A few months ago, one of my students alerted me to the fact that the gallows used to hang the Haymarket Martyrs was going up for auction. The structure was built in 1887 specifically to accommodate the convicted anarchists, and was later used by Cook County to execute a number of convicted murderers (One presumes that those who came after the martyrs actually did murder someone, but given the record of the Chicago police on forced confessions, I’ll leave it to someone who knows the facts of those cases to make the judgement). In the 1970s, the county sold the gallows to a theme park in–of all places–Union, Illinois. The gallows went on the auction block along with lots of sports memorabilia for a minimum bid of $5,000.
The auction of the gallows generated some interesting discussion in class. My initial thought was–buy it and burn it. But others suggested that it could serve as a useful educational artifact, as long as it landed in the right hands and was surrounded by the good interpretation. Several Chicago unions and the Illinois Labor History Society apparently discussed the idea of bidding for the gallows, and the Chicago Historical Society (a.k.a., the Chicago History Museum) actually made a very big bid. But in the end, the successful bid came from the corporate “museum” chain “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” See the Sun-Times a report, and Mastro Auctions for the details. The final bid was more than $50,000.
In an email to board members of the Illinois Labor History Society, Larry Spivak of AFSCME wrote:
As some of you know the gallows constructed and used to execute the Haymarket Martyrs and subsequently all others convicted to die by hanging in Cook County until 1927 was recently auctioned off by a private owner. I have been discussing this matter with the Chicago History Museum who made a very large bid for the item. Unfortunately, the deep pockets of corporate America won out. Believe it or not, I’m not joking, Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum chain out bid our friends at the Chicago History Museum. It went for over $50,000. Sadly, we should not expect this important symbol to be properly represented historically or otherwise.
In fact, the newspapers quoted the buyer for Ripley’s to the effect that what really interested them was the story of the last man slated for hanging on the gallows. The convicted murderer escaped before his appointment with the rope and was never found. That is their “believe it or not.”