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An Accidental Anarchist

By Walter Roth and Joe Kraus

An Accidental Anarchist.gifAn Accidental Anarchist shows how the killing of a humble Jewish immigrant by Chicago's chief of police exposed the conflict between law and order in early twentieth-century America.

211 pages
Rudi Publishing (1998)

Reviewed by: Eric Howard

At about 8:30 in the morning of March 2, 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant, having taken a trolley from the Chicago of the have nots to the Chicago of the haves, knocked on the door of the home of the Chief of Police George Shippy. Moments thereafter, in the midst of a scuffle, the chief shot Averbuch dead. The inflammatory, fictive responses from the media of the time—newspapers of various political, economic, and ethnic constituencies—make for a powerful counterargument to those who bewail the allegedly recent decline of journalism.

The central mystery of the incident was legal, and it remains unresolved to this day: what criminal acts, if any, took place or were intended to take place that morning? Some said that Averbuch was an assassin who almost succeeded; others said that Shippy was a murderer of an innocent man who came to ask a favor. There is no clear answer, but it is possible that Averbuch, who immediately and without evidence was branded an anarchist, was a relatively innocent victim of a suspicious and quick-tempered police chief.

In Chicago in 1908, the word "anarchist" was at least as volatile as "terrorist" is today. The Chicago police hounded Emma Goldman, doing all they could to prevent her from appearing in public. On January 23 of that year, police broke up a March of the Unemployed led by a notable thorn in the side of "order," Ben Reitman. The police beat and arrested him. In February, anarchists assassinated King Carlos of Portugal. Closer to home, the 1886 Haymarket Square tragedy was still a living and bitter memory.

An Accidental Anarchist, especially in its demonstration of class and race politics in a Chicago that is both alien and nearly identical to that of today, shows how the lessons of history and the limits of the law can sometimes only be acknowledged rather than overcome.

Eric Howard is associate editor of Los Angeles Lawyer.