Today in 1886, about 200,000 American workers engineered a nationwide strike for an eight-hour work day. A few days later, at a labor rally in Haymarket Square, Chicago, a bomb exploded, killing 11 people, including 7 police officers. Four anarchists were hanged, on flimsy evidence, and the general strike dissipated.
A few years later, in Europe, a newly-formed collection of socialist and labor parties called for a demonstration on May 1 to honor the “Haymarket martyrs” and sustain the struggle for an eight-hour work day. Over the years, the cause evolved into a broader celebration of labor unions and labor rights, which spread around the world.
However, stateside, the holiday didn’t take off; President Grover Cleveland was concerned about the political threat of anarchists and socialists, and so decided on another day to celebrate the more moderate elements of the union movement, and proclaimed the first Monday in September as Labor Day in 1894.
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.
On this day in 1886, in a violent altercation between police and protestors, the Haymarket riot occurred in Chicago. The previous day, several people were injured and one killed when police attempted to break a strike aimed at securing national eight-hour day legislation. In retaliation to such police brutality, a group of anarchist labour leaders organised a meeting in Haymarket Square. The meeting was initially peaceful, but when the police called for the crowd to disperse, one anonymous protestor threw a bomb. In the ensuing chaos the police opened fire, and violence reigned in Chicago’s streets. Ultimately, seven police officers and a few civilians died, with one hundred more people injured. The riot stoked fears of working class militancy, and resulted in a crackdown against labour leaders and immigrants. A group of anarchist leaders, known as the ‘Chicago Eight’, were arrested for alleged involvement in the bombing and subsequent violence. While many of the group were not even present at Haymarket, four anarchists were convicted on slim evidence and executed in November 1887. The surviving three of the group (one had committed suicide) were pardoned in 1893 when the case was reconsidered and thrown out on the basis of poor evidence. While proving a blow for the labour movement at the time, the Haymarket riot - and the martyrdom of the Chicago Eight - has endured as a symbol for labour leaders and activists in America and abroad.
“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today” - Anarchist August Spies, one of the Chicago Eight, before his execution for alleged involvement in the Haymarket riot
For my next story in WBEZ’s “Curious City” project, I will be answering this question, which was posed by a Naperville resident named Sabina:
“How did the Haymarket Square Massacre affect Chicago’s culture at the time?”
That’s a big topic, but I’ll be talking with some of the historians and authors who have delved into Haymarket’s history to see what they think about the deadly incident’s repercussions in Chicago’s culture.
What has come to be known as the Haymarket Affair began on May 3, 1886, when Chicago police fired into a crowd of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing and wounding several men. The following evening, anarchist and socialist labor leaders organized a meeting of workingmen near Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Speakers at the meeting denounced the police attack of the previous afternoon and urged workers to intensify their struggle for an eight-hour workday and other improvements in labor conditions.
Just as the meeting was breaking up, the police, led by Captain William Ward and Inspector John Bonfield, arrived on the scene and attempted to disperse the crowd. During this effort, someone threw a dynamite bomb into the ranks of the police, killing one officer outright and injuring others. A melee ensued, the police, and probably others in the crowd, fired shots. Seven police officers were killed or mortally wounded, and one died of his wounds several years later. How many casualties the workers sustained that evening is not known, as those who fell were quickly dragged to safety or to medical attention by their comrades.
The Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University also have a website called “The Dramas of Haymarket,” which will guide you through the events.
The illustration at the top of this post is a famous (and somewhat fanciful) drawing from Harper’s Weekly depicting the riot.