The Chicago Commune
: The Iron Heel
As agents-provocateurs, not alone were we able to travel a great deal,
but our very work threw us in contact with the proletariat and with our
comrades, the revolutionists. Thus we were in both camps at the same
time, ostensibly serving the Iron Heel and secretly working with all
our might for the Cause. There were many of us in the various
secret services of the Oligarchy, and despite the shakings-up and
s the secret services have undergone, they have never been
able to weed all of us out.
Ernest had largely planned the First Revolt, and the date set had been
somewhere early in the spring of 1918. In the fall of 1917 we were not
ready; much remained to be done, and when the Revolt was precipitated,
of course it was doomed to failure. The plot of necessity was
frightfully intricate, and anything premature was sure to destroy it.
This the Iron Heel foresaw and laid its schemes accordingly.
We had planned to strike our first blow at the nervous system of the
Oligarchy. The latter had remembered the general strike, and had
guarded against the defection of the telegraphers by installing wireless
stations, in the control of the Mercenaries. We, in turn, had countered
this move. When the signal was given, from every refuge, all over the
land, and from the cities, and towns, and barracks, devoted comrades
were to go forth and blow up the wireless stations. Thus at the first
shock would the Iron Heel be brought to earth and lie practically
At the same moment, other comrades were to blow up the bridges and
tunnels and disrupt the whole network of railroads. Still further, other
groups of comrades, at the signal, were to seize the officers of the
Mercenaries and the police, as well as all Oligarchs of unusual ability
or who held executive positions. Thus would the leaders of the enemy
be removed from the field of the local battles that would inevitably be
fought all over the land.
Many things were to occur simultaneously when the signal went forth. The
Canadian and Mexican patriots, who were far stronger than the Iron Heel
dreamed, were to duplicate our tactics. Then there were comrades (these
were the women, for the men would be busy elsewhere) who were to post
the proclamations from our secret presses. Those of us in the higher
employ of the Iron Heel were to proceed immediately to make confusion
and anarchy in all our departments. Inside the Mercenaries were
thousands of our comrades. Their work was to blow up the magazines
and to destroy the delicate mechanism of all the war machinery. In the
cities of the Mercenaries and of the labor castes similar programmes of
disruption were to be carried out.
In short, a sudden, colossal, stunning blow was to be struck. Before the
paralyzed Oligarchy could recover itself, its end would have come.
It would have meant terrible times and great loss of life, but no
revolutionist hesitates at such things. Why, we even depended much, in
our plan, on the unorganized people of the abyss. They were to be loosed
on the palaces and cities of the masters. Never mind the destruction
of life and property. Let the abysmal brute roar and the police and
Mercenaries slay. The abysmal brute would roar anyway, and the police
and Mercenaries would slay anyway. It would merely mean that various
dangers to us were harmlessly destroying one another. In the meantime we
would be doing our own work, largely unhampered, and gaining control of
all the machinery of society.
Such was our plan, every detail of which had to be worked out in secret,
and, as the day drew near, communicated to more and more comrades.
This was the danger point, the stretching of the conspiracy. But that
danger-point was never reached. Through its spy-system the Iron Heel
got wind of the Revolt and prepared to teach us another of its bloody
lessons. Chicago was the devoted city selected for the instruction, and
well were we instructed.
Chicago* was the ripest of all--Chicago which of old time was the city
of blood and which was to earn anew its name. There the revolutionary
spirit was strong. Too many bitter strikes had been curbed there in the
days of capitalism for the workers to forget and forgive. Even the
labor castes of the city were alive with revolt. Too many heads had
been broken in the early strikes. Despite their changed and favorable
conditions, their hatred for the master class had not died. This spirit
had infected the Mercenaries, of which three regiments in particular
were ready to come over to us en masse.
* Chicago was the industrial inferno of the nineteenth
century A.D. A curious anecdote has come down to us of John
Burns, a great English labor leader and one time member of
the British Cabinet. In Chicago, while on a visit to the
United States, he was asked by a newspaper reporter for his
opinion of that city. "Chicago," he answered, "is a pocket
edition of hell." Some time later, as he was going aboard
his steamer to sail to England, he was approached by another
reporter, who wanted to know if he had changed his opinion
of Chicago. "Yes, I have," was his reply. "My present
opinion is that hell is a pocket edition of Chicago."
Chicago had always been the storm-centre of the conflict between
labor and capital, a city of street-battles and violent death, with a
class-conscious capitalist organization and a class-conscious workman
organization, where, in the old days, the very school-teachers were
formed into labor unions and affiliated with the hod-carriers and
brick-layers in the American Federation of Labor. And Chicago became the
storm-centre of the premature First Revolt.
The trouble was precipitated by the Iron Heel. It was cleverly done. The
whole population, including the favored labor castes, was given a course
of outrageous treatment. Promises and agreements were broken, and most
drastic punishments visited upon even petty offenders. The people of
the abyss were tormented out of their apathy. In fact, the Iron Heel was
preparing to make the abysmal beast roar. And hand in hand with this, in
all precautionary measures in Chicago, the Iron Heel was inconceivably
careless. Discipline was relaxed among the Mercenaries that remained,
while many regiments had been withdrawn and sent to various parts of the
It did not take long to carry out this programme--only several weeks. We
of the Revolution caught vague rumors of the state of affairs, but had
nothing definite enough for an understanding. In fact, we thought it was
a spontaneous spirit of revolt that would require careful curbing on our
part, and never dreamed that it was deliberately manufactured--and it
had been manufactured so secretly, from the very innermost circle of
the Iron Heel, that we had got no inkling. The counter-plot was an able
achievement, and ably carried out.
I was in New York when I received the order to proceed immediately to
Chicago. The man who gave me the order was one of the oligarchs, I could
tell that by his speech, though I did not know his name nor see his
face. His instructions were too clear for me to make a mistake. Plainly
I read between the lines that our plot had been discovered, that we had
been countermined. The explosion was ready for the flash of powder, and
countless agents of the Iron Heel, including me, either on the ground
or being sent there, were to supply that flash. I flatter myself that I
maintained my composure under the keen eye of the oligarch, but my heart
was beating madly. I could almost have shrieked and flown at his throat
with my naked hands before his final, cold-blooded instructions were
Once out of his presence, I calculated the time. I had just the moments
to spare, if I were lucky, to get in touch with some local leader before
catching my train. Guarding against being trailed, I made a rush of it
for the Emergency Hospital. Luck was with me, and I gained access at
once to comrade Galvin, the surgeon-in-chief. I started to gasp out my
information, but he stopped me.
"I already know," he said quietly, though his Irish eyes were flashing.
"I knew what you had come for. I got the word fifteen minutes ago, and I
have already passed it along. Everything shall be done here to keep the
comrades quiet. Chicago is to be sacrificed, but it shall be Chicago
"Have you tried to get word to Chicago?" I asked.
He shook his head. "No telegraphic communication. Chicago is shut off.
It's going to be hell there."
He paused a moment, and I saw his white hands clinch. Then he burst out:
"By God! I wish I were going to be there!"
"There is yet a chance to stop it," I said, "if nothing happens to
the train and I can get there in time. Or if some of the other
secret-service comrades who have learned the truth can get there in
"You on the inside were caught napping this time," he said.
I nodded my head humbly.
"It was very secret," I answered. "Only the inner chiefs could have
known up to to-day. We haven't yet penetrated that far, so we couldn't
escape being kept in the dark. If only Ernest were here. Maybe he is in
Chicago now, and all is well."
Dr. Galvin shook his head. "The last news I heard of him was that he had
been sent to Boston or New Haven. This secret service for the enemy must
hamper him a lot, but it's better than lying in a refuge."
I started to go, and Galvin wrung my hand.
"Keep a stout heart," were his parting words. "What if the First Revolt
is lost? There will be a second, and we will be wiser then. Good-by and
good luck. I don't know whether I'll ever see you again. It's going to
be hell there, but I'd give ten years of my life for your chance to be
The Twentieth Century* left New York at six in the evening, and was
supposed to arrive at Chicago at seven next morning. But it lost time
that night. We were running behind another train. Among the travellers
in my Pullman was comrade Hartman, like myself in the secret service
of the Iron Heel. He it was who told me of the train that immediately
preceded us. It was an exact duplicate of our train, though it contained
no passengers. The idea was that the empty train should receive the
disaster were an attempt made to blow up the Twentieth Century. For that
matter there were very few people on the train--only a baker's dozen in
* This was reputed to be the fastest train in the world
then. It was quite a famous train.
"There must be some big men on board," Hartman concluded. "I noticed a
private car on the rear."
Night had fallen when we made our first change of engine, and I walked
down the platform for a breath of fresh air and to see what I could see.
Through the windows of the private car I caught a glimpse of three
men whom I recognized. Hartman was right. One of the men was General
Altendorff; and the other two were Mason and Vanderbold, the brains of
the inner circle of the Oligarchy's secret service.
It was a quiet moonlight night, but I tossed restlessly and could not
sleep. At five in the morning I dressed and abandoned my bed.
I asked the maid in the dressing-room how late the train was, and she
told me two hours. She was a mulatto woman, and I noticed that her
face was haggard, with great circles under the eyes, while the eyes
themselves were wide with some haunting fear.
"What is the matter?" I asked.
"Nothing, miss; I didn't sleep well, I guess," was her reply.
I looked at her closely, and tried her with one of our signals. She
responded, and I made sure of her.
"Something terrible is going to happen in Chicago," she said. "There's
that fake* train in front of us. That and the troop-trains have made us
"Troop-trains?" I queried.
She nodded her head. "The line is thick with them. We've been passing
them all night. And they're all heading for Chicago. And bringing them
over the air-line--that means business.
"I've a lover in Chicago," she added apologetically. "He's one of us,
and he's in the Mercenaries, and I'm afraid for him."
Poor girl. Her lover was in one of the three disloyal regiments.
Hartman and I had breakfast together in the dining car, and I forced
myself to eat. The sky had clouded, and the train rushed on like a
sullen thunderbolt through the gray pall of advancing day. The very
negroes that waited on us knew that something terrible was impending.
Oppression sat heavily upon them; the lightness of their natures had
ebbed out of them; they were slack and absent-minded in their service,
and they whispered gloomily to one another in the far end of the car
next to the kitchen. Hartman was hopeless over the situation.
"What can we do?" he demanded for the twentieth time, with a helpless
shrug of the shoulders.
He pointed out of the window. "See, all is ready. You can depend upon it
that they're holding them like this, thirty or forty miles outside the
city, on every road."
He had reference to troop-trains on the side-track. The soldiers were
cooking their breakfasts over fires built on the ground beside the
track, and they looked up curiously at us as we thundered past without
slackening our terrific speed.
All was quiet as we entered Chicago. It was evident nothing had happened
yet. In the suburbs the morning papers came on board the train. There
was nothing in them, and yet there was much in them for those skilled
in reading between the lines that it was intended the ordinary reader
should read into the text. The fine hand of the Iron Heel was apparent
in every column. Glimmerings of weakness in the armor of the Oligarchy
were given. Of course, there was nothing definite. It was intended that
the reader should feel his way to these glimmerings. It was
cleverly done. As fiction, those morning papers of October 27th were
The local news was missing. This in itself was a masterstroke. It
shrouded Chicago in mystery, and it suggested to the average Chicago
reader that the Oligarchy did not dare give the local news. Hints that
were untrue, of course, were given of insubordination all over the land,
crudely disguised with complacent references to punitive measures to be
taken. There were reports of numerous wireless stations that had
been blown up, with heavy rewards offered for the detection of the
perpetrators. Of course no wireless stations had been blown up. Many
similar outrages, that dovetailed with the plot of the revolutionists,
were given. The impression to be made on the minds of the Chicago
comrades was that the general Revolt was beginning, albeit with a
confusing miscarriage in many details. It was impossible for one
uninformed to escape the vague yet certain feeling that all the land was
ripe for the revolt that had already begun to break out.
It was reported that the defection of the Mercenaries in California had
become so serious that half a dozen regiments had been disbanded and
broken, and that their members with their families had been driven
from their own city and on into the labor-ghettos. And the California
Mercenaries were in reality the most faithful of all to their salt!
But how was Chicago, shut off from the rest of the world, to know? Then
there was a ragged telegram describing an outbreak of the populace in
New York City, in which the labor castes were joining, concluding with
the statement (intended to be accepted as a bluff*) that the troops had
the situation in hand.
* A lie.
And as the oligarchs had done with the morning papers, so had they done
in a thousand other ways. These we learned afterward, as, for example,
the secret messages of the oligarchs, sent with the express purpose of
leaking to the ears of the revolutionists, that had come over the wires,
now and again, during the first part of the night.
"I guess the Iron Heel won't need our services," Hartman remarked,
putting down the paper he had been reading, when the train pulled into
the central depot. "They wasted their time sending us here. Their plans
have evidently prospered better than they expected. Hell will break
loose any second now."
He turned and looked down the train as we alighted.
"I thought so," he muttered. "They dropped that private car when the
papers came aboard."
Hartman was hopelessly depressed. I tried to cheer him up, but he
ignored my effort and suddenly began talking very hurriedly, in a
low voice, as we passed through the station. At first I could not
"I have not been sure," he was saying, "and I have told no one. I have
been working on it for weeks, and I cannot make sure. Watch out for
Knowlton. I suspect him. He knows the secrets of a score of our refuges.
He carries the lives of hundreds of us in his hands, and I think he is
a traitor. It's more a feeling on my part than anything else. But I
thought I marked a change in him a short while back. There is the danger
that he has sold us out, or is going to sell us out. I am almost sure
of it. I wouldn't whisper my suspicions to a soul, but, somehow, I don't
think I'll leave Chicago alive. Keep your eye on Knowlton. Trap him.
Find out. I don't know anything more. It is only an intuition, and so
far I have failed to find the slightest clew." We were just stepping out
upon the sidewalk. "Remember," Hartman concluded earnestly. "Keep your
eyes upon Knowlton."
And Hartman was right. Before a month went by Knowlton paid for his
treason with his life. He was formally executed by the comrades in
All was quiet on the streets--too quiet. Chicago lay dead. There was no
roar and rumble of traffic. There were not even cabs on the streets. The
surface cars and the elevated were not running. Only occasionally, on
the sidewalks, were there stray pedestrians, and these pedestrians did
not loiter. They went their ways with great haste and definiteness,
withal there was a curious indecision in their movements, as though they
expected the buildings to topple over on them or the sidewalks to sink
under their feet or fly up in the air. A few gamins, however, were
around, in their eyes a suppressed eagerness in anticipation of
wonderful and exciting things to happen.
From somewhere, far to the south, the dull sound of an explosion came to
our ears. That was all. Then quiet again, though the gamins had startled
and listened, like young deer, at the sound. The doorways to all the
buildings were closed; the shutters to the shops were up. But there
were many police and watchmen in evidence, and now and again automobile
patrols of the Mercenaries slipped swiftly past.
Hartman and I agreed that it was useless to report ourselves to the
local chiefs of the secret service. Our failure so to report would be
excused, we knew, in the light of subsequent events. So we headed for
the great labor-ghetto on the South Side in the hope of getting in
contact with some of the comrades. Too late! We knew it. But we could
not stand still and do nothing in those ghastly, silent streets. Where
was Ernest? I was wondering. What was happening in the cities of the
labor castes and Mercenaries? In the fortresses?
As if in answer, a great screaming roar went up, dim with distance,
punctuated with detonation after detonation.
"It's the fortresses," Hartman said. "God pity those three regiments!"
At a crossing we noticed, in the direction of the stockyards, a gigantic
pillar of smoke. At the next crossing several similar smoke pillars were
rising skyward in the direction of the West Side. Over the city of the
Mercenaries we saw a great captive war-balloon that burst even as we
looked at it, and fell in flaming wreckage toward the earth. There was
no clew to that tragedy of the air. We could not determine whether the
balloon had been manned by comrades or enemies. A vague sound came to
our ears, like the bubbling of a gigantic caldron a long way off, and
Hartman said it was machine-guns and automatic rifles.
And still we walked in immediate quietude. Nothing was happening where
we were. The police and the automobile patrols went by, and once half
a dozen fire-engines, returning evidently from some conflagration. A
question was called to the fireman by an officer in an automobile, and
we heard one shout in reply: "No water! They've blown up the mains!"
"We've smashed the water supply," Hartman cried excitedly to me. "If we
can do all this in a premature, isolated, abortive attempt, what can't
we do in a concerted, ripened effort all over the land?"
The automobile containing the officer who had asked the question darted
on. Suddenly there was a deafening roar. The machine, with its human
freight, lifted in an upburst of smoke, and sank down a mass of wreckage
Hartman was jubilant. "Well done! well done!" he was repeating, over
and over, in a whisper. "The proletariat gets its lesson to-day, but it
gives one, too."
Police were running for the spot. Also, another patrol machine had
halted. As for myself, I was in a daze. The suddenness of it was
stunning. How had it happened? I knew not how, and yet I had been
looking directly at it. So dazed was I for the moment that I was
scarcely aware of the fact that we were being held up by the police. I
abruptly saw that a policeman was in the act of shooting Hartman. But
Hartman was cool and was giving the proper passwords. I saw the levelled
revolver hesitate, then sink down, and heard the disgusted grunt of the
policeman. He was very angry, and was cursing the whole secret service.
It was always in the way, he was averring, while Hartman was talking
back to him and with fitting secret-service pride explaining to him the
clumsiness of the police.
The next moment I knew how it had happened. There was quite a group
about the wreck, and two men were just lifting up the wounded officer
to carry him to the other machine. A panic seized all of them, and
they scattered in every direction, running in blind terror, the wounded
officer, roughly dropped, being left behind. The cursing policeman
alongside of me also ran, and Hartman and I ran, too, we knew not why,
obsessed with the same blind terror to get away from that particular
Nothing really happened then, but everything was explained. The flying
men were sheepishly coming back, but all the while their eyes were
raised apprehensively to the many-windowed, lofty buildings that towered
like the sheer walls of a canyon on each side of the street. From one
of those countless windows the bomb had been thrown, but which window?
There had been no second bomb, only a fear of one.
Thereafter we looked with speculative comprehension at the windows.
Any of them contained possible death. Each building was a possible
ambuscade. This was warfare in that modern jungle, a great city. Every
street was a canyon, every building a mountain. We had not changed much
from primitive man, despite the war automobiles that were sliding by.
Turning a corner, we came upon a woman. She was lying on the pavement,
in a pool of blood. Hartman bent over and examined her. As for myself,
I turned deathly sick. I was to see many dead that day, but the total
carnage was not to affect me as did this first forlorn body lying
there at my feet abandoned on the pavement. "Shot in the breast," was
Hartman's report. Clasped in the hollow of her arm, as a child might be
clasped, was a bundle of printed matter. Even in death she seemed loath
to part with that which had caused her death; for when Hartman had
succeeded in withdrawing the bundle, we found that it consisted of large
printed sheets, the proclamations of the revolutionists.
"A comrade," I said.
But Hartman only cursed the Iron Heel, and we passed on. Often we
were halted by the police and patrols, but our passwords enabled us
to proceed. No more bombs fell from the windows, the last pedestrians
seemed to have vanished from the streets, and our immediate quietude
grew more profound; though the gigantic caldron continued to bubble in
the distance, dull roars of explosions came to us from all directions,
and the smoke-pillars were towering more ominously in the heavens.