The Haymarket Riot was a conflict between anarchists, who supported Chicago’s workers, and business owners, who supported the police. The riot halted the labor movement’s campaign for an eight-hour workday and exacerbated the distrust between workers and management.
The Haymarket Riot was the culmination of decades of conflict between labor and manufacturers. Chicago’s huge industrial growth during the nineteenth century produced enormous profits for manufacturers and lured thousands of European immigrants, who needed jobs and were willing to work the fifteen-hour workdays demanded by factory owners. However, once employed, factory workers thought twice about such long hours and sought better conditions. Confrontations between labor and manufacturers, often leading to strikes and violence, were common.
For years, labor leaders across the United States had been promoting an eight-hour workday; to this end, a general strike was called to begin on May 1, 1886. In Chicago, more than forty thousand workers left their jobs. City leaders were prepared for the worst, and the Chicago police force, experienced in suppressing demonstrations and breaking strikes, was ready. Violence broke out on May 3 at the gates of the McCormick Reaper Company, when a group of McCormick strikers attacked strikebreakers. Roughly two hundred police officers attacked the strikers, shooting six dead.
August Spies, a labor leader, composed a leaflet denouncing the police action. It was a call to arms, distributed citywide. A public protest was planned for the evening of May 4 in the Haymarket area of the city. Various speakers were scheduled, including the anarchist leader Albert Parsons. Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., attended the event and described the speakers as “tame.” He heard nothing inciting the crowd to violence before he left at 10:00
At that moment, someone threw a bomb at the police. The bomb killed one police officer and wounded several others. The police reacted by shooting into the now running crowd. Some of the workers fired back, but it is unknown how many or how effective their fire was. In the darkness, many police officers shot one another by mistake. A total of seven officers died, some from friendly fire. At least three civilians were killed.
No one discovered who threw the bomb, but prominent anarchists were arrested, as the city’s leaders cried for vengeance. Eight men were tried, and Judge Joseph Gary instructed the jury to find them guilty of murder, even if the crime was committed by someone who was not charged. All were found guilty. One was sentenced to hard labor, the others to hang. Appeals were rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court. The day before the execution, one of the condemned exploded a dynamite cap in his mouth and died; Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby, reacting to a clemency petition signed by more than 100,000 Americans, commuted the sentences of two men to life imprisonment. The remaining four were hanged on November 11, 1887, in Cook County Jail. In 1893, Governor John Peter Algeld pardoned the three remaining defendants and declared that the trial of the so-called Haymarket Eight had been unfair and illegal.
Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. Green, James. Death in the Haymarket. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.
Knights of Labor