About Nina Van Zandt & August Spies

It was 1887, in Chicago. August Spies was on death row for a crime that he didn’t commit. Nina Van Zandt married him by proxy, while he was in jail. This is their story.  
 About August Spies

August Spies

30-year-old August Spies was born in Germany, but had spent almost half of his life in the United States. He was the editor of a workingpeople’s newspaper, and a leader in the labor movement. He was one of the speakers at a large, orderly, and peaceful meeting on May 4, 1886, where two issues were being discussed:

(1) Poor working conditions (i.e. workers compelled to work 10-16 hours per day).

(2) Police brutality against striking workers.

At this meeting in the open, at The Haymarket Square in Chicago, the police tried to interfere with the crowd’s Constitutional rights of their freedom to assemble, and their freedom of speech.

A totally unknown person threw a bomb at the police. The police began shooting wildly at everyone, including each other. In the end eight policemen died, and approximately 50 civilians were dead or wounded.

The Corrupt Trial

As retribution for the eight dead policemen, eight innocent people were put on trial and convicted for conspiracy to commit murder (the prosecutor claiming that they had allegedly aided, abetted, or induced the bomb-thrower).

The men on trial were portrayed to the public as violent terrorists. In fact, they were sensitive, thoughtful men, none of whom had ever been arrested before. August Spies was one of them. 

Cook County Courthouse & Jail, Chicago

The convicted men were all part of the labor movement, committed to improving working conditions in Chicago. The wealthy people of the city wanted the labor movement stopped. The state prosecutor and Chicago Police engaged in illegal searches and seizures, paid-off witnesses, fabricated evidence, paid off a  jury as well as a corrupt judge. In the end, seven of the men were sentenced to death by hanging, and the eighth man sentenced to 15 years in a hard-labor penitentary.

The actual bomb-thrower was never found. There was no evidence whatsoever that connected any of the eight men with the bomb or bomb-thrower.

Nina Meets August

Nina Van Zandt

As their trial was highly publicized, many people came to see it. One of the people who watched the entire trial was 24-year-old Nina Van Zandt. She was a dignified, college-educated woman from a wealthy family. She was convinced that the court had just sentenced to death totally innocent men. She went to Chicago’s Cook County Jail, where the men were being kept, while they waited for their appeal to be heard by the Illinois Supreme Court. She wanted to see what she might be able to do to help them in any way that she could. She met all of the men, but she and August had a special connection.

Over the next few months, she came to visit August almost every day, and they wrote long letters to each other as well. They developed a very deep love for each other. Even though they had just met, it seemed to onlookers that they had known each other for much longer. When Nina came to vist him, there were bars covered in mesh that separated them. The only way to touch someone on the other side of the mesh, was to stick one’s pinky finger through one of the tiny openings.

She helped him edit his autobiography and writings, and then had them self-published. She  became involved in the legal case and amnesty movement associated with the incarcerated men as well.

Their Proposed Marriage

A new head warden, Sheriff Matson was installed at the jail, and he was about to put into effect a new rule: Only spouses or family members would be permitted to visit the prisoners. Nina would not be able to visit anymore. When Nina and August

Visiting Area at Cook County Jail

heard about this, they decided to get a marriage license and have a Justice of the Peace come to the jail and marry them. The

press found out about their upcoming marriage, and went on an all-out assault on Nina and August. The public condemned the propsed marriage. People couldn’t understand why a “respectable” woman would marry a “criminal” on death row. The press portrayed Nina as a mentally insane, demented person. Among other things, she was called “silly”, “morbid”, someone with a “disordered mind.” They painted August as taking advantage of a “foolish” young woman. Nina’s house was vandalized. Nina’s elderly aunt told her that if she married August, she would be written out of her will and lose a large inheritance.

Even August’s attorneys told him not to get married, as his proposed marriage was enraging people, and might have a negative effect on the upcoming appeal that was to be heard by the Illinois Supreme Court. The attorneys were concerned that a “respectable” woman marrying a death row inmate would greatly anger the Supreme Court judges, and hurt the appeal. But August refused to call off their marriage.

Marriage By Proxy

Sheriff Matson, under great public pressure, forbade the marriage to take place in the jail. It looked to everyone that there would be no marriage. Everyone was against the marriage, except for Nina’s parents and August’s family. But Nina took matters into her own hands. She brought the marriage license to a Justice of the Peace, one who believed in August’s and the other incarcerated men’s innocence. She asked him to perform a marriage by proxy, which at the time was legal in Illinois. The Justice of the Peace was willing to perform the marriage ceremony by proxy, so August assigned his brother Henry to stand in for him as a proxy. Nina and proxy (Henry) were married by the Justice of the Peace on January 29, 1887, with both of their families standing by and watching. Nina was 25, and August was 31.

In her own words, Nina “followed the voice of her heart,” when she married August.

Nina brought the certified copy of the marriage certificate to Sheriff Matson, expecting him to allow her to see August. However, the warden decided that it was at his discretion to admit or not admit visitors to the jail, no matter how they were related. He turned her away for almost two months, but then decided to allow her to visit – but not as much as she once used to.

Justice Denied

August Spies

Due to more corruption, the seven condemned men’s appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, in March 1887, was lost. They waited until November 1887 for their appeal to be heard by the United States Supreme Court. Their lawyers argued for three days in front of the US Supreme Court, to persuade the court to hear the case, but the court refused to hear it, and set the men’s execution date to be within a week. With all appeals exhausted, one of the convicted men (in an act of defiance) committed suicide rather than allow the state take his life, and two of the men asked for clemency from the governor, which they received in the form of life sentences in a hard-labor penitentiary. The four men left were set to be hung on November 11, 1887.

Their Last Meeting

The night before August and the other men were set to be executed, the warden allowed only a few visitors to come and see the prisoners one last time. Nina was allowed to see August in the jail’s library. It would be the first and only time that they would be allowed to be together without bars and mesh between them. Nina walked calmly past the hostile onlookers (which included the press who were camped out inside the the prison, reporting everything that went on there). The minute Nina and August saw each other they’re faces lit up, and they embraced each other, and the deputy in charge of the library shut the door to nosy onlookers. When their half-hour was up, the deputy, an old, hardened man, watched with tears in his eyes as Nina and August parted forever. August was executed the next morning.

Nina Van Zandt Spies

Six years later, Illinois had a new governor, Governor Altgeld. One of his first acts in office was to pardon the men serving life sentences, and the additional man serving fifteen years in prison. He set the three surviving men free, and declared publicly that all 8 of the men, who had been found guilty of murder, were clearly innocent, and were the victims of a corrupt legal system.