task and, all too often, not a peaceful one. Indeed, it would be the 1930 s before US labor, thanks to the Wagner Act, would be able to negotiate with capital on something like equal terms.

In the early days of industrial capitalism, capital reigned supreme. Speaking with one voice through management, while workers had to bargain individually, capital was able to impose low wages, long hours, and often brutal working conditions .

With organizations such as the Knights of Labor, numerous attempts were made to bring workers together in order to bargain more effectively. Unfortunately for labor , anarchists, who believed in abolishing government, often tried to use labor grievances to advance their political ideas, and many anarchists were as addicted to violence as modern-day terrorists. They did the law-abiding workers whom they purported to champion no favors.

Needless to say, capitalists fought these movements . They very often had the help of state governors, who would send in the state police to ``restore order," all too frequently a euphemism for strike breaking. But the labor movement wouldn't be stopped and the number of strikes multiplied in the 1880 s, from fewer than 500 a year to more than 1 ,500 in 1886 as workers fought for such now-taken-for-granted rights as the eight-hour day.

No labor unrest that year drew more attention than the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, the subject of James Green's absorbing ``Death in the Haymarket." A national strike -- not very effective on the national level -- demanding an eight-hour day had been called and several thousand workers in Chicago went out. Also on strike were workers at the McCormick Reaper Works. On May 3 violence had broken out there and police had killed four workers. On May 4 a small anarchist group called a rally at the Haymarket in support of the McCormick workers and to protest the killings. It was a largely peaceful affair attended by perhaps 1,500 people until rain thinned the crowd.

Then 180 police arrived and demanded that the crowd disperse. Before it could do so, however, a bomb exploded among the policemen, killing one officer and wounding many others, six of whom later died. The police began firing wildly, killing several onlookers and wounding perhaps a hundred, about half of whom were fellow officers.

The Chicago establishment, in a word, went nuts while a wave of fear regarding radicals and foreigners, the first ``red scare," swept the country.

Hundreds of anarchists and other radicals were rounded up in Chicago with little or no evidence that they had been involved in the bombing. Eight were tried for conspiracy and convicted . Seven were sentenced to death and one to a long prison term. Appeals did not change the result. One of the condemned took his own life in prison, two had their sentences commuted to life, and four, who had refused to ask the governor for mercy, were hanged. The three sentenced to prison were pardoned a few years later . A statue erected in the Haymarket as a memorial to the policemen who died was attacked numerous times (most recently in the 1970s) and now stands in the courtyard of the police academy .

Green, a professor of labor history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, brings this tale to vivid life. The characters, many obscure to history, are mostly well fleshed out. He does an equally good job with the Chicago of the late 19th century. Fast-growing, self-confident to the point of brashness, already the city of big shoulders, Chicago was rapidly becoming a world-class city, the capital, in a sense, of the American heartland. But it was a city of conflict and division. Green does a wonderful job of delineating the cross currents of labor, capital, politics, and terrorism.

It is not always a pretty picture, but it is certainly a fascinating and deeply American one.

John Steele Gordon is the author of ``An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power."

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