Editor's Note: Doug Kamholz reminds us of what happened 137 years ago this week, the Haymarket Affair, an explosive protest in Illinois that changed the course in the drive for workers' rights.
by Doug Kamholz
For May Day in the mid-‘50s, my mom affixed handles to pastel fluted cupcake wrappers filled with nuts and candies. I would then, tra-la, deliver them to friends. For years I thought that’s all May Day was.
One spring in the mid-’80s, I was enjoying welcome shade of palm and mango trees in Matagalpa Nicaragua’s central park. I was in Central America for about six months, partly to learn what a victorious leftist revolution really looked like. A Sandinista soldier approached my bench. We chatted. Before long he proceeded to deliver a fine historical account of then-upcoming May 1, International Workers’ Day, a celebration sans nuts or candies.
This memorial is mainly about that version.
About 675 laborers died each week in work-related accidents in 1880s America. The U.S. is now down to about 100 a week with six times the workforce. (Sad to say, the workplace murder rate is quite likely higher these days.) Given those tens of thousands of annual deaths, it is ugly-easy to conjure all the injuries and other health damage suffered by 19th century workers.
So much is due heroes and martyrs of America’s long struggle for labor rights. It was the very lack of these rights that abetted those workplace tragedies and left bosses with no liability, no consequences. At a time when 14-hour days were often the rule, fighting for the eight-hour day took center stage. The Chicago event that birthed Workers’ Day is called Haymarket, a name well known around the world (including Matagalpa’s park) though little-known here in Illinois or any of our other 49 states.
The bones: On Tuesday evening, May 4, 1886, there was a labor protest rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Around 10 pm, police marched on the dispersing crowd of about 200. A bomb exploded in the air. Police started shooting. Seven police officers were killed and others injured. Eight labor leaders were charged with conspiracy to murder. Seven were sentenced to hang. Four did. To honor them and all Chicago workers, 1889’s International Socialist Conference in Paris named May Day a labor holiday now called International Workers’ Day.
The sinew: Spring of 1886 in Chicago saw many strikes by about 50,000 workers. It was the eight-hour day movement. Workers walked out on some of America’s famous industries: Pullman, McCormick, Armour, Swift and more. On Monday, May 3, police came to quell strikers at McCormick Reaper Works. They shot and killed two. Local labor agitators were furious. One eyewitness was August Spies, editor of the socialist Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers’ Newspaper). He rushed to his shop and produced a flier quickly carried to area saloons and working class halls. Printed in German and English, it read in part: “If you are men . . you will rise . . and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms, we call you, to arms!”
A second circular, by a second radical, posed more specific plans in response to the dead at McCormick. It called a mass meeting for Tuesday at Haymarket Square and included a threat to storm police stations if officers moved on demonstrators.
That Tuesday evening a couple thousand showed up at Haymarket, far fewer than the 25,000 that had come to other such rallies. In later court testimony a veteran Chicago Tribune reporter said it was “a peaceable and quiet meeting” with no violence promoted. Even Mayor Carter Harrison was there. He heard speeches by Spies and Albert Parsons, editor of the anarchist Alarm. He found the gathering calm enough to suggest to Police Inspector John Bonfield that a large contingent of police waiting in reserve be sent home. Bonfield balked and the order to stand down was not given, but the mayor went home unworried.
Before ten o’clock the crowd had dwindled enough to move to an adjacent alley. They wheeled a wagon across one end as a speakers platform. By ten o’clock only about 200 remained.
At ten o’clock a thunderstorm threatened and a strong cold wind swept the alley. The meeting was adjourned. It was then that Bonfield ordered 186 uniformed men stationed nearby to march military style into the departing crowd. His Captain William Ward shouted, “I command you, in the name of the people of the state of Illinois, to immediately and peaceably disperse!” The last speaker, Methodist pastor Samuel Fielden, was still standing on the wagon when the police phalanx came. He responded, “But we are peaceable..
Then a sputtering object appeared above the marching company. The bomb. The dynamite bomb. No one has ever identified the bomb-thrower. But in that moment the police felt attacked enough to begin shooting into the fleeing crowd. They kept shooting for ten minutes and fired 250 bullets, according to the next day’s Tribune. Many on both sides were wounded. Some officers were injured by the bomb. Bullets killed seven in their ranks, and forensic evidence indicates they likely died from friendly fire, those in the rear hitting those at the front.
Three weeks later 31 anarchists and socialists were named in an indictment for what happened at Haymarket. Only eight of those were ever tried, and those eight happened to be the most effective labor leaders in Chicago’s eight-hour day movement. Only two of them were present at Haymarket on May 4. Three months later seven of the eight were sentenced to hang. One, Oscar Neebe, was given a 15-year prison term. A year later the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
On November 10, 1887, one day before the executions, Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby commuted two of seven slated for death, Michael Schwab and the Haymarket speaker Fielden. That same day a third, Louis Lingg, bit down on a percussion cap smuggled to him inside a cigar. Before he died, he wrote a farewell note in his own blood: “Long live anarchy!”
The remaining four were led to a specially built platform inside Cook County jail and hanged until dead. They were George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Parsons and Spies. The last words from Spies were prophetic: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
The Flesh: Around 1880, Chicago had the largest socialist presence ever seen in the U.S. As was true in other cities such as St. Louis and Milwaukee, leftist politics arrived with large numbers of German immigrants. They seldom were met kindly. Chicago’s Tribune defined a socialist as “a long-haired brawling idiot.” (And yes, I do take some personal offense.)
Those same late 1800s saw a shocking series of police murders of strikers from Pennsylvania to Colorado and right down the road from this keyboard, in Virden, Illinois. The 1898 Virden Massacre saw seven striking miners killed by coal company gunmen. They lie today in the nation’s only union-created cemetery in nearby Mount Olive. It is where Haymarket witness and rabble-rouser Mary “Mother” Jones chose to be interred “with her boys,” as she put it. Across the nation, thugs were imported for owner security. Workers and bystanders were killed. State militia were called in on the side of the owners. Here in Illinois, militia men shot to death two (or three, depending on your source) striking stonecutters in Lemont (where limestone was quarried to rebuild Chicago after the 1871 fire). Sadly, we can use current news of school shootings to feel the frequency of these shootings of strikers.
Back in 1886, the only person left who could save the condemned was Illinois Governor Oglesby. He had been close with Abraham Lincoln since 1840. He was an abolitionist. It is said he pondered that those who spoke out against slavery could have faced the same sentence as the Haymarket prisoners. One week before the scheduled hangings, Oglesby even wrote to a major Chicago bank president saying he would remove the death sentences and leave the men in prison if local business leaders consented. Captains of commerce gathered at a secret meeting. Some favored leniency but Marshall Field stood against it, and others would not go against the reigning merchant prince of the city.
Petitions and letters flooded the governor’s office from around the country and the world. Some applauded the death sentences; some were appalled by them. Men and women of fame risked their high standing by opposing the ordered punishments. Across the Atlantic in London, playwright George Bernard Shaw walked the streets seeking petition signatures against the hangings.
Spies was about to die but was also running with the tide. Those last words he uttered - “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today” – began to come true in short order.
The great Illinois social reformer Jane Addams, left, saw what she called “the startling reaction to Haymarket” as public opinion swayed toward sympathy. She called it a “profound influence upon the social outlook of thousands of people.”
In 1893, Illinois welcomed a new governor named John Peter Altgeld. At great political risk, he shouldered the mantle of morality and on June 26 pardoned all three surviving Haymarket prisoners: Fielden, Neebe and Schwab.
As reported by historian Dr. Robert D. Sampson, new journal editor for the Illinois State Historical Society, Altgeld spoke to senior men and women at the University of Illinois about a month before the pardons. “Let sunlight into dark places and the poisons collected there disappear,” he told them. “So with the dark places in the government and civil affairs that are now festering with wrong; let the sunlight of eternal truth and justice shine on them and they will disappear.”
Altgeld served only one term, but he did much to advance progressive causes. There is a sad note in the title of his major biography, written by Harry Barnard and my source fo much of this piece. It is called Eagle Forgotten, the name given Altgeld by famed Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay.
As for Haymarket, there is this from the late and revered Illinois labor historian William J. Adelman: “No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today.”
Here are a couple reasons most of us know so little about something deemed so important in the daily lives of everyone who works. Five years after May Day was named a worldwide workers’ holiday in Paris in 1889, U.S. President Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the holiday’s socialist origin, signed a federal law establishing Labor Day in September. In 1958 President Dwight Eisenhower further de-emphasized May 1 as International Workers’ Day by declaring that date as our national Law Day.
All that notwithstanding, the actual Haymarket site, west of Chicago’s Loop and just east of I-90, was dedicated a Chicago landmark in 1992. Five years later in Waldheim Cemetery, south of I-290 in Forest Park, the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is where all five defendants who died in 1887 are buried.
I have gone to Waldheim Cemetery for its annual Haymarket commemoration. Thinking about what labor struggles have won and with May 1 approaching, I will close by borrowing from Lincoln’s most famous address because these men, like those who died in Union blue, deserve our pause and respect: “[W]e here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom . .”