Five Best Books: Terror in America

Death in the Haymarket

By James Green (2006)

A century ago the “anarchist bomb-thrower” was a widely feared specter in American politics. In “Death in the Haymarket,” labor historian James Green explores the reality behind the image. Delivering a gripping account of Americans’ first major encounter with anarchist violence. On May 4, 1886, a bomb exploded when Chicago police tried to disperse a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square. In the explosion and riot that followed, seven policemen were killed, sparking national outrage. Green vividly recounts the ensuing trial, in which eight anarchists condemned to death (four were eventually hanged) essentially for their beliefs—though the actual bomb-thrower was never found. The book’s greatest value lies in its evocation of Gilded Age class conflict, showing how the bombing emerged from, and ultimately shaped, struggles over labor policies such as the eight-hour day. Though the context could hardly be more different, “Death in the Haymarket” touches on issues still at the heart of the debate over terrorism, including civil liberties, immigration and free speech.

Living My Life

By Emma Goldman (1931)

Emma Goldman(1869-1940) is best known today as a feminist forebear, an advocate of free love and birth control—just a couple of the controversial stands that made her America’s most notorious anarchist a century ago. Written from exile in the 1930s, “Living My Life” traces a remarkably adventurous, contentious life, including her immigration to New York in the 1880s and her deportation back to Russia three decades later. Goldman confesses in the book that she helped her lover and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman plan an assassination attempt on industrial Henry Clay Frick in 1892. As she became more prominent Goldman turned cagey on the subject of violence, urging Americans to understand the political outrage fueling anarchist terrorism but not quite calling for the commission of violent deeds. Her memoir sometimes reads like an encyclopedia of assassinations, strikes, and protests—many of them lost to contemporary memory. Still, the book reveals Goldman’s flair for the dramatic and her grasp of the way her personal and political life resonated with the great revolutionary conflicts of her age.

Big Trouble

By J. Anthony Lukas (1997)

This sprawling tale could have used some editorial pruning, but when “Big Trouble” is good, it’s truly great. The book focuses on the murder trial of radical labor leader William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood, a bête noire of the turn-of-the-century American bourgeoisie. Haywood’s 1907 trial for assassinating the governor of Idaho quickly grew into a national preoccupation, a showdown between capital and labor. It was good theater as well, with Clarence Darrow defending Haywood against accusations that his Western Federation of Miners had been dynamiting anti-union employers and politicians for years. Darrow won an acquittal. As J. Anthony Lukas points out, however, Darrow’s success was hardly proof of Haywood’s pacifism. The book leaves the assassination mystery unsolved, but it masterfully evokes the complicated, violent struggle for power in the industrial west.

 The Masked War

By William J. Burns (1913)

Until the 1930s, policing in America was a haphazard affair. When a major crime occurred, city governments often turned to private-detective agencies rather than local police or weak and incompetent federal agencies. In 1910, when the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times was bombed, killing 21 workers, the city’s mayor hired the renowned detective William J. Burns to solve the crime. “The Masked War” is Burns’s story of how he ran the bombers to ground, eventually pinning the crime on union organizers (and brothers) John and James McNamara. The prose is sensationalistic, the facts suspect and the narrative wildly self-aggrandizing. Yet “The Masked War” captures better than any historian’s account the self-promotion and Red-baiting of the private-detective industry.


By Louis Adamic (1931)

Louis Adamic’s “Dynamite” was—and remains—the only popular overview of the violent clashes that accompanied the flourishing of American industry from the Gilded Age through the New Deal. The book begins with the infamous Molly Maguires—who made use of the dynamite common to Pennsylvania coal country—and ends with the fierce labor battles of the early 1930s. A left-leaning social critic, Adamic is sympathetic to workers who rebelled against their employers. “On the other hand,” he writes, “I do not habitually utter the word ‘Capitalism’ with a hiss.” Adamic adopts a broad definition of the word “terrorism,” applying it to everything from anarchist assassination attempts to labor racketeering and police violence. As a result, “Dynamite” doesn’t speak directly to terrorism as we think of it today—but the book is an energetic reminder that class war in the U.S. was once more than a metaphor.

Ms. Gage is the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded” (Oxford),


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