Friday, June 29, 2018

When Dissent Becomes a Crime

Chicago was once the most radical city in the United States. But an era of rapid industrialization, combined with mass immigration, created a volatile environment in which the demands of owners and the needs of workers were bound to clash. An excerpt from Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities), a play by Greg Guma first performed at Burlington City Hall in May 2002 and presented on radio in more than 20 states.

Chicago, November 12, 1919: Lights rise on an interrogation room. Agent James Dell stands at attention, nervously waiting for the next words of his superior — J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the new General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation. A stern, stocky young man, Hoover is behind the desk, reviewing the contents of several index cards. More cards fill a box before him.

Although only 25 years old, Hoover has risen rapidly in the federal government. For the past two years he has worked for the attorney general, and is now his special assistant in charge of counter-radical activities. Straitlaced, obsessively organized, and self-assured, he’s a middle-class crusader, fixated on the "crimes" of labor activists, foreigners, and anyone who criticizes the government. There’s a hint of sadism, something sexual hidden beneath the surface. He’s also contemptuous of those, particularly from the upper classes, who "pamper" radicals.

At the moment, Hoover is sizing up Agent Dell, silently evaluating whether the young man before him may be a bit soft on those in custody. After a long, awkward moment, he lifts his eyes.

    HOOVER: So, let’s get to work.
    DELL: Yes, sir. Ready.
    HOOVER: You know why I’m in Chicago?
    DELL: I believe so, sir. I assume, to check our progress in detaining and questioning suspects.
    HOOVER: Assume, do you? Well, stop it. The Bureau of Investigation doesn’t assume anything. It collects information, it analyzes facts, and it deals forcefully with anyone who poses a threat to the United States.  Do we understand each other?
    DELL: I think so. 
    HOOVER: Good. Because the Bureau has no room for people with doubts about the mission. (pauses, eyeing Dell)  Let me bring you up to date. Six days ago, we began a round up in 23 cities. So far we’ve identified and detained 10,000 communists and anarchists. That’s a good start. But we have to do more. We have to build cases for prosecution and get as many of these revolutionaries and radicals as possible out of the country.
    DELL: You mean deport them?
    HOOVER: That’s the plan.
    DELL: Can we do that – I mean, can we deport American citizens?
    HOOVER: Citizens? Maybe not, we’ll see. But we can get rid of the foreigners, that’s at the very least. And we can put some of their cohorts behind bars – before they do any more damage.
    DELL: I understand. But agent –
    HOOVER: Special agent! It’s a new classification.
    DELL: Sorry, sir. I wasn’t aware –
    HOOVER: Fine, fine. Stop right there. You understand, this comes directly from the attorney general. Once we finish with the current phase, we’ll worry about how to apply the law.  So, save your questions and just listen. Carefully. I’m here because this city is a hotbed of Communist activity. Communism is like a virus, Agent Dell, It’s eating away at our way of life. You see these cards? Each one represents a deadly threat. And I already have more than 100,000 of them.
    DELL: I had no idea there were so many.
    HOOVER: Few people do. And we’re just getting started.  Which brings me to…well, you. You’ve been questioning some suspects?

Excerpt from Inquisitions: Hoover on Dissent

    DELL: Yes. But so far I haven’t seen much evidence that anything specific is being planned, locally at least. 
    HOOVER: Then you must be asking the wrong questions. What about Emma Goldman? We know she’s working with the Communists.
    DELL: Isn’t she an anarchist?
    HOOVER: Your point?
    DELL: Well, they have very different views and tactics, don’t they? Usually they don’t even like each other.
    HOOVER: That’s on the surface. Only on the surface. Emma Goldman — Red Emma — is, in my opinion, the most dangerous woman in America today. Never should have let her out of prison. Not only did she incite people to oppose the war. She mocks religion every chance she gets, she promotes fornication in the name of "free love," and she tells young women to use birth control. In other words, she may not be a communist, but they’ve got no better spokesman in this country. Our job is to put a stop to that.
    DELL: Well, I did ask Mrs. Parsons about her. But she claims they haven’t spoken for years.
    HOOVER: Absurd. And you believe her? Lucy Parsons is an integral part of the communist conspiracy. She’s played a role in virtually every anti-American campaign for the past forty years.
    DELL: But she’s an old woman now. I just don’t see how she could —
    HOOVER: That’s right, Agent, you don’t see. From a good family, are you Liberals, I expect. Grew up with all the advantages. You know, I’m constantly amazed at the political blindness of the upper classes. Well, let me educate you. Lucy Parsons is a dedicated revolutionary and a direct threat to this nation. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.  

Dell is shocked by what he’s hearing. Meanwhile, Hoover rises and goes to the door.

    HOOVER: We want names, locations, plans, and she knows them.  We aren’t rounding up radicals just for the fun of it. We need evident, records, confessions, membership lists if possible.  We’re building cases — and a base of information. A national index of radical activity.

Hoover opens the door and calls into the hallway.

    HOOVER: Officer, bring up Mrs. Parsons. (He closes the door.) It may not seem like we’re at war, but we are. Moscow has agents around the world, armed and ready act whenever the order comes. We can’t just wait, sitting on our Constitutional principles.

As Hoover returns to the desk, takes a seat, and continues, the sound of footsteps and the clattering of chains gradually grows louder.

    HOOVER: You know, we didn’t just pick the timing of this operation out of a hat. The evidence we have points clearly to plans for a violent uprising between November 7 – the second anniversary of the Russian revolution – and yesterday. You saw the alert. Yesterday, I hope you know, was the anniversary of the Haymarket executions. Now, Mrs. Parsons uses this as an excuse to stir up the rabble every year. But this year, this year we believe that if she’d been allowed to speak, we would have ended up with the same kind of uprising we’ve had in the State of Washington.  
    DELL: Did something happen in Centralia?
    HOOVER: Something? Oh, yes. The radicals had their union hall lined with guns, and when the Legionnaires marched past –

Several solid knocks on the door interrupt the story.

    HOOVER: Yes. Bring her in.  (to Dell) We’ll continue this later.

Dell opens the door. On the other side, Lucy Parsons is waiting. As she enters, we see that her arms and legs are shackled. She moves painfully (and noisily) toward the desk, giving Dell a rueful look as she passes. Dell is appalled, but struggles to contain his emotions.  He closes the door.

    HOOVER: Good afternoon, Madame. Take a seat, please.

Lucy glares at him, but slowly complies. Dell moves closer, worried.

    HOOVER: (turning officious) Let me introduce myself. My name is John Edgar Hoover, and I work for the Bureau of Investigation as director of the General Intelligence Division. This is a new department, with a vital mission.
    LUCY: (facetious) Oh, I know.
    HOOVER: What do you know, Madame? That’s the question.  (referring to an index card) Let’s see. Lucy Ella Parsons, born 1853, in Texas. Moved to Chicago in 1874. Member of the Knights of Labor, writer for…writer for…hmm. Two children…both deceased. Founded the Pioneer Aid and Support Association. Let’s see, George Markstall…Is he your husband?
    LUCY: (dismissive) No.
    HOOVER: But you and he have been co-habitating since 1910, is that right?
    LUCY: We live together. Is that against the law?
    HOOVER: No, Madame. The government doesn’t care who you choose to fornicate with. But it does care – very deeply — about plans to overthrow the United States government.
    LUCY: Am I being charged with espionage?
    HOOVER: We’ll see about that. You’re familiar with the leaders of the group known as the Industrial Workers of the World — the IWW? 

Lucy nods, increasingly uncomfortable in the shackles. Dell is concerned.

    HOOVER: Good. Then you know about its plans to disrupt businesses.
    LUCY: You mean strikes. They’re not against the law either.
    HOOVER: Not since the end of the war, true. But when labor actions are part of a larger conspiracy – which we know they are – and when radical ideas are used to justify attacks on innocent people, that’s something else.
    LUCY: Radical ideas? Like justice, a decent wage?
    HOOVER: I’m not here to answer questions, or listen to Communist drivel. We know what your comrades want. And we’ve seen what they can do.
    LUCY: Such as?
    HOOVER: Such as fire into a peaceful parade. Yes, that happened — just yesterday, in Centralia, Washington, and at least four people are dead, including the post commander of the American Legion. That’s your Wobblies. So spare me the propaganda. We’ve rounded up the culprits in that case, and they’ll be dealt with.
    LUCY: Sounds very…convenient.
    HOOVER: Is that supposed to be humorous?
    LUCY: No. Death is never humorous. But sometimes it does come at a convenient moment, doesn’t it?
    HOOVER: For whom, Madame?
    LUCY: Now, that is a good question. Who benefits? (shaking her chains) And who loses?
    HOOVER: Turn the culprits into victims, is that the game? Like your husband and his friends? (laughs) Poor, innocent men, wrongfully accused.
    DELL: (observing Lucy’s discomfort) Sir!
    LUCY: That’s right.
    HOOVER: Please. I don’t care what some do-good governor said, years after the fact–
    DELL: Sir, please!
    HOOVER: Someone threw that bomb. And seven police officers–
    DELL: (shouting) Sir, I insist —
    HOOVER: (barking mad) What?
    DELL: Sir, are those chains really necessary? She isn’t going anywhere.
    HOOVER: (reluctantly) All right, damn it.

Dell takes out a key and uncuffs Lucy. Hoover watches, suspicious. Once released, she rubs her wrists and legs.

    HOOVER: Comfortable? Wonderful. (pauses) Now…Seven police officers died as a result of that bomb, Mrs. Parsons. And your husband, all the defendants,
had their day in court.
    LUCY: A Kangaroo court.
    HOOVER: A court of law, with a judge and jury. Is that what you object to? Law of any kind. The anarchist creed, isn’t it? No law, no government. Just brute force.
    LUCY: No, it’s freedom – that’s what we believe in, the things this country says it’s about. But sometimes you have to fight for them.
    HOOVER: With bombs and guns? Any means necessary, right?
    LUCY: No, with the truth.
    HOOVER: (referring to his cards) I see. Is that why your husband ran after the Haymarket bombing? Hid in Wisconsin like a coward, afraid to stand up and take responsibility.
    LUCY: You have no… (stops herself, struggling with rage) Yes, he left Chicago, because I asked him to. Because – just like now — they were arresting every organizer in the city. He’d already been tried and convicted in the press. But he was no coward. He came back, in spite of everything.
    HOOVER: And why would he do that – if things were as bad as you say?
    LUCY: (painfully) Because I told him, if he came back, it might help swing public opinion. Because the children missed him, I missed him. So, I told myself…I told him…God help me.

As she breaks down, lights fade, rising above on the platform where Young Lucy sits on a bed, looking off expectantly.

    YOUNG LUCY: What are you doing in there?
    ALBERT: (off stage) Becoming a new man.
    YOUNG LUCY: Hey, I just got the old one back.
    ALBERT: Old? That hurts. So, bring me up to date?
    YOUNG LUCY: Well, most of the union leaders say we’re monsters. The mayor’s banned labor meetings. And almost everyone we know is still in jail. Basically, they’re using the case to break the eight-hour campaign. And it’s working.
    ALBERT: Any good news?
    YOUNG LUCY: You’ve got a fancy lawyer. And the defense committee’s raised about forty thousand so far. (joking) Plus, if we turn you in for the reward, there’s five thousand more.
    ALBERT: Only five thousand!
    YOUNG LUCY: You’re bad. Get out here.

Albert walks on, running a small brush over his dark hair.

    ALBERT: Yes, very bad. But born again.
    YOUNG LUCY: My God, what have you done? (rushing to him) Where’s all the gray gone?
    ALBERT: Have to maintain my youthful image. (embracing Lucy) Hmm, quite an effect. (They kiss) Now, tell me about my lawyer.
    YOUNG LUCY: William Black. Tall, and handsome I’d say. A war hero – on the winning side.
    ALBERT: A yankee? Well, can’t be picky.
    YOUNG LUCY: They say he won a congressional medal when he was only nineteen. Mainly a corporate lawyer now. At first he turned us down. But when he couldn’t find anyone else to take the case, he changed his mind. Had to take it, he said, professional duty.
    ALBERT: A lawyer with principles. Shocking. So, what do the boys think?
    YOUNG LUCY: They don’t think. They just argue.
    ALBERT: What about August?
    YOUNG LUCY: I’m not sure what he cares about more, his autobiography or his lady friends. But about Black, well, basically none of them gives a damn who defends you all.
    ALBERT: What? Why?
    YOUNG LUCY: Because they’re convinced you’ll all be convicted. It’s the only thing they do agree on. That, and what an ass you are to come back.
    ALBERT: But you said in the letters…
    YOUNG LUCY: I know. But the papers are making you all sound like madmen.
    ALBERT: So, there’s a risk. But now they’ll have to think: Would a guilty man come back on his own? Public sympathy. That’s the key, right?
    YOUNG LUCY: The theory anyway. But …will people sympathize with a socialist…with a colored wife? I don’t know. We have to be realistic.
    ALBERT: (after an embrace) So, you’re having doubts.
    YOUNG LUCY: Always. At the moment, I’m thinking, you know, we could just leave, together, today. Send for the kids when we’re safe.
    ALBERT: A little late for that. I don’t —
    YOUNG LUCY: Either do I. But I know this: we’ve been fighting for fifteen years. Everything for the cause, right? And I didn’t mind. But then I think: Will I have to give you up, too? Well, I won’t do that. I just won’t.
    ALBERT: And I don’t want you to. But we have to fight back.
    YOUNG LUCY: Even if it means hanging?
    ALBERT: Don’t exaggerate. It won’t come to –
    YOUNG LUCY: How do you know?
    ALBERT: I don’t. But if I don’t show up, we’ll be hiding for the rest of our lives. And we’d be deserting our comrades, our friends.
    YOUNG LUCY: Are they?
    ALBERT: Well, some of them. Could you face them, their families?
    YOUNG LUCY: (resigned) Just hold me. (they embrace, this time with some sadness) If I was on trial with you, maybe it wouldn’t feel so… I don’t know. If I was sure we could die together…
    ALBERT: (after a long kiss) I love you. (lustfully) So, how much time do we have?
    YOUNG LUCY: Enough. Black will be waiting outside the court at two.
    ALBERT: And Sarah doesn’t need her room?
    YOUNG LUCY: I don’t think she’ll mind
    ALBERT: No rush then.

Pulling him down, Lucy flashes a naughty smile, then touches his hair.

    YOUNG LUCY: None at all. But I have to say, I like the gray better. Why can’t you just age gracefully?
    ALBERT: Vanity. Anyway, it’s how people remember me.
    YOUNG LUCY: (teasing) People? It’s for the ladies, ain’t it?
    ALBERT: Just a little maybe.
    YOUNG LUCY: I thought so. But you missed a spot.

As Young Lucy plays with his hair, they begin to wrestle, then fall off the bed. Blackout. Lights rise again below, where the older Lucy is recovering from her grief and guilt.

    HOOVER: A very impressive performance. (to Dell) Moving, isn’t it? And so tragic. Hogwash. You disagree?
    DELL: Well, sir, I’m not sure what this has to with our investigation.
    HOOVER: Oh? Then let me explain it to you. This is how the communists work. They shift the blame — from their own actions to the government. Muddy the waters.
    LUCY: He was innocent! They were all…
    HOOVER: Right, like the anarchist who bombed the attorney general’s house last June. I suppose he was innocent. Fortunately, that one blew himself up instead. So, let’s make things very clear. We know there is a conspiracy, and we already have some of the criminals in custody.
    LUCY: Oh, then why bother with questions? Or a trial.
    HOOVER: Because we’re not in Russia, Madame. This is a civilized country.
    LUCY: Oh, yes. Here we get a verdict in the press before we bring out the noose.
    HOOVER: (to Dell) See that. Twist everything, accuse the accuser.  It’s brilliant, really. (back to Lucy) You’re a very bright woman, obviously well trained. Well, then you’re obviously smart enough to know that I can hold you here as long as I want. Until you tell me what I want to know.
    LUCY: (looks at her Gold watch, remembering something) So, ask the damned questions and get it over with.
    HOOVER: Good. (He notices her attachment to the watch) I will. Let’s start with your old comrade Emma Goldman. You’ve known her since…
    LUCY: I don’t know. A long time.
    HOOVER: Did you know her eighteen years ago, in 1901?
    LUCY: Yes, we met shortly after the trial.
    HOOVER: Which trial?
    LUCY: My husband’s.
    HOOVER: Right. And did you know Leon Czolgosz?
    LUCY: Who?
    HOOVER: Who? Who? The man who killed President McKinley, that’s who.
    LUCY: (shocked) No. Why, for God’s sake?
    HOOVER: Miss Goldman never talked about him?
    LUCY: Not that I remember.
    HOOVER: But possibly?
    LUCY: I don’t think-
    HOOVER: But you can’t be sure. He did attend a speech she gave here.
    LUCY: He did?
    HOOVER: Yes. He was there, and you were there.
    LUCY: So?
    HOOVER: And several weeks later Mr. Czolgosz, a self-professed anarchist, at the instigation of Miss Goldman, shot the president in Buffalo.
    LUCY: That’s absurd —
    HOOVER: So, the question is: Did you ever see Emma Goldman talk with Leon Czolgosz? Think very carefully now.  We know already that he was one of her followers. She clearly inspired his actions. You can help us make a case. And help yourself in the process.
    LUCY: You want me to lie?
    HOOVER: No, I want you to admit the truth: That Emma Goldman wanted the president dead.
    LUCY: And then you put her on trial? For giving speeches?
    HOOVER: Not a trial, but hopefully we can deport her. The problem is, her father and husband are both citizens. That complicates the picture. But, with proof about her complicity in the assassination, I think we can do it. So, how about it?
    LUCY: (after a long pause) Are you listening, Agent Dell? This man – this extortionist – thinks I would betray a friend, betray myself, just to get out of this place.  Well, I’d rather rot here – or go on trial myself. 
    HOOVER: That can be arranged.
    LUCY: I know. I know. I’ve seen it before.

Lights rise on center stage, now a courtroom in 1886. At a long table, seven defendants: Adolph Fischer, George Engel Michael Schwab, August Spies, Sam Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Louis Lingg. Their lawyer, Captain William Black, is addressing the white-haired judge, Joseph Gary. He looks bored. At a second table, the chief prosecutor, Julius Grinnell, is ready to pounce.

    BLACK: Murder. The most serious crime a man can face. Your honor, each of the defendants is entitled to a vigorous and independent defense. Without separate trials that won’t be possible. Evidence against one of them will become evidence against all.
    GARY: I’m not impressed so far, Mr. Black
    BLACK: Then consider this, your honor: Despite what we’re been reading lately, my clients’ work on behalf of an eight-hour workday does not constitute proof of a conspiracy. Why, some of these men have never even met, outside this proceeding. Your honor, in view of the serious charges, and especially in view of the unfair publicity surrounding this trial, I think it is abundantly clear why we need separate trials for each…

Offstage, a huge door opens and a crowd reacts with muffled shock as Albert Parsons strides into court. Grinnell realizes and jumps up, motioning for help. Two officers appear, waiting to move in.

    GRINNELL: This man is Albert Parson, your honor. I move that he be placed under arrest immediately.
    BLACK: That’s absurd. Mr. Parsons is here to surrender himself. Mr. Grinnell is just grandstanding.
    GRINNELL: That makes absolutely no sense –

Gary raises his hand, cutting off the prosecutor, then looks sternly at Albert. They take each other’s measure. Then Gary nods for Albert to speak.

    ALBERT: Your honor, I am here to present myself for trial…with my comrades, and enter a plea of not guilty...

* * *
The trial of the Haymarket martyrs was one of the most shameful events in US legal history. From the beginning – selection of jury members who openly admitted their prejudice – there was little doubt that the defendants would be convicted. Throughout the proceedings Judge Joseph Gary was consistently hostile to the accused. In his instructions to the jury he sealed their fate by saying that, if the defendants had ever suggested violence, they were guilty of murder – even if the perpetrator couldn’t be found.

After the verdict – death by hanging for all but one of the eight – the defendants spoke to the court. Most of them noted that the state was betraying the ideals on which the US was based. August Spies said that they were condemned “because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty and justice.” Albert Parsons pointed to the use of violence, including dynamite, recommended by newspapers as a solution to labor troubles. And Louis Lingg, ever defiant, told the court, “I despise your order; your laws, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it!”

Despite their defiance, a strong campaign for clemency was launched. Many people who didn’t share the ideology of the anarchists nevertheless knew that the verdict and death sentences were unjust. Although an appeal to the US Supreme Court failed, public opinion began to shift. Labor groups, at first hesitant to support the men, joined the petitioners asking Governor Oglesby to intervene. People like author William Dean Howells and journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd joined with Europeans in pleas for mercy and justice. The Governor considered clemency, but powerful businessmen pressured against it.

On November 10, 1887, just one day before the scheduled executions, the governor was finally persuaded to act. He commuted the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life imprisonment. The others would be hung the next day. All but Louis Lingg. On that same day, he committed suicide in his cell, using dynamite smuggled in by a friend.

On November 11, Parsons, Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer faced the gallows. With nooses around their necks they spoke to the world. “Hurray for Anarchy!” said Fischer. “This is the happiest moment of my life.” From inside his hood, Spies added, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

And finally Parsons. “Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak, Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the people be heard! O – “ He never completed the sentence.

Six years later the truth began to emerge. Another governor, John Peter Altgeld, reviewed the evidence and trial transcripts for months before concluding that a tragic injustice had been committed. In an angry report, he condemned the authorities and vindicated the martyrs. The surviving three were freed. That act all but ended Altgeld’s brilliant political career.

The impact of the Haymarket tragedy was broad and profound. For decades afterward, the Chicago martyrs were a symbol for workers and radicals around the world. Their heroism and dignity inspired countless others to stand firm for their ideals. The trial and the hangings also made clear the fragility of US democracy. In 1886, government and corporate interests joined forces to crush ideas they considered threatening. The bomb merely provided the excuse, and the story remains relevant to this day.

To hear an audio excerpt from the play or schedule a broadcast, visit Squeaky Wheel Productions at If you would like to stage a reading or stage production, contact the author at