August Vincent Theodore Spies, father of American anarchism, hanged for his role in the Haymarket riot, lived here in Wicker Park, at 154 Potomac Ave. (now 2132 W. Potomac).
Born the oldest of five children in a middle-class family in Friedewalde, Prussia (now Germany) in 1855, August Spies’ [pronounced Speeze] childhood was a happy one. As a teenager, he attended college in Kassel, training to be a forest ranger like his father. However, Spies’ life changed course in 1872 after the death of his father. Without the family breadwinner, Spies was forced to drop out of school, and he decided to seek his fortune in the United States. He arrived at New York later in 1872, where he apprenticed to an upholsterer for a few months. From New York, he traveled to Chicago, finding work in an umbrella and parasol factory on the west side, near Madison and Halsted.
He was a hard worker and was more entrepreneurial than most of his fellow immigrants, so much so that by 1876, he was able to open his own upholstery shop before his 21st birthday. The shop was a success and Spies was soon earning enough to bring his family from Germany to Chicago, including his three brothers, Christian, Ferdinand, and Henry, plus his mother and sister. The entire family resided at the home on Potomac.
(Pictured: August Spies)
While the American Dream was a reality for August Spies, he was haunted by the terrible conditions in which the poorest Chicagoans, including many immigrants, lived. Sensitive souls of the 1870s were burdened with the knowledge that, throughout the city, multiple families piled into tiny, dilapidated flats in slums overrun with vermin and other pests, and without access to proper cleaning or bathing facilities. Even for those who escaped the worst conditions, hours were long – a typical worker spent 10 hours per day, six days per week on the job – and work was tedious and repetitive (surfing the web and chatting around the water cooler were unheard of in the workplace of 1880). From this hard life, socialism promised better wages, reduced hours, and less division of labor, meaning more variety in tasks on the job.
Spies first heard of socialism about 1875, and began studying the works of Karl Marx and whatever other literature he could get his hands on. He was immediately attracted to the philosophy, and his adherence was strengthened by the injustices he perceived during the nationwide strike of 1877, in which police and private militias dispersed demonstrators through extreme force and brutality. Like other socialists at the time, he felt the primary means by which workers could even the odds against the political power of the wealthy was by arming themselves, and so he joined the burgeoning Luhr-und-Wehr Verein, a group of labor militants who were expected to be the first line of attack during the expected socialist revolution.
During the late 1870s, Spies came to be well-known in Chicago’s radical circles. He was an excellent orator and an even better writer. He never minced words, and was willing to confront and challenge unfriendly audiences. In an address to a meeting of Congregational ministers, who had invited him to speak on the subject of socialism, he mocked the attempts of Christianity to help the poor with its “little prayer book,” and insisted that only socialism could truly improve society. When one of the ministers replied, “So your remedy would be violence?”, Spies responded
Remedy? Well, I should like it better if it could be done without violence; but you, gentlemen, and the class you represent, take care that it cannot be accomplished otherwise….Besides, what does it matter if some thousands, or even tens of thousands, of drones are removed during the coming struggle? These are the very ones who yearly destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of proletarians – a fact which you don’t seem to know.Spies was growing increasingly radical, even relative to other socialists. The final straw was in 1880 when Spies ran for the office of west side tax collector under the banner of the Socialist Labor Party. After losing the race, he rejected the power of the ballot to change society and turned fully towards anarchism. That same year, he left his work as an upholsterer to become the full-time business manager for the German radical daily publication, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung. His influence was immediately felt, as the publication began taking a radical turn from socialism to anarchy. Spies’ radicalism was eventually too much for the publication’s editor, Paul Grauttkau, who remained a moderate socialist and left the paper in 1884, after which time, Spies became editor-in-chief.
Through Spies’ tireless work, often amounting up to 16 hours per day, the Arbeiter-Zeitung’s circulation grew, reaching a peak of 20,000 by 1886. At the time, Chicago’s entire population was only 500,000, most of whom did not speak German, the language in which the newspaper was printed. Chicago also became the center for anarchist activity in the United States, led largely by August Spies. The first national anarchist assembly was held in Chicago in 1881, with Spies as the secretary of the congress. While sparsely attended and largely unsuccessful, that event’s promise was fulfilled in a similar conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1883. Spies was also the secretary of the Pittsburgh Congress, where the delegates championed the “Chicago idea,” namely that anarchists should both promote armed insurrection and support trade unions as an organizing idea of society. Spies was crucial in founding the first American anarchist organization, the International Working People’s Association, and in drafting the Pittsburgh Manifesto, which included the following six aims of anarchism:
1. Destruction of the existing class rule, by all meansWhile equal rights and widespread education are understandable and laudable goals, the antagonism of anarchists against profit is both puzzling and self-defeating. Profits, after all, serve as signals for where resources should be directed. When the demand for steel increases, profits of steel producers rise, which incentivizes these firms to increase production and signals others to consider entering the steel industry. These reactions allow the increased demand to be met. Without profit, there is no means by which firms know what to produce, how much to produce, or what production technologies to employ. Instead, these decisions tend to be made politically, with tyranny a frequent result. Nothing could be more crucial for individual autonomy and freedom, those keynotes of anarchism, than profit.
2. Establishment of a free society based upon co-operative organization of production
3. Free exchange of equivalent products by and between the productive organizations without commerce and profit-mongery
4. Organization of education on a secular, scientific and equal basis for both sexes
5. Equal rights for all without distinction of sex or race
6. Regulation of all public affairs by free contracts between the autonomous (independent) communes and associations, resting on a federalistic basis
The “International”, as the new party was known, quickly dwarfed the less-radical Socialist Labor Party, largely as a result of August Spies’ persistence and hard work. At its pre-Haymarket height, the International claimed 5,000 members nationwide. The success may have gone to his head. In January, 1886, a Chicago Daily News reporter interviewed the 31-year old anarchist leader. In the interview, Spies indicated that the revolution was nigh. As evidence of the strength of the movement, he even gave the reporter an empty dynamite shell casing, saying “Take it to your boss and tell him we have nine thousand more like it – only loaded” (dynamite was an obsession for many anarchists in those days).
It was a statement that struck fear into Chicagoans and hatred for these violent men who sought the overthrow of the government and their way of life. Spies would live to regret saying it when he sat in jail accused of murder by dynamite after the Haymarket riot.
Throughout the spring of 1886, Spies was particularly active, nearly exhausting himself in support of the movement for an eight-hour workday (see the discussion of that movement here). May 1 was the designated day on which workers would walk off the job unless the demand for reduced hours was met, and many expected May 1, 1886 to be the start of a great conflagration between capital and labor which would dwarf the violence of the 1877 railroad strike. The Chicago Mail editorialized
There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two sneaking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named [Albert] Parsons [another anarchist leader]. The other is named Spies. Should trouble come they would be the first to skulk away from the scene of danger, the first to attempt to shield their worthless carcasses from harm, the first to shirk responsibility….Parsons and Spies have been engaged for the past six months in perfecting arrangements for precipitating a riot today. They have taken advantage of the excitement attending the eight-hour movement to bring about a series of strikes and to work injury to capital and honest labor in every possible way….Mark them for today. Keep them in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur!Instead, however, May 1 passed with a tense quiet in Chicago, as did May 2. On the afternoon May 3, Spies was invited to speak to a meeting of the lumber-shovers' union on 22nd and Blue Island Ave. During the meeting, violence between striking workers and “scabs” broke out nearby at the McCormick Reaper Works at Blue Island and Western Ave., and a confrontation with police led to the deaths of two workers. Spies witnessed the aftermath of the violence, and enraged, rushed back to his office at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, where he penned a circular that inspired the Haymarket meeting the following day.
At the Haymarket Square rally on the evening of May 4, 1886, Spies was scheduled to speak second. He and his brother left their home in Wicker Park and walked down Milwaukee Ave. towards the Haymarket, at Randolph and Desplaines Streets. When they arrived around 8:15 p.m., they found the meeting, which had been scheduled to begin at 7:30, was missing its initial speaker (Albert Parsons). With the crowd thinning, the weather worsening, and the evening growing later, Spies moved the group around the corner onto Desplaines Street, and stood atop a nearby wagon, addressing the crowd in English. He was followed by two other speakers. Near the end of the third lecture, given by Samuel Fielden, Inspector Jack “Black Jack” Bonfield and the Desplaines St. police arrived on the scene, gave the order to disperse, and at that moment, the fatal bomb was thrown. At trial, two witnesses would claim that, during the subsequent speeches, Spies had met the bombthrower in Crane’s Alley, handing him the famous weapon which he later used to wreck havoc. At the time the bomb was thrown, Spies was climbing down from the wagon, responding to the police order. During the riot, he was very nearly killed, but was saved by his brother Henry, who shoved a rifle barrel aimed at Spies out of the way. Spies managed to escape to Zepf’s saloon, and then found his way home.
After the riot, Spies was the first of the Haymarket defendants to be arrested by police. At 9:00 a.m. on May 5, Captain Bonfield arrived at the offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and arrested both August Spies and his brother Christopher, who also worked at the paper. In their search of the offices, the police uncovered a cache of dynamite, supposedly in a closet adjacent to Spies’ office. It was nothing like the 9,000 shells Spies had claimed to control, but its existence convicted him in the public eye. The “red scare” that followed the Haymarket riot, plus the natural dislike and suspicion many Chicagoans felt for German immigrants in their city, led to a show trial and conviction of Spies and his fellow defendants for murder, although Spies was demonstrably not the bomb-thrower, and the testimony that indicated he brought the bomb to the event was contradicted by several other witnesses.
Every day during the period of their appeals after the trial, newspapers reported on the condition of Spies and the other defendants in prison. One humorous take in the Tribune described a fretful Spies:
Two men were pacing up and down the corridor, a guard on either side. They kept their eyes on the ground and said never a word. They were August Spies and his brother, Anarchists by profession and fools by nature. They were pale, and wore that frightened, expectant look that one often sees on the face of a married man riding home on the owl-car.Another day’s commentary provided an interview with the supposedly forlorn prisoner, in which he seemed to be in good spirits, though apparently without a sufficient quantity of "spirits": "We live like princes here in jail. The only drawback to life in this bastille is that it is impossible to get anything to drink!"
Besides the usual family visitors, Spies had a large number of female attendants. As a single man and a martyr for his cause, he was irresistible to some. Spies was also known to be quite handsome, with bright blue eyes, a light brown moustache, waxed at the tips, and always in peak physical condition. During the trial, the newspapers said the 31-year old Spies appeared no older than 26.
A particularly frequent visitor was an attractive 20-year old scion to a wealthy family, Nina Van Zandt. She had met August Spies a few years earlier, when he kindly published a classified lost-and-found ad in the Arbeiter-Zeitung after Van Zandt’s beloved poodle went missing. They reconnected during the trial, and Nina Van Zandt attended court every day. During Spies’ time in prison, she visited on every occasion possible, but was limited in her access to Spies since she was not an immediate family member.
Spies and Van Zandt, who had fallen deeply in love, decided to remedy that problem by marrying. When word got out of the proposed jailhouse wedding, the city was in an uproar. Van Zandt’s parents strenuously opposed the marriage, but to no avail. Public comment was uniformly negative, and not a little condescending towards the would-be fiancée. Typical was a damning letter in the Tribune, which stated
What is to be thought of a woman who is willing to bear children to a convict and send their innocent little souls into the world bearing the mark of Cain on their brows as their very birthright?Van Zandt was an instant celebrity. She was even portrayed for tourists as a wax sculpture in several dime museums in the city. When the prison warden objected to the marriage plans, the wedding was performed by proxy, with Henry Spies taking the vows for his brother. Despite the questionable legal status of this marriage, Van Zandt took Spies’ last name (which she kept for the rest of her life), and remained married to him until his execution date.
(Pictured: Nina Van Zandt)
August Spies initially signed his name to a letter requesting clemency from the Governor – a request that likely would have been accepted – but then immediately withdrew his signature, refusing to admit guilt or to shame his fellow anarchists. He was hanged with four other Haymarket defendants, who constituted the core leadership of the anarchist movement, on November 11, 1887. Anarchism in the U.S. was never again so prominent.
Nina Van Zandt remained active in the anarchist movement. She remarried in 1895, then divorced this second husband in 1903. She operated a boarding house on Halsted St., near Adams St., until her death in 1936. In her will, she left most of her small possessions, around $3,000 worth, to the care of her eight dogs and one cat.
August Spies’ Wicker Park home is still standing.