The Haymarket Riot: Impeding to the Labor Movement

By Amanda Hamrick
Amanda graduated high school in 2012. She will be attending the University of Minnesota this fall. In addition to her school record 7 superior ribbons at the state history fair, Amanda participated in Dance, the Academic Team, and Band. She was co-Valedictorian for her class. In 2008, she was one of 14 students named a Young Historian by the State of Illinois. This is her second published paper. Previously, her paper on the Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Galesburg was published by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.


“Ungrateful hyenas!” they cried. “Foreign savages!” they shouted. “Hang them first and try them afterwards!” they cheered. It wasn’t until decades later they called out “martyrs,” but it was too late. Five major labor agitators had been hung without any real evidence of their guilt. What started out as a peaceful rally became a riot, turning the already suspicious public against all labor organizations and radicals. Counterproductive to the labor movement, the Haymarket riot delayed the adoption of the eight hour workday.

The atmosphere of the labor movement in the 1800s was volatile. The full force of the Industrial Revolution affected everything across the nation. Urbanization was on the rise, as was Chicago, Illinois. As Chicago grew, it transformed from a trading center into an international manufacturing giant, but it did so on the back of a seemingly endless supply of workers. Most of these workers were foreign. In 1850, half of all Chicagoans came from abroad; at the time of Haymarket, approximately three-fourths of Chicago residents were from another country or had a least one foreign parent. Overall, the most common trait shared by Chicagoans in the late nineteenth century was they were not actually from Chicago.

Each Chicagoan’s experience in the city depended on his or her background. Those of foreign birth occupied jobs in skilled or unskilled blue-collar areas; the native-born residents dominated professions and office jobs. The conditions in blue-collar work were appalling with little concern for safety. The workers received low pay and absolutely no benefits. The workday was ten to twelve hours, six days a week. Because of these conditions, a unionization movement began, but internal divisions prevented any true progress.

The industrialization and immigration brought about a widening division between capital and labor. For the most part, capital which included stockbrokers, executives and managers controlled the labor, those who earned their living by selling their physical skill and effort. The goal of unions was to close this gap, and much of the late nineteenth century was a battle between capital and labor over who controlled wages, hours and the process of production.

Industrial capitalism caused many shifts in production: larger workplaces with layers of supervision, increased use of technology, and the division of the manufacturing process into discrete parts that required limited skills and training. As if conditions weren’t bad enough, these trends caused the worker to be interchangeable, cheap and readily replaced. The idea of unionization became more popular as the threat to the individual worker increased, but union organizers faced powerful resistance from the middle-class public. 

As economic downturns persisted, class divisions intensified and attempts by workers to resolve inequalities increased. Widespread unemployment and reduction in wages led to angry protests, some resulting in violence from the police. Tensions reached a peak when a railroad strike swept across the country during the summer of 1877. The trains were running again in just a few days, but the deadly encounters between protesters and the law enforcement stayed in the minds of the workers as a source of continued resentment.

At this time, two of the most influential men of the labor movement came into the public eye. The first, Albert Parsons, had arrived in Chicago from Texas in November 1873. What he called his “interest and activity in the labor movement” began shortly after his arrival, and he soon became the most prominent English-speaking spokesmen for both the socialist and labor movements. The second, August Spies, had arrived in the city from central Germany the same year as Parsons. Both men supported the union movement and spoke out for the eight-hour workday, a major cause most unions were fighting for.

Foremost among emerging unions was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL). The KOL listed more than 700,000 members by the mid-1880s. Founded in 1869, the KOL was not a new organization. It had merely come out of the shadows to hold its first national assembly a few months after the 1877 railroad strike. Soon after joining the union, Parsons founded the first Chicago assembly of the Knights. He believed, along with many others, the Knights could create a “brotherhood of toil” among men of different trades, religions and races.

Along with their devotion to the labor movement, both men shared a devotion to radicalism, an international development of the 1880s. Many middle-class and native-born Chicagoans took pride in the fact they could not differentiate between the different forms of radicalism, but socialists, communists and anarchists all had very different views about what path the labor movement should take. The only thing they agreed on was capitalism and the wage system exploited the worker, and they had to take ownership of the means of production out of current hands and return it to the people.

Albert Parsons

Anarchists like Spies and Parsons advocated cooperating with organized labor. This idea was practical, and they believed they could eventually use

August Spies

unions to help overthrow the current political and economic systems. This combination of anarchism and unionism became known as the “Chicago idea.” Extreme anarchists like George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg rejected the “Chicago idea” because they believed it compromised true anarchist principles.

Another depression hit in late 1883. A series of angry confrontations occurred throughout the country. The anarchists in Chicago put on demonstrations repeatedly to announce their cause. On Thanksgiving 1884, the anarchists helped organize a “poor people march” to point out that want rather than plenty was the workers’ lot. A few thousand demonstrators assembled downtown to hear radicals Parsons, Fielden, Spies and Schwab speak. They then marched through the cold streets past the homes of the wealthy carrying the emblem of hunger, the black flag. They repeated this demonstration a year later. Then, on May 4, 1885 (exactly a year before Haymarket), striking stoneworkers in Lemont threw stones at troopers protecting strikebreakers. The troopers fired into the crowd, killing two men instantly and wounding many others. While this outraged anarchists and other labor leaders, it wasn’t until three months later that Chicago citizens also became angry after the police clubbed innocent bystanders during a strike against the West Division Railway Company.

As unemployment and union agitation increased thorough the first half of 1886, more workers joined the revived eight-hour movement, and labor agitators made a plan for a walkout across the country on Saturday, May 1, 1886. The walkout was a huge success. Hundreds of thousands of workers across different trades and across the country and 40,000 in Chicago went on strike. Demonstrations took place without incident throughout the city, among which was a parade along Michigan Avenue.

On Monday, May 3, 1886, the first working day since the national eight-hour walkout, August Spies spoke at a rally of the Striking Lumber Shover’s Union near the main factory of the McCormick Reaper Works. As he spoke, the non-union strikebreakers ended their shift at the nearby factory. Some of his audience left the rally to join the McCormick strikers in heckling the strikebreakers. A fight broke out between the two groups. The police arrived as the strikers moved to throwing stones, forcing the strikebreakers back into the factory. The police pushed their way through the crowd with their clubs. The strikers began to throw stones at the officers who responded by firing into the crowd. The gunfire seriously injured many workers and killed two.
Angry and disgusted, Spies returned to the office of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, the leading German-socialist paper of which he was editor. He created a bilingual leaflet titled “Workingmen to Arms!” However, a compositor added the heading “REVENGE” without consulting Spies.

Later in the evening, a few dozen of the most extreme anarchists, including George Engel and Adolph Fischer, met in Greif’s Hall on Lake Street. After hearing the news of the riot at the McCormick factory, they decided to hold an outdoor public protest meeting the next evening. They chose the Haymarket as the meeting place. Fischer, after preparing a poster announcing the meeting, went on a hunt for good speakers. He asked August Spies, who accepted the offer. However, after seeing Fischer’s poster entitled “Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force,” Spies refused to speak unless Fischer changed the poster for fear it would encourage a police presence that could cause violence. Fischer conceded and edited all but a few hundred of the twenty thousand posters before distribution.

The organizers planned to begin the rally at seven-thirty the following evening, but it did not begin until over an hour later. Spies expected to address the crowd in German, and as German speakers usually spoke last, he didn’t believe it was necessary to arrive at the beginning of the rally. When he arrived sometime between eight-fifteen and eight-thirty, no meeting had started and no other speakers were present. A crowd of two to three thousand people, smaller than expected, was already beginning to disperse. Spies searched the area for Parsons, who he had expected to start the rally, but could not find him. Hoping to salvage the situation, Spies made a makeshift podium out of a nearby hay wagon and called the meeting to order. Before beginning his speech, Spies sent one of his newspaper employees back to the office where he heard Parsons, Fielden and Schwab were attending a meeting. Exhausted and disappointed by the small crowd, Spies decided to speak briefly in English:

Let me tell you at the beginning that this meeting is to explain the general situation of the eight hour movement and to throw light upon various incidents in connection with it.

He continued to speak until he saw Parsons make his way through the crowd.

Meanwhile, the authorities, concerned the Haymarket rally might cause trouble, had Chief Inspector John Bonfield assemble a force of 176 patrolmen a half a block away in the Desplaines Street Station. Bonfield sent officers to the meeting in civilian clothing with orders to report back to him if the speeches became dangerous. Back at the rally, Parsons spoke for nearly an hour:
In the light of these facts and your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it behooves you, as you love your wives and children, if you would not see them perish with want and hunger, yourselves killed or cut down like dogs in the streets− Americans, as you love liberty and independence, arm, arm yourselves!

Mayor Carter Harrison, who was also in attendance to prevent violence, found the speeches to be tame by current standards. He left while Parsons was still speaking to confer with Bonfield about the peacefulness of the meeting. He returned to the meeting to hear a few minutes of Samuel Fielden’s speech, decided there was no reason for him to stay and went home.

Mayor Harrison

By the time Samuel Fielden mounted the wagon to speak, only about 600 people remained in the crowd. It was not much before ten o’clock when he began, warning the crowd to prepare for the worst. He claimed that since the police had shown no mercy, they should receive no mercy in return. “Keep your eye on the law,” Fielden cried. “Throttle it. Kill it. Stop it. Do everything you can to wound it− to impede its progress.” After hearing these words, one of Bonfield’s disguised officers reported back to him that the speaker was making dangerous threats.

About ten minutes into Fielden’s speech, the wind picked up and the crowd, anticipating rain, diminished even more. Parsons interrupted to propose the meeting reconvene at the nearby Zepf’s Hall, but Fielden announced he only needed a few minutes to finish, and the meeting would be over. Nevertheless, Parsons, Fischer and several others departed the rally for the warmth of the hall.

As Fielden winded up his speech, Bonfield decided to act. He marched his force of 176 patrolmen in formation up Desplaines Street and though the crowd to the speakers’ wagon. It was about ten-twenty at night, and the crowd was now only a mere 500 people.

“I command you in the name of the people of the state of Illinois to immediately and peaceably disperse,” ordered Captain William Ward.

“But we are peaceable,” replied Fielden. When Ward angrily repeated his order, Fielden said, “All right, we will go,” and got down from the wagon. Suddenly, a bomb rose out of the crowd on the east sidewalk. It arched about 20 feet in the air before landing in the middle of the street among the police. The bomb sat on the ground for a few seconds and then exploded. Shrapnel from the bomb ripped through the body of Officer Degan, severing a major artery in his left leg. He died on the scene.

Although often reported otherwise, evidence and testimony point to the officers initiating fire. Terrified and confused from the blast, the police fired everywhere and anywhere, including into their own ranks. The gunfire continued for two minutes straight. If the crowd fired back, it was a feeble response. Everyone ran for their lives, but many were hit before they could escape. In all, the riot took the lives of seven policemen and at least four workers. The bomb and bullets wounded about sixty officers along with an unknown number of civilians.

A period of panic and overreaction followed in Chicago. A trial ensued, and the jury found anarchists Adolph Spies, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Oscar Neebe and Louis Lingg guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Four of the defendants were hanged in November 1887. One committed suicide before the hangings, and Illinois governor John Altgeld later pardoned the remaining three. The trial and hangings are notoriously considered one of the largest miscarriages of justice in American history as the prosecution provided no evidence connecting any of the defendants to the bomb-throwing. The widespread fear of unionism and radicalism influenced most of the public to support harsh and unjust treatment of the accused.

The Haymarket riot was a pivotal event in the early history of American labor. The effect of the riot on the labor movement was immense, and it would take decades to recover. Unions lost the little public support they had gained. In the minds of the public, all unionizers were anarchists, and all anarchists believed in violence. The anarchist was not only an alien to America but also to all things decent, rational and humane.

The riot was largely responsible for delaying acceptance of the eight-hour day as workers deserted the KOL to avoid suspicion and harassment from the general public and moved to the more moderate American Federation of Labor. With the major labor agitators of the day gone, the forceful revival of the eight-hour movement they brought about came to a stop.

For many years, the public regarded the policemen of the Haymarket riot as martyrs and the workers as violent anarchists. This view set the labor movement back. However, over time this view has changed, and history has judged the defendants to be the martyrs. In a time when unions are once again the scapegoats, the bloodshed that occurred to give the individual worker rights and power must be remembered. It must be remembered that there are fights worth fighting, but also that violence seldom helps advance a cause.

Amanda’s Exhibit on the Riot

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