Illinois: Haymarket Square, Chicago Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although no original structures from the Haymarket era exist in this one-block area of industrial lofts, offices, and parking lots, the base of a monument dedicated to the seven policemen who died as a result of the riot still stands at the northeast corner of Randolph Street and the Kennedy Expressway.

Site Office

Illinois Labor History Society

28 East Jackson Boulevard

Chicago, IL 60604

ph.: (312) 663-4107

While labor historian William J. Adelman has said that “probably no event has had such a profound influence on the American labor movement or on the history of Chicago than what happened near Haymarket Square in 1886,” it has only been relatively recently–March 25, 1992–that the Chicago City Council’s Historical Landmark Committee passed an ordinance that officially granted landmark status to the site of the so-called Haymarket Riot. Today, the site is a rather unremarkable, if rough-edged, one-block stretch of parking lots and industrial and office lofts on Desplaines Street between Lake and Randolph Streets on Chicago’s Near West Side. The city landmark designation finally came about through the twenty-two-year effort of the Illinois Labor History Society, though the former Haymarket Square area had been declared an Illinois State Historical Landmark in 1970.

The Haymarket Riot

The riot occurred on Tuesday night, May 4, 1886, when a bomb was thrown into a column of 176 armed policemen advancing on a crowd of several hundred workers, labor activists, and anarchists attending a city-sanctioned mass meeting half a block off Haymarket Square, then the largest public gathering place in the city. The 7:30 p.m. Haymarket Protest Meeting (which actually began an hour later) had been called to denounce a police attack on locked-out workers at the McCormick Harvesting Works (now the International Harvester Company) on the south side of the city the previous afternoon; two workmen had been killed. The meeting had also been called to rally support for the eight-hour-day movement, which officially began May 1, 1886, with a march of eighty thousand workers up Michigan Avenue in Chicago–generally regarded around the world as the first May Day parade.

Initially, between 2,500 and 3,000 people showed up at the hastily planned meeting; attendance was deemed so small that it was held on a side street (Desplaines). The crowd had gathered in front of Crane’s Alley, around a parked old delivery wagon that served as the speakers’ platform. The first to speak was anarchist leader August Spies, editor of the socialist-worker Arbeiter-Zeitung, the largest German-language daily newspaper in the city; Spies had witnessed the McCormick police riot the day before. The second to mount the platform was Albert Parsons, anarchist and revolutionary labor leader; he retired to a nearby union hall immediately after addressing the crowd, which dwindled rapidly when a cold, windy rain began to fall. Mayor Carter Harrison, also present, left about this time, too, and advised police at the nearby Desplaines Street Station that everything was in order and that trouble was unlikely.

Just as final speaker Samuel Fielden, a labor leader and former Methodist preacher, was about to finish his speech, at 10:30 p.m., a police formation arrived from the station. Captain John Bonfield, long considered an enemy of working people and labor agitators, commanded the milling crowd to disband “immediately and peaceably.” Suddenly, without warning, there was an ear-shattering explosion. Someone had thrown a dynamite bomb, probably from near the alley, into the middle of the police ranks. One policeman was killed instantly by the blast, and six others were mortally wounded. It was the first time such a bomb had ever been used in the United States.

Maddening confusion followed. The police immediately began firing wildly into the crowd and clubbing everyone in sight. At least four bystanders were killed by the police–the exact number is uncertain–and about two hundred people were injured; Fielden was shot in the knee shortly after leaving the speakers’ wagon. Sixty policemen were wounded in the melee. Most of the police casualties were not inflicted by the bomb but by bullets fired by their panicked fellow officers.

Background to the Riot

What social forces sparked the explosion of the Haymarket bomb? In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the world, the country’s foremost center of industrial capitalism. Wealthy businessmen viewed recent waves of Irish, German, and eastern European immigrants as cheap and easily exploited labor–which set the stage for ethnic, racial, and labor conflicts. The seeds of labor’s “Great Upheaval” of the 1880’s were planted in the great nationwide railroad strikes and riots of 1877, when unprecedented class violence left thirty workmen dead and over two hundred wounded. The strike’s defeat taught workers that they needed more political and militant action in order to fight for their rights. Chicago labor historian Richard Schneirov has written,

In this labor upsurge, working men and women from every trade, of every skill-level, and of all nationalities and races streamed into labor organizations by the tens of thousands, expressed insistent demands for shorter hours, higher wages and a permanent voice in determining their working conditions, and adopted new methods of labor solidarity to win these demands.

The business elite of Chicago felt understandably threatened, and a state bill was passed outlawing the right of workers to bear arms.

Who threw the dynamite bomb that set the struggle for an eight-hour day back a few decades and provoked a reign of terror over Chicago, then the national center of the often-overlapping radical labor, trade union, and anarchist movements? To this day, it has never been determined with any certainty, though a number of theories have been advanced by labor historians and Haymarket scholars. The Chicago police and city hall blamed the bomb throwing on anarchists or socialists; some union activists claimed it was the work of a police or businessman agent provocateur who meant to bomb the workers in an effort to discredit the eight-hour movement. One theory, favored by the prosecution during the eventual trial, was that the bomb had been produced by Chicago anarchist leader Louis Lingg, one of the eight “Haymarket Martyrs” later convicted (this, however, has never been proven), and that it was thrown by Rudolph Schnaubelt, brother-in-law of Michael Schwab, another Haymarket Martyr. Schnaubelt, however, was twice arrested and twice released. In recent years, another strong possibility has emerged: minor German anarchist figure George Meng, acting on his own rather than as part of a conspiracy.

In any event, a wave of hysteria swept over Chicago in the weeks following the Haymarket Riot; freedom of speech and assembly were effectively suppressed. “Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards,” State’s Attorney Julius S. Grinnell instructed law officials. Police raided working-class neighborhoods, rounding up hundreds of known anarchists, socialists, and ethnic and labor leaders. The press, pulpit, business leaders, and eventually the public condemned labor unionism as an enemy of “law and order,” a harbinger of violent anarchist revolt. Meeting halls, printing offices, and even private homes were invaded and ransacked (newspaper subscription lists were used for further arrests). Police beat and tortured conspiracy suspects while in jail.

Legal Aftermath

In all, thirty-one men were indicted for the crime of being accessories to the murder of policeman Mathias Degan, and for the general conspiracy to commit murder; the figure was finally reduced to eleven. Two agreed to turn state’s witnesses, and one (Schnaubelt) left the country and was never found. The Haymarket Eight who actually stood trial included Spies, Parsons, Fielden, Schwab, Lingg, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, and Oscar Neebe. Only two–Spies and Fielden–were present at the meeting when the bomb was thrown. Parsons fled town for six weeks, but then freely turned himself in to face charges.

The trial, which lasted from June 21 to August 20, 1886, in the Cook County Courthouse, has been called a travesty and one of the most unjust in American history. It soon became clear that what took place in Judge Joseph E. Gary’s courtroom was more than just a trial of eight men; a political philosophy was on trial. The handpicked (not randomly chosen) jury was inundated with anarchist writings and documents. The fact that the trial was about ideas, not deeds, was explicitly stated by Chief Prosecutor Grinnell in his summation to the jury: “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they are the leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them . . . convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.”

Ideologically, Chicago anarchists believed in worker control over key industries; they saw government, business, and the police working in violation of constitutional principles. While state socialism, according to Parsons, called for government control of everything and sought to emancipate wage laborers by means of law, anarchists would have neither rulers or lawmakers; they sought the abolition of wage slavery “by the abrogation of law, by the abolition of all government.” The Haymarket Eight did believe in the right of oppressed workers to defend themselves against police attack by means of bombs and “revolutionary violence”; but prominent newspapers and businessmen first talked of the idea of using terror tactics and dynamite against striking workers.

The weak case–charging eight men with murder, yet admitting that none had actually thrown the bomb–made it necessary for the prosecution to play up the fact that at least one of the men had some connection to bombs. They singled out Lingg because he was the only defendant known to have manufactured bombs and had already been dubbed “the Bomb-Maker.”

The Verdict

As expected, the jury found all eight men guilty. Seven were sentenced to die by hanging. Neebe was given a fifteen-year prison term. Just before noon on Friday, November 11, 1887, despite an outpouring of worldwide protest and after all appeals had been exhausted, Spies, Engel, Fischer, and Parsons were executed in a courtyard between the Cook County Court House and the adjacent Cook County Jail. With nooses around their necks, Fischer cried out, “Hurrah for Anarchy! This is the happiest day of my life.” Spies stated, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Lingg had committed suicide in his cell the day before by exploding a smuggled dynamite cap in his mouth, though some maintain he was murdered by the police. Schwab and Fielden had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

On June 26, 1893, a day after the Haymarket Martyrs Monument was dedicated in west suburban Waldheim (now Forest Home) Cemetery, where seven of the eight men are buried, prolabor Illinois governor John P. Altgeld granted amnesty to the three survivors, Neebe, Schwab, and Fielden. Altgeld attacked Judge Gary’s ruling, as well as the police action; his pardon message noted that the men had not been proven guilty because the state “has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it.” Characterized by the press as an alien, un-American anarchist, Altgeld sacrificed his promising political career by pardoning the three men and was not reelected in 1896.

Physical Remains of Haymarket Square

Except for the dilapidated base of the Haymarket Riot Monument, or Police Statue, dedicated in 1889 to the seven policemen killed in the riot and now located at the northeast corner of Randolph Street and the Kennedy Expressway (U.S. 90 and 94), little remains of the area once known as Haymarket Square or the nearby Desplaines Street riot site. Much of the area has either been burned down, razed for urban renewal, or sliced up by the highway. The Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS), however, is endeavoring to build a “Labor Park” in the area, which would include a monument to the Haymarket Martyrs.

The original Haymarket Square was not really a public square at all, but actually the section of Randolph Street between Desplaines and Halsted Streets (about two blocks). Once the biggest and busiest of five farmers’ market areas in the city, the Haymarket was a hubbub of horse buggies, carts, and streetcars; truck farmers came from all over the countryside to sell food to the poor at dirt-cheap prices. Its proximity to north- and west-side working-class neighborhoods also made it a favorite gathering place for public meetings and workers’ rallies; it could accommodate twenty thousand people.

The Haymarket Protest Meeting speaker’s wagon was parked just a few feet north of Crane’s Alley, on the east side of Desplaines, roughly halfway between Lake and Randolph. The alley lay just south of the Crane Plumbing Company factory complex, one of the largest in Chicago in 1886; the buildings have since either been burned or torn down. It has been theorized–with no certainty–that the bomb was thrown from the sidewalk on Desplaines, ten or fifteen feet south of Crane’s Alley. The alley no longer exists, but there is a one-lane pathway between two parking lots in the same general area now. The bomb landed across the street, just north of the northwest corner of Randolph and Desplaines. The site is now home to one of the many parking lots in the area.

The Police Statue

The Chicago Tribune and the so-called Committee of Twenty-Five businessmen headed by factory owner R. T. Crane eventually raised over ten thousand dollars to erect a police statue. The winning design was submitted in 1888 by Charles F. Batcheider, a St. Paul, Minnesota, newspaper reporter who had once worked in Chicago. His design showed a sketch of a policeman with his arm raised, commanding peace. Recent Danish immigrant John Gelert was selected as the sculptor. He used as his model “robust patrolman” Thomas Birmingham. The committee, however, was horrified by the clay model; the figure looked too Irish. They wanted the policeman to look Protestant and Anglo-Saxon. According to historian William J. Adelman, “Gelert refused to change the figure, but he also used other models, since Birmingham was often drunk and unable to pose.”

The statue, a life-size bronze figure dressed in characteristic nineteenth century police garb, was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1889, with about two thousand people present; 176 policemen took part in the ceremony, the same number that had formed the column three years earlier. The statue was unveiled by the seventeen-year-old son of Mathias Degan (the policeman instantly killed by the bomb blast), and Mayor DeWitt Cregier said, “May it stand here unblemished so long as the metropolis shall endure.” A plaque listed the names of the seven dead policemen.

In 1900, the statue was defaced and began to be seen as a traffic hazard; streetcars had to swerve around it. So it was moved about a mile west, to Randolph and Ogden Streets in Union Park. In May, 1903, the crest of the city and state were stolen from the base. On May 4, 1927, the forty-first anniversary of the Haymarket tragedy, a streetcar jumped the tracks and smashed into the monument, knocking the statue off its base. In 1928, the statue was repaired and moved farther into Union Park, ending up on Jackson Boulevard. In 1957, the statue was moved to a special platform built for it during the construction of the Kennedy Expressway. The move was sponsored by the Haymarket Businessmen’s Association, who hoped it would promote tourism in the area.

Modern Reevaluations of the Riot

During the social and political upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the monument became a symbol for police oppression and a frequent target for a newer wave of radical protesters. As William J. Adelman has noted, “With the coming of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Marches of the 1960’s, police brutality during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, the ‘Chicago Eight Conspiracy Trial’ and Watergate, many people began to look again at the ‘Haymarket Affair’ and what it should have taught us.”

On October 6, 1969, some members of the Youth International Party’s Weathermen faction placed several sticks of dynamite between the bronze policeman’s legs, toppling most of the statue and sending chunks onto the Kennedy Expressway; the blast also blew out a number of windows in nearby buildings. Mayor Richard J. Daley promised to replace it, and a WGN radio announcer helped raise the money–$5,500 from private individuals, police associations, and the city. Sculptor Mario Stampinato was hired to restore Gelert’s statue, which was unveiled May 4, 1970.

On October 6, 1970, exactly one year after the first bombing, the police statue was bombed again; once again, Stampinato restored it. The statue was replaced for the second time in January, 1971. Mayor Daley ordered around-the-clock police security that cost the city $67,440 a year. In February, 1972, after the ILHS wrote a letter to the mayor suggesting that the statue be moved to “a more fitting and secure location,” the statue was quietly removed from its base and placed in the lobby of the Central Police Headquarters at 11th and State Streets. In October, 1976, the statue was finally installed in the courtyard of the newly built Chicago Police Training Center, 1300 West Jackson Boulevard. No longer visible to the public, the statue can be viewed only by special arrangement. The plaque containing the names of the seven policemen killed in the Haymarket Riot had been left behind at the base; it was “liberated” in 1985 and is now reportedly enshrined at a community center in Nicaragua.

The ten-foot-high, stepped-stone pedestal still remains at the corner of Randolph and the Kennedy Expressway. The base is nearly forgotten, filth-ridden, and graffiti-scrawled, like some oddly leftover urban relic that never met the wrecking ball. Yet the original inscriptions are plainly visible. On the front, facing Randolph, it says, “In the name of the people of Illinois I command peace,” the words supposedly spoken by Captain Bonfield as he urged the crowd to disperse. On the back, it says, “Dedicated by Chicago May 4th, 1889, to her Defenders in the riot of May 4th, 1886.”

Ongoing Preservation Efforts

Since 1970, the ILHS–a private nonprofit group formed to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials in Illinois–has campaigned to commemorate the site of the Haymarket Riot. On May 3, 1970, through the ILHS’s efforts, a State Historical Landmark marker was placed on the corner of the Catholic Charities Building (southwest corner of Randolph and Desplaines) because the city of Chicago would not approve a spot on its property. The plaque was pulled off some months later, presumably by persons on the conservative right. The missing plaque’s bolt holes are still visible on the Catholic Charities Building. That same year, the ILHS first recommended official city designation for the Haymarket area by presenting a petition to the Chicago Landmarks Commission, which must approve a site before the Chicago City Council votes on it. A report was written but nothing happened for many years. ILHS members made renewed bids for city designation throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In November, 1985, as the Haymarket Centennial approached, plans were launched for a Labor Park in the former Haymarket Square area. The ILHS and the Haymarket Centennial Committee began a petition drive, requesting that the city purchase the parking lot at the northwest corner of Randolph and Desplaines, where the bomb supposedly landed. The park would include a monument dedicated to the Haymarket Martyrs, as well as to workers’ struggle for an eight-hour day, the freedom of speech and assembly, the rights of ethnic minority groups, and the right of workers to have free democratic trade unions. It appears, however, that city funds for a park and a monument will not be forthcoming, and that the effort must be funded privately.

On March 25, 1992, the city of Chicago officially conferred landmark status on the site of the Haymarket Riot of 1886. The city council’s Historical Landmark Committee approved the designation, assigning that status to the area of Desplaines Street between Lake and Randolph.

For Further Information
  • Adelman, William J. Haymarket Revisited. Rev. ed. Chicago: Illinois Labor History Society, 1986. An excellent introductory and illustrated tour guidebook of labor history sites and ethnic neighborhoods connected with the Haymarket affair, by an ILHS cofounder. The cover and maps were designed by O. W. Neebe, grandson of one of the Haymarket Eight. Adelman has been accused of coopting the anarchist legacy through his left-labor slant.
  • Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A thorough account of the tragedy by one of the major historians of the international anarchist movement.
  • Foner, Philip S., ed. The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs. New York: Humanities Press, 1969. A collection of autobiographical sketches of the Haymarket Eight (which originally appeared in the labor journal Knights of Labor between October 16, 1886, and October 8, 1887), along with comments by their attorney, W. P. Black. Includes a concise introduction by Foner.
  • Powers, Joe, and Mark Rogouin, eds. The Day Will Come: Stories of the Haymarket Martyrs and the Men and Women Buried Alongside the Monument. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1994. A description of the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886 and a history of the labor movement in nineteenth century Chicago.
  • Roediger, Dave, and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1986. A profusely illustrated anthology by many of today’s labor historians, focusing on the Haymarket affair, as well as its enduring influence in the United States and the world.
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