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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

One Night in Chicago

Updated: May 15, 2022

"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."

August Spies, Chicago Anarchist and Labor Activist, May 4, 1886

May 4, 1886. A light drizzle has been falling since early in the evening. Methodist preacher, socialist, and labor organizer Samuel Fielden addresses what is left of the crowd from atop an open wagon. Earlier in the evening, a few thousand workers and labor activists gathered for a rally at Chicago's Haymarket Square. By the time Fielden, the last speaker of the night, begins his speech, the crowd has dwindled to a few hundred men due to the threat of the weather getting worse. Hearing rumors that there may be trouble, a sizable company of Chicago policemen stands ready at the perimeter of the square. Fielden's oration is impassioned yet inflammatory. The police decide they heard enough. They move toward the crowd and give orders to disperse. At first, no one obeys, and Fielden continues with his speaking. The police press forward and become more threatening in their commands. Fielden decides to cut his speech short, and the gathered workers start to comply with the police. As Fielden descends from the wagon, from somewhere in the crowd, a homemade bomb is launched toward the police line. The bomb explodes. One policeman is immediately killed. Haymarket Square erupts into chaos. Gunfire is exchanged. Within five minutes, the "riot" is done. Seven policemen are dead. At least four workers are also killed. Over sixty police and workers are wounded.

With the growth of industry after the Civil War, many started taking up the cause of labor. Borrowing from the emancipation of slaves, these new labor leaders sought "social emancipation" for the working people. One of their central goals was the eight-hour workday. This became a rallying point and membership in unions increased significantly. In March 1867, Illinois became the first state to enact an eight-hour law. This law went into effect on May 1, but immediately employers chose to ignore it. In Chicago, many of the large businesses still forced workers to commit to ten or twelve-hour days. In some cases, they made non-compliance as part of the contract to hire. Businesses argued that the law violated their right to freely negotiate with workers without government interference. Local politicians refused to enforce the law, and the police helped suppress the resulting worker protests. It seemed that the eight-hour workday was a lost cause.

Chicago saw an influx of immigration, particularly from Germany, Scandanavia, and Bohemia, during the 1870s. Among these immigrants were a number of men who would loosely label themselves socialists or anarchists. Even though they may have shared common objectives from time to time, they really had no shared ideology. In Chicago, two of the leading socialists were Albert Parsons and August Spies. Texas-born Parsons and his former slave wife Lucy arrived in the city during the depression of the mid-1870s. They spent their time in German beer halls immersed in the imported radicalism from the continent. Here, Parsons encouraged laborers to join the newly formed Socialist Democratic Workingmen's Party (later the Socialist Labor Party). Spies was a young, idealistic German immigrant who soaked up philosophy, attended lectures, and participated in protests. He would eventually become the manager of the German-language newspaper "Arbeiter-Zeitung" (Workers' Times), the most widely circulated and radical newspaper in America.

He and Parsons met while campaigning for the Workingmen's Party. By the start of the 1880s, both men had turned more militant in their views. Parsons firmly believed that neither the Constitution nor the courts would protect workers. They would have to protect themselves.

1885 saw the country once more in a depression, and Chicago would see a summer of worker anger, frustration, and bloodshed. In May, Illinois state militia fired upon striking quarry workers. In July, Chicago Police Captain John Bonfield led an assault of 400 officers against streetcar strikers. The ranks of militant labor organizations swelled, and there was a chorus of voices, including Parsons's wife, encouraging a "war with the rich". In the meantime, Parsons decided that the eight-hour workday would be the key to a better life for workers. He started to work with the more moderate but larger Knights of Labor.

In the summer of 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Unions (the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor - the AFL) decided it was time to resurrect the eight-hour workday, and they pushed for a national movement towards that end. They decided to kick this effort off on May 1, 1886. The mantra would be "Eight hours for work, Eight hours for rest, Eight hours for what we will".

Around the country, worker unrest increased in the spring of 1886. Tensions were high as labor organizations prepared for the day of the general strike which they called "Emancipation Day". On May 1, business ground to a halt in Chicago and elsewhere. In Chicago alone, it is estimated that nearly 60,000 workers left their jobs. There were marches with banners and signs throughout the city. The day ended without incident.

This would not be the case at the McCormick Reaper Works. Owner Cyrus McCormick, Jr, upon hearing there was going to be a strike, closed the factory to workers. Then, escorted by an army of police, he brought in replacement workers or scabs. When the factory re-opened, the striking workers gathered at the gates. Albert Parsons and others addressed the strikers, and many of the replacement employees walked off the job to join the picketing union members. Management countered by offering the replacements an eight-hour workday (which they did not offer to the union). On the afternoon of May 3, August Spies took his opportunity to speak to the crowd of workers gathered in front of the factory. When the ending bell sounded and the replacement workers began leaving for the day, the picketing workers heckled them. Seventy-five police officers arrived to protect the replacements. Some of the hecklers threw stones. The police responded with gunfire. Two workers were killed.

Spies was furious. He immediately published a leaflet entitled "Workingmen, To Arms!" Word spread through the neighborhoods. A group of German anarchists met and decided to hold a rally on the evening of May 4. The place was to be Haymarket Square. The promotional handbill for the rally promised "Good speakers will denounce the latest atrocious act of the police".

The evening of May 4 would be remembered as the Haymarket Affair or the Haymarket Riot or the Haymarket Massacre. The true identity of the bomber remains a mystery. Contemporary accounts claim the police were fired upon first before returning gunfire. Organizers such as Parsons and Spies were vilified in the press. Called "red ruffians", "cutthroats", "bloody brutes". Modern observers believe that the police acted first in panic. By their own admission afterward, Police Captain John Bonfield said many officers shot each other in the confusion. Much was made of the police deaths. Very little is said about the workers who were killed.

What happened the night of May 4 in Haymarket Square instantly led to America's first "Red Scare". On May 5, martial law was declared throughout the nation. The entire labor and immigrant community, especially the Germans, became suspects. Known socialist and anarchist hangouts were raided without search warrants. Union newspapers were shut down. Dozens of men, none who had any connection to the events that night, were arrested.

Eight men were indicted and stood trial for what happened in Haymarket Square. The three most notable defendants were Parsons, Spies, and Fielden. There was no direct evidence connecting any of them to the actual bomb. Most of them were not in Haymarket Square when the bomb exploded. Only one defendant, Louis Lingg, was found with bomb-making materials at his home. The other seven were convicted solely on their rhetoric or by association. At one point the Chicago Tribune newspaper offered to pay any juror who found the men guilty. The lead investigator would be dismissed (though re-instated some years later) under suspicion of fabricating evidence. The two-month trial was a low point for the American judicial system.

Seven of the eight were given the death penalty and one was given 15 years of hard labor. The results of the trial brought condemnation from labor organizers. Protests sprung up around the world. The convicted men became martyrs to the labor movement. Under pressure, the governor of Illinois reduced the sentence of Samuel Fielden and one other man to life imprisonment. Louis Lingg would apparently commit suicide the day before he was to be executed. The remaining three, including Albert Parsons and August Spies, were hanged on November 11, 1887. In June 1893, the new Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned those who remained alive while criticizing the miscarriage of justice that had been allowed to happen.

In 1889, at an international workers conference, a delegation from the American Federation of Labor recommended that May 1 be declared International Labor Day in honor of the memory of the Haymarket martyrs. To this day, May Day is still observed around the world as a day to celebrate the labor struggle. (In the United States, after the socialist Russian revolution in 1917, May Day fell out of favor for the first Monday in September.) The Haymarket Affair became a flashpoint for the labor movement. It became symbolic of the fight to organize, for better and safer working conditions, for fair and equitable treatment, and for a living wage.


To Learn More About the Haymarket Affair and Labor in the 19th Century:

The Haymarket Riot and Trial: Professor Douglas O. Linder (Famous Trials)

The Haymarket Affair: William Adelman (Illinois Labor History Society)

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