NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Leonard Schlup
Historical Research and Narrative

On May 4,1886, a decade of labor turmoil climaxed at Haymarket Square, a produce center west of Chicago's downtown. On that day police officers clashed with unionists at a workers' protest rally organized by anarchists, individuals who wanted to abolish all systems of governmental authority This affair represented a pivotal event in the history of both the labor and anarchist movements in the United States. Like the Dreyfuss case in France in the 1890s, the Red Scare in America after World War I, and the Sacco Vanzetti trial in Massachusetts in 1921, the Haymarket episode helped to divide a nation, arouse emotions, and spawn discontent. This incident further demonstrated the inequities of American capitalism and the limitations of American justice, thereby revealing a great deal about America's moral conditions during the Gilded Age, a period of time from the post-Civil War period to the turn of the century.

The Haymarket riot occurred at a time when thousands of workers across the country were periodically on strike. The first nationwide strike, which was accompanied by violence, occurred in 1877. That year the railroad disorder interrupted the shipping and receiving of foodstuffs and other items. Two years later, the Knights of Labor, originally a secret fraternal lodge founded by Uriah S. Stephens in Philadelphia, expanded into a labor organization under the capable leadership of Terence V. Powderly. The Knights of Labor achieved more power when it forced certain railroads to meet its demands in 1885. The next year, labor ferment was so prevalent that President Grover Cleveland included in his annual message to Congress a statement regarding economic problems confronting America's laboring classes.

The labor situation was especially distressful in Chicago, a city with numerous tenement slums and a tradition of bitter labor disputes and social tensions in the post-Civil War period. In 1871 a disastrous fire wiped out the downtown and most homes on the North Side, destroying approximately $200 million worth of property. At least three hundred people died and more than ninety thousand were left homeless. During the years following the conflagration, Chicago's industry and its population skyrocketed. Workers—mostly immigrants— crowded into the city living in hurriedly constructed housing, much of which quickly turned into slum neighborhoods. Among the city's other outstanding problems were the consequences of the Panic of 1873, the industrial depression in the early 1880s, high rents, inadequate schools, filthy streets, unsanitary environmental conditions, intermittent strikes, and immigrant suspicions—all of which combine to produce ongoing socioeconomic and

political turmoil. Chicago was a congested city where thousands of laborers, often exhausted from long hours of hard work under the supervision of cruel employers, lived in poverty. Many yearned for a new Utopia in which they would enjoy improved working and living conditions. The festering atmosphere offered opportunities for anarchists to agitate the dissatisfied and for socialists to propagandize in the late 1870s and early 1880s, culminating in 1877 when four Socialist Labor candidates captured seats in the Illinois legislature.

Chicago was a city of intolerable extremes in the 1880s. Marshall Field, a wealthy businessman, spent $75,000 on a birthday party for his son, while in innumerable families, ten-year-old children worked along with their parents in factories to scrape together a meager existence. Wealthy meatpacker Gustavus F. Swift exhibited no remorse in dismissing a worker who had broken a leg at work and hiring a healthy replacement. When the demand for meat declined, Philip D. Armour, another Chicago entrepreneur, turned out thousands of men at his plants without notice and showing no concern that families might starve. Such were the inexorable laws of trade in the 1880s. Those unable to rise to the top echelons of power were smashed underfoot. An English tourist observed that in Gilded Age Chicago everybody was "fighting to be rich" and "straining to be refined" but that nobody could comprehend how to make the city a fit place in which to live. "Chicago people," remarked a local minister, "are money and pleasure mad. In other cities the question is 'Does reform help the city?' In Chicago it is 'Does it pay?'" In these deplorable conditions, socialists—who advocated government ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods and services—gained popularity among city dwellers and workers in the developing industries of Chicago and other urban centers. By 1886, Chicago surfaced as a hotbed for socialist propaganda.

Anarchists also fed off the ills of economic recessions and the indifference of politicians. Often they found fertile ground among industrial workers, encouraging them to protest against oppressive systems. In 1884, the German Cigar Makers' Union declared that the only way to emancipate mankind was to rebel openly in all parts of the country against the existing economic and political institutions. Yet, the American political system, accustomed to the problems and the pace of an earlier and simpler time, reacted slowly and uncertainly to the social problems of the era. Most conservatives in positions of prominence blamed foreign agitators for the disturbances that contributed to the turbulence and crises of late-nineteenth-century America. They favored strict laws to curtail the major demographic changes that accompanied the arrival of millions of immigrants from eastern Europe and Asia.

Chicago grew so rapidly during the Gilded Age that public services could not keep up with the demand. Roads, sewers, housing, health programs, and transportation systems strained to accommodate all the changes. By 1890 Chicago ranked as the second largest city in the United States. Of the more than one million people, nearly 80 per cent were either European immigrants or the children of immigrants. Many Germans, in particular, emigrated to Chicago during the time of the unification of Germany under King Wilhelm I of Prussia and Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, who attempted to wreck the Socialist parties. Regrettably, German-Americans became targets of suspicion because of the activities in their homeland and because of the radical actions in Chicago by an outspoken minority As a result, xenophobia ran rampant in sections of rural Illinois and elsewhere. In an endeavor to assuage the deteriorating situation and help immigrants adjust to city life, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr in 1889 in Chicago founded Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the United States.

Although labor unrest had been fomenting in Chicago for years, it intensified in February, 1886, when a strike took place at the McCormick Reaper Works over the refusal of the company to discharge nonunion workers. Meanwhile the Knights of Labor, agitating for an eight-hour day as one way to improve the lives of American workers, joined the chorus of other groups calling for strikes on the first day of May. A tense situation characterized by fear worsened when unemployed men smashed windows of the McCormick plant. Inflammatory newspaper articles and fiery speeches compounded the already heated controversy culminating in the mass meeting on May 4.

An alarmed Mayor Carter H. Harrison assembled policemen near the square to preserve order. After hearing anarchist speakers endorse violence, Captain John "Black Jack" Bonfield, the police inspector, decided to disperse the crowd. At that moment a bomb exploded, instantly killing one police officer and two civilians, mortally wounding six police officials, and injuring sixty-eight other persons. The police fired on the scattering crowd, an action reminiscent of the Kent State University tragedy on May 4,1970, in another midwestern town during an era of social upheaval over civil rights and the Vietnam War. John Swinton, a journalist, reported that the Haymarket bombing was "a godsend to the enemies of the labor movement," but Terence Powderly condemned "the band of cowardly murderers, cutthroats, and robbers."


Eight Chicago labor leaders charged with being accessories before the fact, were apprehended and placed on trial on grounds that they had preached agitation and violence and as such had incited the bomb throwing. In reality, the defendants—Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe—were tried for their views about society. Their previous radical statements had already prejudiced the twelve jurors, not one of whom belonged to the industrial working class. All eight men were found guilty. Presiding judge Joseph E. Gary, responding to the conservative uproar, denied a motion for a new trial. Appeals to the Illinois Supreme Court and later to the United States Supreme Court proved futile. Republican Governor Richard J. Oglesby found nothing unusual about the verdict and refused to grant clemency to the convicted men. Four of the convicted anarchists were hanged in 1887, an action denounced by Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, as "judicial murder." Parsons shouted at his hanging: "Let me speak.. .let the voice of the people be heard!" Spies muttered from beneath his white hood:

"There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." Some twenty thousand workers marched in the funeral procession for the executed men. Lingg committed suicide in his cell by exploding a dynamite cap in his mouth. The other three men received long prison terms.

Clockwise from top:
Micheal Schawb, Courtesy: Chicago Historical Society. Photograph ICHi-03697
Albert Parsons, Couretsy: Chicago Historical Society. Photograph ICHi-03695
August Spies, Couretsy: Chicago Historical Society. Photograph ICHi-03702

Prior to the Haymarket riot, most Americans either were unaware of the existence of revolutionary groups or regarded them as harmless. Often blind to reality and the growing disparity between the "have" and "have not" classes, contented conservatives too frequently overlooked the potential for social eruption, conveniently forgetting the immortal words of Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn, an American pacifist and socialist author who expounded in an epigrammatic poem: "The golf links lie so near the mill that almost every day the laboring children can look out and see the men at play." On the other hand, after the Haymarket catastrophe, revolutionaries were viewed as a genuine threat to the security of the United States. It was the country's first "red scare," and the effects lasted a long time. In 1903, 1906, and 1907, Congress passed immigration acts that prohibited anarchists from entering the nation and discriminated against undesirable aliens.

At the time of the Haymarket tragedy, John Peter Altgeld, a German-born reformer and naturalized American citizen, was judge of the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois, and remained so until 1891. A private during the last year of the Civil War and a schoolteacher before practicing law, he had moved to Chicago in 1875 where he actively participated in Democratic politics and gained a reputation for honesty and integrity. He welcomed new challenges while advocating principles that directed his own life. In the process, he became a moral warrior unafraid of his destiny. In 1892 Altgeld, with the help of farm and labor votes, defeated Governor Joseph W. Fifer, a Bloomington Republican, in the Illinois gubernatorial election. Upon taking office in 1893, Governor Altgeld embarked on a program of reform to improve prison life, education, and factory working conditions. He also appointed Florence Kelley, a respected social worker, as state factory inspector. During this time, Clarence S. Darrow, a prominent Chicago attorney, urged the governor to pardon the Haymarket prisoners as one of his first acts as chief executive. But a reluctant Altgeld hesitated, citing the burden of other business.


John P. Altgeld


But after studying the complicated case in detail, the governor concluded that the jurists had been incompetent, that insufficient evidence for conviction existed, and that the bomb-thrower was never identified. In other words, the trial had been a miscarriage of justice. A leader of courage, vision, and determination, Altgeld demonstrated his character and conscience by his conduct in examining the Haymarket incident and trial. On June 26, 1893, Governor Altgeld acted on the matter by issuing a pardon for the three surviving prisoners while exonerating the others posthumously. At once a furious storm of protest broke. Altgeld's decision outraged public opinion and contributed to the polarization of politics in the state. Although his pardon message was factual, reasonable, legally sound, and rightly argued that the trial fell into the realm of unjust American jurisprudence and that poor people lacked equal opportunity before the law, Altgeld suffered the ultimate political consequences when conservative forces in Illinois, such as the Bloomington editor William O. Davis, and the nation caustically derided him for freeing Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe. Voters equated Altgeld with radicalism. Altgeld lost his bid for re-election in 1896 to John R. Tanner in the national Republican electoral sweep that installed William McKinley of Ohio in the White House over the beleaguered William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, the powerful orator and Democratic and Populist presidential nominee. Altgeld died six years later.

The consequences of the Haymarket riot and its outcome changed American society and attracted worldwide attention. The riot was a major symbolic event in United States labor history with national repercussions and dimensions. A seemingly insignificant occurrence influenced a large segment of the American citizenry, remaining in their minds and changing the feeling of the country toward radicals. This small but important development was reminiscent in some ways of the Boston Massacre in 1770 in colonial times, which awakened the colonists to their differences with Great Britain. Moreover, the five men who died because of their alleged role in the Haymarket melee eventually surfaced as the first revolutionary martyrs in the United States.

Several developments should be mentioned in listing the effects of the Haymarket pandemonium. The biggest casualties of the fracas were the eight-hour day working conditions, wages, and the image of labor in the public mind. Across the country anti-labor attitudes increased while radicalism in American labor decreased. The incident also made Americans cognizant of anarchism, equating it with violence. In addition, two years after the Haymarket explosion, Congress established a federal department of labor (though without Cabinet status), which became a separate department in the executive branch in 1913.

Although the Haymarket affair temporarily set back unionization, the episode ultimately strengthened the movement toward unionism that abhorred violence. Gilded Age personal lives reflected a sincere desire for peace and a commitment to nonviolence in a civilized society. Americans favored peaceful progressive reform rather than armed insurrection. Reform came with labor laws over the next forty years, for out of the Haymarket experience and its aftermath grew the right to strike and to bargain collectively both of which remain integral parts of United States labor in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Click Here for Curriculum Materials


|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois History Teacher 2002|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library