May 4, 1886 – Deadly Bomb Explodes at Chicago’s Haymarket Square During Labor Demonstration

In 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions organized a May Day general strike to demand an eight-hour day.  A PBS online history avers that because Chicago had a sympathetic mayor in Carter Harrison, the nationwide movement focused on that city. On May 1st, 80,000 workers lay down their tools and marched up Michigan Avenue behind August Spies, the editor of the English-language anarchist newspaper, “The Alarm.” That day ended peacefully.

Meanwhile, a strike was on at the nearby McCormick Reaper Works. The factory was located on the north bank of the Chicago River, east of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. On May 3, strikers attacked scabs leaving the McCormick building. (A scab is a strikebreaker who willingly crosses the picket line.) Immediately, two hundred policemen attacked the crowd, swinging nightsticks and firing their guns. Two workers were killed.

The anarchists called for a rally the next night at Haymarket Square to protest the deaths.

Mayor Harrison was there, but after he left the rally, the Chief of Police sent in his troops. From somewhere in the crowd, a bomb was thrown in front of the columns of police. The explosion left seven police officers were dead and sixty wounded, many of them hit by wild shots from fellow policemen. Reportedly a similar number of civilians were killed or injured but, as PBS notes, “the number is uncertain because few would admit to being at the rally.”

The police rounded up suspicious foreign workers and anarchist leaders. Seven men stood trial for murder. On June 21, they were joined by an eighth — Albert Parsons, leader of the American branch of the International Working People’s Association (I.W.P.A.), an anarchist group whose stated goal was to engineer a social revolution that would empower the working class. Parsons had fled the city after the bombing, but turned himself in to be tried with his comrades. No one had been identified as the bomber, but the eight defendants were tried as accessories to murder based on their inflammatory speeches.

Sketch of the seven men complicit in the Haymarket Affair. November 16, 1887. Watertown Republican (Watertown, WI), Image 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, LOC

The defense lawyer provided alibis for all eight men. The only two who were at the rally at the time of the bombing had been on stage, in full view of the crowd and police.

The prosecuting attorney, Julius S. Grinnell declared:

Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial… Gentlemen of the jury, convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.”

The jury reached a verdict in three hours: death by hanging for seven of the men, including Parsons and Spies, 15 years in prison for the eighth, August Neebe.

Two men had their sentences commuted to life and prison and one man committed suicide in prison.

On November 11, 1887, the remaining prisoners were brought out to the hangman’s platform. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer stood before the crowd with hoods covering their faces. And then Spies spoke: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

The Library of Congress has an online research guide for the Haymarket Affair, including links to digitized historic newspapers from that time, here. For more background, also see the account by the Illinois Labor History Society, here.

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