This wasn't a particularly radical idea since both Illinois workers and federal employees were supposed to have been covered by an eight-hour day law since 1867. The problem was that the federal government failed to enforce its own law, and in Illinois, employers forced workers to sign waivers of the law as condition of employment.
With two years to plan, the organized labor movement in Chicago and throughout Illinois sent out questionnaires to employers to see how they felt about shorter hours and other issues, including child labor. Slogans and songs were written like "the Eight Hour Day" everywhere slogans were heard like "Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!" or "Shortening the Hours Increase the Pay".
Although a simplistic solution to unemployment and low wages, the Eight-Hour Day Movement caught the imagination of workers across the country. Chicago with its strong labor movement had the nation's largest demonstration on Saturday, May 1, 1886, when reportedly 80,000 workers marched up Michigan Avenue arm-in-arm carrying their union banners.
The unions most strongly represented were the building trades. This solidarity shocked some employers, who feared a workers' revolution, while others quickly signed agreements for shorter hours at the same pay.
Two of the organizers of these demonstrations were Lucy Ella Gonzales Parsons (described by the Chicago Police Department as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters.") and her husband Albert Parsons. Lucy had been born a slave in Texas about 1853. Her heritage was African-American, Native American and Mexican. She worked for the Freedman's Bureau after the Civil War. After her marriage to Albert, they moved to Chicago where she turned her attention to writing and organizing women sewing workers. Albert was a printer, a member of the Knights of Labor, editor of the labor paper The Alarm, and one of the founders of the Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly.
Two substitute speakers ran over to Haymarket Square at the last minute. They had been attending a meeting of sewing workers organized by Lucy Parsons and her fellow labor organizer Lizzie Holmes of Geneva Illinois. These last minute speakers were Albert Parsons, just returned from Ohio, and Samuel Fielden, an English-born Methodist lay preacher who worked in the labor movement.
But when one speaker urged the dwindling crowd to “throttle” the law, 176 officers under Inspector John Bonfield marched to the meeting and ordered people to disperse. Then someone threw the first dynamite bomb ever used in peacetime history of the United States at the police, killing one officer instantly. Police, carrying Winchester repeater rifles, drew their guns, firing wildly. Sixty officers were injured, and eight died; an undetermined number of the crowd were killed or wounded.
Mayor Harrison quickly banned meetings and processions. Police made picketing impossible and suppressed the radical press. Chicago newspapers publicized unsubstantiated police theories of anarchist conspiracies, and they published attacks on the foreign-born and calls for revenge, matching the anarchists in inflammatory language. The violence demoralized strikers, and only a few well-organized strikes continued. Police arrested hundreds of people, but never determined the identity of the bomb thrower.
Eventually, seven policemen died, only one directly accountable to the bomb. Four workers were also killed, but few textbooks bother to mention this fact.
The next day martial law was declared, not just in Chicago but throughout the nation. Anti-labor governments around the world used the Chicago incident to crush local union movements. In Chicago, labor leaders were rounded up, houses were entered without search warrants and union newspapers were closed down.
Amidst public clamor for revenge, however, eight anarchists, including prominent speakers and writers, were tried for murder. Among them were Fielden, Parsons and a young carpenter named Louis Lingg, who was accused of throwing the bomb. The partisan Judge Joseph E. Gary conducted the trial, and all 12 jurors acknowledged prejudice against the defendants. Lacking credible evidence that the defendants threw the bomb or organized the bomb throwing, prosecutors focused on their writings and speeches.
Lingg had witnesses to prove he was over a mile away at the time. The two-month-long trial ranks as one of the most notorious in American history. The Chicago Tribune even offered to pay money to the jury if it found the eight men guilty. The jury, instructed to adopt a conspiracy theory without legal precedent, convicted all eight. On August 20, 1886, the jury reported its verdict of guilty with the death penalty by hanging for seven of the Haymarket Eight, and 15 years of hard labor for Oscar Neebe.
On November 10, the day before the execution, Samuel Gompers came from Washington to appeal to Governor Oglesby for the last time. The national and worldwide pressure did finally force the Governor to change the sentences of Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab to imprisonment for life. Although 5 of the 8 were still to be hanged the next day, on the morning of November 10, Louis Lingg was found in his cell, his head half blown away by a dynamite cap. The entire event was most mysterious, since Lingg was hoping to receive a pardon that very day. Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Albert Parsons and August Spies were hanged on November 11, 1887.
"The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today." - August Spies' last words, shouted from the gallows.
In June of 1893, Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned the 3 men still alive and condemned the entire judicial system that had allowed this injustice.
Anti-labor governments around the world used the Chicago incident to crush local union movements.
The real issues of the Haymarket Affair were freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly, the right to a fair trial by a jury of peers and the right of workers to organize and fight for things like the eight-hour work day.
While textbooks tell about the bomb, they fail to mention the reason for the meeting or what happened afterwards. Some books even fail to mention the fact that many of those who were tried were not even at the Haymarket meeting, but were arrested simply because there were union organizers. Sadly, these rights have been abridged many times in American history. During the civil rights marches of the 1960's, the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, we saw similar violations to citizens constitutional rights.
The Haymarket Affair took on worldwide dimension in July 1889, when a delegate from the American Federation of Labor recommended at a labor conference in Paris that May 1 be set aside as International Labor Day in memory of Haymarket martyrs and the injustice of the Haymarket Affair. Today in almost every major industrial nation, May Day is Labor Day. Even Great Britain and Israel have passed legislation in recent years declaring this date a national holiday.
For years, half of the American Labor movement observed May 1 as Labor Day, while the other half observed the first Monday in September. After the Russian Revolution the May 1 date was mistakenly associated with communism, and in a protest against Soviet policy, May 1 was first proclaimed Law Day in 1960's.
|The Haymarket Martyrs Monument was dedicated at Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, to honor the anarchists who were framed and executed for the bombing at Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886.|
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
 Oscar Neebe, who is reported to have said: "So I am only sorry, your honor — that is, if you can stop it or help it — I will ask you to do it — that is, to hang me, too; for I think it is more honorable to die suddenly than to be killed by inches. I have a family and children; and if they know their father is dead, they will bury him. They can go to the grave, and kneel down by the side of it; but they can’t go to the penitentiary and see their father, who was convicted for a crime that he hasn’t had anything to do with. That is all I have got to say. Your honor, I am sorry I am not to be hung with the rest of the men."