Haymarket Square

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On 4 May 1886 a bomb exploded in Chicago's Haymarket Square. The sudden explosion ended a workers' rally and set off a riot that resulted in the death of seven police officers. No one knows for certain who was responsible for the bomb. All accounts suggest that the rally involving two to three thousand people was peaceful and in the process of ending when the bomb was detonated. What is known is that except for one officer, who died from injuries caused by the bomb, all of the slain policemen were killed by other police officers. Nonetheless, on the morning after the riot, arrest warrants were issued for eight men who were well known in Chicago as anarchist advocates for labor reform. Nine days earlier, on 25 April, four of these eight men had addressed 25,000 people at a rally promoting the eight-hour workday. On 1 May, 300,000 workers across the United States had staged a symbolic strike for the eight-hour movement by staying away from work that day. Two days later in Chicago a battle erupted at the McCormick Reaper Works between union and scab workers. When the police arrived they fired their rifles indiscriminately into the crowd, killing at least two people and wounding several others. The gathering at Haymarket Square on the following evening therefore occurred in a context of high social tension and escalating violence. In fact, after the 1 May strike, the Chicago Mail had identified August Spies (1855–1887) and Albert Parsons (1848–1887) as two men to "mark." "Keep them in view," the editorial read. "Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur!" On the day after the Haymarket riot, Spies and Parsons, along with other well-known anarchist leaders Samuel Fielden, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer, were marked as the men who would pay not only for the Haymarket bombing but also for the fears that the labor movement had inspired both in well-to-do Chicago society and across the country. The Chicago Times urged the police to be called in and to "fire low and to fire quick." The Louisville Courier-Journal struck a tone no different from the New York Times when it called the accused men "blatant cattle" who should be "immediately strung up." One would like to say that the arrest of the men polarized the nation, but most of the country agreed with Theodore Roosevelt who boasted that his cowboys needed only plenty of rifles to handle the situation for "my men would shoot well and fear very little." On 11 November 1887, "Black Friday" as the anarchists called it, the future president of the United States and the majority of the nation's newspapers got their wish: Spies, Parsons, Fisher, and Engel were legally executed. Fielden's and Schwab's death sentences were commuted to life in prison. Neebe was sentenced to fifteen years, and Lingg killed himself in his jail cell. The novelist William Dean Howells gave them a fitting epitaph: "They died, in the prime of the first republic the world has ever known, for their opinions' sake" (Avrich, p. 404).


The Haymarket tragedy was the culmination of more than a decade of national civic unrest brought on by a series of strikes and economic depressions. More than ten years earlier the Chicago Tribune was already spoiling for a fight with the growing labor movement. Addressing "communists" and any other labor organization intent on improving conditions for working people, in 1875 the Tribune captured the mood of civic tension and impending violence that characterized the time: "Every lamp-post in Chicago will be decorated with a communistic carcass if necessary to prevent wholesale incendiarism or prevent any attempt at it." The 1877 Railroad Strike, one of the longest worker uprisings in American history, predicted the tragedy at Haymarket Square. This strike entrenched the post–Civil War divide between capital and labor and demonstrated the violent lengths to which organized society would go to repress the labor movement. Lasting two weeks and involving seventeen states, the July 1877 strike began when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced it was cutting wages. All over the country a battle played out between strikers and scabs backed by police and local militia paid for by the employers. In Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Chicago strikers were shot down by such troops. The fierce battle between strikers and industry excited such a national panic that President Rutherford B. Hayes eventually responded to requests from industry leaders to settle the conflict with federal troops.

If the Civil War had been fought to put an end to slavery, then the post–Civil War period ushered in a fight between capital and labor interests for what constituted a fair wage and fair number of working hours for industrial laborers. The conflict over chattel slavery had given way to a conflict over what many believed to be "wage slavery." As the Haymarket anarchist Albert Parsons argued, "The capitalist in the former system owned the laborer, and hence his product, while under the latter he owns his labor product, and hence the person of the wage-laborer." As the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy transformed into a battle between capital and labor, figures associated with the former conflict became players in the new one. Colonel Frederick Dent Grant, the son of Ulysses S. Grant, was transferred by Hayes from killing American Indians in the Dakota territory to killing workers in the Chicago streets. Twelve people would be killed in the July 1877 strike, five more than at Haymarket, and within a day of Grant's action the strike would be ended. The Civil War hero General William Tecumseh Sherman sounded this ominous warning: "There will soon come an armed contest between capital and labor. They will oppose each other not with words and arguments and ballots, but with shot and shell, gunpowder and cannon. The better classes are tired of the insane howlings of the lower strata and mean to stop them" (Avrich, p. 176).

In retrospect, the Haymarket tragedy was probably inevitable. It was an outgrowth not only of the fight between capital and labor but also a consequence of the larger anxiety the United States felt as it shifted from an agrarian society to an industrial one. In America the anarchist movement emerged out of a variety of other labor groups that began to spring up after the Civil War. The Social Democratic Party, the Workingmen's Party, and, ultimately, the International Working People's Association, itself a federation of many smaller groups, provided the fertile soil for the growth of the anarchist movement. Generally speaking, American anarchists affirmed the complete autonomy of the individual against the coercive impulses of the state. In practice, this meant opposing the ways in which the state sanctioned oppressive forms of private ownership. Anarchists agreed that the state was essentially an instrument of economic injustice dedicated to upholding the anti-egalitarian aims of capitalism. Few anarchists advocated violent overthrow of the state and most were willing to imagine that they could work with and through the state to improve the nation's distribution of its wealth and resources. Parsons, for instance, was typical in arguing that in an anarchist society, reason and common sense should take precedence over laws designed to protect the interests of labor-exploiting manufacturers. Parsons believed that once the artificial human institutions were stripped of their power, a basically good human nature would be allowed to express itelf in the form of individuals pursuing and protecting their own personal interests but not to the disadvantage or harm of others.

While such a position is actually of a piece with mainstrean American thought from Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson, many of the specific anarchist ideas came from abroad. During this period there was a massive influx of immigrants—in part to supply the burgeoning factories with cheap labor—who brought with them not only their desire for a better life but also new ideas from Europe for how to make a better life possible. Of the eight men convicted for the Haymarket riot, only Albert Parsons had been born and raised in the United States. Most of the others emigrated from Germany, a country associated with radical utopian social ideas. Anarchism, while not specifically a European import, did take on force after the European revolutions of 1848. Indeed, one reason that the Haymarket anarchists could be so quickly and so unfairly punished was because the movement they represented could be easily perceived as an isolated and foreign threat. Even when they advocated a reform that would eventually be accepted as standard practice, such as the eight-hour workday, they were nonetheless tagged by newspapers and most politicians as foreigners and madmen intent on destroying society.

Of course the anarchists did not understand themselves to be destroying society so much as breaking it down in order to rebuild it into something that benefited more of its members. Their arguments about abolishing the existing capital-labor structure drew on the ideas of the anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who both favored an equal distribution of profits between owners and workers. The best-known anarchist was Johann Most (1846–1906), a German immigrant exiled from Germany after his role in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871. Upon arriving in the United States in 1882, Most became a lightning rod for both supporters and detractors of the anarchist movement. In newspaper articles and speeches, he urged workers to arm themselves and argued that the inequity between rich and poor could be solved only by violence. He even wrote newspaper articles that described how to put together explosives and use them against the rich. With his revolutionary rhetoric and uncompromising stance, Most attracted many admirers, Emma Goldman among them. However, he also excited an extraordinary amount of fear and hatred. At his death in 1906, after serving three different prison terms in the United States, the New York Times eulogized him as "an enemy of the human race."

Most's emergence on the American scene made many believe that General Sherman's warning of 1877 was likely to come true. By the time of Haymarket the anarchists also had basically disavowed conventional means of protest such as the ballot box. To them, this was not only a radical stance but a practical one as well. All of them had experienced tainted elections when trying to elect their candidates and witnessed the brutality of the police and the U.S. troops when called in to break up strikes. From the anarchists' perspective, it was the barons of capital, backed up with the force of state and federal troops, who were truly intent on attacking the ideals of equality for which the United States supposedly stood. Short of being silent and continuing to exist under the rules made by the industrialists and manufacturers, their only choice was to do as their enemies did and try to take the law into their own hands. As Samuel Fielden said the night of the Haymarket rally, "A million men hold all the property in this country. The law has no use for the other fifty-four million" (Avrich, p. 205). This does not mean that the Haymarket anarchists took Most's advice and exploded a bomb in Haymarket Square. Even though some of them, August Spies in particular, called on workers to exact a violent revenge for the strikers murdered the night before the Haymarket Massacre, nothing indicates that the condemned men ever did anything more than advance the view that there might come a day where arms would be necessary—hardly an extremist position given arms were being used against them. Ironically, Louis Lingg committed the only known successful bombing when he blew himself up in his cell rather than be executed by the state of Illinois.


By the time the Haymarket anarchists were arrested the atmosphere was charged with such an air of impending revolution that they never really stood a chance of receiving justice. In their eyes, dying as martyrs would likely spur on the societal transformation they hoped was near. In the eyes of their accusers, the issue was to stamp out once and for all the threat posed by the expression of political points of view that suggested capitalism, or the free market, was anything but free. Because the state could not convict the anarchists for throwing the bomb, it tried them for conspiracy—for creating the atmosphere that would encourage a bomb to be thrown. This line of reasoning obligated the state to prove that the anarchists' opinions were inimical to the interests of the state. Insofar as they advocated reorganizing the distribution between capital and labor they were rightly perceived to be dangerous to the interests of the wealthy who controlled the state, if not necessarily the state itself. Albert Parsons pointed out that while the state could not prove he had thrown the bomb, it did prove that "we were, all of us, anarchists, socialists, communists, Knights of Labor, unionists" (Avrich, p. 283). Once the judge in the case ruled that the prosecution need not identify the actual bombthrower or prove that the bombthrower had any connection to the accused, the men's fates were sealed. As Julius S. Grinnell, the prosecuting attorney, told the "gentlemen of the jury," the doctrine of "anarchy is on trial" and these men "were no more guilty than the thousands who follow them." To "convict these men, make examples of them, hang them," was to "save our institutions, our society" (Avrich, p. 284). Grinnell's argument was lost on the jurors because saving society was precisely what their verdict was supposed to accomplish. Given the opportunity to respond to the verdict, the anarchists themselves were left to put what had happened to them in its appropriate social and moral context: "You may pronounce the sentence upon me, honorable judge," said August Spies, "but let the world know that in a.d. 1886, in the State of Illinois, eight men were sentenced to death because they believed in a better future, because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty and justice!" (Avrich, p. 286).

The Haymarket decision was met with something close to national celebration. The Chicago Tribune announced that "law has triumphed" and even suggested that a fund of $100,000 be raised to thank the jury "whose honesty and fearlessness made a conviction possible." One prominent dissenter was William Dean Howells, the only significant American literary figure to speak out against the verdict. Although the Haymarket decision inspired many supporters who fought to save the anarchists' lives until every appeal had been tried, Howells's example is telling because it suggests how dangerous it was to stand up for free speech during this time. Internationally, the Haymarket decision drew wide and immediate criticism. Karl Marx's daughter visited the men in prison. Labor organizations sent contributions from Brussels, Madrid, Paris, Rome, and Zurich. In Australia protest rallies were held. And well-known English literary figures such as William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde all spoke out against the verdict. Noting "the spirit of cold cruelty, heartless and careless at once, which is one of the most noticeable characteristics of American commercialism," Morris charged that America was "a society corrupt to the core, and at this moment engaged in suppressing freedom with just the same reckless brutality and blind ignorance as the Czar of all the Russias uses" (pp. 42–43). Howells's criticism was never so pointed. Howells wrote George William Curtis, the editor of Harper's Weekly, to declare the case "hysterical and unjust" (Howells, Selected Letters 3:193). He could not, however, convince Curtis to reverse the magazine's endorsement of the decision. Nor could Howells convince a single significant American author to side with him. When Howells made his stance against the verdict public by writing the Illinois governor and asking him to stay the men's execution, he found that the nation's newspapers, as well as much of his audience, "abused me as heartily as if I had proclaimed myself a dynamiter" (Selected Letters 3:223). Howells was careful in his public pronouncements not to endorse the opinions of the anarchists but only their right to express them. Still, it was a dangerous position for Howells to take and it affected how he was viewed by his readers and admirers. Thus this great proponent of literary realism was made to suffer the irony of being publicly eviscerated for not recognizing the "reality" of American justice.


Howells was deeply affected by not only the Haymarket tragedy but also the reaction his involvement in it prompted in his readers. His 1890 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes draws on the Haymarket episode but without the same sense of focused moral outrage that Howells had expressed in his public stance. In Hazard Howells compresses the eight anarchists into one, Lindau. In the novel's key episode, Lindau is present during a strike when a riot occurs. As the police club the strikers, Lindau mockingly shouts, "Ah yes! Glup the strikerss—gif it to them. Why don't you co and glup the bresidents that insoalt your lawss?" (p. 422). As with the Haymarket anarchists, Lindau is responsible neither for the strike nor its attendant violence. His offense is his opinion. Although Lindau is cruelly beaten by the police for expressing his opinion, he is also implicitly blamed for the death of another character who dies as a result of the police violence. Howells presents Lindau sympathetically but is also careful to distance the reader from him. Howells allows Lindau to criticize capitalism (in ways not dissimilar from Howells's own point of view), yet portrays how the expression of those views inevitably leads to violence in American society. In the end, the reader is likely to sympathize with Basil March, the novel's middle-class hero who edits Lindau's best intentions and makes them more palatable to his audience. He tells his son that "men like Lindau" are guilty of letting "their love of justice hurry them into sympathy with violence" and for this "they are wrong" and "die in a bad cause" (pp. 451–452). Howells, however, was never happy with the novel. Writing nearly ten years after its publication, Howells acknowledged that he felt "a tenderness for this character which I feel for no other in the book" (A Hazard of New Fortunes, p. 505). He wistfully identified Lindau as "almost" the hero of the novel and admitted that with the "heroic" Lindau's death "I suffered more things than I commonly allow myself to suffer for the adverse fates of my characters" (pp. 508–509). In the end, it seems that Howells, who so bravely spoke out against the Haymarket verdicts, could not master in his art the terrible conflict in American society that the Haymarket tragedy revealed. Nonetheless, A Hazard of New Fortunes remains an enduring portrait of that period in American history.

A more scathing attack on the Haymarket injustice is Robert Herrick's Memoirs of an American Citizen. Published in 1905, Herrick's novel tells how Harrington rises from relative poverty to become a wealthy titan of industry and eventually a United States senator. Harrington is a ruthless, unscrupulous businessman who justifies his acts through a kind of Social Darwinism that is also an inverted version of the biblical Golden Rule. The pivotal point to his career occurs when he is chosen to serve on the jury for the trial of the Haymarket anarchists. He is told that if he convicts the anarchists he can expect to be promoted. What moral qualms he suffers are suppressed in his recognition that the trial is fixed. He observes: "That was the point of it all—a struggle between sensible folks who went about their business and tried to get all there was in it—like myself—and some scum from Europe, who didn't like the way things are handed out in this world" (p. 74). Although he later experiences some regret for involvement in a trial that "was all a parcel of lies," he accepts that his role as a successful member of society required him to make certain that these "dreamers of wild dreams" were made to "suffer for their foolish opinions, which were dead against the majority," and "thus I performed my duty to society" (p. 74). His role in suppressing the labor movement gives him the push he needs to begin his successful career as a business tycoon. By the end of the novel, when he is elected senator by the very business elements with whom he used to compete for capital, Harrington becomes the embodiment of the alliance between government and big business that sentenced the Haymarket anarchists to death.

One other important novel about Haymarket is Frank Harris's The Bomb (1908). What distinguishes this work is Harris's suggestion that the unknown bomber was the well-known anarchist Rudolph Schnaubelt. Subsequent research has shown that Harris's theory is highly unlikely. In the 1980s, the historian Paul Avrich uncovered letters from 1933 that seemed to identify the bombthrower as one George Schwab. Whether Schnaubelt, Schwab, or someone else threw the bomb is not ultimately important because the point of the Haymarket tragedy is that who threw the bomb never mattered in the public's opinion. John Peter Altgeld, governor of Illinois, made this point when in 1893 he pardoned the three living anarchists. Remarking on Judge Joseph E. Gary's decision that the state need not prove who threw the bomb or that the bombthrower acted on the instructions of the accused, Altgeld stated: "In all the centuries during which government has been maintained among men, and crime has been punished, no judge in a civilized country has ever laid down such a rule" (Avrich, p. 423). Altgeld's statement acquitted not only the living anarchists but the ones hanged as well. The governor in effect indicted the judge, the jury, the prosecution, the police, and the newspapers of the time for the men's death. History has agreed with Altgeld: the Haymarket tragedy represents perhaps the greatest miscarriage of justice in American history. Yet if the anarchists' brave stand and sad end remain unknown to most Americans it may also be because the structure of corporate power they battled remains, for the most part, intact.

See alsoAnarchism; A Hazard of New Fortunes; Labor; Socialims


Primary Works

Altgeld, John Peter. Reasons for Pardoning the HaymarketAnarchists. Chicago: n.p., 1893.

Herrick, Robert. The Memoirs of an American Citizen. 1905. Edited by Daniel Aaron. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. 1890. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Howells, William Dean. Novels 1886–1888: The Minister'sCharge; April Hopes; Annie Kilburn. New York: Library of America, 1989.

Howells, William Dean. Selected Letters of W. D. Howells. Vol. 3, 1882–1891. Edited by Robert C. Leitz et al. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Morris, William. "Whigs, Democrats, and Socialists." In his Signs of Change. London: Reeves and Turner, 1888.

Secondary Works

Adelman, William J. Haymarket Revisited: A Tour Guide of Labor History Sites and Ethnic Neighborhoods Connected with the Haymarket Affair. Chicago: Illinois Labor History Society, 1976.

Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Cady, Edwin. The Realist at War: The Mature Years, 1885–1920, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1958.

Cady, Edwin. The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837–1885, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956.

Carter, Everett. Introduction to A Hazard of New Fortunes, by William Dean Howells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

David, Henry. The History of the Haymarket Affair: A Study in the American Social-Revolutionary and Labor Movements. 1936. New York: Russell and Russell, 1958.

Foner, Philip S., ed. The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs. New York: Humanities Press, 1969.

Glenn, Robert. W. The Haymarket Affair: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1942.

Lynn, Kenneth S. William Dean Howells: An American Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Nelson, Bruce C. Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, 1870–1900. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Parrish, Timothy. "Haymarket and Hazard: The Lonely Politics of William Dean Howells." Journal of American Culture 17, no. 4 (1994): 23–32.

Timothy Parrish