Morbid Masculinities: Suicide Clubs and the Radical Labor Movement

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:50 PM
Harding Room (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kathleen M. Brian, George Washington University
When neighbors found the corpse of saloonkeeper August Heisterhagen with a bullet hole through his head, they also found a note Heisterhagen left atop the bar, addressed to “my respected friends and fellow members” that read only, “I have kept my oath. I warn you to keep yours.” The terms “members” and “oath” immediately made clear why Heisterhagen had committed such a rash act: he was a member of the local Suicide Club. In the final two decades of the nineteenth century, men like Heisterhagen purportedly organized 34 “suicide clubs” across the United States, organizations in which men gathered annually to select one of their numbers to die. In extravagant exposÚs that underscored participants’ German and Bohemian nativities, anti-labor editors and journalists brought to light the esoteric and subversive dealings of these “astonishing societies.” I pay particular attention to Chicago in the wake of the Haymarket Affair (1886) to argue that suicide clubs were a cultural narrative intended to neutralize radical attachments within the labor movement. After convicted in the Haymarket trials (1886-87) and sentenced to execution, German labor reformer Louis Lingg famously committed suicide in Chicago’s House of Corrections. Members of the anarchist movement hailed Lingg as a masculine martyr to the eight-hour day, revitalized suicide’s revolutionary potential, and used Lingg’s sacrifice as a rallying point for subsequent organizing. By recasting the gathering of Bohemian and German men as clubs organized in the “interest of death,” suicide club narratives drew on the language of both criminality and mental disability to invoke the powers of the police state.