On Saturday, 1 May 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike (reports range between 300,000 and 500,000) and rallies were held throughout the United States, arguing for an “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.”
Chicago was the movement’s center and had around 40,000 workers on strike. On 3 May, labor activist August Spies spoke at a rally outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company factory in Chicago, urging the strikers to hold together. Spies also urged continued nonviolence, but at the end of the day, workers attacked the strikers and protestors. Police fired on the crowd, killing 2 workers. Spies would testify, “this butchering of people was done for the express purpose of defeating the eight-hour movement.”
Protestors called for another rally the next day at Haymarket Square. A crowd numbering between 600 and 3,000 gathered on the rainy evening of 4 May 1886, with a large number of police standing by.
Spies spoke first: “There seems to prevail the opinion in some quarters that this meeting has been called for the purpose of inaugurating a riot, hence these warlike preparations on the part of so-called ‘law and order.’ However, let me tell you at the beginning that this meeting has not been called for any such purpose. The object of this meeting is to explain the general situation of the eight-hour movement and to throw light upon various incidents in connection with it.”
Labor activist Samuel Fielden was persuaded to speak around 10 pm. Much of the crowd had already dispersed due to the rain, and after about 20 minutes, police marched onto the scene and ordered Fielden to stop and the crowd to go home.
As Fielden complied and began to step down from the wagon where he had been speaking, someone threw a home-made bomb into the advancing police, immediately killing one policeman and mortally wounding another 6.
Gunfire was then traded between police and protestors, with accounts differing on who fired first. Historian Paul Avrich maintains that the police fired on the fleeing demonstrators, reloaded and then fired again, killing four and wounding as many as 70 people. What is not disputed is that in less than five minutes the square was empty except for the casualties.
About 60 policeman were wounded and it is unclear how many protestors were wounded as most did not seek medical attention for fear of arrest or reprisal. Fielden was shot in the leg by a police officer.
The media blamed the protestors for the violence, and an anti-union sentiment spread.
August Spies was arrested on 5 May and a month later 7 more suspects were indicted for murder and inciting a riot. Of these, only two had been present when the bomb exploded.
After the trial completed in August 1886, the jury returned guilty verdicts for all eight defendants. The judge sentenced 7 of the defendants to death by hanging and Oscar Neebe (who was not present at the Haymarket) to 15 years in prison. Neebe addressed the judge after his sentencing:
“There is no evidence to show that I was connected with the bomb-throwing, or that I was near it, or anything of that kind. So I am only sorry, your honor-that is, if you can stop it or help it-I will ask you to do it-that is, to hang me, too; for I think it is more honorable to die suddenly than to be killed by inches.”
The sentencing provoked outrage from labor and workers’ movements and their supporters, resulting in protests around the world, and elevating the defendants to the status of martyrs, especially abroad. Portrayals of the anarchists as bloodthirsty foreign fanatics in the press, on the other hand, inspired widespread public animosity against the strikers and general anti-immigrant feeling, polarizing public opinion.
On 11 November 1887, 4 of the defendants, including August Spies, were hanged. 2 defendants, including Samuel Fielden, had their sentences commuted to life in prison. One defendant killed himself in prison.
The identity of the bomber has never been discovered.