The Dramas of Haymarket
Created and maintained by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University.
Reviewed March 30-June 6, 2001.
The Dramas of Haymarket, a Web site produced by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University, examines selected materials from the society’s Haymarket Affair Digital Collection, an electronic archive of the society’s extensive holdings on the May 4, 1886, confrontation in Haymarket Square, Chicago. The Web site interprets these materials and places them in historical context, drawing on many other society resources.
The site consists of seven major “acts,” organized in chronological sequence. Each contains a principal narrative and a collection of images and related texts. The choice to present these materials as “dramas” helps to “both organize and interpret” the contents of the digital collection as a whole but also, as the site creators concede, has certain “limitations and liabilities.” The Web site labels the Haymarket trial “one of the most notorious miscarriages of law in American history.” However, there is a subtle way in which a highly politicized episode seems depoliticized. The narratives can be read as flattening the differences among the historical players by characterizing everyone as an equivalent actor on the stage of history.
The Chicago Historical Society owns an extraordinary Haymarket collection, including original manuscripts, artifacts, broadsides, photographs, and prints. These materials have been viewed by only a relatively small number of researchers until now, but the aim of the Web site is to provide visitors from around the world access to this wonderful collection. This is a worthwhile aim, and it is successfully accomplished. For example, “Act I: Subterranean Fire” has some of the most dramatic artifacts—several people’s exhibits of bombs and dynamite from the trial.
The organization of the Web site is clear, and the presentation is attractive. It is easy to navigate from main text to artifact or graphic related to the text back to the main contents or into the digital collection. The major texts explain in clear prose the context of labor unrest leading to the strike for the eight-hour day, the rally and bombing in Haymarket Square, the subsequent trial, convictions, and executions, and later developments.
There are problems with the main narrative in the “Epilogue: Drama without End—From the Pardon to the Present.” The Industrial Workers of the World is mistakenly identified as the International Workers of the World. The discussion of the international significance of Haymarket is rather limited. I would dispute the contention that Haymarket has “in fact been invoked more effectively by the forces of social control than of liberation.” The Web site concludes with largely irrelevant comments on the recent actions of young anarchists at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Visitors to the site would be much better served by an insightful discussion of how modern militant trade unionists in South Africa, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and elsewhere have focused on May Day as their time to call for international worker solidarity. (For interesting discussions of Haymarket and May Day, see James Green, Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements, 2000.)
Despite these shortcomings, overall this Web site should prove to be an excellent resource for researchers, high school teachers, and college and university instructors interested in immigration, industrialization, labor history, and the suppression of social movements. A vast amount of materials, organized coherently, on the critically important subject of Haymarket are now readily accessible. The Chicago Historical Society has made a significant contribution to broadening the dissemination of history.
Boston National Historical Park