Cornford and Cross

Rachel Withers


t was just after ten on a rainy May night in 1886, B. Le Plant of Earl Park Indiana. was leaning in a doorway in Chicago’s Haymarket*, eating peanuts surveying the couple of hundred stragglers still lingering after the evening’s protest meeting, and thinking about making tracks. Sam Fielden. the well-known anarchist, was still sounding off, but Le Plant’s attention was wavering. ‘There is something radically wrong in the existing order of things!... A few individuals control the means of living, and hold the working man in a vice... He that has to obey the will of another is a slave... The law is only framed for those who are your enslavers! Lay hands on it and throttle it till it makes its last kick!” Yeah, yeah, thought Le Plant, scrabbling in his paper packet for the last remaining nuts. Not that he didn’t agree — nobody was more for the eight-hour day than B. Le Plant! — but he’d heard Fielden on much better form than this.

Then another sound caught Le Plant’s ear. Leather soles slapping paving stones. Chicago Police Boots — and lots of them. Goddamn Inspector Bonfield and his bloodhounds! Time to split. and quick thought Le Plant. He straightened up, lifted the last nut to his lips, and saw something whirl through the air. A second later, Le Plant’s eardrums nearly burst. Light flared. smoke stung his eyes, glass shards sprayed over him. Something pounded into his leg — he fell. Another bullet seared his shoulder. A policeman’s boot thumped his ribs. Screams, howls, a pistol shots ripped the air, giving way to moans and sobs. Unable to move, his head twisted crazily sideways in a pool of blood and broken glass. B. Le Plant solemnly contemplated the paper bag still clutched in his hand, the peanut. shells strewn across the sidewalk.

B. Le Plant lived to tell the tale of the Haymarket bombing, peanuts and all, but an unknown number of fellow protesters, maybe eight or nine, weren’t so lucky. Dozens were injured. The explosion killed just one policeman: a further six were shot to death — by their colleagues. Firing wildly, hell-bent on scrying down civilians, the police ended up discharging their weapons into each other. But what had precipitated the carnage? What did the bomb mean? For the fraction of a second it spun in the air, the bomb was an empty signifier, waiting to be invested with meaning, read, fixed, comprehend. The moment it hit the pavement, the inscription of significance began.

For many, the message was plain. The bomb spelt ‘Anarchy’- a vile assault on Good Government, Fireside Safety and the Supremacy of the Law. Egged on by the right-wing press, the police eagerly rounded up eight anarchist leaders and activists, including Fielden. The bomb then became the pretext for the staggeringly unfair trial, in which twelve biased jurors and a bigoted judge played fast and loose with the law and condemned all the accused. For Cesare Lombroso, notorious ‘expert’ on physiognomy, the bomb served as a distorting lens, tainting the Chicago Anarchists’ faces with criminal traits — cranial deformities, skin discolouration, anomalous ears and noses. Anarchists were priori ‘traitors’, ‘godless foreigners’, ‘organised assassins’, ‘rats to be driven back in their holes’; the bomb’s very existence was enough to prove their guilt.

To others the bomb hissed ‘Conspiracy’. Rumours abounded: that Capital was responsible, that the industrialists themselves have commissioned it. That it was down to Pinkerton, doing the police’s dirty work. That it was a wild act of revenge by a lone operator, some victim of previous police violence.

For anarchism’s supporters, the bomb proclaimed ‘Freedom!’. The state had attacked the basic rights of free speech and free assembly, and anarchy had replied. The bomb was legally justified and tactically excellent, thundered and prominent U.S. anarchist Johann Most. Defendants August Spies and George Engal agreed, labelling the bomb a lifesaver: it had derailed the systematic killing spree planned by the police. Albert Parsons, also accused, initially evaded arrest, but for him the bomb grew to represent an opportunity — the trial offered anarchist ideas a public platform. He gave himself up. was found guilty, and spoke to the court for over six hours. Anarchists are people who know their rights and dare to maintain them!” boasted the condemned men. Tragic defiance: four of the accused, including Parsons. were hanged. One had already killed himself. The others, including Fielden, were jailed for life.

Seven years later, Illinios’ newly-elected Democrat Governor, John Peter Atgeld, intervened. Decrying the disgraceful trial, Atgeld freed and exonerated its victims, and the orphan bomb, whose author remains unknown, was glossed with another, deeply ironic, layer of meaning: a means for demonstrating the ultimate impartiality, benignity and rectitude of Democratic Justice.


Childhood’s End, (production still) 2000
Digital video still from two-screen video installation duration 6 minutes 9 seconds
Collection of Wolverhampton Art Gallery, England