Jailhouse Romance of August Spies and Nina Van Zandt

A jailhouse romance between the convicted August Spies and Nina Van Zandt, an attractive, well-educated 24-year-old, made front page news in the 1880s. Spies was one of the anarchists found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder after a bombing attack happened on 4 May 1886 at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois. The event became known as the Haymarket affair and the bombings resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilian casualties.

August Spies. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Seven men were ultimately charged and arrested,* (Spies was among those arrested) and one man later turned himself in. When the trial was held, those alleged to have committed the crime found many females were interested in their plight. Moreover, many of these women attended the proceedings and found themselves enthralled by the high drama that played out over the 52-day trial. Unfortunately, for Spies, he was found guilty and sentenced to be executed.

jailhouse romance - Haymarket explosion

Haymarket explosion during the anarchist riot. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Zandt was one of the women that became interested in the case and she appeared in the gallery towards the conclusion of the trial. Furthermore, by the time she began to attend she must have been aware of the crimes attributed to Spies and his associates as they had been summarized and printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“On the night of May 4, during a time of National agitation of the wages and short-hour questions, the police of Chicago endeavored to disperse an incendiary meeting of the anarchists of that city being held in the open space on Halstead street known as the Haymarket. The agitators threw dynamite bombs into the ranks of the police and [eight] of the officers in the discharge of their duty were killed. Other were more or less severely injured.”[1]

Van Zandt was the only daughter of James K. Van Zandt, a chemist employed at Kirk’s Soap Factory on North Water Street. He reportedly belonged to one of the Knickerbocker families who had moved to Pennsylvania fifty years earlier. As to Van Zandt’s mother, her family surname was Clarke, she was said to be Scotch-English, and her father was the wealthy William B. Clarke of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

jailhouse romance - Nine Van Zandt

Nina Van Zandt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Van Zandt was born the same year that Samuel Clemens began reporting in Virginia City under the pen name Mark Twain. Like Clemens, Van Zandt was said to be bright and a good conversationalist. She enjoyed a good education too having attended the Friends’ Central High School in Philadelphia before moving with her parents to Chicago in 1882, In Chicago, she then studied and boarded at the prestigious Misses Grant’s Seminary for young ladies. The following year, in the fall of 1883, she entered Vassar College where she remained for two years during which time she studied Latin and mathematics.

When 24-year-old Van Zandt appeared at Spies’ trial she was always accompanied by an elderly woman. Newspapers noted that the young Van Zandt was middle-class, tall, and fair-haired. Reporters seemed to have a good opinion of her noting that she dressed fashionably and appeared refined. According to the Illinois Sterling Standard:

“She evinced the deepest interest in the proceedings, and it finally became evident that she was more than usually interested in one of the prisoners. As the days passed by it was ascertained that her admiration extended to August Spies.”[2]

Supposedly, Van Zandt became enamored with Spies despite the fact his life and background were very different from hers. He was an upholsterer, radical labor activist, and newspaper editor. Moreover, according to the New York Evening World:

“August Spies, the leader of the Anarchists, is a German. He came to this country when sixteen years of age, and is now thirty-two. He has had little schooling, but has always been a student after his own fashion. At twenty he had learned and discarded the trade of saddler and tramped for two years though the West and South. At twenty-four he returned to Chicago and assumed the role of politician, and, as a leader of the Socialists, delivered many speeches and built up that party so that they polled over 10,000 votes for their candidate for Mayor, Dr. Ernst Schmidt. There was no Anarchistic party then, and Spies became manager of the Arbeiter Zeitung, the organ of the Socialists … Spies gradually moulded the paper into an Anarchistic sheet.”[3]

The jailhouse romance between the pair began near the conclusion of Spies trial. Van Zandt and her parents lived on the corner of Casa and Huron Street. Their house was opposite St. James’ Episcopal Church, of which they were staunch members. When a reporter called at their home Van Zandt’s 45-year-old father answered the door and when questioned he maintained that her romantic relationship with Spies originated from the loss of her favorite pet.

According to her father, his daughter lavished all her affection and attention on her nine dogs. One dog was her favorite and so when this special dog disappeared, she went to great lengths to recover him. She advertised in newspapers and offered a generous reward for his return. One paper that she paid to advertise in was the Arbeiter Zeitung, and one day while visiting that paper she came across an article with a drawing of Spies. Supposedly, it was a case of love at first sight.

After learning of the case Van Zandt began attending the trial and one day she visited Spies and his associates at the county jail. Supposedly her visit was to allow her “to proffer her sympathy … and … introduced herself to Spies”[4] He then reciprocated her feelings, and it was reported by newspapers that her visits thereafter became so frequent officials at the jailhouse began calling her “Spies’ girl.” It seems she got the nickname partly because “she would stand at the iron grating of the ‘cage’ and talk to her lover until the jail hour for locking up the prisoners arrived.”[5]

Van Zandt was known to have attracted the attention of several young men at her church prior to her involvement with Spies. Apparently, she was not interested in any of these gentlemen, and it must have come as a shock to members of her Episcopalian church that she preferred to have a jailhouse romance with Spies that have a relationship with any of the church-going gentlemen she saw every Sunday. Spies’ and Van Zandt’s jailhouse romance, was in fact, a surprise to most people although the Inter-Ocean noted that “scores of men” in penitentiaries were capable of enamoring and fascinating young women:

“[I]t is not strange that a man like Mr. Spies, who had the power to influence hundreds and thousands of men and carry them to the extremes of anarchism, should have power to fascinate a young lady of warm impulses and limited experience in the world.”[6]  

Their jailhouse romance became a longstanding affair after Spies and six others were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. However, Spies’ death sentence did not deter Van Zandt’s desire for him. It may even have intensified the romance because newspapers reported that prison officials found Van Zandt eager to show her affection and devotion to Spies:

“She would bring all sorts of dainty edibles for [Spies’] use, and also articles of feminine manufacture for the adornment of his cell. It was evidently a case of ‘mash,’ and a severe case at that.”[7]

jail house romance - Nine Van Zandt

Nina Van Zandt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Spies and Van Zandt’s jailhouse romance was shocking enough without newspaper readers learning that the pair planned to marry. Some newspapers thought Spies an “unscrupulous libertine” and believed the marriage was a ploy to free him or at the very least reduce his sentence. Many journalists also maintained that Spies had bamboozled Van Zandt’s parents into allowing their relationship to grow so that he would appear a victim rather than a perpetrator of a crime:

“Miss Van Zandt’s parents were coddled and flattered into a state of mind that permitted them to accept the relationship that grew up between their daughter and Mr. Spies. There are scores of men in the Illinois Penitentiary of brilliant parts, capable of fascinating not only young ladies of an affectionate disposition, but men with cool heads, and yet not one parent in a thousand would permit his daughter to hold communication with one of these brilliant, plausible, educated men. There are in the prisons throughout the country hundreds of men as noted for their learning as for their craftiness. If any one of them should through connivance of the authorities, cultivate the acquaintance of an innocent girl … they would be up in arms, and yet, here in Chicago, a man of brilliant parts, plausible and crafty, has been allowed to cultivate the acquaintance of such a girl … and no attempt is made to have her play a part of doubtful propriety that her beauty and her wealth may be counted in the capital stock of convicted anarchists posing before the public as martyrs.”[8]

While Van Zandt’s parents might have been all for her marriage to Spies, her rich aunt was not. In fact, she threatened to disinherit her and sent a dispatch to the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania clerk of marriage license, Eugene Seeger. Her dispatch stated: “Issue no license to Miss Van Zandt and August Spies to be married. We forbid the marriage.”[9] Seeger agreed with the aunt’’s assessment and issued his own statement:

“That dispatch confirms me in my resolve not to issue a marriage license unless I am compelled to. I believe that this whole thing is got up by some sharp-witted friends of Spies who propose to use an innocent and foolish young girl to create sympathy for him, in the hope that the Governor may pardon him or commute his sentence. … I know Spies’ nature too well to believe that he loves the girl. I don’t believe that she loves him, but she thinks she does. … I regard it as an outrage on decency and an insult to the law that this man Spies, with his neck in a halter, should defy all the dictates of honor and manhood and seek to drag down to his own disgrace an innocent and foolish girl.”[10]

Despite the disapproval of Seeger and Van Zandt’s aunt a marriage license was ultimately issued. However, Sheriff Canute R. Matson, the Cook County Sheriff, tried to thwart the marriage by ordering the keeper of the county jail not to admit Van Zandt into Spies presence so that the marriage could not proceed. Moreover, the sheriff stated that Van Zandt would not be allowed to cross the threshold of the jail even if a proxy marriage took place. He thought that was the end to the affair, but Spies and Van Zandt were determined to marry one another.

The jailhouse romance pair put their heads together and came up with the idea of a proxy marriage. Justice Englehardt, described as a “rabid socialist,” determined that such a marriage would be valid and so Spies and Van Zandt were married in that fashion on Saturday, 29 January 1887. Englehardt drew up the proxy document and Spies signed it. The marriage party then went to Englehardt’s office where Spies’ brother Henry acted as his proxy with Van Zandt’s parents and Spies’ relatives present.

jailhouse romance - August Spies

August Spies in his prison cell on 3 May 1887. Photograph, taken by John Joergen Kanberg. Courtesy of Labadie Photograph Collection, University of Michigan.

Unfortunately, their proxy marriage that originated from their jailhouse romance did not last long. Despite’s Van Zandt’s untiring efforts to free her husband or have his sentence commuted, he was executed on 11 November 1887. As he stood on the gallows, he shouted, “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”[11] His words were engraved on the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in the Forest Home Cemetery, where he and those condemned in the Haymarket affair were buried.

Although the Van Zandt seemed to have been consumed by her jailhouse romance with Spies, she eventually got over Spies and remarried. In 1895, eight years after Spies death, she wed Stephen A. Malato, an attorney. Their marriage proved unhappy, and she divorced him in 1902 and changed her surname back to Spies. Thus, that was the name she was buried under when she died on 12 April 1936.

*Attempts were made to try the perpetrators of the Haymarket affair in two separate groups, but that did not happen. Spies and his associates were tried together. During the trial, Spies maintained his innocence despite being implicated as possessing several bombs. He also maintained there was no evidence presented to indicate that he knew who threw the bomb or that he was involved in any way in the throwing of the explosive device.


  • [1] “The Trial,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 20 August 1886, p. 1.
  • [2] Sterling Standard, “Spies’ Romance,” January 20, 1887, p. 6.
  • [3] The Evening World, “Sketches of the Anarchists,” November 11, 1887, p. 2.
  • [4] Keith County News, “Wins a Wife,” January 28, 1887, p. 4.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] The Inter Ocean, “What Will be the Effect?,” January 19, 1887, p. 4.
  • [7] Keith County News, p. 4.
  • [8] The Inter Ocean, p. 4.
  • [9] Keith County News, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Phillips County Freeman, “The Last Act,” 17 November 1887, p. 3.

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