Martin Duberman

Chicago’s august West Side Philosophical Society, aware of the agitation throughout the land, decided that the time had come to schedule an open debate at Princeton Hall on “Socialism.” Albert Parsons was invited to present the case.

“That’s like the Pope opening the Vatican to the Pharisees,” Lizzie said when she heard the news.

“Don’t go,” Lucy said, “You’ll be Exhibit A at the freak show.”

“I have to go,”Albert said. “It’s a unique opportunity to speak my mind to people who are convinced I don’t have one. Don’t worry: I have no illusions that anything I could say will find favor, or even comprehension, among the stuffed shirts.”

“Good,” Lucy said, “because you won’t change a single person’s mind.”

On the night of the debate, a sizeable contingent of IWPA comrades, including Lucy, Lizzie, William, Spies, Fielden, and Neebe, grouped tautly together at the front of the imposing and packed auditorium. The seats immediately surrounding them remained unfilled; though it was a standing-room only crowd, none of the fashionable attendees would dream of sitting in proximity to such notorious rabble-rousers.

Reacting to a tap on her shoulder, Lucy turned around to find herself staring into the smiling face of Nina Van Zandt.

“I just wanted to say a quick hello,” Nina offered. “I’m so looking forward to hearing your husband speak. So is my mother.” Nina pointed to a woman seated in the middle of the audience, dressed in a full-length gown with shirr pleats across her right shoulder and velvet trimming on her left—the latest word in Continental elegance. Mrs. Van Zandt waved cordially—she and Lucy had briefly met during Nina’s fittings—and Lucy, still open-mouthed at Nina’s audacity in publicly acknowledging her, waved back.

“Thank you for … for coming,” Lucy managed to stammer.

“I’ll see you very soon,” Nina said over her shoulder as she went to rejoin her mother.

At just that moment, Albert mounted the podium. He paused for a moment to survey the sea of satins and shawls, felt top hats and Prince Albert long coats, the members of the audience spread out before his eyes like a sea of long-necked albatrosses.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, his voice benign and melodious, “it very seldom happens that I have a chance to speak before a meeting composed of so many gentlemen with nice white shirts and ladies wearing elegant and costly toilets. I am the notorious Parsons, the fellow with long horns, as you know him from the daily press. Well, I am from Texas, where longhorns—cattle, that is—are indeed common, so perhaps the image is not entirely inappropriate.”

That produced a few titters, and some unease. The ladies tended to think Parsons’ smile uncommonly sweet; the men found his emphasis on longhorns vaguely threatening, somehow conjuring up the image of heads on pikes.

“I’m in the habit,” Albert continued, “of speaking before meetings composed of people who by their labor supply you with all these nice things you wear while they themselves are forced to dress in coarse and common garments; of such people who build your fine palaces, with all those comfortable fixtures, while they themselves dwell in hovels or on the street. Are not these charitable people—these sans-culottes—very generous to you?”

The only response was some low hissing. The ladies made a quick reevaluation: the sweet smile belonged to a villain—just as they’d been warned.

“We’ve often heard,” Albert said, “that in this country 55 million people live in ease and plenty. Yet in its last issue, Bradstreet’s states that 2 million heads of families are in enforced idleness and without any means of support—and Bradstreet’s is certainly not a lying communistic sheet.” There was a renewed, louder wave of hissing.

Motioning for quiet, his voice less mellow, Albert moved directly—he knew this audience wouldn’t listen for long—to his charge: “Here in this city of Chicago alone, there are 35 thousand men, women and children living in a condition of starvation, driven to—”

He was again interrupted, this time by loud booing from several different sections of the audience. Albert’s voice rose insistently above the din: “You may choose to deny that so many in your midst are starving to death, but that will not make the fact less true.”

“Give us proof!” a man shouted from the back rows. “Prove that what you say is fact!”

“Proof? Do you lack eyes and ears, sir? Or do you employ them only when guaranteed sylvan sights and sounds? Proof, my dear sir, is easily come by. Take yourself to a police station on a bitter winter night and you will see what passes for charity in Chicago—cold, bare flagstones for sleep, a 5 a.m. slice of bread for breakfast, or none at all. Or if you fear visiting a police station lest you be detained for real crimes, have a look in the city’s damp tunnels at night, where you’ll see men—yes, and many women, too, and they are not prostitutes, as you may prefer to believe—trotting up and down all night to keep from freezing to death. If none of that persuades you as proof, then you might try…”

Dozens of men in the audience were now on their feet, stamping and shouting insults at the platform. The chairman of the event hastened to the podium, banged the gavel, and called for order. As the frenzy began slowly to subside, the chairman gestured frantically toward the wings, and two frightened young ladies, with their musical accompanist, timidly appeared on the stage. But before they could begin to sing, Albert, taking advantage of the lull, managed to yell out a few final words: “You are driving the people to revolution. I do not advocate force, I merely predict it. Violence will come not because we want it, but because you make it inevitable!”

As the audience broke into an uproar, Lucy, Spies and the other comrades rushed Albert through the back exit behind the stage. Once on the street they quickly dispersed—but not before Lucy caught a glimpse of Nina and her mother standing silently on the sidewalk, alone.

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Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor of History at The City University of New York and the author of some 20 books. The preceding was excerpted from his most recent work, the historical novel Haymarket (Seven Stories Press, 2003).
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