Haymarket Square Riot
Setting a day aside to honor workers is a custom celebrated around the world. In nearly every country that day is the 1st of May, also known as May Day. The United States is an exception, celebrating Labor Day on the first Monday in September. That’s been the case since 1894, when President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday. Why not the 1st of May, the day globally recognized as International Workers Day? The answer goes back a decade before the establishment of the holiday, to the tragedy in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.
Known as the Haymarket Massacre, the Haymarket Affair, or the Haymarket Riot, depending on the source, that began as a peaceful gathering on 4 Ma, 1886 in Chicago ended in a bombing, brawls, and gunshots. It forever changed the American labor rights movement.
In the 1880s, Chicago was one of the biggest cities in the world, marshalling the power of the industrial revolution with a booming meat-packing industry, steel mills, and a central rail transportation hub. In order to accomplish this, however, labor was required. A lot of labor. Much of that labor was performed by recent American immigrants.
One of those immigrants was August Spies (1855 -1887). Born in Hesse, Germany to a well-to-do family, when his father, a forester, died suddenly, he left the 22-year-old young man in desperate financial straits. August Spies decided his odds of success were better in America, and he moved to Chicago the same year.
Life as a laborer in Chicago was, without question, a hard life. Should they be injured or even killed on the job, workers rarely received compensation from their employers. Workplace safety was almost completely unregulated. For most of the 19th century and well into the 20th, a 12-hour workday was normal, as were 6- and 7-day workweeks. Children worked, too.
Spies was shocked by the working conditions in Chicago and as a result helped found the International Working People's Association, marching with firearms in the streets for workers’ rights. He also became the editor of the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung, a German-language newspaper founded by union veterans of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. As the tension between workers and owners escalated in the 1880s, strikes and national demonstrations in support of an eight-hour workday were planned around the country for the 1st of May.
On that day, Spies led a march of 80,000 workers down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in support of a more humane workday. The strikes led to a riot that broke out between striking workers and their replacements at the McCormick Harvester factory, and the police fired into the crowd, killing two and perhaps as many as seven. Spies was outraged and called for a peaceful demonstration on the 4th of May.
Between 500 and 3,000 people were estimated to have attended the 4th of May gathering. According to observers, it was a calm and even somewhat boring event. After several hour-long speeches on economic philosophy, many in the crowd left early. As the people dispersed, however, someone (never identified) threw a bomb into the street and it exploded, injuring many bystanders, killing a policeman, and sending the crowd into a panic. Chicago police once again fired directly into the crowd of civilians, this time four civilians and seven police officers died.
The massacre in the middle of downtown Chicago shocked the city and the world and the ensuing trial became a flashpoint for international labor reformers. Eight men were tried for the murders: August Spies, Albert Parsons, Georg Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe and Samuel Fielden. All were labor activists of varying degrees of radicalism and were lumped together simply as the “eight anarchists.” Most were immigrants, and six of the eight could show they were not even in attendance at the rally, while the other two, Spies and Fielden, were plainly visible onstage when the bomb was thrown.
The Haymarket Trial was the anti-labor faction’s best chance to discredit immigrant labor, the eight-hour day campaign, and the labor movement itself. Most of the media piled on, with headlines such as, "Anarchy's Red Hand--Rioting and Bloodshed in the Streets of Chicago," and “Anarchy’s Dripping Hand: Fresh Outbreaks of Treason in Chicago Yesterday; Dynamite Devils in Duress.”
Most historians today and even many observers at the time believed the trial was unfair to the defendants. The jury was hand-selected by the court bailiff instead of appointed randomly, ensuring no immigrant or union member was allowed on. The conduct of Judge Joseph Gary likewise revealed prejudices from the outset. The prosecution’s argument was based on questionable circumstantial evidence and relied on inciting fear. Lead prosecutor Julius Grinnell tried to dehumanize the defendants and told the court that acquitting the eight men would cause the “rats and vermin” [immigrant workers] who supported them to erupt in violence.
After a few hours of deliberation the jury found seven of the defendants guilty of murder and one, Oscar Neebe, one of the men not in attendance at the rally, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The other seven were sentenced to death.
Within a few months, Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby commuted the sentence of Fielden and Schwab to life imprisonment. Louis Lingg took his life the night before the execution. One hundred thousand citizens signed a petition asking for mercy for the men, to no avail. Spies, Parsons, Engel, and Fischer were hanged on 11 November 1887, immediately becoming martyrs to the labor cause. Six years later, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld granted posthumous pardons to the executed men and set Oscar Neebe free. Most historians today view the Haymarket Trial as an example of defendants put on trial for their beliefs, not their actions. The eight-hour day movement had been defeated, for the moment.
The international labor movement chose the 1st of May to celebrate Labor Day, in honor of the deaths of the Chicago Eight. President Grover Cleveland moved the holiday away from the 1st of May, so as not to create a day that clearly honored the activists and might inspire more protest. Nevertheless, many of the labor movement’s future leaders were inspired and radicalized by the trial. Future leaders such as political activist Emma Goldman and labor leader Bill Haywood cited the Haymarket Trial as a turning point in their political consciousness.
The Haymarket Martyrs Monument was erected in 1893 in Forest Home Cemetery, where it stands today. Although the condemned men were not offered a formal opportunity to state their final words before their death, all four shouted defiantly from under their execution hoods. The last words of immigrant worker and activist August Spies are engraved on the Haymarket Martyrs Monument: "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
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Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old St Patrick's Church.jpg : 28 April 2021), digital image of original print, “File:Old St Patrick's Church.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Raeky.
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HaymarketRiot-Harpers.jpg : 28 April 2021), digital image of original illustration, “File:HaymarketRiot-Harpers.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user V4711.