Segment from Blasts from the Past

'The Great Equalizer'

After Nobel introduced dynamite to the world, radical revolutionaries harnessed the explosives to foster a social movement that  threatened the government and wealthy elites. In 1880s Chicago, an anarchist named Louis Lingg saw dynamite as a powerful way for the labor movement to fight for their cause. Brian talks with scholar Tim Messer-Kruse about Lingg’s rise, and demise, within the labor movement of the late 19th century.


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Lizzie Peabody: All right, Brian. Your turn. Where does this story start?

Brian Balogh: Well, we’ve talked about the way dynamite was used to construct a massive monument in Mount Rushmore. But 50 years before they started blasting Presidents’ faces into rock, dynamite was being used to construct something very different.

Tim Messer-Kruse: It seemed to be the great equalizer between the people and formal military forces.

Brian Balogh: This is historian, Tim Messer-Kruse. He’s researched how anarchists used dynamite to intimidate the government in the late-1800s, and to create a social movement.

Tim Messer-Kruse: One of the problems that dynamite addressed was the problem that had become evident by the 1870s, that the power of governments was far and away excessive to that of the power of the people. Even in a united working class, even a revolutionary action that was set in motion could easily be defeated by the organized forces of the government. And then comes along dynamite.

Brian Balogh: Tim says dynamite not only helped level the playing field between radicals and the government, it also allowed individuals to send a bold and sometimes bloody message to the powers that be.

Tim Messer-Kruse: It seemed to be something that an average person could employ. They required no special training; they could carry it safely on their person; they could conceal it easily; and they could use it to defeat entire regiments of police or the military.

Lizzie Peabody: So it sounds like these anarchists were really into dynamite because it was a do-it-yourself kind of weapon that could deliver a powerful punch. But who were these people? When I think of anarchists, I imagine somebody who wants to undermine all of government and society. Is that the kind of person who’s carrying around this dynamite?

Brian Balogh: Well, not exactly. Tim says there’s a modern misunderstanding of who an anarchist was and what they were after during this time period.

Tim Messer-Kruse: We tend to think of an anarchist as sort of an anti-everything; certainly anti-state, anti-religion. It’s hard to conceive of a group of anti-everything people becoming organized, but in the 19th century people who were described as anarchists described themselves as revolutionary socialists. They earned the moniker anarchist years or decades later.

Brian Balogh: So what might drive them to threaten the use of dynamite, and in some cases, use it?

Tim Messer-Kruse: Well, they were fighting against a whole host of things. They would wrap all of their grievances up into the general category of capitalist exploitation. I mean, some of it was some of the undemocratic nature of governments around the world; some of it was the complete and total control of growing corporations over the individual lives of workers, but also their communities. So they were fighting against all these things that would manifest themselves as common people’s feelings of lack of power and a lack of a future.

Brian Balogh: As tension bubbled between the working class and those in power, there was one guy who quickly created a spark, pun intended, within anarchist circles of the labor movement. His name was Louis Lingg.

Tim Messer-Kruse: He was clearly a very bold person of action, and he was someone I think who just was a natural leader.

Brian Balogh: Lingg was born in Germany into an extremely poor family. And when he was just five-years old, he was sent off to be a carpenter’s apprentice.

Tim Messer-Kruse: That was just so they could be one less mouth to feed. And he completed his apprenticeship and then he set off on his own, as was the custom among tradesmen in the 19th century. He wandered from place to place, picking up odd jobs around Europe. He finally found his way to Switzerland, where he met his first group of socialists. And eventually, he moved from group to group; each group being progressively more radical than the previous group.

Brian Balogh: Lingg came to the U.S. in the summer of 1885 when he was in his early 20s. First he went to New York, but he soon hopped over to the city that was the capital for the labor movement in the United States, Chicago.

Tim Messer-Kruse: This is the amazing thing. He arrives in Chicago in late July of 1885. He was 22-years old at the time. And by the winter of that same year, he has been elected to the highest office in the carpenters union in Chicago.

Lizzie Peabody: Wow. It sounds like he really rose up the ranks quickly. So does Lingg start handing out sticks of dynamite to anarchists in Chicago?

Brian Balogh: Well, he wasn’t bringing bombs to meetings as party favors, but a stash of explosives did get him into some serious trouble. A few months after Lingg started working with the carpenters union, buzz grew around the city about a big labor demonstration.

Tim Messer-Kruse: The Haymarket meeting as it was organized was part protest, and it was intended to be part provocation. It was quite consciously intended to try and provoke the police into taking some kind of an unwise action so as to justify even greater levels of violence and street fighting.

Brian Balogh: And did that happen?

Tim Messer-Kruse: It absolutely did happen.

Brian Balogh: On May 4th, 1886 a crowd of people gathered in Haymarket Square in Chicago. They were there to protest the dismal labor conditions in the city. Things were tense because just a few days earlier, police had shot and killed a couple of workers at another rally. So everybody was on edge when the police showed up at Haymarket.

Tim Messer-Kruse: It was raining and windy and blustery. A few thousand people were milling around listening to the speeches when the police unwisely led their regiments out of the nearby police station; marched down shoulder-to-shoulder, gutter-to-gutter through the streets; clearing the street ahead of them as they moved on the speakers’ wagon. The police ordered them to disperse under the Riot Act of Illinois. Someone threw a bomb from a nearby alleyway.

Tim Messer-Kruse: The concussion pretty much stunned everybody. All observers say there was a moment of eerie silence after the explosion, thereupon gunfire erupted. It’s pretty much certain that this was gunplay in both directions. At least four of the anarchist participants in the protest were shot and killed, and most likely dozens of others were wounded.

Lizzie Peabody: So where was Louis Lingg during all of this?

Brian Balogh: Well, he actually wasn’t in Haymarket Square, but that didn’t mean he was off the hook.

Tim Messer-Kruse: So Louis Lingg was connected to the plot to hold this meeting and to have a violent protest against police, because police were tipped off and they discovered in his apartment a number of unexploded bombs and bomb-making equipment, and shells that hadn’t been filled, and bomb-making tools.

Lizzie Peabody: Yeah. An apartment full of bombs is not a great look for Lingg’s defense.

Brian Balogh: Nope. And sure enough, Lingg and seven others were charged with murder in the first degree.

Tim Messer-Kruse: In Illinois, you can be charged with murder and found guilty of murder if you’re not responsible directly for the murder; if you’re responsible for the plan that sets in motion the murder.

Brian Balogh: And even though he was charged with a very serious crime, Tim says Lingg never took the stand to testify in his defense.

Tim Messer-Kruse: Probably the most sound thing the defense did was not put him on the stand. He was the most defiant and unrepentant of all of the men who were on trial for that crime. He never denied making bombs that day. In fact, his lawyers tried to make part of his defense the idea that he had the right to make bombs, just not to use them.

Brian Balogh: I think that was probably a flawed defense argument.

Lizzie Peabody: He had the right to make bombs, just not to use them.

Brian Balogh: Yeah, sounds fishy to me. And the court didn’t buy it, either. Lingg was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. But before he went to jail to await his fate, he issued a statement to the court.

Tim Messer-Kruse: His statement came very, very close to something of a confession. He said, “Anarchy is called disorder. Anarchy is in opposition against the order of things, which does not allow a man to live a life that is worth living. I declare here, once more, openly, with all my powers, with all my mind, I must combat such disorder. Even if this praiseworthy object should be defeated with canon, I shall use dynamite. You smile. You perhaps think I will not use bombs anymore, but I tell you I die gladly upon the gallows in the sure hope that hundreds and thousands of people to whom I have spoken will now recognize and make use of dynamite. In this hope, I despise you and I despise your laws. Hang me for it.”

Lizzie Peabody: Well, it certainly sounds like Lingg stuck to his guns to the very end. So was he hanged?

Brian Balogh: That was the plan. But even though Lingg was sent to jail, he wasn’t quite done with dynamite.

Tim Messer-Kruse: He was all set to be executed, and apparently a friend smuggled some small dynamite charges into his jail cell. The police actually discovered four small dynamite charges that were hidden in his jail cell and confiscated them. Apparently, they didn’t find the fifth, however, and Lingg simply reclined on his bed, gripped the dynamite charge in his lips, and lit the fuse. And it didn’t lead to the instantaneous death that he expected. He lingered in agony through most of the night.

Lizzie Peabody: That sounds like a terrible way to go. Why would he do that?

Brian Balogh: Tim says that Lingg would have rather died by his own hand in a blaze of glory than to be executed by the state. But after his agonizing death, the memory of Lingg started to fade within the labor movement.

Tim Messer-Kruse: His memory was in many ways suppressed. He was an unrepentant and he was a vocal advocate of individual acts of violence against the state. And this idea, although it was popular in radical circles leading up to the Haymarket riot, the denial that that was ever actually meant seriously became an important part of the Haymarket martyrs’ defense, which was largely based upon the idea that, well, they might have said some things such as bombs are good and you should throw bombs, but they really just meant that to scare the capitalists. They weren’t really serious about that.

Brian Balogh: And especially after that bomb went off, it was not so good for business to be talking that way.

Tim Messer-Kruse: Absolutely not. So, Lingg’s legacy gets suppressed. He is the one who in many ways can’t be remembered, because if he’s remembered, then that sort of tells the lie of the idea that all the Haymarket defendants were simply pacifists and Democrats and liberals.

Brian Balogh: Even though Lingg faded into the margins of history, Tim says dynamite remains a potent symbol for upending the status quo by either literally or metaphorically blowing things up.

Tim Messer-Kruse: That symbolism was both extremely strong in the 1880s, and I think that still lingers today because of its durability. I’m always amused by a few episodes in the 1880s that illustrate peoples’ faith in this object. In New York City, there was a figure; he called himself Professor [Mesiroth 00:30:17], and he gave speeches, and he advocated that everybody carry a dynamite bomb in their pocket. And to illustrate that, he went around the streets of New York and rode on the streetcars, always armed with a dynamite bomb in his pocket.

Tim Messer-Kruse: Also about the same time, we get the first publishing industry around dynamite. A radical revolutionary by the name of Johann Most in New York published a book called Revolutionary War Science; was reprinted a number of times, and interestingly it serves as the kernel to a 1970s publication known as The Anarchist’s Cookbook, which is still in circulation and still reprinted quite often. These sort of things, I think, indicate that the symbolism of dynamite serves a purpose apart from dynamite itself. It is a symbol of the ability of people who are organized and committed to make social change, and I think that that symbolism will not go away because that idea will not go away.

Brian Balogh: Well, Lizzie, how’s that for different use of dynamite from the story you just told?

Lizzie Peabody: That’s a pretty emotionally heavy story, and I think it really illustrates how the same technology can be used for completely different purposes.

Brian Balogh: Yeah. And I’m sure at the Smithsonian you come across this all the time. And you know, we find so often in history that the same tool, the same idea is just repurposed by people completely differently.

Lizzie Peabody: Right.

Brian Balogh: You know, we don’t often work with other podcasts, and I just want to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed working with Sidedoor, Lizzie. Thanks so much.

Lizzie Peabody: Thanks, Brian. This was a lot of fun for us, too. We have joined forces like nitroglycerin and tenacious earth to create an explosive yet stable episode.

Brian Balogh: That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode, or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at Or send an email to We’re also on Facebook and Twitter @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Brian Balogh: Special thanks this week to the people whose voices and insights you heard on the show: Lizzie Peabody, John Harkless, Peter Liebhold, Maureen McGee Ballinger, Lou del Bianco, and Tim Messer-Kruse. Thanks also to Justin O’Neil and Michelle Hartman. BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Johns Hopkins University. Additional support was provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Announcer 2: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.