Haymarket Riot

views updated May 23 2018

Haymarket Riot

United States 1886


The Haymarket Riot, which is also often referred to as the Haymarket Massacre or the Haymarket Incident, was a radical labor protest meeting on 4 May 1886 in Chicago, Illinois, that turned deadly. Although the assembly began peacefully, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb when the police began to raid the meeting. While the identity of the bomb thrower has never been determined, hysteria over the event, which had been organized by anarchists, was sufficient to secure the conviction of eight people for murder and conspiracy, despite little or no evidence to prove the charges brought against them. Four men were eventually hanged for a crime they did not commit.


  • 1866: The Winchester repeating rifle is introduced.
  • 1871: Chicago fire causes 250 deaths and $196 million in damage.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky-scraper.
  • 1886: The Statue of Liberty is dedicated.
  • 1886: Apache chief Geronimo surrenders to U.S. forces.
  • 1888: The Blizzard of 1888 in the United States kills hundreds and causes more than $25 million in property damage.
  • 1892: Bitter strikes in Australia lead to the closing of ports and mines.
  • 1896: U.S. Supreme Court issues its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine that will be used to justify segregation in the southern United States for the next half-century.

Event and Its Context

Origins of the Haymarket Riot

The Haymarket Riot grew out of a long string of circumstances that eventually culminated in an unfortunate incident. At issue were several key points: the continued growth of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on society, the movement for the eight-hour workday, worker dissatisfaction, suppression of labor activities by various government authorities, and the growth of radicalism in the United States. Each of these topics played an important role in labor unrest as the climate in the country between workers and the state reached fever pitch. Regardless of who might have been at fault in a labor struggle, each moment of violent upheaval had serious consequences.

During the post-Civil War era, there were periods of labor upheaval both in Chicago and across the nation. Such incidents revolved around many issues, including, among others, job security, wages, occupational safety, and, especially, the eight-hour day. It was this last issue that was particularly important as the Industrial Revolution truly swept over America. Not only were skilled craftsmen seeing their professions disappear in the face of machines operated by unskilled labor, but the length of hours in the workday lengthened and could range from ten to twelve and even longer in some specific instances.

The movement for the eight-hour day, led by Ira Steward, was organized and launched in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1866. Stewart argued that paying laborers poor wages and forcing them to work inordinately long hours hurt both the workers and the economy. Proponents of the eight-hour day theorized that by limiting the number of daily work hours and paying a decent wage, people would have time on their hands and money in their pockets, thus providing them with the opportunity to spend discretionary funds and help expand the economy. However, the idea of the eight-hour day did not immediately resonate with the populace. States such as Illinois enacted an eight-hour day for specific occupations, but the lack of enforcement made the law weak to the point of uselessness. Loopholes in the law also allowed for easy evasion of compliance; since eight hours was considered to be the legal work day, an employer could bargain with his employees to work longer periods of time.

Chicago experienced several labor upheavals in the post-Civil War era, some of which had as their basis the question of the eight-hour day. There was an eight-hour movement and strike in 1867, another massive strike in 1873, and, of course, the Haymarket Riot in 1886. It was the concept of the eight-hour day that inspired the leaders of the Chicago labor movement to become more involved in politics. Andrew C. Cameron, a member of the Chicago Trades Assembly, helped create Eight-Hour Leagues in Chicago. In 1866 this movement actually had the support of prominent Illinois politicians, including then-governor Richard J. Oglesby, Attorney General Robert Ingersoll, and many of Chicago's aldermen. But the lack of enforcement and loopholes in the Illinois law prompted the labor movement to action. On 1 May 1867 workers went out on strike, began marching, and subsequently began rioting. While the movement then died down for a while, the action on the part of the workers prompted the city of Chicago to create an eight-hour day for city workers.

Another issue that presaged the Haymarket Riot was the growth of radicalism. Such extreme groups included socialists, communists, anarchists, and anarcho-communists, all of which had divisive internal factions as well. To many Americans these ideas, some of them based on the writings and influence of Karl Marx, were appalling and anti-American, regardless of whether or not the platform urged peaceful change in the social and economic fabric of society. Furthermore, the foreign-born bore the brunt of the blame for the introduction of these beliefs to the United States, for many Americans were convinced that no true, native-born U.S. citizen would subscribe to revolutionary ideals of any sort. Many of the foreign-born radicals worked with labor movement leaders to promote a prolabor agenda, a move that often caused these more moderate, mainstream individuals to be branded as "radical" themselves.

Police Actions at the McCormick Reaper Works

Such was the sociopolitical environment in which the Hay-market Riot occurred. On 1 May 1886 the drive for the eight-hour day gained momentum when more than 40,000 workers went on strike, with the main issue being ten hours pay for eight hours of work. Many Chicago workers, such as furniture workers and clothing cutters, had in fact won such concessions from their employers. But the eight-hour day was anything but universal, and this strike was another attempt to win the valued concession.

The strike continued for a few more days, including demonstrations at the McCormick Reaper Works, where relations between management and labor were already extremely tense. The company's management was attempting to use strikebreakers, and when the striking workers attacked these "scabs," police fired into the crowd, killing several strikers. Captain John Bonfield, a man universally despised within the labor movement, led the attacking police. The outrage over the shootings prompted many of the strikers to call for action, including the taking up of arms.

The Meeting in Haymarket Square

While many members of the labor movement were calling for immediate direct action, a group of anarchists suggested holding protest meetings. August Spies, who witnessed the scene at the McCormick plant, called for just such a meeting at Haymarket Square, which was immediately west of the Chicago loop, to take place the next day, 4 May. One of the meeting's most important purposes was to protest against Bonfield and police brutality. Other anarchists—such as Albert Parsons, Michael Schwab, and Samuel Fielden—showed up to make speeches. Also in attendance was the highly popular and charismatic Chicago mayor, Carter Harrison. Harrison was well-known for his strong support of labor, especially for his championing of the eight-hour day.

However, tensions surrounding the meeting were running high. Many people feared another violent confrontation. Harrison himself had nearly 200 riot-trained police, again led by Bonfield, on standby. The meeting itself, however, did not appear to pose any threat to civilized society. To begin with, only about 1,200 people showed up, and most of them left when it began to rain. Harrison was satisfied with the peaceful tone of the meeting, which merely consisted of speeches. At 10:30 A.MHarrison left the meeting, but before departing he warned the police to stay clear, since there obviously was no danger being posed to either citizens or property.

The Riot

As soon as Bonfield learned that Harrison had left, he and the police moved in to break up the remainder of the meeting. At this point someone threw a dynamite bomb into the front of the police charge, the first time in which dynamite was used in such a way. The explosion killed one person, Mathias Degan. The other police began to open fire on the meeting, starting a full-scale riot that resulted in several more deaths. Seven police in all were killed, and between 60 and 70 were wounded.

The hysteria that followed the riot hit huge proportions as all types of radical were arrested, many without actually being charged. The labor movement was branded as lawless and violent, and many people called for swift justice, especially against foreign-born radicals. Harrison was forced to take drastic measures as he put a restraint on gatherings and crowds, fearing another outbreak of violence. Eight people in all were arrested and charged with the murder of Degan: Spies, Parsons, Schwab, Fielden, Louis Lingg, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, and Oscar Neebe. The last four people on this list were not even present at the time of the incident, and those who were there were on the stage, in plain view of the entire crowd. The identity of the bomb thrower was never determined.

Trial of the Haymarket Defendants

The trial began in an atmosphere of hysteria on 15 June 1886. Presiding over the trial was Judge Joseph E. Gary. Gary had a reputation as an impartial judge, but his behavior during the trial proved otherwise. The prosecutor was the state's attorney for Cook County, Illinois, Julius S. Grinnell, who helped fuel the hysteria by allowing the police unusual liberties in the seizure and collection of evidence.

The eight defendants stood accused of conspiracy and murder even though several of them were not even present at the time of the incident. The fact that their political views were radical and that they were part of the labor movement made them suspect. Nevertheless, the problem facing the prosecution was proving not only that one of the accused threw the bomb, but also that the group provoked the incident through their speeches and words. In Gary's eyes, however, the prosecution had no need to prove these connections.

The jury deliberations took a mere three hours, and the verdicts were not a surprise. Seven of the defendants were condemned to death by hanging, with only Oscar Neebe receiving a prison sentence of 15 years. Lucy Parsons, the wife of Albert, began working immediately to have their convictions overturned. Cries for clemency rose across the country, as people became aware of the circumstances of the convictions and were outraged at what they called a miscarriage of justice.

Outcomes of the Sentencing

Both the Illinois Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals. Many people looked to Governor Oglesby for clemency. Even Judge Gary asked the governor to commute the sentences of Fielden and Schwab, since they asked for mercy, a request that Oglesby honored by commuting their sentences to life in prison. As for the remaining defendants, however, since they had not requested mercy, Oglesby by law could not commute their sentences. Lingg escaped execution by committing suicide in his jail cell. A friend of his smuggled a dynamite cap into the jail, and in a moment of dark irony, Lingg placed the cap in his mouth and set it off.

Various officials involved with the trial and upcoming execution received threats against their persons. Further anonymous threats of murder and bombings were made, but none were carried out. The execution of Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer took place on 11 November 1887. Lucy Parsons and her two children attempted to visit Albert prior to his execution. They were not only not allowed to visit Albert, but they were also strip-searched and placed in separate jail cells. Prior to the execution each condemned man made brief, proanarchist statements such as "Hurray for Anarchy!" News reports of the time noted that upon springing the trap door under the gallows, the fall did not break the necks of the accused; it took nearly eight minutes for the last of the men to strangle to death.

In what was the largest funeral in Chicago history up to that time, the men were buried at Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, just outside the city limits). The issue of the Haymarket Riot and subsequent trial and execution divided not just the city but the nation. In June 1893 Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining three defendants in what was considered a very controversial move, especially since Altgeld openly called the trial unfair. As for Carter Harrison, the Haymarket Riot ruined his political career. He was later assassinated, though the assassin was a disgruntled job seeker, not a radical from within the labor movement.

Laws Resulting from the Haymarket Riot

Two laws were enacted in 1887 in the wake of the Haymarket Riot, the Cole Anti-Boycott law and the Merritt Conspiracy law. The Cole law prevented people from conspiring to issue a blacklist or to boycott. The Merritt law, however, was far more controversial. Since part of the problem at the trial was demonstrating that the defendants instigated the violence, this law made any group as a whole or group of individuals responsible for the actions of any of the other group members, regardless of any knowledge of their activities. The only proof required was the appearance of cooperation and complicity. While the Cole law lasted into the twentieth century, modified by amendments and court decisions, the Merritt law was repealed in 1891.

Aftermath of the Riot

The labor movement, especially its radical connections, suffered as a result of the Haymarket Riot. Several years later, in 1894, Chicago experienced another labor upheaval with the Pullman Strike. As for the memory of the "Haymarket Martyrs," on 3 May 1998 their gravesite was made a National Historic Landmark. The anarchist groups present considered this move an outrage, since the condemned men were executed by the state for their beliefs rather than for any actual crime. Regardless, because of the work of the Illinois Labor History Society, the gravesite has a place of honor.

Key Players

Altgeld, John Peter (1847-1902): Born in Germany, Altgeld joined the Democratic Party in the United States. His support of issues having to do with social justice and equality caused him to be branded a radical in many quarters. He rose to prominence within the Democratic Party, but he lost a great deal of his power and respect when he pardoned the remaining Haymarket defendants. His tract outlining his reasons for the pardon was in print as of 2003.

Engel, George (1836-1887): A German-born socialist, like Schwab, Engel was orphaned at a young age. He settled in Chicago in 1874 and soon created his newspaper, Der Anarchist. He and his wife eventually ran a toy shop. He was not present at Haymarket Square when the bomb exploded, yet he was convicted for the action.

Fielden, Samuel (1846-?): A British-born socialist, Fielden championed the cause of labor. He arrived in Chicago in 1871, eventually joining the American Group of the International Working People's Association.

Fischer, Adolph (1858-1887): A German-born socialist, Fischer worked several jobs in various locations before moving to Chicago in 1883, where he worked for the Arbeiter-Zeitung, a German-language newspaper. A believer in direct action, he wanted to encourage people to show up to the Haymarket meeting with arms, a call that Spies eliminated from printed materials. Fischer truly believed he was dying for his cause when he was executed for taking part in the Haymarket Riot.

Lingg, Louis (1870-1887): Youngest of the eight accused, Lingg was born in Germany and came to the United States in 1885. An outspoken advocate of anarchist violence, he was a bomb maker who took his own life before the state could execute him.

Neebe, Oscar (1850-1915): Neebe was born in New York City and educated in Germany. Although he lived in several locations, he settled in Chicago, where he joined the socialist movement. He was not present at Haymarket, nor was he aware that such a meeting was planned. He was accused because at the time of the incident he was on the board of directors of the Socialist Publishing Company, which published the radical publication Arbeiter-Zeitung.

Parsons, Albert Richard (1848-1887): Parsons was one of the Haymarket protest meeting organizers and speakers. Born in Alabama and raised in Texas, Parsons fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War, a move he later regretted, turning to more radical views in the post-Civil War years. He married his wife Lucy in 1872, moving then to Chicago in 1873. Parsons continued to work as a labor agitator, spreading his views through his newspaper, The Alarm. After delivering his speech at the Haymarket protest meeting, he left and was at a local beer hall when the bomb exploded. He left Chicago after the incident but returned to stand trial with the others accused.

Parsons, Lucy (?-1942): Wife of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons. Her background is unclear, although it is assumed she was a descendent of both slaves and Indians. She was a staunch advocate of anarchy and worked for and supported a number of causes connected with social rights and equality.

Schwab, Michael (1853-?): Born in Germany and orphaned before he was a teenager, Schwab made his living as a bookbinder. He became a socialist and first went to Chicago in 1879. He began to work for the Arbeiter-Zeitung. He was granted clemency for his conviction in the Haymarket affair and was eventually pardoned by Governor Altgeld.

Spies, August (1855-1887): Born in Germany, Spies first went to Chicago in 1873 but then spent some time traveling around the country. He became a socialist and began working on behalf of the labor movement. Upon witnessing the violence at the McCormick Reaper Works, he called for the protest meeting to take place at Haymarket Square on 4 May. He was arrested the following day at the offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung.

See also: Eight-hour Day Movement; Pullman Strike.



Adelman, William. Haymarket Revisited. Chicago, IL:Illinois Labor History Society, 1976.

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

Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! Boston, MA: South End Press,1972.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Zlotnik, Harold. Toys of Desperation: A Haymarket Mural in Verse. Interlaken, NY: Hearts of the Lake Publishing, 1987.

—Mitchell Newton-Matza

Haymarket Riot

views updated May 29 2018


In the Haymarket Riot of May 4, 1886, the police clashed violently with militant anarchists and labor movement protesters in Chicago. Seven policemen and several protesters were killed, leading to murder convictions for seven

radicals, four of whom were executed. The strong public and state reaction against the Haymarket protesters has been called the first red scare in U.S. history, and their trial has been widely critized for improper procedure and prosecutorial excess.

The Haymarket Riot grew out of labor unrest that had been brewing since the 1870s. Unhappy with difficult working conditions and feeling the pressure of economic depression, workers had engaged in periodic strikes. Strong, sometimes violent police opposition to these strikes led to greater labor militancy. Radicals became increasingly convinced that the struggle between labor and capital had come to a head and that the time for revolution was near. Many anarchists publicly advocated the use of explosives to bring down the capitalist system.

In 1886, a broad coalition of labor organizations joined to campaign for an eight-hour workday. On May 1, 1886, this coalition initiated a general strike throughout the United States, the effects of which were particularly strong in Chicago. On May 3, fighting broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, and at least two workers were killed by the police.

Outraged at these killings, anarchists, members of the labor movement, and other radicals met for a rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square on May 4. The rally was peaceable until the police attempted to disperse the crowd. Then a bomb was thrown into the police ranks, killing seven officers and wounding sixty more. The police fired in response, killing and wounding like numbers of participants.

In an ensuing crackdown against the labor movement, the police arrested hundreds of anarchists and other radicals. Two leading anarchist newspapers were put out of business, and their staffs were imprisoned. Finally, eight noted Chicago radicals and anarchists, including nationally known radical leaders August Spies and Albert Parsons, were indicted for the murder of one of the policemen at Haymarket Square. Public opinion turned swiftly against the protesters, in part because seven of the eight defendants in the case were foreign-born.

The trial in the criminal court of Cook County began on June 21, 1886. Despite a lack of evidence linking them directly to the bombing, seven of the eight were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and the eighth was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The defendants were held liable for the murder on the ground that they had incited the bombing through inflammatory public speech.

The defendants appealed their case to the Illinois Supreme Court which upheld the lower court's decision on September 14, 1887 (Spies v. People, 122 Ill. 1, 12 N.E. 865). Supporters of the defendants undertook a clemency campaign that gathered forty thousand petition signatures. Under pressure from all sides, Governor Richard Oglesby, of Illinois, pardoned two of the seven sentenced to death but sustained the sentences of the other five. One of the seven committed suicide shortly before the date of execution by detonating a small dynamite bomb smuggled to him by a friend. The other four, including Spies and Parsons, were hanged on November 11, 1887.

The three remaining Haymarket defendants were pardoned in 1893 by Governor John Peter Altgeld, of Illinois, who also issued a report condemning the trial as unfair. He noted that the presiding judge was clearly biased against the defendants, that the defendants were not proved to be guilty of the crime with which they were charged, and that the jury was "packed" by state prosecutors with members who were prejudiced against the defendants. Later legal scholars have supported Altgeld's conclusions.

The questionable jury selection practices in the Haymarket trial, which allowed the seating of jurors who were clearly prejudiced against the defendants, were struck down by a later decision of the Illinois Supreme Court (Coughlin v. People, 144 Ill. 140, 33 N.E. 1 [1893]).

further readings

Landsman, Stephan. 1986. "When Justice Fails." Review of The Haymarket Tragedy, by Paul Avrich. Michigan Law Review 84 (February–April).

Wish, Harvey. 1976. "Haymarket Riot." In Dictionary of American History. Edited by Louise B. Ketz. New York: Scribner.


Anarchism; Darrow, Clarence Seward; Goldman, Emma; Labor Law; Labor Union.

Haymarket Riot

views updated May 17 2018


HAYMARKET RIOT. In April and early May 1886, the idea of a national strike for the eight-hour day gained momentum among the labor activists of Chicago. On 3 May police fired on strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, killing four. August Spies, editor of the semianarchist Arbeiter-Zeitung, issued circulars demanding revenge and announcing a mass meeting the next evening at the Haymarket Square. About 1,300 people attended the meeting, although many dispersed when it began to rain. Amid general anticipation of violence, large police reserves were concentrated nearby. Mayor Carter H. Harrison attended the meeting, but he soon left, judging the speeches innocuous. Contravening Harrison's advice, 180 police advanced on the meeting and ordered the crowd to disperse. At this point, a bomb, thrown by an unknown hand, fell among the police, leaving seven dead and seventy injured.

Popular fears of a general anarchist plot made an impartial investigation impossible; eight alleged anarchists were convicted on a conspiracy charge, and four were hanged. The eight-hour movement collapsed beneath the stigma of radicalism. Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned the three surviving prisoners in 1893, declaring that the trial had been a farce—an opinion severely condemned by the conservative press but highly praised by organized labor.


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

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

HarveyWish/a. r.

See alsoAnarchists ; Chicago ; Labor ; Strikes ; Wages and Salaries ; Work ; and picture (overleaf) .