Long-time anarchist William Holmes, husband of Lizzie Holmes, penned these personal memories of the people and events of ‘Haymarket Affair’, of which he was central participant, for Emma Goldman’s ‘Mother Earth’ on the twenty-fifth anniversary of November, 1887’s executions. A member of the S.L.P. before joining the International Working People’s Association in 1883, William and Lizzie were close friends and comrades of Albert and Lucy Parsons, with William hiding Albert when on the run at his Geneva, Illinois home after the explosion. That, and much more insider’s information for that epoch-making chapter in the history of our class is related by Holmes in these priceless ‘reminiscences.’
‘Reminiscences’ by William Holmes from Mother Earth. Vol. 7 No. 9. November, 1912.
I AM in a reminiscent mood to-night. My thoughts carry me back a quarter of a century and more, to the strenuous years of our agitation immediately preceding and following the martyrdom of our comrades. I feel inclined to take the readers of Mother Earth with me to that period of ardent, persistent activity, and to narrate a few of the many stirring incidents in which it was my privilege to take an active part: to the younger generation of radicals, at least, I am persuaded that a story of those days will prove interesting and perhaps instructive.
It was in June, 1883, that I joined the American Group of the International Working People’s Association in Chicago, and was immediately elected secretary of the Group. Parsons, Fielden, Spies, and, I think Fischer, were already members, and all were taking an active part in public meetings and other propaganda work. Parsons I had known and greatly admired since early in 1881, while I was still a member of the S.L.P. Fielden also I met about this time at the old Liberal League meetings, where he frequently electrified the audiences by his eloquent outbursts of revolutionary sentiment. Our respective families had become intimate, and the intimacy continued uninterrupted until the fateful 11th of November. Prior to joining the American Group, I had frequently met Spies, and of course became more intimately associated with him and Fischer at our weekly meetings at the hall and on the Lake Front. During the trial of our devoted comrades I was daily in attendance at the courtroom; and in the long months of their incarceration in Cook County Jail I visited them at least twice a week. When Parsons left the city on the memorable night of May 4th, it was to my house in Geneva that he came; and three days later, disguised as a tramp, he left my house on his journey to Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he found a safe refuge with Daniel Hoan, the pump man.
The day after Parsons left I was visited by the sheriff of Kane County—a really fine old gentleman whom I had previously met under very different circumstances —his deputy, an ignorant, burly brute of giant size and strength, and a keen, wiry, foxy-looking Pinkerton man. While I entertained the old sheriff in the kitchen by explaining my social-economic theories, the other two worthies proceeded to go through the house in the most approved manner of their profession. They were looking for Albert Parsons and insisted that he was hiding somewhere on the premises. How they expected to disclose a full-grown man under the piano lid or doubled up in sewing machine drawers has always passed my comprehension; but the ways of the sleuths of capitalism are wonderful and past. finding out, so I said nothing and let them have their way. My old mother, who was living with me, was very pious, and regarded a lie as the most heinous sin, but in spite of this she was loyal to her son and to her son’s cause. Never will I forget the vehemence with which she met the deputy’s ferocity and threats. Dear soul, she knew nothing and could tell nothing except that Parsons had not been to our house. Again and again the trio left the house to confer in the front yard, and, despite the protests of the sheriff, as repeatedly returned to renew the search; the deputy vociferously insisting that he had seen Parsons enter that morning with a straw hat on his head; that he had carefully watched and would swear that no man. had since left the house. This positive statement of the burly deputy puzzled me at the time, as I was equally positive that no man had visited my place that day, though I said nothing except to urge them to still greater diligence in their search. It was not until after dinner, when I was narrating the circumstance to my sister who lived in the neighborhood, that the mystery was solved. She it was who had come to my house that morning with an old straw hat of mine on her head, which she left when returning home, and it was she whom the brave deputy had mistaken for Parsons. The joke on the deputy was so good that his chief soon heard of it and for a time his friends made life miserable for him.
Knowing as I did the absolute secrecy of Parsons’ hiding-place, and believing that in time means would be forthcoming to remove him and his family to a more remote retreat, where under an assumed name he could live in security and peace, it will not be wondered that I received word of his voluntary surrender with the greatest amazement and sorrow. I immediately went to Chicago and to the County jail. The interview that followed was characteristic of the man. I asked if he realized what he had done; that he had already placed his neck in the noose and would never again walk the streets a free man. To my protestations and sorrowful reproaches, he replied simply: “Yes, I know and will meet the issue. I could not continue to live in security while my comrades, who are as innocent as I am, are imprisoned here to meet a terrible fate. I never expect to be free again. I fully realize what it means to give up liberty, home, wife and children for a prison and death.” This was the man whom the great State of Illinois murdered in cold blood at the command of its millionaire masters.
I am growing old. I am in poor health and quite weary of life as it is to me. Of necessity I cannot last much longer. Before I go I wish to make a statement that will be a surprise to many of my old comrades. There are many who know of the strenuous exertions put forth at the last by well-meaning friends to save the lives of Parsons and Spies by imploring them to sue for clemency. Fischer they did not tamper with. He had already proclaimed his defiance and willingness to die. He was glad to die for the cause he, loved so dearly. In my last interview with him he joyously, exultingly told me this. Spies had already partly weakened; it was hard for a man like him to die. It was thought that he could be induced to petition the governor for clemency, although at the last he, too, became firm and strong. But it was upon Parsons that these misguided friends centered all their efforts. Rich and influential men had promised him his life if he would but bend the knee. They pleaded with him; they implored him to beg for his life. One whole night these friends sat up with him and sought to weaken him. One morning I received a message from Parsons to visit him at the jail. I went, wondering. He told me of the efforts that were being made to weaken him. Then, with his face close to mine, only the steel mesh between us, with those piercing black eyes searching my very soul, even as they had searched me on that memorable morning at my house in Geneva when he gave his life and liberty into my keeping, he asked me what he should do; what I would do under similar circumstances. It was a dreadful moment; a fearful responsibility rested upon me. I believed in my inmost soul that his acquiescence to the wishes of his friends would simply rob him of his glory of martyrdom. I believed then and I believe now that if he had weakened, the monsters of capitalism would have mercilessly and scornfully put him to death. They were not content to merely murder him; they sought also to disgrace him. This I told him and, with the sweat of agony upon my face, I said to him that I would not sue.
Many are the incidents that I could relate of our agitation; the weekly meetings upon the Lake Front, the frequent gatherings on Market Square called to celebrate the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and other capitalistic holidays; the parades through the fashionable districts, often reaching into the thousands, each parade being one long line of red; and finally, the parade around the Chamber of Commerce. This occurred on the opening night of that great gambling institution, the Board of Trade, in its magnificent new building. Wealth, beauty and fashion were there. The feast and entertainment were royal. Invitation was extended to the ragged, the starving, the miserable sons and daughters of toil to grace the occasion by forming a procession, marching around the great temple of Mammon, and showing their poverty rags to their rich brothers and sisters. Right heartily did they respond. We marched ten or twelve abreast, Oscar Neebe in the lead. On each side of him stalked a strong, heroic woman comrade, one carrying a red flag, the other a black, the latter typifying hunger and despair. One square distant, on each side of the great building, was drawn up a heavy cordon of police, who barred our way. Four times we approached the great building from different directions, each time confronted by the officers of the law. I surely thought something terrible would happen that night, as I knew that several of our comrades were armed and prepared to defend themselves to the death against any onslaught by the police. But no aggressive move was made, and the crowd dispersed peaceably, to gather later on in front of the Arbeiter-Zeitung office where eloquent speeches were made by several comrades.
It has been authoritatively stated that no preparation was made in Chicago to avenge the judicial murder of our comrades, and a famous newspaper and magazine writer was sent by a leading capitalistic journal to investigate the rumor concerning this matter. He reported most positively that such rumors were false; that no plans existed, no preparations were made, and that no intention of reprisal was even contemplated. If I mistake not, there are men living today who could throw a different light upon this matter. Be that as it may, I know that certain comrades were summoned to the County jail by Fischer and others, and cautioned to stop any and all movements with revenge as their object. I had this from the lips of Fischer himself. He felt that such reprisals, accompanied as they surely would have been by terrible destruction and bloodshed, would have put the movement for liberty and solidarity backward many years. As he was to die in defense of those principles, he felt that he had a right to demand that they should not be jeopardized by foolish, though well-meaning, friends. In all probability the plutocrats of Chicago owe the preservation of their property to the very men whose lives they so mercilessly destroyed.
Mother Earth was an anarchist magazine begin in 1906 and first edited by Emma Goldman in New York City. Alexander Berkman, became editor in 1907 after his release from prison until 1915.The journal has a history in the Free Society publication which had moved from San Francisco to New York City. Goldman was again editor in 1915 as the magazine was opposed to US entry into World War One and was closed down as a violator of the Espionage Act in 1917 with Goldman and Berkman, who had begun editing The Blast, being deported in 1919.
PDF of full issue: https://archive.org/download/mother-earth/Mother%20Earth%20v07n09%20%281912-11%29%20%28c2c%20Harvard%20DSR%29.pdf