Posts Tagged ‘anarchist’

Portrait of a woman – Lucy Parsons

Thursday, August 13th, 2020

I’ve just finished reading the final instalment of a series of five articles by Colleen Thornton on Paul Grottkau and Lucy Parsons published as a guest post on A D Coleman’s Photocritic International. It was a story which began by Thornton buying on E-bay a rather fine cabinet-card portrait of an unidentified African American woman, made by a hitherto unknown photographer whose name and Chicago address were below the picture.

Although Paul Grottkau was not well-known as a photographer, he had been prominent in socialist circles both in his native Germany and, after escaping to the USA in 1877 following political arrests and persecution, in Chicago where he settled, quickly becoming editor of the German language workers’ newspaper there.

Thornton goes briefly into considerable detail about his activities there, and in particular to the Haymarket Bombing in May 1886 and the arrests and execution of leading anarchists who were Grottkau’s colleagues, and were clearly unconnected with the bomb. Grottkau had by the time of the bombing moved to Milwaukee, where he had started another German language workers newspaper and become a leader in a number of strikes, including the large strike at the Milwaukee Iron Company’s rolling mill in Bay View. The National Guard fired on the 12,000 strikers and their supporters in ‘The Bay View Massacre’, and Grottkau was arrested as he tried to calm the situation by speaking to them in German. The New York Times reported Mrs. Albert R. Parsons as being in the court when he was sentenced to a year in jail (he only served 6 weeks.) Her husband, Albert Parsons was one of The ‘Haymarket Martyrs’, then awaiting execution, and hanged in November 1887. The following year Grottkau returned to Chicago to edit the newspaper again and opened a photo studio. Two years later he moved away with his family, briefly setting up studios in Milwaukee and Detroit before settling in San Francisco in 1891. There he may have worked in the studio of Joseph Holler, as well as continuing his political activities as a Social Democrat. He contracted pneumonia after returning to work for them in Milwaukee in 1898; 10,000 people attended his funeral and his obituary was published by the New York Times. But although his life-long work as an “anarchist/socialist writer, editor, labor organizer, and political activist” is well-known and documented, nothing at the time mentioned that he made a living and supported his family as a studio photographer, and very little is known about his photographic work.

Thornton was led by her research to Lucy Parsons and by comparing with the few known pictures of her, was able to establish to her satisfaction that the picture she had bought was of Lucy Parsons. Without access to the original it is difficult to fully assess the evidence, and in particular that of some fairly extensive and skilled retouching by Grottkau that Thornton discusses. She certainly makes a good case, but I am left with just a scintilla of suspicion; I’m convinced but not entirely so. But of course her research about both Grottkayu and Parsons still stands even in the unlikely event that Thornton was wrong about the photograph which prompted it.


I have a particular interest in this story as I have photographed Lucy Parsons many times in different locations, or rather her image on a banner produced by UK anarchist group Class War. What I call their ‘Lucy Parsons‘ banner has on it “We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live” attributed to ‘Lucy Parsons (1853-1942)’. I first photographed it in July 2014 at one of their many protests against one of London’s new apartment blocks providing separate ‘poor doors’ for those living the the social housing from those in the larger private part of the building. I’ve since learnt rather more about her life and politics, but not before about some of the aspects of her life covered in this series of article.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage : Flickr

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.


Lucy Parsons

Monday, June 1st, 2020
Poor Doors protest, Aldgate 30 Jul 2014

I’ve just been reading a guest post on A D Coleman’s Photocritic International by Colleen Thornton on Paul Grottkau and Lucy Parsons, the first in a series of posts in what Coleman describes as her “painstaking inquiry” which “introduces to the medium’s history two extraordinary figures: a German-born 19th-century U.S.-based anarcho-socialist photographer, Paul Grottkau, and his subject, the African-American anarcho-socialist Lucy Parsons, widow of one of the men railroaded to public hanging in the prosecution of the suspects of the Chicago Haymarket Riot.”

Her research was prompted by finding a cabinet portrait of Parsons on eBay with the photographer’s details on the card below the picture. It is to be published on Photocritic International in three parts of three instalments each. As I write the first two of Part I are online, introducing the photograph of ‘an attractive, well-attired “woman of color”’ for which surprisingly Thornton was the only bidder, and with the photographer, who was previously unknown to me.

I’ve long known a little about Lucy Parsons, a remarkable figure in the history of the USA, and about the Haymarket massacre which led to May 1st being celebrated by socialists as May Day – here’s a brief paragraph I wrote on this site in 2018:

Since around 1891, May 1st has also been celebrated as a socialist festival, usually called May Day, but often also referred to as International Workers’ Day, Labour Day or Workers’ Day, the date chosen in memory of the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886, where a bomb was thrown at police as they attempted to disperse what had been a peaceful rally of trade unionists. Eight anarchists – none of whom had actually thrown the bomb – were convicted of conspiracy, and seven were sentenced to death, though the sentences on two were commuted to life imprisonment. The trial was widely criticised as a miscarriage of justice and the three men still alive were pardoned and freed in 1893. The massacre was on May 4th, and the date of May 1st was almost certainly chosen because it was by tradition May Day.

Lucy Parson’s husband, Albert Parsons, was one of the “Haymarket Martrys”, a union leader with no connection to the actual bombing who was executed on November 11, 1887. She had been born a slave on a plantation in Virginia in 1851 and had married Parsons in Texas in 1871, the couple having to move to the north because of racist hostility to their marriage. She became one of the USA’s leading anarchists, a labour organiser and journalist with an international reputation, one of the founders of the  Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Famously described by Chicago police as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” she continued her political activities until shortly before her death in 1942.

I think Lucy Parsons first came to my attention through Class War, one of whose banners carries the text “We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live” Lucy Parson 1853-1942 CLASS WAR“. It has on it another portrait of her, a far less formal image – and one that appeals to me rather more than the younger and slightly dreamy vignetted pose in the image that attracted the attention of Thornton. The photographer of this picture, made in the 1920s, is unknown.

The ‘Lucy Parsons banner’ was one they used in the long series of ‘Poor Door’ protests – around 30 in all – that I photographed outside 1 Commercial St, Aldgate, calling attention to the socially divisive separate entrances being provided for wealthy private residents and social housing tenants in this and other blocks.

It has also been carried by them at many other events. In December 2014 Class War used the banner outside the Mayfair offices of US property developers Westbrook Partners who were intending to evict tenants from the New Era Estate in Hackney before Christmass so they could refurbish these low rent social properties and re-let them at market rents – roughly four times as much.


Class War: ‘Evict Westbrook, Not New Era

It’s a banner I’ve made so many picture of, both at protests about various housing issues and at other events. So I thought I’d share just a few here, and an hour later I was still finding more and more to share from My London Diary. So perhaps as more of Thornton’s research is published I may share another set. Those in this post are all from 2014.