Illinois During the Gilded Age

Haymarket and Hull House: 1884-1891

by Drew E. VandeCreek

The Knights of Labor reached their highest popularity and influence in Illinois in 1884, with 52,000 members in 300 locals, over 200 in Chicago. The Knights boasted over 600,000 members nationwide, and flexed their muscle in a successful strike against Jay Gould's Wabash Railroad in 1885. But the next year the financier effectively broke the Knights by squashing their strike against the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Internal dissension between inclusive industrial unionists and craft unionists, and between social reformers and those interested in higher pay alone, had effectively weakened the Knights and hastened their demise.

In the Knights' place, the American Federation of Labor's more traditional craft unionism, which organized skilled tradesmen while largely ignoring industrial workers, re-emerged. The federal government also began to pay increased attention to the railroads, which had so aroused the ire of both the Knights of Labor and the Grangers. In 1887 the Illinois Senator Shelby Cullom led the drafting of the Interstate Commerce Act, which formed an Interstate Commerce Commission devoted to regulating the railroads and other forms of interstate transportation.

In 1885 a heavy rainfall caused disastrous flooding in Chicago and led the city fathers to develop the Chicago Sanitary District. The new organization retained engineers, who reversed the flow of Chicago River and sent the city's wastewater and runoff into the Illinois River via a new canal. The waterway proved to be the largest excavation in the world between the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914.

The Haymarket Riot

Residents of central and southern Illinois increasingly found themselves linked to Chicago through a web of economic relationships facilitated by railroads. But where farmers had once complained that railroads often overcharged them for cartage, or that Chicago grain merchants cheated them, they now enjoyed access to the city's retail merchants. Mail-order houses shipped circulars, and later catalogs, to rural dwellers, providing them with an opportunity to partake of a new variety of goods. Montgomery Ward's openly appealed to Grangers' distaste for middlemen by touting its ability to bypass small town merchants and offer lower prices. Increasingly Ward's, as well as Sears, Roebuck and Company, made Chicago the center for clothing and furnishing the western frontier.

Violent confrontations between organized workers and their employers, often supported by police and soldiers, continued to characterize the era. In 1885 Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby sent the state militia to break up a quarry workers' strike in Lemont, and in the following year militiamen killed four striking railroad switchmen in East St. Louis.

These events only added to a growing, more complex labor movement's sense of rage. In the days since the Socialist Labor Party's electoral defeats in Chicago, a new generation of anarchists had joined the socialists in the rapidly expanding city. Anarchists called for the destruction of all government, relying upon individuals' free association to govern society. Many anarchists and other radicals pointed out that governments usually came to the defense of employers, as in the case of the Great Strike of 1877. Chicago police regularly broke up peaceful anarchist rallies and meetings in Chicago in 1884 and 1885. Some of the new labor radicals openly admitted their fascination with violence and its potential to damage or even overthrow existing order of industry and its government allies.

In the spring of 1886 labor organizers nationwide called for a one-day general strike in support of their effort to establish an eight-hour workday. The May 1 strike proved to be a success in Chicago and other cities, and set businessmen and an increasingly conservative middle class on edge. Chicago newspapers widely predicted that the wave of labor disturbances would produce violence, and on May 3rd a fracas broke out between striking workers and replacement workers who had taken their jobs at the McCormick reaper works on the city's west side. Police soon arrived and killed two strikers. Incensed anarchists and other labor radicals organized a protest meeting the next day at the nearby Haymarket. Police also broke up this meeting, which had drawn a disappointing turnout. But as the police moved in, an unknown person lobbed a dynamite bomb into their midst, killing an officer. The police opened fire upon the crowd, and a full riot ensued. Four more police officers were killed, and sixty injured. At least four civilians lost their lives, and no accurate count of those injured could be made.

Chicago police and prosecutors immediately began to round up known radicals, including a band of anarchists. They quickly charged nine men with the murder of a police officer. In a highly publicized trial all nine were found guilty. The Illinois and United States Supreme Courts rejected appeals, and four of the men were hanged in November of 1887.

The Haymarket riot and trials aroused an unprecedented public furor in Chicago and the nation. In the 1880s Chicago remained a city, like many others in America, made up largely of recent immigrants, who often struggled to take up, or rejected, the customs and attitudes of native born Americans. Many wealthy businessmen, as well as middle class clerks and salesmen, worried that the new immigrants were exercising undue influence, despite their poverty. In part this mania arose from the activities of the growing, nationally circulated journals that brought news to a large middle class every week. These publications voiced more the prosperous classes' heightened anxiety over the nation's increasing labor violence, and often demanded swift and sure justice, regardless of matters of law.

Hull HouseBut while many wealthy and middle-class Americans feared and attacked immigrants and workers, others turned to learn about their customs and assist them in their new lives. In 1889 Jane Addams, the daughter of a wealthy banker from northern Illinois, founded Hull House on the city's west side. Established as a settlement house after the example of English reformers who took up residence in London's slums, the dilapidated mansion soon featured public baths, a kindergarten and nursury, a playground and gymnasium, an employment bureau, and educational programs for neighborhood residents.

Rather than openly attempt to change the lives and attitudes of poor immigrants, as so many devotees of social uplift had done, Addams proposed to provide them with an opportunity to organize and help themselves. In an eloquent argument for Hull House's relevance, Addams emphasized not only the settlement house's impact upon the poor, but upon its well-to-do organizers as well. Citing the "snare of preparation" that led so many women of America's middle and upper classes to forever prepare, and never actually do anything, Addams urged women to become active in civic life.

Hull House's notable residents came to include, at different times and in addition to Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Dr. Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, and Ellen Gates Starr. These women supported neighborhood residents in the formation of important reform societies, including the Immigrants' Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, and the nation's first juvenile court. Hull House also facilitated the State of Illinois' investigations of social ills, including truancy, infant mortality and sanitation. In a city and period often marked by bitter conflict among the classes, Hull House provided social reformers with reason for optimism.