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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

August Spies [1]
(Dec. 10, 1855–Hanged, Nov. 11, 1887)

(2 May 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 29, 2 May 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

“Barbarians, savages, illiterate, ignorant Anarchists from Central Europe, men who cannot comprehend the spirit of our free American institutions” – of these August Spies, was proud to acknowledge himself one.

To his prosecutors and defamers Spies admitted his “mistake” – he had chosen his place of birth Unwisely. Born in Landeck, Germany (hence, a “foreigner”) he did not emigrate to the United States until after his father’s death, when he was already 17 years old. That disqualified him, said patriots, from advocating human liberty.

The Spies family was not exactly a wealthy one, but it lived in comfortable circumstances. His father, a forester, was able to provide his sons with private tutors, and other luxuries denied the usual working man. Thus it was that Spies had no contact with the proletariat, that is with the misery that is the proletariat’s, until after he had arrived in America.

A Worker Among Workers

Settling at first in New York, he learned the furniture business. Within a year he moved to Chicago where, working in a factory he became fully conscious of the shocking conditions under which men lived and worked. Work, he discovered, was a privilege meted out by idlers to those whom it wished to employ when profits were to be gained.

In 1875 a friend invited him to attend a lecture on Socialism given by the Workingmen’s Party of Illinois. Of a sudden he realized that here was the answer to the questions he had been asking. Studying what socialist literature was available, he became a convinced socialist and joined the Socialistic Labor Party in 1877. At the same time he joined the “Lehr and Wehr Verein”, an armed body of 1,500 well-drilled workers organized in reaction to the many vicious assaults on workers by police and militia-men during that year. The patricians, themselves protected by their armed state Services, placed a ban on the bearing of arms, and the Verein was disbanded.

Several times Spies ran for office on the socialist ticket. But like a good many of his comrades at the time who became disillusioned with the uses of the ballot box, the key to which lay in the bosses’ pocket, he turned against political action completely, adhering to the anarchist wing of the workers’ movement. Thus, failing to understand the limited, yet important, value of the ballot box in working class agitation, he gave up that field of action completely after a few sorry experiences and thereby cut himself off from a vital means of propaganda.

The S.L.P. began in 1880 the publication of the Arbeiter Zeitung as a daily. Spies began with the Zeitung as business manager and then became editor, working interminable hours each day, until his arrest on May 5, 1886.

Active in building revolutionary workers’ Clubs in Chicago, a leading agitator for the eight-hour day like his fellow martyr, Albert Parsons, Spies was a popular figure among worker militants. His brilliant oratory endeared him to thousands upon thousands of workers. As a speaker he was known in virtually every industrial city in the country. Travelling around, he joined in many battles of the workers exposing their plight, publicizing their struggles.

Spies was present when on May 3, 1886, the Pinkertons and the police swooped down on the strikers at the McCormick Reaper plant who were “educating” the scabs in their own way. Many strikers fell under the Pinkerton and police gunfire. Spies left for his newspaper office immediately. Here he wrote a proclamation to the workingmen of Chicago. One of the type-setters added the slogan “Revenge!” which Spies later had removed, though it has come to be known as the Revenge Circular. A call for a protest meeting in Haymarket Square was published in his paper.

Spies arrived late at the meeting, as a German speaker he had expected to speak last. The meeting having not yet been opened he called it to order in a smaller location, Parsons, Fielden and others spoke. Detectives ordered the meeting stopped. The speakers refused. A bomb was thrown. Police were injured and eight men were arrested. The great Haymarket Case had begun.

Spies along with others of his comrades was sentenced to be hanged. When sentence was pronounced the court asked him if he had anything to say. He spoke for two hours.

“In addressing this court I speak as the representative of one class to the representatives of another ... My defense is your accusation, the causes of my alleged crime your history.”

While in jail, waiting for sentence to be executed, Spies was visited by a young woman who had come to the trial to see “beasts” and saw instead men who were sacrificing their lives for humanity, she thereafter devoted all her efforts to the freeing of the men. Her friendship with Spies having grown she became his wife so that there would be less obstacles put before her in her work for the Haymarket Martyrs. The bourgeois press seethed with fury and slime. She had married, not a fat, old money-bag, but a fighter in freedom’s cause.

A Voice Pierces the Silence

As the day of execution approached and the appeals for pardon were ignored, Spies was prevailed upon, together with two other defendants, to submit a petition for clemency. But he soon repudiated the petition of which he was ashamed in a letter in which he proposed that he be hanged and the others freed. The others were not freed. Two were sent to jail; five to the gallows; one had committed suicide.

The hangman placed the black hood over Spies’ head. In that silent moment before the rope was cut, Spies’ piercing voice shattered the silence: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices, you strangle today.”


1. Written in collaboration with Sam Portnoy.

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