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Lingg’s Autobiography: An Overlooked Haymarket Confession?

Louis Lingg.

On the near west side of Chicago, between parking lots and the plain back walls of commercial buildings, stands a puzzling monument whose abstract figures are either assembling or pulling apart an old-fashioned wagon. Circling the base of the sculpture are bronze plaques that describe the meaning of theat night one hundred and thirty four years ago when someone threw a bomb into a squad of policemen, wounding scores and killing seven and coming to be known as the Haymarket incident.  One reads:

 “The identity and affiliation of the person who threw the bomb have never been determined; this anonymous act had many victims… In the aftermath, those who organized and spoke at the meeting – and others who held unpopular political viewpoints – were arrested, unfairly tried and, in some cases, sentenced to death even though none could be tied to the bombing itself.”

Today this interpretation is widely accepted by many historians and the public at large, and the idea that the eight men tried for this crime were railroaded to a conviction without a shred of evidence can be found everywhere from college history textbooks to the speeches given every May Day.

But like the tale of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, a morality tale made popular by its frequent retelling, this well-worn version of the Haymarket bombing is at bottom a myth — not because most of them weren’t tried in an atmosphere of anti-radical hysteria, or because some of the evidence used against them was shaky, or because they weren’t internationally hailed as martyrs to the workers’ revolution.

For at least one defendant, however, was clearly “tied to the bombing.”. His name was Louis Lingg, and in his righteous radical fury at the capitalist system, he may have left a hidden clue within a memoir he dictated in his last days before preemptingcheating the hangman and killing himself.

The Story of Louis Lingg

In 1886 crime scene investigation was still a primitive process.  Fingerprints, ballistic matching, and blood-typing, had all yet to be invented.  Even Sherlock Holmes was yet a year away from his literary debut.

Given the chaos that reigned for hours through the night of May 4th and the scale of the crime scene along Desplaines street, it is a wonder any useful evidence was recovered at all.  The block was littered with flattened hats and bits of torn cloth.  The wooden blocks that paved the street were splotched red.  Windows were broken around the block and door posts, walls, and light poles were peppered with slug holes.

But a few important pieces of evidence were recovered from the crime scene.  One observant cop picked up a charred and twisted bolt from the street.  Later the bolt was found to fit a heavy square nut that had been removed by surgeons from a bystander’s buttocks.  Surgeons also tweezed out of the body of the first police officer to die, Michael Degan, a thumbnail-size piece of the bomb.  That bolt would prove a key piece of evidence later.

Louis Lingg was a strikingly handsome twenty-two year old carpenter who rented a room from a fellow carpenter and his wife on Sedgwick street in the near North side.  Though he had only been in America for a year and a half and still spoke very little English, he had risen to the leadership of his union.  In recent months he had worked to organize the men who worked in the sprawling lumber yards that lined Blue Island Avenue, the same job his father had done back in Mannheim until he fell through a frozen river trying to recover an errant log.

In his short time in Chicago Lingg had accumulated one line on his rap sheet, an arrest for participating in a fists- and- stones skirmish in front of the McCormick Reaper Works during a strike that March. When he caught wind that the police had been asking questions about him, Lingg went and hid out at a friend’s house in the lumber district he had come to know so well.

This was not the first time that Lingg had eluded the police.

Back in the old country, Bismarck’s Germany, Lingg had been a socialist in anthe era when that was a crime in Bismarck’s Germany. Even the relatively free air of Switzerland was unsafe for him, as he was pursued by the Swiss authorities for being a German draft-dodger.  He knew a thing or two about living underground, having had some contacts with the most famous German terrorist of his age, August Reinsdorf, the leader of a radical cell that had tried to blow up a train carrying the Kaiser and his family.

Louis Lingg was born in Mannheim, the son of a laborer in a lumber yard.  His mother wanted him to learn an office trade, but Louis insisted on becoming a carpenter, and he entered the workshop at the age of five. Lingg completed his apprenticeship at the usual age of eighteen and struck out on his own as a journeyman, wandering through Alsace, southern Germany, and Switzerland.  In spite of Germany’s strict anti-socialists laws, Lingg joined the remnants of Lassalle’s General Association of German Workingmen and enjoyed the hospitality of socialist ‘eating societies.’

From 1883 to 1885 Lingg drifted from the socialist to the revolutionary camp and little is known of his activities in these years beyond what he himself revealed in this memoir.  All that is certain is that in the summer of 1885, with money given him by a step-father he barely knew, Lingg embarked at Harve, France, for America.

While Lingg hid out on the southwest side of the city after the Haymarket bombing, police forced the door to his room and in a steamer trunk engraved with the initials “L.L.” found a stack of letters, pamphlets, and newspapers, a loaded Remington rifle, a coil of fuse, and a round lead bomb, about the size of a softball, stuffed into an old grey sock.  A bucket under Lingg’s bed contained greasy sawdust that was later taken out to the lakefront, lit, and from the ensuing blast determined to be dynamite.  Next to the dynamite bucket was a tin lunch pail filled with four pipe bombs, two loaded.  In a washstand were a number of bolts of the same gauge and dimensions as one twisted, charred bolt recovered from the scene of the deadly bombing three days before.

Even with the help of several people who knew Lingg and three or four of Lingg’s associates who had squealed to the cops, it took detectives Jacob Lowenstein and Herman Schuettler, the two investigators who knew the dense German districts best, a week to locate Lingg’s hide-out, a little cottage on Ambrose street just a couple blocks from the McCormick Reaper factory.  In their plain clothes, Lowenstein covered the back door while Schuettler, claiming to be a friend of Lingg’s, was let in by the homeowner, a Mrs. Klein.  As soon as Lingg saw him he wheeled and pulled his revolver. Schuettler lunged for the gun and the two crashed to the floor.  Lingg clamped his teeth on Schuettler’s thumb while the other detective burst in through the back and struck him across the ear with his club and throttled him until he was shackled in “come-alongs.”

Held without bond in an eight- by- eight cell, Lingg used a piece of charcoal to decorate the freshly whitewashed walls with battle scenes and mottoes in German, “Long Live the Revolution,” and “If the law catches me I shall have to suffer.”

Overwhelming Evidence

While Lingg smeared his slogans on his cell walls, a pioneering chemist from the Rush Medical College, Dr. Walter S. Haines, scratched samples of metal from the inside of the globular bomb shells seized from his trunk and assayed their elemental composition.  After performing similar analysis of the chunk taken from Degan’s body, they concluded two important things that later became important links in the chain of evidence connecting Lingg to the bomber.

Both samples they had surveyed were distinctly different from all types of commercial lead and solder but were a match to each other. When Dr. Haines took the stand and testified on the evidence linking Lingg to the bombing, it was the first use of forensic science in an American courtroom.

The evidence against Lingg was so overwhelming that Lingg’s own attorney shifted tactics toward the end of the trial and that his lawyer conceded that he had assembled bombs hours before the bombing, but lamely tried to argue that the bombs he made were for self-defense and he had a perfect right to own them.

In the year following the conviction of eight anarchists for conspiring to murder police officers at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886, the city’s flagship of the radical press, the Arbeiter Zeitung, began publishing the memoirs of the condemned.   These individual autobiographies were immediately reprinted in the English-language monthly, the Knights of Labor.  A total of seven of these reminiscences had been published by the Spring of 1887, as the prisoners appeals wound their way toward the U.S. Supreme Court.  However, this collection of articles was one short: the autobiography of Louis Lingg, an admitted bomb-maker, was notably absent.

Lingg’s memoir appeared for the first time in the week following his suicide and the hanging of his four comrades in November 1887 in the Arbeiter Zeitung, but they were not translated into English for another year when they were serialized in the Alarm between December 29, 1888 and January 12, 1889.  No academic took notice of them until historian Philip Foner collected all eight reminiscences and published them as The Autobiography of the Haymarket Martyrs in 1969.

It seems apparent, from this publishing timeline, that Lingg’s autobiography was kept secret until after all hopes for legal appeals or gubernatorial clemency were lost.  This would have been in keeping with the publication of Lingg’s only other significant piece of writing, a political treatise on anarchism that was published the week following his death. Dyer Lum, the editor of the Alarm, admitted that Lingg’s writing had been withheld, appending an editorial note that read, “The above article now for the first time appears in print.  In the German form much of it was suppressed.”

From a casual reading, none of these documents seem to contain any obviously shocking admissions that would warrant being kept secret until the final act of this tragic drama.  But, clearly, there must have been some element of Lingg’s writing that worried his friends and the editors of sympathetic journals enough to keep them under wraps.  Perhaps by a closer reading in the context of the radical culture of that time, thethis mystery of who threw the bomb at Haymarket can be solved.

Lingg’s Ideology

Lingg’s manifesto, published as “Lingg’s Principles” in the Alarm is arguably the more radical of the two documents.  Translated by his fellow death row inmate, Adolph Fischer, “Lingg’s Principles” opens with a rather typical anarchist defense of the practicality of a truly free society, one self-ruled without laws or government, based on the “transformation of private property…into the common property of society.”  Lingg’s description of an economy based on free contract and the exchange of labor time was not far different from similar theories included in several of the other Haymarket autobiographies, especially that of August Spies.  Lingg does carriesy his utopian scheme into what would likely have been seen as more radical depths in noting that such a free economy would unshackle women from their domestic chores and matrimony:

A woman has a right to all positions which she can administer, and in a free (anarchistic) society she will know how to exercise this right, too.  She will be no longer the mere servant, the cookmaid of her spouse, but the equal of him.  As a consequence of the pulling down of the barriers to a true civilization the female sex would become absolutely independent of the bearded half of humanity, socially as well as economically, and the result of this would be free and pure love.

Lingg’s comrades were deeply split over these issues of sexual roles and marriage, especially among the German-language sections of the party that had long condemned English-speaking or “Yankee” radicals for their idealism and faddism in calling for equal rights for women or, far worse, “free love.”   Similarly unpopular sentiments are absent from Lingg’s “Autobiography” and therefore are not likely to have been the impetus for withholding both of them.

Lingg’s “Autobiography” is one of the least theoretical of the entire group of eight such memoirs.  It opens with his birth in Baden in 1864 and progresses through his short life up to the trial that condemned him.  Only in a few asides, does Lingg depart from the events of his own life to express his principles.

At one point Lingg wrote, “In this period of party life, experiences led me to the conclusion that in a centralistic organization, with a representative system, all power and activity is concentrated in the hands of the few, thus inducing them to corruption and imperiousness, whilst the great masses are inclined to become indifferent and stupid.”  Then towards the end of his reminiscences, Lingg proclaims:

It had long been since my opinion that in the present state of society the working classes could make no gain in the direction of improving their condition by means and ways of Trade Union, but, nevertheless, I participated in the organization of the latter, because I knew that the working men from their past and coming experiences and disappointments would soon become revolutionists…I held the opinion that the forces by which the workers are kept in subjugation must be retaliated by force…

Lingg’s admission that he favored retaliation by force was certainly self-incriminating, but not any more so than the statement he made before the court when he was sentenced.  Lingg’s profession of faith in force in his memoir were in line with but less direct than similar sentiments he expressed in his last letter from jail:

I have advocated the propaganda by deeds with the intention that it shall not only be a slight return for the exploitation, suppression, and murder of my fellow workmen, but principally that it may challenge our exploiters and their legal tools to vigor-our [I suspect this should read vigorous] persecution, because I feel confident that the inevitable and also forcible revolution must come soon, when we may be successful.

There remains in Lingg’s “Autobiography” only one other mention of his radical ideology where he describes his becoming a “social revolutionist.”  Explaining how he encountered radical ideas while tramping through Switzerland as a journeyman carpenter, he remembered:

…I became a social revolutionist, and sharted the tactics of the anarchists.  I approved of the propaganda of the deed, which was carried on very vigorously at this time, by, among others, Tellmacher (sic) and Kammerer whom I knew personally as honest and true working men–at Vienna, Frankfort, Strasbourg, etc.

In this passage Lingg plainly states his commitment to the most militant branch of revolutionary anarchism and, that of those who urged individual acts of violence against the state and its agents.  Unlike the revolutionary theories of Marx that relied on mass insurrection and class action, advocates of propaganda of the deed held that individual violent acts inevitably moved toward revolutionary change as they heightened class tensions, perhaps even serving as the spark of a general uprising.

According to the ideology of propaganda of the deed, individual violence did not need to be justified on the basis of its utility in weakening enemies of the working class, but was justified as a means of heuristic resistance that served to unmask the true oppressive nature of the state.  Such expressions of support for the ideas and activists associated with the propaganda of the deed school were common in the two years leading up to the Haymarket bombing but grew rare among Chicago radicals afterwards.

None of the other Haymarket prisoners so nakedly claimed allegiance to the propaganda of the deed faction as Lingg did.  Indeed, no one else even mentions its existence.  Rather, even those most associated with this faction within Chicago’s anarchist movement, particularly Adolph Fischer and George Engel, only spoke of violence in its abstract, collective, and future revolutionary sense.  Still facing the gibbet and uncertain of his fate, Fischer softened even the platform of principles his group helped to craft, the declaration of the Pittsburg Congress of the International Working People’s Association of 1883.  Fischer summarized the IWPA’s platform as “destruction of the existing class rule, by all means, i.e. by energetic, relentless, revolutionary and international action” adding, “Does this sound like outrages and crime?”

What Fischer chose to leave out was the Pittsburgh Manifesto’s ringing call to arms.  “Since we must then rely upon the kindness of our masters for whatever redress we have, and knowing that from them no good may be expected, there remains but one recourse — FORCE! …By force have our ancestors liberated themselves from political oppression, by force their children will have to liberate themselves from economic bondage. ‘It is, therefore, your right, it is your duty,’ says Jefferson —’ to arms!’”

Propagandists of the Deed

Lingg’s unique and provocative militancy is even more evident inat an even deeper and thinly veiled aspect of his remark about propaganda of the deed.  In addition to proclaiming his agreement with this doctrine, Lingg mentions two men “whom I knew personally” who he says “carried [it] on very vigorously at this time…”  Moreover, in an odd phrasing, Lingg says he knew these men in specific cities “at Vienna, Frankfort, Strasbourg, etc.”

Though the names of Anton Kammerer and Hermann Stellmacher mean little to anyone today, in 1886 they were well-known and notorious.   Two years after the London Congress one of its delegates, Herman Stellmacher, put force behind his words and shot dead a Viennese police official while he was taking his morning stroll.  Stellmacher later told a judge that he had shot Officer Blöch on behalf of Vienna’s proletarians, apparently unaware of the irony that he had been chased down and subdued by a group of quarry workers who witnessed the murder (one of whom Stellmacher shot).  Stellmacher was a close friend of Johann Most and for a time was entrusted with editing Most’s Freiheit.

Beyond his own revolutionary deed, Stellmacher was a conspirator with a group of two others (Anton Kammerer and Michael Kumics) who were implicated in the murders of seven people (not counting Blöch).  All were delegates to the anarchist meeting at St. Gallen, Switzerland held in August 1883 and both Kammerer and Kumics had worked with Stellmacher and Most to smuggle copies of Freiheit into Germany and Austria after it was banned.

In October, they robbed a pharmacist’s office in Strasbourg beating a guard and the pharmacist to death.  A month later the gang robbed a bank in Stuttgart after murdering a banker and cracking another man’s skull.  Ten days before Christmas, they shot and killed the police commissioner of Vienna on his way home in the evening.  A fortnight later they raided the home of Viennese banker, murdering him, his two sons, ages nine and eleven, and wounding their sixty-five year old nanny with an axe.

The Stellmacher gang’s robbery and murder spree finally came to an end when police arrested Kumics and later traced a number of the bankers’ bonds that had been circulated to an anarchist newspaper in Budapest, Die Radikale, who had received them from an anonymous donor who turned out to be Anton Kammerer.

From the moment of his arrest through his hanging, Stellmacher was a hero to those who preached the propaganda of the deed.  New York’s Social Revolutionary Club organized a mass meeting in Irving Hall to celebrate Stellmacher’s courage.  Most addressed the crowd of more than a thousand, saying, “With shouts of joy does the proletariat learn of such deeds of vengeance.  The propaganda of deed excites incalculable enthusiasm…As for America, the people of that land will learn one day that an end is to be made of the mockery of the ballot, and that the best thing one can do with such fellows as Jay Gould and Vanderbilt is to hang them on the nearest lamp-post.”

As was customary for such occasions, Most and the other organizers of the evening’s program read out a series of resolutions which were acclaimed by the applause of the crowd.  The lengthiest of these concluded:  “Brothers, we approve your actions; we approve your methods.  Between you and your oppressors there can be no truce.  Kill, destroy, annihilate, assassinate, even to the germ of your aristocracy.  Have toward them no feeling of love.  They are ignorant of such a noble emotion.”

Later that August when news of Stellmacher’s execution reached New York, a placard was posted on Canal street between Bowery and Hester, in the heart of Little Germany that was addressed to the “proletariat of all countries” from the “New York group of the International Workingmen’s Association” that read in part: “In memory of the brave, self-denying, and faithful comrade, Hermann Stellmacher…But no tears flow.  Mightier than our sorrows is our hatred.  We think but of revenge for the annihilation of our best and bravest comrade…Hermann Stellmacher is dead! Long live the propaganda of the act! Hurrah for the social revolution!”

In spite of later evidence that prior to Stellmacher’s crime spree he had offered to sell information to German authorities, he remained a hero to many anarchists, his portrait graced the wall of the editorial offices of the New York Freiheit when a reporter visited years later.

In light of Kammerer’s and Stellmacher’s violent crimes, the three cities Lingg chose to illustrate his close relationship to them becomes even more significant.  Lingg says, “Tellmacher (sic) and Kammerer whom I knew personally as honest and true working men–at Vienna, Frankfort, (sic) Strasbourg…”  Vienna was where Stellmacher murdered a police informant, and a police commissioner, and where Kammerer and his gang broke into the home of a banker and murdered him and his two young sons with an axe.  In Strasbourg, the pair robbed a pharmacist, beating both him and his guard to death.  Neither man was associated directly with violent acts in Frankfurt, though another of their group, Julius Lieske, was beheaded there in 1885 for assassinating the city’s police chief.

Within the conscious geography of the most militant anarchists of that day, those three cities symbolized their creed, the propaganda of the deed.

A Smoking Gun?

Lingg’s coded proclamation of association with his murderous friends thus presents two possibilities of his intentions.  Lingg could have simply been wielding his pen defiantly as was his tendency ever since he had caught up in the police dragnet after the Haymarket bombing.  Reading his words this way reveal him to have been an even more consistently unrepentant radical than he has been given credit for.

On the other hand, this passage could also be read as a confession.  Not only did Lingg associate with Stellmacher and Kammerer, he did so at the very time their crime spree was in full swing, the Fall and Winter of 1884.  Lingg did not land in New York harbor until July of 1885.  Was it possible that Lingg was peripherally or directly involved in these famed acts of propaganda of the deed?  Is he, knowing he is soon to be martyred, hinting at these crimes?

Either way this passage was intended, others in Chicago’s movement would have had no difficulty decoding Lingg’s lightly obscured references.  If there is any clear smoking gun in Lingg’s autobiography that rendered it too dangerous to reveal while the Haymarket defendants still awaited their final appeals, it was this.

Timothy Messer-Kruse is the author of The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks (University of Illinois Press, 2012).  

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