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Civil Wrongs

Chicago clamps down on dissent

See Illinois (unpublished)


Law enforcement agencies in Chicago have long functioned as a para-military force, empowered by forgiving judges and an anxious public to suppress—violently if necessary—inconvenient opinions of a dozen kinds. In various eras and for various reasons—which usually boiled down to threatening to upset political, social, or economic status quo—Chicago authorities at the federal, state, and local levels targeted anarchists and other subversives (real and imagined), including “foreigners,” labor organizers, protestors agitating for a dozen causes, and dissidents from every orthodoxy. 


These notes were composed for my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.


The years leading up to and during the Haymarket panic of the 1880s saw the suppression of anarchists and other, mainly working-class leftists. During World War I and into the 1920s, the crackdown fell mainly on German citizens, social clubs, and newspapers dubiously redefined as treasonous. The Cold War era saw official “surveillance” of rumored subversives and political radicals. The 1960s saw police surveillance of the Black Panthers and anti-war protesters. Sandburg’s Chicago might have had big shoulders, but it was as timid as a kitten when faced with uncomfortable ideas.  


In no episode was that fear more starkly revealed than during the Haymarket affair. Police violence during an 1886 national strike for the eight-hour day had spurred calls for a rally at Haymarket Square in the west Loop at which a bomb was thrown—no one knows by whom—that killed a policeman and led to an exchange of gunfire. Authorities were eager to make an example of the protestors and calm a frightened public, which included many of the city’s influential industrialists who were certain that Chicago faced class war. The police arrested eight anarchist-organizers and sympathizers, two of whom, not coincidentally, had led tens of thousands of workers in a peaceful parade down Michigan Avenue only days before.


The accused were quickly found guilty after a trial in which the facts of the incident figured hardly at all. “The real threat was in the popular imagination,” concludes Carl Smith in Cataclysm and Cultural Consciousness: Chicago and the Haymarket Trial, “where the accused came to stand for the pre­cariousness of social stability in an age of major dislocations, massive inequities, and unknown prospects.”


Four of the men were hanged and a fifth killed himself to deny the police the pleasure. The remaining three began serving their life sentences but were pardoned six years later by Governor John Peter Altgeld. So fervent was anti-anarchist hysteria even after six years Altgeld's clemency so angered the public that he never held elective office again.


The events of May 1886 are referred to by many names—the Haymarket Tragedy, the Haymarket Affair, the Haymarket Uprising, the Haymarket Incident, the Haymarket Riot. The confusion is a reminder that no one to this day knows for certain what happened, don’t agree about what might have happened, and certainly don’t agree on what it meant. When the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University unveiled an online exhibit in 2000 to mark the event’s centennial, they chose not to choose and opted for a title (“The Dramas of Haymarket”) invented for the purpose.


The event inspired a sizable literature, including Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America by James Green (Pantheon, 2006). Historians have been able to come to more sober view of the episode, and the verdict rendered by them against government, judge, jury, public, and press is “guilty.” The trial, writes Carl Smith, was “was one of the most shamefully handled cases in American legal history. It was a travesty that would have been appropriate to Gilbert and Sullivan or the Marx Brothers, were it not played with a real gallows at the end.”


The novelist and  editor of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, was one of those outraged at what he called “the civic murder” of the anarchists. Adam Gopnik more recently praises Howells as one of the very few writers to speak against the execution at a time “when the overwhelming majority of Americans thought of the anarchists exactly as they think of terrorists now, as aliens with large-scale massacre on their minds.” Green concludes, “I believe the history of the Haymarket tragedy should also be read as a warning to citizens who allow the civil liberties of immigrants to be violated in the name of fighting terrorism.”


Treasonous dissent during World War I


The Haymarket incident has been described as America’s first Red Scare, but it was not to be the last. During World War I, resistance in Chicago to the war effort was concentrated among the political left including labor radicals and the German community—the first was regarded as dangerous by the larger public, the latter treasonous. If the Haymarket agitators were feared as threats to the rule of law, the anti-war factions were feared, however improbably, as threats to the nation, or at least the “American way of life.” The underlying anxiety was the same—the presence in the U.S of large numbers of people whom the majority felt were alien in every way, from their origins  to their political notions, even their accents. During the war and after, public authorities at state and federal levels, often egged on by leading citizens, used (and abused) the powers of government to spy on harass, and imprison “traitors,” as defined by conveniently generous standards.


A city that is a center of labor agitation is also likely to be a center of anti-labor repression. So it proved in Chicago, whose factory owners were worried about disruptions to profitable war production posed by those who would end the war or, at the very least, end the profiteering made possible it. Wealthy Chicago businessman Asa M. Briggs proposed to the local head of the federal Bureau of Investigation the creation of a citizen outfit to assist the feds by investigating draft dodgers and deserters and spies. The result was the American Protective League.


The idea caught on, and at its height of power the APL had 250,000 members in 600 cities. The APL operated in a legal gray area; it had no legal authority but was tolerated by federal and state and local governments which shared its ends and were willing to overlook its means. In effect, APL members were vigilantes. In Chicago they illegally detained citizens associated with leftist, union, and anti-war movements and raided workers' newspapers. Writing with tongue firmly in cheek, Ernest Bogart observed in his  1920 official State of Illinois history, “It is in many ways remarkable that, with the army of officials and volunteers bent on detecting treachery, so few German American citizens were convicted of or even charged with acts of treason or disloyalty.”


The APL made a particular target of the International Workers of the World or “Wobblies" whose members were harassed and whose offices were vandalized. An important one episode in a national crackdown that left the radical workers’ movement in tatters by 1919 occurred in Chicago. More than one hundred IWW leaders were tried in a Chicago federal court before U.S. judge Kenesaw M. Landis on charges of “criminal syndicalism” and sentenced to heavy time in the federal pen. That effectively killed the organization. Most detainees were released after being held without trial, although several dozen were deported.


Among those convicted were five Socialists indicted under the federal Espionage Act of 1917. Federal lawmakers, pandering to the flag-wavers and the drum-beaters, in 1918 had amended the law to ban all criticism of the government of the U.S.—a breathtaking curb on political dissent at a time when the nearest enemy soldier was several thousand miles away. The Socialist Party was not a criminal organization in any sense when the war began, so the feds made it one. One of its leaders was Victor Berger, a Milwaukee socialist politician and former Congressman who was sentenced to 20 years. The conviction was appealed and ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that Judge Landis should have removed himself as prejudiced.


Were not so many careers and reputations wrecked, the events of the era could have been made into an entertaining theatrical farce. Among the threats to the republic targeted by the vigilantes was the Peoples Council of America for Democracy and Peace, whose Chicago chapter included law-abiding socialists, aldermen, ministers, professors, settlement-house workers (including Jane Addams), and a Congressman; even such worthies, however, could not make pacifism respectable in that atmosphere.


A national meeting in Chicago of the Peoples Council was welcomed by the anti-war Mayor William Thompson, who made a fine speech endorsing free speech, although most veteran observers of Big Bill assumed that it was the German vote that motivated him rather than love of the First Amendment. The state’s then-governor, Frank Lowden, had different constituencies to placate. Lowden, in what was a blot on an otherwise exemplary record as governor, ordered the chief of police in Chicago to break up the meeting, even though he lacked the power to do so. Protests by Thompson about this abrogation of the mayor’s authority led Lowden to send four companies of the National Guard to do the job the mayor's police chief wouldn’t, but the governor was frustrated in his purpose when the militia—the bureaucracy being no more responsive then than now—had adjourned their meeting by the time Lowden’s troops arrived.


It would be reasonable to assume that such official misbehavior ended as the anti-German hysteria faded. Alas, nothing about the Red scare of the Twenties was reasonable. Donald Tingley tells the tale in Structuring of the State.


Most citizens made little distinction between one left-wing group and another, seeing no difference between the IWW the Socialists, the communists of Russia, or the recent enemy, the Germans. Gradually the intoler­ance born of the war blossomed into a new kind of hatred, commonly called the great red scare. This transition happened so casually that most citizens were probably unaware that the momentum of war patriotism was now redirected at the new fear, the new threat to the well being of the rich and the comfortable.


Northern Illinois was a principal target in the infamous Palmer Raids of 1920. Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, jailed thousands of alleged anarchists and Communists often on trumped-up charges, an operation Tingley rightly damns as “among the most disgraceful episodes of American history.” In Springfield, as General Assembly eager to demonstrate its patriotism passed the state version of the federal Espionage Act, which prohibited “uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language or language intended to cause contempt, scorn, contumely or disrepute as regards the form of government of the United States,” the Constitution, the flag, the uniform of the Army and Navy, or “any language intended to incite resistance to the United States or promote the cause of its enemies.”


Illinoisans by then saw enemies everywhere, although the threat they posed was not to “the American way” or even social stability—they were much too few for that—but to the state’s monied interests, especially the purchasers of labor. The political and labor left which had been a bugbear of the corporate types and their political errand boys since the 1870s, now had a new ally in the newly Communist Soviet Union. Twenty members of the Communist Labor party were indicted in Chicago on charges they violated the Illinois Sedition Act. The prosecu­tion insisted that mere membership in the party was sufficient evidence of intent to carry out violent overthrow of the govern­ment; the prosecuting attorney did not make a closing argument, merely reciting all of the verses of the “Star Spangled Banner.”


Outrage over such antics spurred in 1920 founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Founders and early members included several people living in or otherwise associated with Chicago—Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, United Mine Workers president Duncan MacDonald, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, and Upton Sinclair.


Convictions thus obtained were flimsy on their face, and most were overturned or otherwise undone. The 20 convicted Communists were pardoned by Governor Len Small, who decried use of the Illinois Sedition Act to gag persons who held unpopular opinions. The pardons are often the only accomplishment cited in brief summaries of Small's time as governor apart from his indict on money-laundering scheme. For the former action he is sometimes likened to John Peter Altgeld, pardoner of the Haymarket anarchists—the only way in which historians are ever likely to liken Altgeld and Small.


“Looking for trouble”


“I have lived a life in front trenches,” said Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow in a 1918 speech, “looking for trouble.” Darrow had no trouble finding trouble in an age in which labor was pitted against capital, government against citizen, class against class, and race against race. He was a staunch advocate of the poor and the working man whose concept of civil liberties guaranteed rights to all, not merely the popular and the rich. In a career that ran from the 1890s until the New Deal, Darrow railed in court on behalf of labor unions and against child labor, for free speech and against the death penalty.


Ohio-bred and schooled, Darrow moved to Chicago in 1888, already an experienced lawyer. He soon showed a leftish bent. In 1894 he resigned his lucrative post as general counsel for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to defend Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union, during that organization’s strike against the Pullman Co. in 1894. He also urged amnesty for those sentenced to prison for their alleged part in the Haymarket Riot in 1886; Gov. John Peter Altgeld, who pardoned the men, was a friend of Darrow's.


Darrow went on to take part in an astounding number of America’s famous trials. In addition to the Debs case, he was for the defense in the trial of radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood in 1907. In the trial for the “thrill killing” of young Bobby Franks. by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold in Chicago, he made innovative use of newfangled psychiatric testimony to spare his clients—who, being both rich and Jewish, were doubly despised—the death penalty; after a 12-hour summation the judge sentenced them to life. (No Darrow client ever received a death sentence.) In 1925, Darrow appeared for the defense of schoolteacher John Scopes in the “Monkey Trial” in which he made a stirring if futile defense of free thought.


Darrow was a complicated and often contradictory character. He was as eloquent in print as in front of a jury, and a man of mordant wit (“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure”). Acquainted with virtually all the figures later associated with the Chicago Renaissance, his Chicago apartment was a popular salon. He was for a time a law partner of Edgar Lee Masters, and a friend of Altgeld. But unlike so many of his clients, Darrow did not try to change the world, only make that one that already had safer for those living on the fringes of it.


The Red Squad


In the more than a century that has passed since the 1870s, the enemies of a stable Chicago have been many—anarchists, labor organizers, foreigners, socialists, communists, atheists, black nationalists, gang bangers, and, most recently, terrorists. The authorities in Chicago have been no better than in other places at drawing fine distinctions between lawful dissent and unlawful subversion. Thus have Chicago civil rights workers, college professors, civil libertarians, pacifists, and in time, student radicals become official targets over the years. 


One such target was  community organizer Saul Alinsky. Anyone who called himself a “professional radical” in post-World War II America, for example, was bound to attract unwelcome attention from police, and  Alinsky became as familiar with local lockups as some of the juvenile delinquents he was then trying to help.


During the 1960s and 1970s, the Chicago Police Department amassed files of information culled from informants, illegal wiretaps, even break-ins on nearly a quarter-million Chicagoans and out-of-towners and hundreds of lawful organizations that included even conservative civil rights organizations such as the NAACP.


The work was done by the CPD’s "Red Squad." This unit dates to the Haymarket bombing. (Its origins as part of the effort to suppress radical labor organizing is reflected in one of the several names by which this arm of CPD has been known over the years—the Industrial Unit.) By the World War I era, the object of official paranoia shifted from anarchists to communists, who, it was feared, were subverting the American system.


The Red Squad’s indifference to civil liberties, free debate, freedom of association, and other fundamental American precepts of self-government made it a graver threat to the American system than any outfit they spied on. In the 1970s, local civil liberties groups formed a coalition they called the Alliance to End Repression to sue the Chicago Police Department alleging violations of citizens’ Constitutional rights. The suit was frustrated when the Red Squad destroyed evidence in the form of filed on 105,000 individuals and 1,300 organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union joined the legal fight, and in 1982 the City of Chicago agreed to sign a consent decree that proscribed police collection of intelligence on or disrupting any First Amendment activities of political dissenters and their organizations that were unrelated to a criminal investigation.


Over the next fifteen years, the perceived threats to civil order in Chicago morphed again. The new dangers were street gang crime and, later, terrorism, each perpetrated by people regarded in their respective eras as the equivalent of the anarchists of old. In 1992, Chicago's city council approved an anti-gang ordinance that allowed police to arrest persons who "remain in any one place with no apparent purpose" in the presence of a suspected gang member. The new law made it possible to be convicted without the city having proved the accused guilty of actual criminal behavior. The city arrested tens of thousands of young people before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional in 1999.


As for “terrorists,” in 1997, Mayor Richard M. Daley complained to the federal court that the terms of the 1982 ACLU decree were impeding investigations of such groups and asked it to be lifted. The request was denied, but in 2001, an appeals court gutted the agreement and gave the Chicago cops authority to spy on activists and to videotape all street demonstrations. Among what the compliant court described as “incipient terrorist groups" that could now be targeted were not only self-styled anti-globalization anarchists but also Quaker peace groups.


Critics asked plausibly whether what the city feared was not the threat to public order such groups presumably posed but the threat to the city’s reputation that would result were the world’s TV cameras to again show young people rioting in the streets of Chicago as they had in 1968.


Chicago still works for those who own it, and still has a police department and courts to keep complainers about it from causing any real trouble. That is no surprise. The oldest tradition in Chicago is making money from it, but no much less old is its history of resort to official force to protect itself against outsiders—Fort Dearborn, remember was built in 1803 to protect the budding trading post from Indians who held ominously anti-capitalist and anti-racist opinions.


One could argue that all the subsequent witch-hunting of dissidents and protestors and nonconformists worked, since the end of Chicago predicted by the city's more anxious defenders never took place. One could also argue that the city never succumbed to demands for social and economic justice because the threats posed by those doing the demanding had always been exaggerated, if not invented. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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