The Haymarket Bomb in Historical Context

by Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University


"The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." -- August Spies last words before his hanging, November 11, 1887.

Aug. SpiesSpies' prophetic words are truer today than ever before. Since the 1930s, the Haymarket events, once known pejoratively as the "Haymarket Riot," have been viewed more benignly by historians, first as an "affair" and more recently as a "tragedy." Historians now routinely refer to the trial of the anarchists arrested for the Haymarket deaths as one of the greatest travesties of justice in the nation's history and as the nation's first "red scare." Three of the best recent studies of Haymarket -- an online document collection sponsored by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University and books by Paul Avrich and James Green—retell the story of Haymarket from a vantage point sympathetic to the anarchists -- though without endorsing their views on violence.1

At one time, a large statue of a policeman with a raised hand commanding law and order marked Haymarket's memory. But, since 2004 the Haymarket site has been commemorated by a set of neutral bronze figures atop and beside a wagon. The base of the monument is marked with words that reinterpret Haymarket as a symbol for progressive movements in favor of "free speech, the right of public assembly, organized labor, the fight for the eight-hour workday, law enforcement, justice, anarchy, and the right of human beings to pursue an equitable and prosperous life."2 Meanwhile, the statue of the policeman, having been bombed twice during 1969-70, stands out of public view inside Chicago police headquarters. That juxtaposition of symbols more than any words suggests that the silence of the four anarchists hanged on that dark November day in 1887 has become simply deafening.

Chicago: Storm Center of Class Conflict

The events surrounding Haymarket are impossible to make sense of without understanding that they were part of what late nineteenth-century observers called the "social" or "labor question." Chicago, more than any other city, embodied the conditions that made American labor into a burning social problem. It was the quintessential industrial city of the era, a nexus of Eastern capital attracted by proximity to markets and raw materials and a labor supply consisting largely of workers of immigrant background attracted by relatively high wages and cheap transportation. But, the city lacked the leavening of a pre-industrial class structure or the political glue provided by a centralized party machine that in Eastern cities buffered, moderated or diverted class hostility and conflict. To numerous outside observers Chicago seemed to be given over to vulgar moneymaking, ruthless competition, and parvenu manners. In the late nineteenth century nowhere else was the yawning gulf between social classes so evident as in Chicago where a largely Catholic and Lutheran -- or in many cases free thinking -- foreign-born working class faced off against a native-born capitalist class.

Harper's Weekly: Chicago Railroad Workers' Strike, 1877It was during the 1873-1878 depression that Chicago gained its deserved reputation for class conflict and working-class radicalism. In December 1873 thousands of foreign-born workers, many attracted to the city by its rebuilding following the 1871 Chicago Fire, marched under Socialist leadership demanding bread or work. Their target was the upper class-controlled Relief and Aid Society, which had hoarded fire relief funds. The event sent shivers of foreboding through the city's business and civic leaders, who recalled the Paris Commune, a revolutionary upheaval in 1871 that was crushed by the French government with great bloodshed.

Then, in July 1877 a national railroad strike precipitated a general strike in the city involving tens of thousands of workers of all occupations, nationalities, and religions. The ensuing violent confrontation with police led to approximately thirty deaths and two hundred wounded. Though the strike was largely spontaneous, the new Workingmen's Party, a socialist organization, had come closest to providing it with leadership. In the aftermath of the strike, socialism became part of the city's public discourse. Socialist George Schilling wrote that the 1877 strike "was the calcium light that illumined the skies of our social and industrial life . . . . Our influence as a (Socialist) party both in Chicago and elsewhere was very limited until the 'Great Railroad Strike of 1877. . . . . [The strike] secured us the public ear.'"3

Bordering on an insurrection, the great strike -- and the violence necessary to defeat it -- left employers and the middle classes feeling isolated, anxious, and fearful. Many viewed the city's workers as the "dangerous classes." Immediately after the strike leading citizens professionalized the state militia, built new armories, and restricted the private militias of the socialists in their public drilling. A new Citizens League started by Marshall Field, Cyrus McCormick and other elite businessmen, located the sources of dissent in workers' intemperance and the saloon culture.

But in a city in which the native-born, Protestant middle and upper classes were in the minority, such views had difficulty assembling a majority in the electoral system. In 1879 Chicago voters elected a Democratic mayor for the first time since before the Civil War. The new mayor, Carter Harrison I, won because a Socialist third party garnered 19 percent of the total vote, which included a substantial bloc of German voters, who defected from the Republican Party. Realizing that he needed to keep these voters from returning to the Republican camp, he assiduously courted them, including their labor base. He appointed Socialists to local patronage positions and signed into law ordinances enacting several planks in the Socialist platform, including a model factory and tenement house inspection act. When the labor movement revived, Harrison appointed police officers that would refrain from harassing Socialist picnics and parades and from intervening on the side of employers in strikes of politically favored unions. 4

Albert Parsons and the Rise of Anarchism

A.R. ParsonsMrs. Parsons

One of the leading Chicago Socialists was Albert Parsons (above). Born in Texas into a family descended from the Pilgrims, which had also served in the Revolutionary War, Parsons as a teenager ran away from home to fight for the Confederacy. But, after the war he threw his lot in with the freedman, championing their right to vote and participate in politics. In the course of his agitation, Parsons fell passionately in love with a young African-American woman, Lucy del Gather (above), who claimed Mexican and Indian descent. Hounded by racists, he and Lucy left Texas for Chicago in 1873.


In Chicago Parsons graduated from his Radical Republican politics to become an active Socialist. During the 1877 strikes he gave stirring speeches to crowds of thousands of workingmen on behalf of the local party. His oratorical talents brought him to the attention of the police, who conveyed him to City Hall where he was harangued and threatened with lynching by Board of Trade businessmen, police, and politicians. This did not deter him. Following the strike he aligned himself with the workers' militias, which had been established to defend labor meetings from police assault. "The Social Revolution began last July," said Parsons. "The issue is made, and sooner or later it must be settled one way or another."5

In the first two years following the great railroad strike, revolutionaries like Parsons were inhibited by Socialist electoral success. But, once Mayor Harrison won over many Socialist voters, and following an election in 1880 in which a Socialist alderman was deprived of his seat through fraud, they left the party in droves. The revolutionaries rejected electoral politics as a means of social transformation. Initially, they did not use the label "anarchist"; they simply viewed themselves as anti-political revolutionary socialists. But, by 1881, a European movement of revolutionary socialists, dissatisfied with Karl Marx's reliance on labor unions, took up the strategy of the "propaganda of the deed." With the discovery of dynamite, which could be used to make bombs, it seemed that the power relations between workers and capitalists and their backers in the state could be equalized at a single stroke without the need for patient organizing. Bomb throwing would terrorize state authorities and arouse the masses to participate in a revolutionary uprising. Because these revolutionaries believed that capital ruled mainly by the force deployed by government, they were confident that once the state had been abolished a "free society" of autonomous workers' associations would naturally emerge.

This movement spread to the United States when the brilliant orator Johann Most toured the country. Most terrified American society with his bloodthirsty comments about the rich, but he thrilled his working-class immigrant audiences. In 1885 he published a short handbook, Revolutionary War Science, with specific instructions for the use of bombs in urban guerilla warfare and insurrection.

Concentrated in Chicago, the American anarchist movement coalesced at the Pittsburgh Congress of 1883. There they founded the International Working People's Association (IWPA) or "Black International" on the ashes of the fading electoral-oriented socialist movement. Though all were united on the strategy of revolutionary direct action through the use of dynamite, the leadership of the Chicago anarchists was rooted in the trade unions. Anticipating the anarcho-syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), what became known as the "Chicago Idea" viewed unions as the nucleus of the future free society. Rather than limiting their objectives to piecemeal improvements, Chicago anarchists advocated that unions prepare for uncompromising revolutionary action. 6

By 1886, there were approximately 2800 anarchists in the city organized in twenty-six autonomous groups. But, their influence far outweighed their numbers. They supported seven daily newspapers with a combined circulation of 30,000 and held periodic picnics, parades, dances, and celebrations of revolutionary events such as the Paris Commune -- all of which gave them a substantial public presence. The anarchists also led one of three large labor federations.7

But, was Chicago on the verge of a revolution? Despite the faith of the anarchists that a working-class insurrection for a "free society" was inevitable and imminent, there is little evidence of a looming revolution in mid-1880s Chicago. Mayor Harrison's wooing of the socialists had divided the movement, with the anarchists representing only one of its wings. The city's labor movement was also divided into three labor federations, each with distinct politics. Moreover, by 1886 the older labor goal of ending the wage-labor system through producers' cooperatives (analogous to the anarchists' free society) had given way to raising the standard of living through shorter hours and higher wages -- Samuel Gompers "more." On the other hand, whatever the objective situation may have been, many leaders of the city's upper class were insecure in their status and social power and thought that a revolution threatened.

The Movement for the Eight Hour Day and the Origins of the Haymarket Affair

The revolutionary millennium seemed to be at hand when in 1885-1887 the great eight-hour day movement seized the imaginations of Chicago's workers. Expecting the eight-hour day to be inaugurated on May 1, 1886, tens of thousands of workers streamed into unions and mounted strikes for shorter hours, higher pay, and union recognition. Some were part of the anarchist-led Central Labor Union (CLU). Others joined unions affiliated with the Trades and Labor Assembly or the Knights of Labor. The Knights alone rose from less than two thousand members to twenty-seven thousand within a year. Another thirty thousand had joined unions affiliated with the Trades and Labor Assembly, while between ten and sixteen thousand were affiliated with the CLU. The large majority was united on boycotting and sympathy striking for union recognition and the eight-hour day.

A major factor in the new unity of Chicago workers was the reversal of the policy of police moderation introduced by Mayor Harrison. Facing the need to reduce wages in the wake of another depression, employers pressured Harrison to appoint the anti-labor John Bonfield as police inspector. He demonstrated his new policy in his brutal suppression of the 1885 streetcar workers strike. No longer able to count on police neutrality during strikes, organized skilled workers streamed into the Knights of Labor in order to benefit from the support of less skilled workers in their boycotts. But soon they, along with much of the rest of the city's working-class, were swept up in the eight-hour enthusiasm.8

Haymarket Revenge HandbillEven though the shorter workday seemed to be a "palliative" that might reconcile workers with "wage-slavery," most anarchists, led by Parsons and the German-born August Spies, threw themselves into organizing for the demand. But, there was an important difference from other eight-hour advocates. The anarchists demanded ten hours of pay for eight hours of work, rather than accepting eight hours of pay for eight hours of work (favored by organized, skilled workers). By making a demand unlikely to be accepted by employers, the anarchists thought they could generate the conflict necessary to impel workers toward revolution. In that vein, the anarchist-led CLU called for an armed general strike for the eight-hour day. The anarchists also intensified their revolutionary agitation holding weekly mass meetings at the lakefront during which they denounced the "beast of property," encouraged the use of dynamite bombs to repel the police, and spoke confidently of the coming revolution.

On May 1, with the city in a state of nervous anticipation, between 30,000 and 60,000 workers left their jobs. Throughout the nation between 200,000 and 340,000 workers struck. Already, employers had granted over 47,000 workers in the city a shorter workday. With Chicago awaiting the storm, 80,000 workers, led by Albert and Lucy Parsons and IWPA leaders marched up Michigan Avenue.9

One of the many strikes then in progress was that of the McCormick Reaper workers. When McCormick declared his intention of reopening his plant with non-union labor, Inspector Bonfield assembled a specially picked squad of 350 police to prevent crowds of strikers from intimidating scab (replacement) workers. On May 3, while Spies addressed workers nearby, Bonfield's police assaulted strikers and fatally wounded two of them. Spies rushed back to the office of the IWPA paper Arbeiter-Zeitung to draft a leaflet headed by the words "Revenge! Workingmen to Arms!!!" (left). Despite the fact that Spies deleted the word "revenge" in almost all of the 25,000 flyers distributed, it was clearly inflammatory. In the German text it called on workers to "avenge the atrocious murder that has been committed" and to "annihilate the beasts in human form who call themselves rulers!"10

That same night one of the anarchist autonomous groups assembled in Grief's Hall. The group, which rejected trade union methods and was dedicated to uncompromising insurrectionary action, read Spies' leaflet and called for a mass meeting the next evening, May 4, at Haymarket Square. Before calling for the meeting they also had endorsed a plan -- of which Spies, Parsons, and other leaders knew nothing -- to respond to a future police attack by bringing down telegraph lines, storming and bombing arsenals and police stations, and shooting policemen. This would be the insurrection Johann Most had laid out in his handbook. But, was the Haymarket meeting meant to be the trigger? The fact that the plan was approved before the call for the May 4 meeting suggests not.

The Bomb

The fatal meeting on the evening of May 4 attracted only 3,000 workers. Spies spoke first and while recounting the events at McCormick's, emphasized that the Haymarket meeting was one of peaceful protest. Albert Parsons, who spoke second, was accompanied by Lucy and their two children. Mayor Harrison also attended the meeting, conspicuous in trademark slouch hat, and told Bonfield that the meeting was "tame" and both agreed that police reserves could go home. Yet, not soon after, two police detectives reported to Bonfield that the language of the meeting was inflammatory. Though the meeting had dwindled to about 300 -- with rain approaching Parsons suggested the meeting should adjourn to a nearby popular meeting hall -- Bonfield had his remaining policemen form into ranks and march quick-time to the Haymarket. Captain Ward arrived at the head of the phalanx of approximately 180 men and issued a command to disperse. The third anarchist speaker, Samuel Fielden, replied, "But, we are peaceable." After Ward repeated his command, Fielden said, "Alright, we will go."

At that moment observers noticed a flash of light. A dynamite bomb had been thrown into the midst of the police and exploded. In a scene of "wild carnage" the panicked police pulled out their revolvers and fired into the crowd for nearly three minutes. The Haymarket was littered with bodies and the street pavement was turned red with blood. It is estimated that the police killed seven or eight civilians in the crowd and wounded between thirty and forty others. There was little mention and no troubling by the press over these civilian casualties.

One officer, Mathias Degan, lay fatally wounded by the bomb and sixty-six other policemen were injured. Eventually, six additional officers succumbed to their wounds. What police did not reveal to the public was that half of all the police wounded were wounded by police bullets as well as by bomb fragments; further, three of the police dead were killed by police bullets alone, while the other three had died from a combination of bullets and bomb fragments. A telephone pole removed from the scene, probably at the behest of the police, was filled with bullets all coming from the direction of the police.

Fear, panic, and a blind rage filled the respectable classes in the city, a culmination of the class feelings that had gripped the city since the 1870s.11 It was widely believed that an anarchist had thrown the bomb as part of a revolutionary conspiracy and that the Haymarket crowd had fired volleys of bullets into the police, who had returned fire in self-defense. The prevailing feeling was that of merciless revenge for this "hellish deed" and that the "niceties" of constitutional freedoms should be set aside. One respected attorney believed that the bomb constituted "a waiver of trial and a plea of guilty."12 The Chicago Knights of Labor newspaper opined that the anarchists and their sympathizers were "entitled to no more consideration than wild beasts."13 Society, it was believed, had the right to protect itself.

Granted carte blanche by public opinion, the police arrested hundreds of anarchists, socialists, and labor leaders and subjected them to threats and beatings to gain information and confessions. The police shut down the anarchist press and inaugurated an eight-week period of "police terrorism" -- in the words of the economist Richard T. Ely -- against labor meetings and striker picketing.14 Many employers used the nation's first "red scare" as a pretext to renege on their agreements with their employees to shorten hours. The great majority of strikes failed, though many others held on to win a shorter workday.15 Meanwhile, leading Chicago businessmen raised more than $100,000 for the police to combat anarchism and sedition.

On June 5, a grand jury indicted thirty-one anarchists. Eventually eight stood trial: August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab. They were the cream of the city's anarchist leadership. The bombing was seen to be an opportunity to remove these men -- thought to be dire threats to the social order -- from the public stage, and the city's establishment seized it.

From the Trial to the Hangings

The trial occurred in a city thirsting for revenge. In retrospect the verdict was a foregone conclusion even though the anarchists retained a respected attorney, Captain William P. Black, who presented an able defense, which in other circumstances would have secured an acquittal. Judge Joseph E. Gary ruled in favor of the prosecution at every opportunity, affording it the greatest latitude in presenting material that might bias the jury. Gary's prejudice was also evident in allowing the prosecution to fill the jury with men who had verbally admitted they could not render a fair verdict. The final jury consisted entirely of businessmen and white-collar clerks and salesmen (the equivalent of today's lower level business management); none were wage-workers.

Judge Joseph E. Gary States Attorney Julius Grinnell

States Attorney Julius S. Grinnell (above) attempted to prove through eyewitness testimony that Spies and Schwab had thrown the bomb. When that testimony was thoroughly refuted, Grinnell changed course. He argued that even though none of the defendants were present at the meeting at the time the bomb was thrown, the bomb had been thrown as a result of a conspiracy hatched at the Grief's Hall meeting on May 3rd,, which had been attended by Fischer, Engel, and Lingg. But Grinnell could not connect the conspiracy with the Haymarket meeting; nor could he show that any of the three knew a bomb would be hurled at the police. As Captain Black pointed out, without the identity of the bomb thrower being known, there was no way to prove a conspiracy.

At that point, Grinnell shifted to a third line of prosecution that had been suggested by Chicago Daily News editor Melville Stone. Simply by advocating revolutionary violence and making inflammatory statements the defendants were guilty of murder even without establishing that they knew of, or advocated, the throwing of the bomb at the Haymarket on May 4. The defense pointed out that for all anyone knew the bomb thrower might not have been an anarchist at all; it could have been a police agent or an individual seeking revenge against the police for some personal reason. But, Judge Gary ruled if the defendants had individually advised the commission of murder and if a murder similar to the kind they had advocated was committed, then they were guilty even if the person who committed the murder had not been identified. Under the influence of those instructions the jury after retiring at 2:50 p.m. on August 19, returned early the next morning with a verdict of guilty.

Almost immediately, public opinion began to shift against the palpable injustice committed. The tide turned first among organized workers. A Knights' local assembly passed a resolution that condemned Bonfield "for his uncalled for and un-American attack on a peaceable meeting in Haymarket Square." The local Knights of Labor newspaper under new editorship condemned the verdict as unjust. In New York, Samuel Gompers, president of the new American Federation of Labor, led a group of union leaders who declared that the convicted men were victims of "prejudice and class hatred."16

As the post-Haymarket courts issued a spate of injunctions against union boycotts, local labor leaders came to view the Haymarket verdict as part of a larger conspiracy against the labor movement. The Chicago Express, in a front-page editorial the day after the verdict, stated that "There is a vast army of laborers who are of the opinion that the bomb throwing was not the work of anarchists, but of some irresponsible party" to defeat the eight-hour movement. "This belief not only exists, but is rapidly spreading through all the ranks of labor."17 That belief was a major motivating force behind Chicago labor's establishment of the United Labor Party, which contested the November elections. Its initial meeting began with an extended standing ovation given to Hortensia Black, wife of the anarchists' attorney.

Even though the Illinois and US Supreme courts rejected appeals, a broadly-based Amnesty Association began to build public support for clemency by Illinois' Governor Richard J. Oglesby. It was led by Albert Parson's old friend, George Schilling, and assisted by Ethical Culture Society leader William Salter and famed reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd. America's leading man of letters, William Dean Howells, also joined the movement in eloquent public letters to the press. For their brave stance, Lloyd, Howells, and others were shunned by many of their peers in the circles of the well-to-do. But, eventually, 100,000 Americans signed a clemency petition. In 1887, the published autobiographies of the condemned men and a concise history of the trial appeared and acquainted the public with a different version of the case than had been available in the press.18

The convicted anarchists steadfastly maintained their innocence, and Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Lingg, and Engel refused to appeal to the governor for mercy. While they would have accepted a full pardon, they felt that their death as martyrs would do more good for the cause of anarchism than acceptance of clemency. There was considerable public sympathy for the American-born Parsons, but he refused to appeal to the governor. Instead, he wrote a bitter letter to Oglesby asking that his wife and children also be executed because they too were at the Haymarket meeting.

Recognizing that martyrdom would only make anarchy more appealing, a small but growing number of elite citizens lent their support to the clemency movement. When Governor Oglesby let it be known that he would commute the sentences of at least four defendants if the leading citizens of the city The Execution of the Anarchists requested it, banker Lyman J. Gage convened a meeting of the city's top businessmen. Gage said that the law had already been vindicated and that the condemned men were more dangerous as martyrs. He also argued that clemency would tend to dissipate the class hatred then dividing the city. At the crucial moment, Marshall Field rose and spoke in favor of hanging. He then introduced State's Attorney Grinnell, whose powerful speech turned the tide of the meeting against clemency.

On November 10, following appeals for mercy by Fielden and Schwab, Governor Oglesby commuted their sentences to life imprisonment. (Neebe had been sentenced by the court to fifteen years in prison) That same day Louis Lingg committed suicide by biting down on a blasting cap that had been smuggled into his cell.

On November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer cheerfully, apparently at peace with themselves, prepared to meet their death. The city was an armed camp as 300 policemen guarded the jail to fend off an expected anarchist attempt to free the prisoners; two regiments of militia camped near City Hall with gatling guns. Lucy Parsons and her two children tried to see their husband and father for the last time, but were arrested and jailed.

At midnight the men were hanged; it took between six and eight minutes for the men to die by slow strangulation. Parsons' last words were "Let the voice of the people be heard!" Fischer said, "This is the happiest moment of my life." Engels' voice rang out with "Hurrah for anarchy"; Spies' clearly spoke his last line: "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."19

The funeral the next day was attended by 20,000 people, the largest funeral ever seen in the city. The successor to Carter Harrison, Mayor John P. Roche, had decreed that no revolutionary songs were to be sung and no revolutionary speeches were to be delivered. Approximately 200,000 people lined the streets in downtown Chicago as the silent procession passed through on the way to the railroad station taking the four bodies to rest at Waldheim cemetery. The anarchists called it "Black Friday."


For the next two years Bonfield and his associate Captain Michael J. Schaack continued to fascinate and terrify the public with revelations of supposed anarchist plots. The revelations extended the red scare and fixed in the public mind the image of a wild-eyed foreign-born anarchist brandishing a bomb. But, in 1889 the two officers were disgraced and released from the force on corruption charges. The Chicago Times exposed the politics of fear they had perpetrated: "To create the impression that [Mayor John P.] Roche and his favored police officials alone stand between the city and destruction, and that to defeat his re-election is to encourage an uprising of anarchists, the department has resorted to extremes with the satisfaction of finding that its inventions are swallowed in certain credulous quarters as momentous facts." With the end of the Haymarket-induced period of public fear, the way was cleared for a reassessment of the trial and executions.20

In 1893, the German-born Democrat John Peter Altgeld was elected governor of Illinois, the first to be elected with the strong backing of organized labor. On June 26, 1893, after poring over the records of the trial for weeks, Altgeld issued a full pardon to Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe. The pardon was compatible with the widespread wish of many in the city, who believed that the law having been vindicated, it was in the best interests of social peace to extend mercy to the imprisoned anarchists. But Altgeld went much further. He demonstrated in his pardon message that the trial was a travesty of justice. He stated his opinion that much of the evidence used by the jury had been fabricated, and he condemned Judge Gary for egregious bias. Altgeld also exonerated the four men who had been hanged and stated his belief that Bonfield was the man responsible for the deaths of the police at Haymarket.21

The Chicago press responded with a hail of vituperation. Altgeld was called "a foreigner," a "fomenter of lawlessness," and a disgrace to the city. He would not be elected again to a public office, though he never regretted the pardon or its accompanying message. In time, Altgeld's decision came to be seen as a mark of public courage, and at his death Vachel Lindsay wrote a famous poem in his memory entitled, "The Eagle That is Forgotten."22 Lucy Parsons, the last surviving link to the anarchist martyrs, unrelentingly bore the torch for the cause of her beloved husband. Speaking at May Day rallies well into the 1930s, she continued to condemn state violence against workers and extol the "Chicago Idea" of revolutionary unionism.23 But, the anarchist legacy of violence in a revolutionary cause had always been problematic. In a private letter to Lucy in 1893, her old friend George Schilling wrote: "When you terrorize the public mind and threaten the stability of society with violence, you create the conditions which place the Bonfields and Garys in the saddle, hailed as the saviors of society. Fear is not the mother of progress and liberty, but oft times of reaction and aggression. Your agitation inspires fear; it shocks the public mind and conscience and inevitably calls forth strong and brutal men to meet force with force."24

As the Schilling letter suggests, the Haymarket Affair and the anarchist role in it has left a contested legacy rich with possibilities for learning. It will likely remain that way, reminding us of the recurring issues of freedom of assembly and the right to a fair trial in a time of public panic; the use of state violence to suppress workers' strikes and the movements of dissenters; and of the limits that movements fighting for social change in a democratic society must impose upon themselves.

In the summer of 1896 William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech to the delegates assembled at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In his remarks the Nebraskan accepted his party's nomination to run for the presidency. He also scored the nation's established economic interests, as represented by the onerous gold standard. Like many other Americans who worked with their hands or hailed from rural districts, Bryan believed that American political institutions had turned their back upon farmers and workers. His campaign sought to reorient these institutions toward a more egalitarian course.

Bryan's sensational oration placed Chicago, Illinois at the top of the news that day. But the city and state had already become fixtures in the public life of the Gilded Age (1866-1896).

In 1871 the Great Chicago Fire reminded Americans that large cities were becoming important parts of their society, and faced their own dangers.

In 1877 the case of Munn v. Illinois advanced to the United States Supreme Court, and brought the concerns of westerners and southerners at the margins of national economic development to the forefront of political debate.

Wage workers also protested the developments of the Gilded Age and brought Illinois into the national spotlight. On May 4, 1886 several police officers were killed when a bomb exploded at a Chicago labor rally. The so-called Haymarket Affair saw eight avowed anarchists sentenced to death for the bombing. When Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned several of the condemned men, he effectively ended his own political career.

In 1893 Ida B. Wells fled Tennessee for Chicago, where she continued her campaign to expose the practice of lynching in America. She joined a community of women activists that included Hull House founder Jane Addams and temperance crusader Frances Willard.

The emergence of a national culture devoted to the lofty ideals of civilization also brought Illinois to prominence with the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, even as it pushed African-Americans, Native Americans and other groups to the margins of national life.

In this period Dwight L. Moody made Chicago a hub of the new fundamentalist movement in American Protestantism, opening the Moody Bible Institute on the city's north side and building a national evangelical empire.

  • 1. "The Dramas of Haymarket," an online website co-sponsored by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University, can be accessed here ; Henry David, The History of the Haymarket Affair (New York: Collier Books, 1963; orig. publ. 1936); Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1984); James Green, Death in the Haymarket (New York: Pantheon, 2006); also see Haymarket Scrapbook, eds. David R. Roediger and Franklin Rosement (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1986). A good annotated bibliography of books and articles relating to Haymarket, useful for material published before 1993, is Robert W. Glenn, The Haymarket Affair: An Annotated Bibliography(Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1993).
  • 2. A photograph of the memorial is available online here.
  • 3. George Schilling, "History of the Labor Movement in Chicago," in Life of Albert R. Parsons, ed. Lucy Parsons, (Chicago: Mrs. Lucy E. Parsons, 1903).
  • 4. For a discussion of Harrison and the political context of the Haymarket Affair see Richard Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).
  • 5. Chicago Tribune, Apr. 26, 1878.
  • 6. Excellent discussions of the beliefs of the Chicago anarchists are available in David, Haymarket Affair, 101-37 and Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 79-175.
  • 7.  On the political culture of Chicago anarchism see Bruce C. Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, 1870-1900 (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988).
  • 8.  Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 162-73.
  • 9. Detailed accounts and different interpretations of the 1886 eight-hour day movement are available in Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 183-205 and Green, Death in the Haymarket, 145-73.
  • 10. Quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 190.
  • 11. Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket, Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 103-111.
  • 12. The Chicago Tribune headlined "hellish deed" on May 5, 1886; Attorney Charles C. Bonney quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 218.
  • 13. Chicago Knights of Labor, May 8, 1886.
  • 14. Quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 222.
  • 15. For an appraisal of the results of the eight-hour movement see Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 199-205, 248-55.
  • 16. Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 214-15; Green, Death in the Haymarket, 248.
  • 17. Quoted in Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 215.
  • 18. Dyer D. Lum, A Concise History of the Great Trial of the Chicago Anarchists in 1886. Condensed from the Official Record (Chicago, 1886); the autobiographies of the Haymarket defendants were serialized in the Chicago Knights of Labor beginning in October 1886 and are published in a collection edited by Phillip S. Foner, Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs (New York: Humanities, 1969).
  • 19. The best description of the hangings is in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 381-98.
  • 20. Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 277-79; Chicago Times, Jan. 20, 1889.
  • 21. Harry Barnard, Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld (Secaucus, N. J.: Lyle Stuart, 1938), 183-235.
  • 22. Ibid., 236-49; Lindsay's poem is on the frontispiece of Barnard's book.
  • 23. Lucy Parsons' life is discussed in Carolyn Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1976); her actions in the 1930s are discussed in Green, Death in the Haymarket, 305-10; on the further development of anarchism following Haymarket see Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs, 201-42.
  • 24. Quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 454-55; in his conclusion Avrich emphasizes the deficiencies of anarchism as a movement, see esp. 454.