Skilled cloth cutter; anarchist; IWW member; attorney-at-law; early member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers at Hart, Schaffner, & Marx in Chicago; and founding member of the Illinois Labor History Society.
Irving S. Abrams became a member of the Pioneer Aid and Support Association, which was founded in 1889 to undertake the support of the widows and orphans of the Haymarket Martyrs. It was that association which also undertook to erect the magnificent monument to the Haymarket Martyrs in what was then German Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois. In 1942, Abrams was elected President of the Pioneer Aid and Support Association. By 1960, the membership had aged and dwindled to the point where Abrams was both the President and the sole surviving member of the organization. In 1971, concluding that the ILHS might have a future, Abrams presented the deed to the monument and cemetery plot to the ILHS in a solemn ceremony in the presence of the statue. Indeed, Abrams turned out to be the sole survivor of and “clean-up man” for several expiring organizations, including the Emma Goldman Memorial Committee, which had assumed responsibility for the upkeep of the Goldman Memorial, which stands about 50 feet from the Martyrs Monument. Moreover, Abrams found himself bankrolling much of the cost of Goldman’s burial and memorial expenses.
Born in England of a Polish mother and a German father, young Irving was taken to Germany at the age of 3 by his parents, and moved again to Rochester, New York at age 10. After getting work in a tailor shop as a young man, he became a skilled garment worker and got involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as an organizer in several upstate New York cities. When Big Bill Haywood took over the leadership of a strike in Little Falls, New York, Abrams moved on to Chicago and a job as a cutter at Hart, Schaffner, & Marx. During the long 1915 strike by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union to establish its dominance in the industry, Abrams functioned as a strike leader. He later declared with apparent pride that during the 15 weeks of that strike, he was arrested 39 times!
While still working at the Hart, Schaffner, & Marx factory, Abrams decided to become a lawyer. Lacking in the required formal education and credentials for law school, he nevertheless prepared himself for the examinations through self-studying in English and American Literature, Ancient Medieval and Modern History, Civil Government, Political Economy, Anthropology, Sociology, Industrial History of the United States, English Composition and Rhetoric. He was accepted into John Marshall Law School in 1917, receiving his law degree in 1920. As an attorney, he specialized in civil rights and civil liberties issues.
In his personal life, Abrams was devoted to the magic of poetry. He says as much in his memoir Haymarket Heritage, published by the Charles Kerr Company in 1989: “Poems and songs have played an important part in developing our concepts and aspirations. They shake us out of our complacency and waft us into a world of dreams that enriches our lives.” The ashes of Irving Abrams are interred, along with those of his wife Esther, a few feet from the Martyrs Monument and adjacent to the marker for Lucy Parsons. He was honored in 1980 through a memorial service held at the monument.
The magnificent sculpture known all over the world as the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument has been a beloved inspiration to the hosts of visitors who have made the pilgrimage to Forest Home Cemetery (once known as German Waldheim Cemetery). Dedicated on June 25, 1893 it was certainly a focus of attention by the Labor Movements of the world.
Look at this simple, yet majestic woman cast of bronze; how she presses with one hand the laurel wreath on the brow of the fallen hero, while, without halting, she steps forward into the great storm laden figure whose lightening now causes the world to tremble. Look at this image and your hopes will be nourished, your sense will become keener, your hearts will be steeled! From the address by Dr. Ernest Schmidt at the dedication ceremony
Eight thousand people attended the dedication. Many of them had come to Chicago to attend the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Others were drawn to the event in order to hear a much heralded speech by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld. Surely, no one was disappointed because Altgeld denounced the conduct of the trial and the absurd verdict which resulted in the execution of martyrs Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer and the imprisonment of Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden. Louis Lingg escaped execution by apparently committing suicide in his cell. Altgeld signed his famous pardon message on the following day, June 26, 1893.
The creation of this monument might never have occurred had it not been for the decision in 1888 by leaders of Chicago’s business community to commission and erect a statue depicting a Chicago policeman with his hand held high in a gesture commanding the famous Haymarket meeting of May 4, 1886 to disband, thus perpetuating the false impression that the meeting was a “riot” of some kind. Indeed, the Pioneer Aid and Support Society which had been created to raise money for the support of the widows and orphans of the Martyrs had explicitly rejected the idea of a monument on the grounds that the money would be better used in support of the families. Reminiscing about the issue many years later, famous anarchist Emma Goldman wrote:
My thoughts wandered back to the time when I had opposed the erection of the monument. I had argued that our dead comrades needed no stone to immortalize them. I realized now how narrow and bigoted I had been, and how little I understood the power of art. The monument served as an embodiment of the ideals for which the men had died, a visible symbol of their words and their deeds.
As we gather tonight at the Union Hall of Honor of the Illinois Labor History Society we can attest to the correctness of Emma Goldman’s second thoughts about the value of historic memory and the power of a visual image to project an inspirational and historically correct message throughout the generations.
According to Art Historian Melissa Dabakis in her article Martyrs and Monuments of Chicago: The Haymarket Affair, which appeared in the Journal of American Cultural Studies, October 1994:
In January of 1888, a committee of twenty-five businessmen and civic leaders, headed by Robert I. Crane, met to oversee the erection of a monument to the 180 Chicago police officers involved in the Haymarket incident. The Chicago Tribune sponsored the competition, offering a prize of one hundred dollars for the best design. The committee raised ten thousand dollars by public subscription, receiving much support from the Commercial Club and the Union League Club as well as businessmen from Aurora, Elgin, and Rockford who opposed unions and the eight-hour day campaign.
Continuing with Melissa Dabakis’ previously quoted remarks:
Responding to the dedication of the Police Monument in 1889, anarchist sympathizers began planning a monument comparable in scale and value, but which would offer an alternative commemoration of these historical events......On July 18,1889, the Pioneer Aid and Support Association inaugurated a monument fund to which all progressive workers in the country were asked to contribute.
On February 14,1892, the committee awarded the commission and $5,130 to Albert Weinert, a German educated sculptor and recent immigrant. In her article, Dr. Dabakis refers to a conversation with former ILHS Vice President William Adelman, June 2, 1992 as follows: “Facing east, the monument evokes the dawning of a new and more hopeful day.” The principal figure is a woman dressed in a peasant costume apparently referencing the French Revolution. In fact the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise was a favorite song of the German immigrant workers who dominated much of the Chicago labor scene. The figure striding forward with great resolve to create a better future almost casually lays a laurel wreath on the brow of a fallen hero, thus paying tribute to his sacrifice without stopping to weep and worship. This is a thought echoed not long afterward by the famous singer, songwriter, Joe Hill, who upon his execution by the state of Utah, declared to the public, “Don’t waste any time mourning - organize”.
But who would have supposed that on May 3, 1998, 1,000 would come to Forest Home Cemetery at the call of the Chicago Federation of Labor under then president Don Turner to celebrate the designation by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, of the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument as a National Historic Landmark. At the same time, the Illinois Labor History Society was declared to be its official steward. That was a natural consequence of the fact that ILHS had been presented with the actual deed to the property on May 2, 1971 by Irving S. Abrams, then the sole surviving member of the Pioneer Aid and Support Society and its only officer.
We have done much over the past few months to bring the Martyrs’ Monument back to the magnificence of its initial appearance when it was introduced to the world by Dr. Schmidt in 1893. Nevertheless the ravages of unknown metal thieves who stripped the monument of its’ metal plaques and the intricate palm frond basketry used by visitors as a repository for floral gifts which they had brought from around the world have yet to be restored. This is because of the great expense involved. This important work has been deferred until a major fundraising effort to reach the organized labor movements of the world could be launched on the occasion of this very Union Hall of Honor Event. The Labor Movements of the world are still to be reached, although we are confident that the response will be positive.