Death In The Haymarket

Published July 29, 2021
Death In The Haymarket

Labor Struggles in Chicago’s Gilded Age

On this date, May 4, 1886, a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned deadly when a bomb exploded, starting a riot that led to the deaths of workers and police officers. It became known as one of the most famous labor incidents in American history and eventually led to the conviction of eight “conspirators” from the labor movement. But Haymarket was certainly not the only violent labor event during Chicago’s Gaslight masa.

A period illustration of the events at Haymarket Square

Unfortunately, for most of the workers of the Gaslight Era in Chicago, mere words were unable to change the conditions under which they labored. Long hours and meager pay plagued the majority of the jobs that could be obtained by the lower classes and while the employers never failed to believe that their workers should be thankful for whatever job they could get – and for whatever pay they were offered – it was a sentiment that was not shared by those who actually did the work. By the 1870s, the workers were beginning to stand up for what they believed in and fight for their rights to safe working conditions, fair pay and decent hours. But those rights would not come easily, leading to bloodshed, violence and death across Chicago.

One of the first employers to suffer from labor disputes was Cyrus Hall McCormick, who developed a mechanical reaper that changed the farm industry in America forever. The efficiency of the reaper on the flat farmlands of the Midwest made it possible to grow more, plant more and harvest more than most farmers had ever dreamed of. The new invention made McCormick a millionaire many times over. 

McCormick was a stout man of great temper and perhaps an even greater persistence to succeed. He believed that he truly deserved all of the success that God had given him. He fought his many competitors with constant lawsuits, widespread advertising, and yearly field days when his reapers would be pitted against other models. He offered easy credit, good service and a product that was far superior to anything else on the market. Throughout the 1870s, he sold more than 10,000 reapers and binders a year.

McCormick’s wealth came from his assembly procedures, his sales methods that put thousands of reapers into fields where wheat would have rotted before, and his constant improvements on the machines did make him a pioneer in the industry.

Even though he was generous to a number of charities and causes in Chicago, including the Presbyterian Theological Seminary (later named in McCormick's gaji), he was mostly known for being tight-fisted with a dollar. His tight handling of a dollar did not endear McCormick to his employees. He worked them hard, including his own brother, and for low wages. Like all of the other Chicago titans during the Gilded Age, he was puzzled when the employees were not grateful for what they were given and was enraged when they dared to ask, and organize, for more. By the 1870s, all of the major employers in the region, including McCormick, saw constant unrest among their workers over job conditions, wages and shorter workdays. There was no question that conditions in many plants were poor and men worked ten to twelve hours, six days a week, for very little pay. Strikes and protests soon became commonplace.

Members of the Knights of Labor during the early 1880s 
During the tense summer of 1877, when there were riots in the city that were part of a nationwide strike effort by railroad workers protesting wage cuts, Marshall Field volunteered the use of his delivery wagons to transport policemen from one masalah area to another. Three men were killed and eight wounded during a demonstration at a Burlington Railroad roundhouse and the next day, ten more strike sympathizers were killed at the Halsted Street viaduct. Federal troops who came directly from fighting Indians out west were sent in to restore order. The following year, Field, McCormick and others secretly subscribed to a fund that would furnish Gatling guns and uniforms for the Illinois National Guard. This was done, according to McCormick's assistant, to prepare for "what danger if any was to be anticipated from the communistic element in the city."

Strikes and protests continued but the Haymarket Square Riot in 1886 would change the face of the labor movement forever.

A poster advertising the gathering of workingmen at Haymarket Square

The events that culminated in blood at Haymarket Square had been brewing since the start of Chicago’s Gilded Age. The years after the Civil War saw a rise in the power of the labor unions. Many prominent capitalists had preached the moral correctness of the war --- often more interested in the profits that could be made from it than because of any just cause --- but they failed to predict what would happen afterward. Many of the veterans who came home after the war had a different mindset than when they had left. As soldiers, they had worked together amid danger, death and destruction, fighting a war that became about ending slavery. To equate the over-demanding expectations of their employers (for next-to-nothing wages) with slavery was a simple one. Warring with the "slave-drivers" was seen as necessary but the trouble was that there were a lot of "soldiers," but no real army.

Without a union, laborers were at a great disadvantage when compared with their employers. Workers were able to come together, strike and raise hell but only for limited periods of time. Unions of the day, many of which were newly organized, were long on principles but short on any real sense of power, save for disruption of work. Once they began working through the political process, though, things began to change. They scored their first victory in March 1867 with the passage of a state eight-hour workday statute, but their sense of accomplishment was short-lived. The law was easily circumvented by employers who reduced pay, discharged employees or found loopholes to continue working their men for ten hours or more a day. Such manipulation of the law angered workers and unrest and violence occurred throughout the city. Many of the workers, and union leaders, were not content to let strikes and walkouts speak for them. Many of them endorsed a more violent form of action. That action reached its peak in Haymarket Square, where rural farmers came into Chicago to exchange produce for cash, in May 1886.

The Haymarket Square Riot began as a mass meeting of workers to protest police actions against strikers at the McCormick factory. Six workers demonstrating for an eight-hour workday had been killed by factory guards and tensions were running high. The rally at Haymarket Square involved about 2,500 workers who turned out in the rain to listen to speeches by local labor leaders Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden and August Spies. Despite the fact that all three men were considered "dangerous agitators" and "anarchists" by city business leaders, Mayor Carter Henry Harrison issued a parade permit for the gathering, believing there was no cause for concern.

However, police officials sent nearly seven hundred officers to the scene. Police Inspector John Bonfield led his superiors to believe that a citywide riot might take place. Mayor Harrison visited the scene and finding it peaceful, ordered all reserve officers to be sent home. Bonfield refused and two hours later, ordered his men to disperse the crowd.

As the policemen moved into formation, a crudely made pipe bomb was thrown into the midst of a column of two hundred police officers. The bomb exploded and one officer was killed and six others were mortally wounded. In retaliation, the policemen opened fire on the crowd and then began shooting at the fleeing protestors. They continued to fire for more than five minutes.

Mayor Harrison pleaded for calm in the wake of the attack, but there was little interest in listening to him. Police officials were determined to not only find the man who threw the bomb, but also to track down those who caused it to be thrown in the first place – namely, the leaders of the labor union who organized the event. The policemen of Chicago began a reign of terror among the city's working class citizens. All rights were suspended and hundreds of suspects were arrested, beaten and interrogated at all hours of the night. False confessions were violently extracted from those who were thought to be "anarchists" or sympathizers of the labor unions. Whoever the bomb thrower actually was, he faded away into history.

A Leslie’s Illustrated drawing of the police officers killed during the riot

Eventually, though, eight so-called “conspirators” were brought to trial and it was widely believed that the defendants had the deck stacked against them. Rumor had it that the jurors in the trial had been given $100,000 by Chicago business leaders and that prior to the verdict being read, Marshall Field was already lobbying that the men be hanged. He also reportedly went to City Hall and demanded that the mayor repress free speech in the city, in the interest of public safety. The mayor refused, even after Field informed him that he "represented great interests in Chicago."

In the end, seven of the defendants received a death sentence. The eighth was given a sentence of fifteen years in prison. All of them were tried and sentenced on conspiracy charges to incite violence that led to the deaths of the police officers. On November 11, 1887, August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged at the Criminal Courts Building on Hubbard Street. Another of the conspirators died in an explosion and the death sentences of the others were commuted to prison terms.

For many years, the police officers who died at Haymarket Square were seen as martyrs, but slowly, thanks to the rising power of the labor unions, that perception changed. Even after all of these years, debate still rages about the cause and effect of the riot at Haymarket Square, but it cannot be denied that it was one of the many bloody events that solidly shaped the city. 


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