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The Haymarket Affair (1886)

What was the Haymarket Riot?

The Haymarket Riot was a labor protest rally that took place in Chicago's Haymarket Square. This protest, on May 4, 1886, turned into a riot after a bomb was thrown at the police by an unknown assailant. Seven policemen were killed and sixty were injured. Civillian casualties were likely as high. Despite the lack of evidence, eight radical labor activists were charged in connection with the bombing. They became known as "The Haymarket Eight." All of these men opposed Chicago's elite business men, but they all had different views on how to best handle the situation. Some advocated for a change through violence, while others believed progress would come through social engineering. Despite their varying beliefs, the event marked the anarchist movement as violent and dangerous. To many Americans, these men represented an anarchist movement that was a threat to the government. However, to many of those involved in the labor movement, these men were revered as martyrs.

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Flyer used to Advertise the Meeting

Before the Riot

Strikes, such as the one occurring in Chicago, were not uncommon for the time. Confrontations between labor agitators and law enforcement had been occurring for nearly the past ten years. Since then, there has been an escalation in strikes, political demonstrations and armed confrontations. The hazardous and unfavorable working conditions, along with low wages had sparked the American Labor Movement. With this movement, strikes by Industrial workers became all the more common. The group contained a small faction of socialists, communists, and anarchists who believed the capitalist system exploited workers and had to be ended.

On May 3, August Spies spoke at a rally for the striking Lumber Shovers' Union. During this meeting, a portion of the crowd broke off to join the McCormick strikers, who had been locked out since February. Spies advised them to restrain themselves, but they soon began heckling the replacement workers, and a fight broke out killing two workers. Later that night, a dozen of the most militant anarchists met. The events from that afternoon prompted them to organize an outdoor public protest meeting for the next evening. The location of this meeting was selected to be the nearby Haymarket, with August Spies as one of the speakers.

May 4, 1886

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"A Peaceable Meeting"

The rally that evening was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. but did not begin until over an hour later. Spies arrived at eight o'clock to discover that none of the other scheduled speakers had shown up. The crowd of two or three thousand, which was smaller that expected, had already begun to disperse. Hoping to salvage the rally, Spies recruited someone to find other men willing to adress the crowd, and turned a nearby wagon into a makeshift podium and began his speech. After receiving Spies' message, Samuel Fielden and Albert Parsons joined Spies at Haymarket Square and each man adressed the crowd.

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The eight police officers who died as a result that evening were referred to as the "Haymarkeyt Martyrs"

At about half past ten, the crowds had dwindled to only a few hundred spectators. Fielden had just begun his speech when Inspector John Bonfield assembled a special force of 175 officers and marched them through the dwindling crowd to the speakers' platform. The second-in-command, Captain William Ward ordered the crowd to disperse "immediately and peaceably." After trying to argue that this was a peaceable meeting, Captain William Ward repeated his demand for the crowd to disperse. This is where the reports of what occurred begin to differ. Fielden claimed that he complied with the demands and was beginning to leave. However, several witnesses do recall seing a "hissing fiend," or round object with a fiery fuse, as it soared just above their heads. The bomb landed in the ranks of the police standing near the wagon. Witnesses claimed that the bomb was succeeded (some claiming preceded) by gunfire from the crowd, with the police retaliating. Evidence suggests that the police, terrified of the bomb, initiated the gunfire, firing in every direction, even into their own ranks. While several people were injured by the bomb, the majority of the injuries came from the gunfire. In all, seven policemen and at least four civilians (there is no formal record of civilian deaths) were killed in the incident. The death of a policeman two years later was attributed to this riot.

The police arrest the anarchists
The police arrest the anarchists

The Aftermath

The arrests began the very next morning, May 5th. In short order August Spies, Michael Schwab, and Adolph Fischer were in custody, subject to abusive interrogation, with George Engel, Samuel Fielden, and Oscar Neebe, among many others soon to follow. Albert Parsons had fled the state that evening after the bomb exploded. The police reported the discovery of anarchist weapons and explosives around the city. On May 17, a grand jury was empanelled, and ten days later the men were presented a sixty-nine count indictment for the murder of Officer Matthias J. Degan. There is no clear reason why this was the only officer's death they were charged with since several other officers died that night too. However, this is likely due to the fact that his death was the only death clearly attributed to the bomb, and not the ensuing gunfire.

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"Justice Hurling a Bomb"
The Trial began June 21st. That day, Albert Parsons surrendered himself, agreeing to stand trial with the rest of the men. It would have been difficult to have found a jury who had not already developed their own opinions based on the press coverage the incident had received. However, the bailiff tasked with filling the jury positions purposefully stacked them with men he knew would be biased against the defendants. Any laborers or people who showed even a mild interest in socialism were dismissed, leaving a jury of middle-class native born salesmen, small business owners, and clerks. The opening arguments began July 15, making a series of accusations about the men conferring in German about the bomb, and also claiming that the accused had caused the bomb to be thrown, whether or not they actually threw it themselves. Seven of the men were given the death sentence, with the eighth receiving a fifteen year prison sentence. On November 11, 1887, four of the men were hanged. Of the remaining three men sentenced to be hanged, one committed suicide, and the two others sentences were reduced to life in prison. In 1893, the three activists sill living were pardoned, due to widespread questioning of the case and lack of evidence.

The Eight Anarachists