1886, May 4: Haymarket Tragedy
Commercial photograph by J. J. Kanberg: “The Five Chicago Anarchists.” November 11, 1887. Chicago Public Library, Special Collections & Preservation Division
Early in 1886, labor unions were beginning a movement for an eight-hour day. Union activists called a one-day general strike in Chicago on May 1 of that year. Two days later a shooting and one death occurred during a riot at the McCormick Reaper plant when police tangled with the strikers. That evening a small group of anarchists met to plan a rally the next day in response.
The rally began about 8:30 p.m. May 4 at Haymarket Square, a open market on Randolph Street between Halsted and Des Plaines streets, but moved a half block away to Des Plaines Street north of Randolph Street. Speakers addressed the crowd from a wagon used as a makeshift stage. Mayor Carter Harrison joined the crowd briefly and then left. After 10 p.m., as the rally drew to a close, 176 policemen led by Inspector John Bonfield moved to disperse the crowd. Suddenly a bomb exploded. In the confusion that followed shots were fired. Policeman Mathias J. Degan was killed by the bomb, six officers died later and sixty others were injured.
Thirty-one well-known anarchists and socialists were arrested and named in criminal indictments, and eight were held for trial. Despite the fact that the bomb thrower was never identified, and none of these eight could be connected with the crime, Judge Joseph E. Gary imposed the death sentence on seven of them and the eighth was given 15 years in prison. The court held that the “inflammatory speeches and publications” of these eight incited the actions of the mob. The Illinois and U.S. Supreme Courts upheld the verdict.
On November 11, 1887, four of the men—Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel—were hanged. Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison awaiting the death sentence. The sentences of two others were commuted from death to imprisonment for life. On June 26, 1893, Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned the three who were in the penitentiary.
After Altgeld became governor in 1893, the petitions for pardon that had been presented to and refused by his predecessor, Richard Oglesby, were again introduced. After reviewing the case, Altgeld granted a full pardon. In his remarks, he stated that the jury was selected to convict and the judge so prejudiced against the defendants that a fair trial was impossible.
Worldwide appeals for clemency for the condemned Haymarket martyrs led to the establishment of May 1 as an International Workers’ Day. Although May Day has been commemorated as a labor holiday in many countries, it was never adopted in the United States.
- Archives of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County »
- Broadside announcing rally in Library of Congress collection »
- Haymarket Riot Monument by John Gelert, 1889 »
- Illinois Labor History Society »
- Library of Congress American Memory Project »
- Pitzer College. Anarchy Archives. Haymarket Massacre Archives. »