Strike for an Eight-Hour Day. On 1 May 1886 more than 190,000 American workers went on strike, demanding an eight-hour workday. Railroads and factories stopped, and by the end of the day 150,000 workers had earned a guarantee of shorter working hours. This was one of the greatest victories for organized labor, but it quickly turned into one of the most bitter defeats. At the McCormick Harvester Company plant in Chicago, which produced machinery to harvest wheat, fourteen hundred strikers demanding an eight-hour workday and daily wages of two dollars had been locked out since February. The Illinois state courts, supporting the company’s right to negotiate contracts with its employees, turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the striking workers. In March the company brought in three hundred nonunion workers, protected by the police and Pinkerton detectives. On 3 May the strikers clashed with these “scab” workers and the police fired into the crowd, killing one protester and seriously wounding six others.
Haymarket Rally. The strike leaders called for a mass meeting on the evening of 4 May in Haymarket Square to protest this episode of police brutality. Only three thousand of an expected twenty-five thousand protesters showed up. Mayor Carter Harrison not only gave the protesters permission to hold their rally, but he attended the gathering himself. Harrison left shortly after 10 P.M. when rain threatened. He had already heard socialists Albert Parsons and August Spies denounce Chicago’s police for provoking the previous day’s violence. The police, as well as the business leaders of Chicago, had already marked Parsons and Spies as the most dangerous radicals in the city’s labor movement. After most of the crowd had gone home, labor leader Samuel Fielden spoke. Mayor Harrison stopped at a nearby police station to inform the officers that the peaceful rally was nearly over.
The Riot. Shortly after the mayor left, 180 police appeared at the rally and ordered the remaining twelve hundred to thirteen hundred people to disperse. Fielden shouted “We are peaceable” at the very moment a bomb exploded among the police ranks. Policeman Matthias Degan died instantly, and seventy-six others were wounded, six of them fatally. The surviving police opened fire, killing one and wounding at least twelve of the crowd, some of whom later died. In the wake of the riot, the police arrested several hundred labor leaders. Thirty-one people were indicted for the bombing, but the state decided to press charges against eight leaders of the strike: Parsons, Spies, Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe. (A ninth individual, Rudolph Schnaubelt, reportedly threw the bomb, but he fled to his native Germany immediately after the incident.) Although only Fielden had been at the rally when the bomb exploded, all were accused of murder. None was actually charged with throwing the bomb, but Spies, Parsons, and others had urged the workers to arm themselves against police violence. Judge Joseph E. Gary of the Cook County Criminal Court declared that a person inciting a bombing was at least as responsible as the person throwing the bomb. It would be enough for the prosecution to show that the accused were anarchists, individuals who advocate the use of force to overthrow all government, and that police officers had died as a result of a conspiracy. The grand jury found that the accused “had in their abuse of [free speech] been more or less instrumental in causing the riot and bloodshed in Haymarket Square.”
The Trial. The trial began on 21 June, and finding an impartial jury was difficult since most of Chicago’s newspapers had savagely denounced the anarchist leaders for the bombing. The state never made an effort to find impartial jurors: special bailiff Henry L. Ryce, charged with finding jurors, said, “I am managing this case and I know what I am about. Those fellows are going to be hanged as certain as death.” The jurors he found shared Ryce’s belief: one was related to one of the dead policemen; another was a close friend; and a third stated that the court probably could not “bring proof enough to change my opinion.” Judge Gary would not allow defense lawyers to contest the selection of jury members, insisting instead that even men with prejudices might give a fair verdict. In closing the state’s case, prosecutor Julius Grinnell told the jury, “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.”
The Verdict. The jury deliberated for three hours on 20 August and found seven of the defendants guilty of first-degree murder; the eighth, Oscar Neebe, was guilty of a lesser charge. While Neebe was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, the others received death sentences. Most Americans had welcomed the indictments as a means to suppress dangerous radicals, and no newspaper in the country criticized Judge Gary’s handling of the case (he sometimes let ladies visiting the court sit with him on the bench, and during one lawyer’s argument Gary and a guest were busy working on a puzzle). However, once the trial was over, many people had second thoughts. In speaking to the court after the verdict, Spies said, “You may pronounce the sentence upon me, honorable judge, but let the world know that in A.D. 1886, in the state of Illinois, [seven] men were sentenced to death because they believed in a better future.” Neebe asked to join his comrades on the gallows, “for I think it is more honorable to die suddenly than to be killed by inches. I have a family and children; and if they know their father is dead, they will bury him. They can go to the grave and kneel down by the side of it; but they can’t go to the penitentiary and see their father, who was convicted of a crime that he hasn’t anything to do with.” Parsons suggested that Chicago’s business leaders had themselves planted the bomb.
Move to Appeal. Judge Gary refused a request for a new trial, and the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the verdicts. The Massachusetts politician Benjamin Butler joined noted lawyer Roger Pryor in appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to grant the anarchists a writ of error. From Europe came calls for clemency, and in America mass meetings called for a review of the trial and pressured Gov. Richard Oglesby for clemency. Some Chicago businessmen thought Schwab and Fielden should be spared, but powerful department-store magnate Marshall Field squelched a move to pardon them. Lingg, Fischer, Engel, and Parsons denounced all efforts to save their lives. Parsons sarcastically asked the governor to delay his execution until his wife and children could be tried and convicted of attending the rally; if he was being hung for his attendance, then his family was also guilty, and they should all die together. On 10 November 1887 Lingg committed suicide in his jail cell by placing a dynamite cap in his mouth. Later that day Governor Oglesby commuted Schwab’s and Fielden’s sentences to life in prison.
Execution. On 11 November Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies went to the gallows. Before the trapdoor swung open, each man was allowed to speak. “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today,” Spies shouted. “Hurrah for anarchy” were Fischer’s last words, and Engel said, “This is the happiest moment of my life!” Parsons shouted, “Let the voice of the people be heard!”
Reactions. The Haymarket trial wounded the ’ credibility of the American legal system. The Chicago police, it was learned, had planted incriminating evidence in the suspects’ homes and had provoked some of the violence with striking workers. The Knights of Labor, which had been at the forefront of improving labor conditions throughout the country, threatened to expel any affiliate union which supported the move for clemency. Samuel Gompers, leader of the more conservative American Federation of Labor, supported the call for fair trials, and after the verdict and executions Gompers and the AFL gained new legitimacy, while the Knights of Labor lost much support. On 25 June 1893 in Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, a bronze monument to the executed Haymarket leaders was unveiled. The next morning, the new Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the three men still in prison.
The Pardon. A former prosecutor and judge, Altgeld examined the case in detail and was appalled by the bias of the jury, the lack of substantial evidence, and Judge Gary’s incompetency. Altgeld pardoned the Haymarket leaders because they had not received a fair trial and also because he saw a golden opportunity to restore the integrity of the judicial system. While Altgeld’s action satisfied those who thought the trial a miscarriage of justice, and the executions judicial murder, the majority of Americans still thought the anarchists were guilty to some extent. In the long run Altgeld’s decision hurt his political career. While Judge Gary was overwhelmingly reelected to his position on the Cook County Court, Altgeld was defeated for reelection as governor in 1896.
Ray Ginger, Altgeld’s America: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1958);
Page Smith, The Rise of Industrial America, vol. 6 of A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984).