“Account of the Haymarket Riot” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Published shortly after a series of dramatic events at an anarchist gathering in Chicago’s Haymarket Square left at least eleven people dead and another sixty wounded, the Chicago Herald’s account of what has become known as the Haymarket Riot shows the blend of objective journalism and sensationalism that characterized the public presentation of the affair. The demonstration changed quickly from peaceful to violent, and the rapid turn of events has made unraveling them impossible even more than a century later. The effects of the confrontation between demonstrators and police, however, had a significant and lasting impact on the nation. The Haymarket Riot and the subsequent conviction and execution of four anarchist leaders connected to the events changed the tone of the radical labor movement in the United States and left an enduring legacy of controversy as Americans debated how to present the events in the public sphere.

Summary Overview

Published shortly after a series of dramatic events at an anarchist gathering in Chicago’s Haymarket Square left at least eleven people dead and another sixty wounded, the Chicago Herald’s account of what has become known as the Haymarket Riot shows the blend of objective journalism and sensationalism that characterized the public presentation of the affair. The demonstration changed quickly from peaceful to violent, and the rapid turn of events has made unraveling them impossible even more than a century later. The effects of the confrontation between demonstrators and police, however, had a significant and lasting impact on the nation. The Haymarket Riot and the subsequent conviction and execution of four anarchist leaders connected to the events changed the tone of the radical labor movement in the United States and left an enduring legacy of controversy as Americans debated how to present the events in the public sphere.

Defining Moment

The late nineteenth century was a tumultuous time in US economic and political history. As industrialization swept much of the nation, native-born Americans and new immigrants alike swelled the populations of industrial urban centers seeking jobs at factories, warehouses, stockyards, and other places of employment. The populations of industrial cities exploded; the number of Chicagoans, for example, rose from just over 110,000 on the eve of the Civil War to nearly 300,000 by 1870 and to almost 1.1 million two decades later.

Such quick expansion, however, carried its own set of challenges. Population pressures taxed the city’s infrastructure, including public safety. Social and economic tensions arose between the usually better-educated and wealthier class of native-born Americans and the expanding foreign-born or first-generation American immigrant working class. Many of these immigrant workers had roots in Ireland, Germany, or regions of Eastern Europe. The economic gap between the native-born and immigrant groups was a large one; immigrant workers often filled jobs that required relatively little skill but great physical effort in difficult working conditions for low pay. Frustrated, some activists began to develop a labor movement that sought to organize industrial workers into labor unions that could agitate for improved wages, shorter hours, and other workplace goals on the behalf of all associated employees. Labor unions, such as the Knights of Labor, organized meetings, demonstrations, and strikes to agitate for change. Business owners and, often, government resisted these efforts. At the same, some activists believed that labor unions did not go far enough. They demanded a more significant reordering of society along socialist, communist, or anarchist lines.

Among these more radical voices were some influential Chicagoans. August Spies was a German-born immigrant and anarchist who had come to Chicago during the 1870s and helped run a German-language socialist newspaper. He and Albert Parsons, a prominent native-born labor activist, were both members of the city’s Socialist Labor Party along with other anarchist groups. These organizations argued that the elimination of government would bring about a more equitable and harmonious society, but they failed to agree about the best way to enact this revolutionary change. Some anarchists argued that violent resistance was necessary. Americans who viewed socialist and anarchist movements as dangerous and un-American feared that radical demonstrations and strikes would inevitably lead to violence and destruction.

By the mid-1880s, tensions over radical activity in Chicago ran high. Unions and other labor activist groups organized a series of demonstrations on May 1, 1886, that involved thousands of workers across the country. Although the Chicago demonstrations were mostly peaceful, they made Spies and Parsons, who led some of the events, notorious in the eyes of antiradicals. Two days later, Spies spoke at a labor rally that ended in a confrontation between demonstrators and police as a riot broke out at a nearby factory where workers were striking. Angered by police brutality against demonstrators, a group of anarchists decided to hold an outdoor labor rally at Haymarket the following evening, May 4.

Author Biography

Written by an unidentified journalist, this account of the events in Haymarket Square was published in one of Chicago’s leading dailies of the late nineteenth century, the Chicago Herald. The city’s other main newspapers also published extensive accounts of the riot and the later trial and executions. During this time period, local newspapers enjoyed a growing readership and provided the main source of information about the events of the day. Newspaper of this era were undergoing a shift away from the open infusion of editorial commentary directly into news stories, but they had not yet embraced the objective, factual style of reporting that modern publications typically employ. The tone of the coverage of an event or individual, therefore, had the ability to influence public perception greatly.

Document Analysis

Published the day after the events at Haymarket Square, the Chicago Herald’s account shows the anti-anarchist tone that would infuse public perception of the affair for the crucial first months and overtly places the blame for the events on the anarchist organizers. It opens by listing the names of several dead or injured police officers who responded to the event, immediately suggesting that the greatest tragedy of the day was the violence inflicted upon the police; only afterward and in an anonymous and more dehumanized way were the dead or injured workers acknowledged. This division informs the entire article and subtly directs the reader to view the events from a perspective that assumes the guilt of the anarchists.

The account embellishes the bare facts of the riot with dramatic, loaded language. Anarchist speaker Samuel Fielden is described as “grim-visaged,” and an injury sustained by a police officer as a “shocking gash.” The police contingent sent to disperse the meeting is “ominous and appalling” in its “measured advance” as the still-speaking Fielden makes a movement that could be interpreted by the reader as a symbol to act. A great deal of description is given to the throwing of the bomb, the turning point of the meeting from gathering to riot.

That the guilt lay with the anarchists is clearly argued throughout the piece. Fielden’s request that the crowd stay to listen to the remainder of the speeches despite a gathering rainstorm is transformed by the account into an ominous sign of the events to come. Of the throwing of the bomb, the Herald asserts that the “mysterious meteor was . . . hurled from the Crane Building by an Anarchist.” The bomb is stated to immediately affect only the police, with some two dozen officers injured but no anarchists harmed. Although the article discusses the intense and violent response by the police, its language implies that the response was warranted. The anarchists are said to have “escaped,” as the police overcome a period during which they are “crazed with fury” over the bomb’s slaying of their men to tend to the deceased and wounded. A lengthy quotation provides the police argument that the bomb was premeditated and coordinated with an attack by the assembled anarchists. The “terrible encounter” is thus linked to the radical organizers of the demonstration rather than to the response of the police in breaking up the meeting.

Essential Themes

The contemporary sensationalist coverage of the Haymarket affair has long impeded efforts to truly understand the events of the day. Shortly after the riot, Chicago police arrested the anarchist leaders and accused them of engineering a bomb plot. Altogether, eight Chicago anarchists–five of whom had not even been at the Haymarket demonstration at the time the bomb exploded and two of whom were totally unconnected to it–were put on trial for the murder of the only police officer undisputedly killed from the bomb blast itself. At the time, Chicago’s newspapers blurred the lines between editorial commentary and news reporting, condemning the events as the work of the anarchists and inflaming public opinion against the accused. All eight of the accused men were convicted; one committed suicide while awaiting execution, three were imprisoned (though later pardoned), and four, including Parsons and Spies, were hanged on November 11, 1887. The convictions, made on thin evidence by a jury containing members who admitted to being influenced by the press coverage before the trial, reflected a general distrust of immigrants and radicals that continued for many years. No one has ever definitively determined who threw the bomb that incited the riot.

The physical explosion in the square also had a less tangible but quite destructive influence on the American radicalism. Although the Haymarket leaders became martyrs for the international radical community, the larger proportion of Americans who suspected that anarchists and associated groups were crazed and violent felt that the events at Haymarket confirmed those beliefs. The hangings of the accused anarchist leaders were a severe blow to not only the anarchist movement in the United States but also less extremist labor movements. Public outcry over the event led labor leaders to distance their organizations from the notion of idealist revolutionary reform based on opposition to the capitalist economic system as a whole. The movement for the eight-hour workday, the issue over which the Haymarket demonstration had been convened, was temporarily derailed. Some local unionists abandoned their affiliation with the more radical Knights of Labor, of which Parsons had been a member, to join with the American Federation of Labor instead.

Over time, the public view on the Haymarket Riot has changed, however. An 1889 Chicago statue honoring the police killed at Haymarket was damaged so frequently that it was eventually moved from the site. Sympathy for the convicted anarchists has grown tremendously, particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the eight-hour workday was adopted as a national standard by the 1930s.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984. Print.
  • David, Henry. The History of the Haymarket Affair: A Study in the American Social-Revolutionary and Labor Movements. New York: Russell, 1958. Print.
  • Green, James. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. New York: Pantheon, 2006. Print.
  • Rushing, Kittrell. “The Case of the Haymarket Riot (1886).” The Press on Trial: Crimes and Trials as Media Events. Ed. Lloyd Chiasson. Westport: Greenwood, 1997. Print.
  • Smith, Carl. The Dramas of Haymarket. Chicago Historical Soc. and Northwestern U. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
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