Late one night in May 1886, a stunning spasm of violence left seven policemen dying on a street corner and sparked America’s first brutal “red scare” panic and crackdown against free speech and dissent. The street corner was called Haymarket Square. The city was Chicago.
This spring of 2011, as we mark the 150th anniversary of Fort Sumter and the start of the American Civil War, let’s not forget the other important anniversary this month: the 125th marking of Chicago’s Haymarket riot, an episode with shadows almost as long.
The rise of giant corporations in the US after the Civil War – railroads, textile mils, mines, ironworks, and the rest – had produced vast wealth for a lucky few, but had also produced a vast new class of industrial workers ripe with grievances – sweat shop conditions, low pay, no benefits, autocratic controls, and violent suppression of any complaints. As a result, labor agitation by the 1870s and 1880s reached a boiling point. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes had called out National Guard troops to crush a nationwide railroad strike, killing over 70 people in resulting clashes. During the 1880s, industrial workers focused their energies on an eight-hour workday, and on May 1, 1886, over 50,000 workers nationwide walked off their jobs. Two days later, at Chicago’s McCormick Reaper factory, police fired on unarmed strikers, killing six and wounding many more.
Local Chicago agitators, calling themselves Anarchists after the European model, decided to use this incident to drum up support. In posters, speeches, and through their newspaper The Alarm, they demanded revenge and urged workers to arms themselves with guns and dynamite. They also announced plans for a mass meeting to protest the killings.
Chicago officials knew the ring leaders very well: Albert Parsons, August Spies, and Samuel Fielden. These three agitators, leaders of Chicago’s local International Working People’s Association, had long been popular speakers at labor rallies, lakeside picnics, and meetings in saloon basements, spinning visions of class warfare and armed struggle, touting new-fangled theories by Marx and Engels. Often, their meetings attracted as many Pinkerton detectives and police spies as actual recruits.
The night came for their big protest at Haymarket Square, but rainy weather kept the crowd small. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison came to see for himself if trouble might break out, but by 10am all seemed calm and he decided to go home. Still, about an hour later, as the speeches were winding down, a squad of police led by Inspector John Bonfield moved into the narrow street with clubs drawn.
Samuel Fielden, the last speaker, was just finishing. standing on the back of a wooden wagon facing the crowd of about a hundred shivering men, when he saw the police, their blue uniforms and whiskered faces illuminated by torches and gas lamps. One officer interrupted Fielden and told him to break up the meeting. “We are peaceable,” Fielden said. He climbed down from the wagon and began to walk away. Most of the crowd followed him.
|Even Thomas Nast, whose cartoons helped destroy NYC’s Boss Tweed
in the 1870s, joined the mob against the Haymarket anarchists.
Then, in a flash, terror struck — a steak of fire, followed by an explosion. Someone had thrown a bomb that landed directly in the line of police. After the initial blast, gunfire erupted, coming from all directions. It lasted just a few minutes. When it was over, seven policemen lay dead or dying and fifty people wounded.
Riot! Anarchy! Murder! Panic swept the city, then the country. Newspapers and politicians immediately accused the Anarchists of cold-blooded murder and insurrection. In the days after the so-called “riot,” police claimed to discover small grounps of radicals all across the country, painting them as a secret menacing vanguard of revolutionaries plotting against America. Most were German and central European immigrants who spoke little or no English.
In Chicago itself, police arrested eight radical leaders including Parsons, Spies, and Fielden. No evidence tied any of these men to the actual Haymarket bomb. Five of the eight were not even at the Haymarket street corner when the bomb exploded. Still, a jury convicted them all of murder in a trial held six weeks after the riot – while tempers were still red hot. Pleas for clemency poured in from around the world, but four were hanged. A fifth killed himself in jail by swallowing a dynamite blasting cap the day before his scheduled execution. Over 150,000 sympathetic Chicagoans attended their joint funeral.
The “red scare” following Haymarket – the first of many in America – finally played itself out after a few years, but its stain had set. By 1893,, when Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld reviewed the trial transcript and felt compelled to pardon the final three prisoners, his action caused outrage and wrecked his political career.
Decades would pass before a modern organized labor movement would evolve. But a much darker shadow emerged in the aftermath of Haymarket, what historian Richard Hofstadter later would call the “paranoid style in American politics.” To Chicago businessmen and civic leaders in 1886, the Haymarket demonstrators were criminal radicals, the tip of an immense international conspiracy bent on overthrowing law and order – a European virus of “communism” brought to America by immigrants. By contrast, to the mass of industrial workers in 1886, the Haymarket Anarchists were heroes and victims, crushed by all-powerful capitalists who were hogging the nation’s wealth while manipulating police, courts, and voting booths.
|Portraits of the seven Chicago policemen killed in Haymarket Square, from Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1886.
It was one conspiracy versus another, with no middle ground.
So let’s not let this month pass without remembering the Haymarket martyrs on both sides: the seven policemen killed doing their jobs, and the radicals hanged and incarcerated for exercising free speech. All were heroes, and they speak to us through the ages as much as the heroes of Fort Sumter and the other Civil War.