Biography’s Occupational Hazards
Confronting Your Subject as Both Person and Persona
In the summer of 1899, the anarchist Lucy Parsons was in her element, holding forth on Chicago street corners and condemning the United States’ incursion into the Philippines. Parsons and other radicals saw the Spanish-American War as an exercise in imperialism on behalf of American economic interests. One day in July, her 21-year-old son, Albert Parsons Jr., told her that he planned to join the army and serve overseas. She was enraged. She hauled him before a judge and had him declared legally insane, though by all other accounts, that was not the case; a high school graduate, he was now working as a clerk. The judge remanded him to Elgin Asylum, north of Chicago, where he languished for years, apparently tormented by inmates and guards alike because of his infamous mother. He died there of tuberculosis in 1919.
I had chosen to write about Parsons because of the vast amount of relevant historical material available. She was the widow of Albert Parsons, wrongly accused and then hanged for his role in the Chicago Haymarket bombing of 1886. Parsons was notorious in her day; the mainstream press covered her almost obsessively, especially during the period between 1886 and 1900. She gave many speeches reprinted in newspapers; wrote social commentary, poetry, fiction, and editorials for various radical magazines; and published and edited two short-lived newspapers during her long lifetime (1851–1942). She spoke in terms that seem familiar to us today, denouncing the growing gap between the rich and poor, arguing for the necessity of labor unions, and warning about the displacement of workers by machines. I did not lack for her writings or for newspaper accounts of her lecture tours around the country.
As Parsons’s biographer, I considered Lucy Parsons’s treatment of her son unfathomable, cruel in the extreme. I wondered how I could write about Parsons with the dispassion that a biography demanded. I knew I should somehow contextualize or account for this incident in her life, but that was no easy matter.
The writer Carolyn Ashbaugh wrote the first full-length biography of Lucy Parsons in 1976. It occurred to me that online sources and the proliferation of genealogical material—census data; historical newspapers; and birth, marriage, and death records—might open vast new possibilities for exploring Parsons’s life. A new biography of Parsons struck me as a good way to explore radical politics in America’s Gilded Age.
I wondered how I could write about Parsons with the dispassion that a biography demanded.
I began this research project intrigued by Parsons qua agitator and provocateur. She showed remarkable courage in defying police officers and judges, insisting on the right of the laboring classes to use dynamite as a weapon, and embracing a violent rhetoric that tested the limits of the First Amendment. However, I failed to anticipate some of the occupational hazards of writing a full-length biography about someone who seemed determined to withhold details about her own background and state of mind. What I discovered was a woman who suffered multiple traumas throughout her life and who needed to remain in firm control of her public persona, no matter the personal costs.
I found myself wondering how I should deal with aspects of her life that left me baffled, mystified: Should I elide these details if I could not explain them? Speculate about her motivations, even in the absence of evidence related to her interior life? I soon realized that I had to explore Parsons as a whole person and not try to fit her into the conventional narrative that portrayed her as the heroic widow of a Haymarket martyr.
Gradually, I came to understand that Parsons’s turbulent early years and subsequent personal losses shaped her life; enslaved for her first 14 years, she was forcibly removed from Virginia by her owner to central Texas around 1863. In the late 1860s, she had a baby boy, but when she left Texas for Chicago as a married woman (in 1872 or 1873), she did not have a baby with her. Her daughter Lulu, born in 1881, died nine years later. The death of her daughter and what she called the “judicial murder” of her husband affected her deeply.
After her husband’s conviction in the summer of 1886, Parsons began to claim that she was born to Mexican and Native American parents in Texas. She assumed the persona of a Latina, though she never pretended to be able to read or speak Spanish. She hid the story of her early life in Virginia from her adoring audiences, preferring to keep them guessing about the circumstances of her birth.
Despite her public show of bravado, she lived a hard life, constantly worrying about money—and about her own reputation as an uncompromising, take-no-prisoners radical. Her son’s plan to enlist threatened that reputation.
As Parsons’s biographer, I had the responsibility to understand her as a full person.
Lucy Parsons’s racial identity and her decision to have her son committed to an insane asylum were not the only troubling aspects of her life I had to confront and explain. I was also struck by her apparent studied indifference to the plight of Chicago’s Black population over her lifetime. She claimed to be a radical’s radical, disdainful of virtually all American institutions. She denigrated organized religion and the Republican, Democratic, and Socialist political parties, and she had contempt for suffragists because, she said, the vote was a waste of time for everyone. Parsons presented herself as a more thorough critic of American society than other radical labor leaders of the time. Consequently, I was mystified by her refusal to address the obvious racial prejudices of many members of the white laboring classes—prejudices that divided workers from one another and strengthened the power of employers.
And, too, somewhat surprisingly, Parsons rejected the call for nonmonogamous relationships in contrast to “free love” anarchists such as Emma Goldman. Parsons argued that the nuclear family was the foundation of a just world and that children must be certain who their parents were. Her contemporaries called her out for her hypocrisy, for in her widowhood, she carried on at least one highly publicized affair with a young married man, the father of two children. She apparently shared Goldman’s commitment to female sexual liberation—or license—but refused to admit it in her writings or speeches.
Lucy Parsons’s life contained a large element of performance. She delighted in upending the contemporary stereotype of the anarchist as a scruffy, bearded old man and in disappointing audiences who expected a pitiful widow with a pathetic story to tell. Instead, she gave them a fashionably dressed firebrand, eloquent in her denunciations of the ruling classes. As her biographer, I had the responsibility to understand her as a full person and not just the creature of people who found her merely exotic—or dangerous.
For historians, biographical research can reveal the everyday workings of larger historical forces in a particular time and place, but it can also reveal the psychological complexities of any one person, complexities that might remain a mystery to the biographer—and, indeed, in Parsons’s case, a mystery even to those who thought they knew her well.
Jacqueline Jones is president of the AHA.
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