Excerpt from a new play
November 12, 1919
As the lights rise on the interrogation room, Agent James Dell stands at
attention, nervously waiting for the next words of his superior — J. Edgar
Hoover, the head of the General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of
Investigation. A stern, stocky young man, Hoover is behind the desk,
reviewing the contents of several index cards. More cards fill a box before
Although only 25 years old, Hoover has risen rapidly in the federal
government. For the past two years he has worked for the attorney general,
and is now his special assistant in charge of counter-radical activities.
Straitlaced, obsessively organized, and self-assured, he’s a middle-class
crusader, fixated on the "crimes" of labor activists, foreigners, and anyone
who criticizes the government. There’s a hint of sadism, something sexual
hidden beneath the surface. He’s also contemptuous of those, particularly
from the upper classes who "pamper" radicals.
At the moment, he’s sizing up Agent Dell, silently evaluating whether the
young man before him may be a bit soft on those in custody. After a long,
awkward moment, he lifts his eyes.
HOOVER: So, let’s get to work.
DELL: Yes, sir. Ready.
HOOVER: You know why I’m in Chicago?
DELL: I believe so, sir. I assume, to check our progress in detaining and
HOOVER: Assume, do you? Well, stop it. The Bureau of Investigation doesn’t
assume anything. It collects information, it analyzes facts, and it deals
forcefully with anyone who poses a threat to the United States. Do we
understand each other?
DELL: I think so.
HOOVER: Good. Because the Bureau has no room for people with doubts about the
mission. (pauses, eyeing Dell) Let me bring you up to date. Six days ago, we
began a round up in 23 cities. So far we’ve identified and detained 10,000
communists and anarchists. That’s a good start. But we have to do more. We
have to build cases for prosecution and get as many of these revolutionaries
and radicals as possible out of the country.
DELL: You mean deport them?
HOOVER: That’s the plan.
DELL: Can we do that – I mean, can we deport American citizens?
HOOVER: Citizens? Maybe not, we’ll see. But we can get rid of the foreigners,
that’s at the very least. And we can put some of their cohorts behind bars –
before they do any more damage.
DELL: I understand. But agent –
HOOVER: Special agent! It’s a new classification.
DELL: Sorry, sir. I wasn’t aware –
HOOVER: Fine, fine. Stop right there. You understand, this comes directly
from the attorney general. Once we finish with the current phase, we’ll worry
about how to apply the law. So, save your questions and just listen.
Carefully. I’m here because this city is a hotbed of Communist activity.
Communism is like a virus, Agent Dell, It’s eating away at our way of life.
You see these cards? Each one represents a deadly threat. And I already have
more than 100,000 of them.
DELL: I had no idea there were so many.
HOOVER: Few people do. And we’re just getting started. Which brings me
to…well, you. You’ve been questioning some suspects?
DELL: Yes. But so far I haven’t seen much evidence that anything specific is
being planned, locally at least.
HOOVER: Then you must be asking the wrong questions. What about Emma Goldman?
We know she’s working with the Communists.
DELL: Isn’t she an anarchist?
HOOVER: Your point?
DELL: Well, they have very different views and tactics, don’t they? Usually
they don’t even like each other.
HOOVER: That’s on the surface. Only on the surface. Emma Goldman — Red Emma
— is, in my opinion, the most dangerous woman in America today. Never should
have let her out of prison. Not only did she incite people to oppose the war.
She mocks religion every chance she gets, she promotes fornication in the
name of "free love," and she tells young women to use birth control. In other
words, she may not be a communist, but they’ve got no better spokesman in
this country. Our job is to put a stop to that.
DELL: Well, I did ask Mrs. Parsons about her. But she claims they haven’t
spoken for years.
HOOVER: Absurd. And you believe her? Lucy Parsons is an integral part of the
communist conspiracy. She’s played a role in virtually every anti-American
campaign for the past forty years.
DELL: But she’s an old woman now. I just don’t see how she could —
HOOVER: That’s right, Agent, you don’t see. From a good family, are you?
Liberals, I expect. Grew up with all the advantages. You know, I’m constantly
amazed at the political blindness of the upper classes. Well, let me educate
you. Lucy Parsons is a dedicated revolutionary and a direct threat to this
nation. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.
(Dell is shocked by what he’s hearing. Meanwhile, Hoover rises and goes to
HOOVER: We want names, locations, plans, and she knows them. We aren’t
rounding up radicals just for the fun of it. We need evident, records,
confessions, membership lists if possible. We’re building cases — and a
base of information. A national index of radical activity.
(Hoover opens the door and calls into the hallway.)
HOOVER: Officer, bring up Mrs. Parsons. (closes the door.) It may not seem
like we’re at war, but we are. Moscow has agents around the world, armed and
ready act whenever the order comes. We can’t just wait, sitting on our
(As Hoover returns to the desk, takes a seat, and continues, the sound of
footsteps and the clattering of chains gradually grows louder.)
HOOVER: You know, we didn’t just pick the timing of this operation out of a
hat. The evidence we have points clearly to plans for a violent uprising
between November 7 – the second anniversary of the Russian revolution – and
yesterday. You saw the alert. Yesterday, I hope you know, was the anniversary
of the Haymarket executions. Now, Mrs. Parsons uses this as an excuse to stir
up the rabble every year. But this year, this year we believe that if she’d
been allowed to speak, we would have ended up with the same kind of uprising
we’ve had in the State of Washington.
DELL: Did something happen in Centralia?
HOOVER: Something? Oh, yes. The radicals had their union hall lined with
guns, and when the Legionnaires marched past –
(Several solid knocks on the door interrupt the story.)
HOOVER: Yes. Bring her in. (to Dell) We’ll continue this later.
(Dell opens the door. On the other side, Lucy is waiting. As she enters, we
see that her arms and legs are shackled. She moves painfully (and noisily)
toward the desk, giving Dell a rueful look as she passes. Dell is appalled,
but struggles to contain his emotions. He closes the door.)
HOOVER: Good afternoon, Madame. Take a seat, please.
(Lucy glares at him, but slowly complies. Dell moves closer, worried.)
HOOVER: (turning officious) Let me introduce myself. My name is John Edgar
Hoover, and I work for the Bureau of Investigation as director of the General
Intelligence Division. This is a new department, with a vital mission.
LUCY: (facetious) Oh, I know.
HOOVER: What do you know, Madame? That’s the question. (referring to an
index card) Let’s see. Lucy Ella Parsons, born 1853, in Texas. Moved to
Chicago in 1874. Member of the Knights of Labor, writer for…writer
for…hmm. Two children…both deceased. Founded the Pioneer Aid and Support
Association. Let’s see, George Markstall…Is he your husband?
LUCY: (dismissive) No.
HOOVER: But you and he have been co-habitating since 1910, is that right?
LUCY: We live together. Is that against the law?
HOOVER: No, Madame. The government doesn’t care who you choose to fornicate
with. But it does care – very deeply — about plans to overthrow the United
LUCY: Am I being charged with espionage?
HOOVER: We’ll see about that. You’re familiar with the leaders of the group
known as the Industrial Workers of the World — the IWW?
(Lucy nods, increasingly uncomfortable in the shackles. Dell is concerned.)
HOOVER: Good. Then you know about its plans to disrupt businesses.
LUCY: You mean strikes. They’re not against the law either.
HOOVER: Not since the end of the war, true. But when labor actions are part
of a larger conspiracy – which we know they are – and when radical ideas are
used to justify attacks on innocent people, that’s something else.
LUCY: Radical ideas? Like justice, a decent wage?
HOOVER: I’m not here to answer questions, or listen to Communist drivel. We
know what your comrades want. And we’ve seen what they can do.
LUCY: Such as?
HOOVER: Such as fire into a peaceful parade. Yes, that happened — just
yesterday, in Centralia, Washington, and at least four people are dead,
including the post commander of the American Legion. That’s your Wobblies. So
spare me the propaganda. We’ve rounded up the culprits in that case, and
they’ll be dealt with.
LUCY: Sounds very…convenient.
HOOVER: Is that supposed to be humorous?
LUCY: No. Death is never humorous. But sometimes it does come at a convenient
moment, doesn’t it?
HOOVER: For whom, Madame?
LUCY: Now, that is a good question. Who benefits? (shaking her chains) And
HOOVER: Turn the culprits into victims, is that the game? Like your husband
and his friends? (laughs) Poor, innocent men, wrongfully accused.
DELL: (observing Lucy’s discomfort) Sir!
LUCY: That’s right.
HOOVER: Please. I don’t care what some do-good governor said, years after the
DELL: Sir, please!
HOOVER: Someone threw that bomb. And seven police officers–
DELL: (shouting) Sir, I insist —
HOOVER: (barking mad) What?
DELL: Sir, are those chains really necessary? She isn’t going anywhere.
HOOVER: (reluctantly) All right, damn it.
Dell takes out a key and uncuffs Lucy. Hoover watches, suspicious. Once
released, she rubs her wrists and legs.
HOOVER: Comfortable? Wonderful. (pauses) Now…Seven police officers died as
a result of that bomb, Mrs. Parsons. And your husband, all the defendants,
had their day in court.
LUCY: A Kangaroo court.
HOOVER: A court of law, with a judge and jury. Is that what you object to?
Law of any kind. The anarchist creed, isn’t it? No law, no government. Just
LUCY: No, it’s freedom – that’s what we believe in, the things this country
says it’s about. But sometimes you have to fight for them.
HOOVER: With bombs and guns? Any means necessary, right?
LUCY: No, with the truth.
HOOVER: (referring to his cards) I see. Is that why your husband ran after
the Haymarket bombing? Hid in Wisconsin like a coward, afraid to stand up and
LUCY: You have no… (stops herself, struggling with rage) Yes, he left
Chicago, because I asked him to. Because – just like now — they were
arresting every organizer in the city. He’d already been tried and convicted
in the press. But he was no coward. He came back, in spite of everything.
HOOVER: And why would he do that – if things were as bad as you say?
LUCY: (painfully) Because I told him, if he came back, it might help swing
public opinion. Because the children missed him, I missed him. So, I told
myself…I told him…God help me.
(As she breaks down, lights fade, rising above on the platform. Young Lucy
sits on a bed, looking off expectantly.)
YOUNG LUCY: What are you doing in there?
ALBERT: (off stage) Becoming a new man.
YOUNG LUCY: Hey, I just got the old one back.
ALBERT: Old? That hurts. So, bring me up to date?
YOUNG LUCY: Well, most of the union leaders say we’re monsters. The mayor’s
banned labor meetings. And almost everyone we know is still in jail.
Basically, they’re using the case to break the eight-hour campaign. And it’s
ALBERT: Any good news?
YOUNG LUCY: You’ve got a fancy lawyer. And the defense committee’s raised
about forty thousand so far. (joking) Plus, if we turn you in for the reward,
there’s five thousand more.
ALBERT: Only five thousand!
YOUNG LUCY: You’re bad. Get out here.
(Albert walks on, running a small brush over his dark hair.)
ALBERT: Yes, very bad. But born again.
YOUNG LUCY: My God, what have you done? (rushing to him) Where’s all the gray
ALBERT: Have to maintain my youthful image. (embracing Lucy) Hmm, quite an
effect. (They kiss) Now, tell me about my lawyer.
YOUNG LUCY: William Black. Tall, and handsome I’d say. A war hero – on the
ALBERT: A yankee? Well, can’t be picky.
YOUNG LUCY: They say he won a congressional medal when he was only nineteen.
Mainly a corporate lawyer now. At first he turned us down. But when he
couldn’t find anyone else to take the case, he changed his mind. Had to take
it, he said, professional duty.
ALBERT: A lawyer with principles. Shocking. So, what do the boys think?
YOUNG LUCY: They don’t think. They just argue.
ALBERT: What about August?
YOUNG LUCY: I’m not sure what he cares about more, his autobiography or his
lady friends. But about Black, well, basically none of them gives a damn who
defends you all.
ALBERT: What? Why?
YOUNG LUCY: Because they’re convinced you’ll all be convicted. It’s the only
thing they do agree on. That, and what an ass you are to come back.
ALBERT: But you said in the letters…
YOUNG LUCY: I know. But the papers are making you all sound like madmen.
ALBERT: So, there’s a risk. But now they’ll have to think: Would a guilty man
come back on his own? Public sympathy. That’s the key, right?
YOUNG LUCY: The theory anyway. But …will people sympathize with a
socialist…with a colored wife? I don’t know. We have to be realistic.
ALBERT: (after an embrace) So, you’re having doubts.
YOUNG LUCY: Always. At the moment, I’m thinking, you know, we could just
leave, together, today. Send for the kids when we’re safe.
ALBERT: A little late for that. I don’t —
YOUNG LUCY: Either do I. But I know this: we’ve been fighting for fifteen
years. Everything for the cause, right? And I didn’t mind. But then I think:
Will I have to give you up, too? Well, I won’t do that. I just won’t.
ALBERT: And I don’t want you to. But we have to fight back.
YOUNG LUCY: Even if it means hanging?
ALBERT: Don’t exaggerate. It won’t come to –
YOUNG LUCY: How do you know?
ALBERT: I don’t. But if I don’t show up, we’ll be hiding for the rest of our
lives. And we’d be deserting our comrades, our friends.
YOUNG LUCY: Are they?
ALBERT: Well, some of them. Could you face them, their families?
YOUNG LUCY: (resigned) Just hold me. (they embrace, this time with some
sadness) If I was on trial with you, maybe it wouldn’t feel so… I don’t
know. If I was sure we could die together…
ALBERT: (after a long kiss) I love you. (lustfully) So, how much time do we
YOUNG LUCY: Enough. Black will be waiting outside the court at two.
ALBERT: And Sarah doesn’t need her room?
YOUNG LUCY: I don’t think she’ll mind
ALBERT: No rush then.
(Pulling him down, Lucy flashes a naughty smile, then touches his hair.)
YOUNG LUCY: None at all. But I have to say, I like the gray better. Why can’t
you just age gracefully?
ALBERT: Vanity. Anyway, it’s how people remember me.
YOUNG LUCY: (teasing) People? It’s for the ladies, ain’t it?
ALBERT: Just a little maybe.
YOUNG LUCY: I thought so. But you missed a spot.
(As Young Lucy plays with his hair, they begin to wrestle, then fall off the
bed. Blackout. Lights rise again below, where Lucy is recovering from her
grief and guilt.)
HOOVER: A very impressive performance. (to Dell) Moving, isn’t it? And so
tragic. Hogwash. You disagree?
DELL: Well, sir, I’m not sure what this has to with our investigation.
HOOVER: Oh? Then let me explain it to you. This is how the communists work.
They shift the blame — from their own actions to the government. Muddy the
LUCY: He was innocent! They were all…
HOOVER: Right, like the anarchist who bombed the attorney general’s house
last June. I suppose he was innocent. Fortunately, that one blew himself up
instead. So, let’s make things very clear. We know there is a conspiracy, and
we already have some of the criminals in custody.
LUCY: Oh, then why bother with questions? Or a trial.
HOOVER: Because we’re not in Russia, Madame. This is a civilized country.
LUCY: Oh, yes. Here we get a verdict in the press before we bring out the
HOOVER: (to Dell) See that. Twist everything, accuse the accuser. It’s
brilliant, really. (back to Lucy) You’re a very bright woman, obviously well
trained. Well, then you’re obviously smart enough to know that I can hold you
here as long as I want. Until you tell me what I want to know.
LUCY: (looks at her Gold watch, remembering something) So, ask the damned
questions and get it over with.
HOOVER: Good. (He notices her attachment to the watch) I will. Let’s start
with your old comrade Emma Goldman. You’ve known her since…
LUCY: I don’t know. A long time.
HOOVER: Did you know her eighteen years ago, in 1901?
LUCY: Yes, we met shortly after the trial.
HOOVER: Which trial?
LUCY: My husband’s.
HOOVER: Right. And did you know Leon Czolgosz?
HOOVER: Who? Who? The man who killed President McKinley, that’s who.
LUCY: (shocked) No. Why, for God’s sake?
HOOVER: Miss Goldman never talked about him?
LUCY: Not that I remember.
HOOVER: But possibly?
LUCY: I don’t think-
HOOVER: But you can’t be sure. He did attend a speech she gave here.
LUCY: He did?
HOOVER: Yes. He was there, and you were there.
HOOVER: And several weeks later Mr. Czolgosz, a self-professed anarchist, at
the instigation of Miss Goldman, shot the president in Buffalo.
LUCY: That’s absurd —
HOOVER: So, the question is: Did you ever see Emma Goldman talk with Leon
Czolgosz? Think very carefully now. We know already that he was one of her
followers. She clearly inspired his actions. You can help us make a case. And
help yourself in the process.
LUCY: You want me to lie?
HOOVER: No, I want you to admit the truth: That Emma Goldman wanted the
LUCY: And then you put her on trial? For giving speeches?
HOOVER: Not a trial, but hopefully we can deport her. The problem is, her
father and husband are both citizens. That complicates the picture. But, with
proof about her complicity in the assassination, I think we can do it. So,
how about it?
LUCY: (after a long pause) Are you listening, Agent Dell? This man – this
extortionist – thinks I would betray a friend, betray myself, just to get out
of this place. Well, I’d rather rot here – or go on trial myself.
HOOVER: That can be arranged.
LUCY: I know. I know. I’ve seen it before.
(Lights rise on center stage, now a courtroom. At a long table, the seven
defendants: Adolph Fischer, George Engel Michael Schwab, August Spies, Sam
Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Louis Lingg. Their lawyer, Captain William Black,
is addressing the white-haired judge, Joseph Gary. He looks bored. At a
second table, the chief prosecutor, Julius Grinnell, is ready to pounce.)
BLACK: Murder. The most serious crime a man can face. Your honor, each of the
defendants is entitled to a vigorous and independent defense. Without
separate trials that won’t be possible. Evidence against one of them will
become evidence against all.
GARY: I’m not impressed so far, Mr. Black
BLACK: Then consider this, your honor: Despite what we’re been reading
lately, my clients’ work on behalf of an eight-hour workday does not
constitute proof of a conspiracy. Why, some of these men have never even met,
outside this proceeding. Your honor, in view of the serious charges, and
especially in view of the unfair publicity surrounding this trial, I think it
is abundantly clear why we need separate trials for each…
(Offstage, a huge door opens and a crowd reacts with muffled shock as Albert
strides into court. Grinnell realizes and jumps up, motioning for help. Two
officers appear, waiting to move in.)
GRINNELL: This man is Albert Parson, your honor. I move that he be placed
under arrest immediately.
BLACK: That’s absurd. Mr. Parsons is here to surrender himself. Mr. Grinnell
is just grandstanding.
GRINNELL: That makes absolutely no sense –
(Gary raises his hand, cutting off the prosecutor, then looks sternly at
Albert. They take each other’s measure. Then Gary nods for Albert to speak.)
ALBERT: Your honor, I am here to present myself for trial…with my comrades,
and enter a plea of not guilty.
END OF EXCERPT
If you are interested in staging or participating in a reading or production
of The Inquisition, please contact the author at MavMedia@aol.com.