On May 4, 1886, the deadly cycle of events that would lead to Americans living with eight hour workdays was set in motion.
In the evening hours at Chicago's Haymarket Square, as a peaceful labor protest was winding down, police ordered the crowd to disperse. A bomb was thrown, the police fired their rifles, and when it was over, hundreds were injured, and at least four civilians and seven police officers were dead.
What followed was a miscarriage of justice that lead to quick convictions, executions, too-late pardons, and lasting effects on the labor movement in the U.S. and abroad. It was an event, in the words of labor historian James Green, that "challenged…the image of the United States as a classless society with liberty and justice for all.”
The story begins after the end of the Civil War, according to Green's book Death in the Haymarket. Newly freed men saw little difference between the shackles of slavery and the low wages of the industrialized north and (white) working men saw their employers made rich by the war effort while their pay remained meager.
Seeing protesting union workers fired and blacklisted, and wondering how the nation could outlaw slavery and still work its people to the bone, the Eight-Hour Movement was born, seeking to "end the degradation of the endless workday" and give workers the time to pursue education and other endeavors to make them better citizens of the Republic. Grassroots movements sprouted up and began rallying and pushing for legislation. They found success in Illinois.
In 1867, Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby, a friend of the dead President Lincoln, signed a new law guaranteeing an eight-hour workday, the nation's first, for all in his state to take effect on May 1 but "employers refused to abide by the law and in one week, effectively broke the movement by the use of force from police, militia and private agents."
The movement stalled for several years for a few reasons: employers forced workers to waive eight-hour rights, The Great Chicago Fire, and the Panic of 1873 (that lasted until 1879) to name three macro issues, but there were more factors including, "high rents, inadequate schools, filthy streets…and immigrant suspicions" that created constant unrest among the working class.
However, 1886 saw The Great Upheaval. Following another protracted economic depression, with mass strikes across several industries popping up across the country, workers were fed up. The eight-hour workday issue returned and workers weren't going to back down as easily this time.
Two years prior, during a meeting of federated unions, May 1, 1886 was eyed as the day for a nationwide eight-hour workday to be implemented. As the date approached, nothing happened. Workers grew agitated and employers and others who sided with them openly worried about the possibility of armed insurrection.
On May 1, 1886, there were mass demonstrations across the country. One, in Ohio, was headed by Albert Parsons, a Chicago labor activist in town to organize. On his way back to Chicago, on May 3, disaster struck as police attacked protesting and striking workers, injuring scores and killing six of the picketers at McCormick Reaper Plant near the city's Little Village neighborhood.
Parsons and a man named August Spies would quickly emerge as integral figures in the late 19th century labor movement. Both had come to Chicago in the early 1870s and quickly became socialist activists. Parsons became the top English-speaking spokesman for the city's mostly German socialists. In the late 1870s, Parsons lost job after job because of his political leanings and was even threatened with physical harm by a police superintendent. Spies was a German upholsterer affiliated with the myriad socialist movements in town. He also published a socialist newspaper called Arbeiter-Zeitung.
And while both men were interested in legal means of securing workers' rights, as the new decade approached "Parsons and Spies were convinced that social, political, and economic harmony and justice were impossible" with society as constructed. They became anarchists and rose in those organizations as well, but they disagreed with some of their fellow anarchists on the issue of using violence to achieve certain aims, specifically with dynamite, which they called "the great equalizer."
After the peaceful May 1 protests, both Parsons and Spies were singled out in an editorial in the Chicago Mail which said, "Mark them for today. Hold them responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur."
On May 4, 1886, Carter Harrison, the pro-labor mayor, gave his blessing for a mass demonstration in Chicago's Haymarket Square. However, he made sure there were plenty of police on hand, in case something happened. As rain began to fall, Spies spoke to the assembled crowd, which was smaller than expected. Parsons then took the stage, speaking for over an hour. Samuel Fielden, a teamster and Methodist lay preacher, spoke next.
As the rain picked up, the crowd dispersed from the more than 2,000 who had started the rally to fewer than 200. At this moment, Chicago police officer Captain John "Black Jack" Bonfield claimed to have allegedly heard Fielden using inflammatory language in an attempt to incite the crowd to violence. Mayor Harrison later described hearing no such speech.
As the police moved in to disperse the crowd, a bomb exploded, instantly killing one officer, Matthias J. Degnan. Eyewitnesses later "recalled seeing the 'hissing fiend'—a round object with a fiery fuse—as it coursed through the darkness just above the heads of the crowd."
The police began shooting at the protestors and each other in the chaos. When the shooting stopped, six additional officers and at least four workers were killed, though an accurate count of civilian deaths was never made. Hundreds were injured. Another police officer died two days later from his injuries. It was the first peace-time use of a dynamite bomb in U.S. history.
The press began breathlessly reporting the news, calling for the arrests of any and all anarchists and socialists. Martial law was quickly declared nationwide. The public as well "called for vengeance" as "a wave of popular sentiment against anarchists and labor organizers swept through the city and the country."
The ensuing witch hunt, which included raids, illegal searches, and the closure of leftist newspapers, was allegedly approved by State's Attorney Julius Grinnell, who reportedly ordered, "Make the raids first and look up the law afterward!" Prominent businessmen in the city donated private funds to assist the investigation.
Still, the bomber remained at large—Rudolf Schnaubelt, a lead suspect, fled the country a week after the riot.
After weeks of raids, seizures, and questionings, on May 27, 1886, a grand jury indicted 31 men as accessories to the murder of Officer Degan. Eight were chosen to stand trial: Parsons, Spies, Fielden, Oscar Neebe (an associate of Spies), Louis Lingg (who was accused of throwing the bomb even though he had a solid alibi), George Engel (who was playing cards that night but known for militant ideology), and Adolph Fischer and Michael Schwab (both editorial assistants at Spies' newspaper). Only Spies and Fielden had been present at the time of the bombing and only Fischer and Parsons had also attended. They became known as the Chicago Eight.
The trial was, by all accounts, a farce. The jury was made up of businessmen (the defense used all of its challenges dismissing jurors that Judge Joseph Gary refused to nix even when their biases were plain). The Chicago Tribune offered to pay money to the jury in order to secure a guilty verdict, but that wouldn't be necessary.
The state's evidence was minimal, and revolved around convincing the jury the men were co-conspirators. The defense said their clients had merely tested the limits of free speech and nothing more. During closing arguments, Moses Salomon, another member of the defense, described the eight as "men of broad feelings of humanity…that their only desire has been, and their lives have been consecrated to, the betterment of their fellow-men." Black reminded the jury that the charge on trial was murder, not their ideology.
The jury briefly deliberated and all eight men were found guilty. Seven were sentenced to death. Nebbe, the lone non-immigrant among the Eight, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the verdict on appeal. An international clemency movement began, with the Eight scoring endorsements from the likes of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. On November 2, 1887, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a last-ditch appeal. The executions were scheduled for the next week.
Gov. Oglesby acquiesced, though, and reduced the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life. On November 10, 1887, Lingg used a small explosive to kill himself in his cell. The next day, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Albert Parsons, and August Spies were hanged. Each man made one last pro-anarchy declaration before swinging from the gallows. Rumors of armed revolutionaries attempting to break the remaining four prisoners out of prison at the last moment were completely unfounded, but may have contributed to Oglesby upholding the sentences.
In 1893, after some prodding from the legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, newly elected governor of Illinois John Peter Altgeld ("perhaps the greatest any state ever had," according to historian Studs Terkel) decided to review the trial. Incredibly:
Altgeld did not merely grant clemency, as some asked, on the assumption that the prisoners were guilty but had been "punished enough." After his painstaking review of the case, Altgeld concluded that the trial was so full of errors that it was "clearly [his] duty" to "grant an absolute pardon to Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab."
More than seven years and one month after the bombing, the three survivors were free.
The five dead men, though, became martyrs for the labor movement. In honor of them, and again to push for the eight-hour workday, the Second International, a large meeting of socialists held in Paris, declared May 1, 1890 as International Worker's Day—May Day, a holiday the U.S. doesn't recognize.
In 1996, the oral historian Studs Terkel commemorated the 110th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot with a short invocation, saying, "Five score and ten years ago, here on this very spot, ardent advocates of a revolutionary idea, put forth, it was called the eight hour day." He quoted a popular folk song from the time period and explained that the notion of an eight-hour day was comical since so many worked 12, 14, or more hours a day. He ended his tribute with a request to "keep battling" for workers' rights.
Though there are memorials and plaques, and the eight-hour workday became federal law in 1938, the Haymarket Affair seems destined to continue to slip from public consciousness as the labor movement continues to diminish in the United States. Death in the Haymarket author James Green said as much in an interview with NPR in 2006, summing up the prevailing sentiment as:
The labor movement…had its place in the 19th and early 20th century when workers were exploited and abused in the furnaces of industrial capitalism but has no place in the high-tech, white collar world of the new economy.
Later in that interview, Green notes the irony of white-collar workers (at the time, and still today) railing against workers' rights when they themselves often work more than eight hours a day without receiving overtime pay—though that, too, after years of fighting, will change.
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