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Haymarket Riot and Conspiracy

Summary and Keywords

The Haymarket Riot and Conspiracy of 1886 is a landmark in American social and political history. On May 4, 1886, during an open-air meeting near Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone threw a dynamite bomb into a squad of police, sparking a riot that resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four rioters. Eight anarchists were brought to trial. Though the bomb-thrower was never apprehended, the eight radical leaders were charged as accessories before the fact for conspiring to murder the police. After the longest criminal trial in Illinois history up to that time, seven men were convicted and condemned to death and one to a long prison term. After all appeals were exhausted, four were executed, one cheated the hangman with a jail cell suicide, and the death sentences of two others were commuted to life imprisonment (all three incarcerated men were later pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1892).

The Haymarket bombing and trial marked a pivotal moment in the history of American social movements. It sparked the nation’s first red scare whose fury disrupted even moderately leftist movements for a generation. It drove the nation’s labor unions onto a more conservative path than they had been heading before the bombing. The worldwide labor campaign for clemency for the convicted men became the foundation for the institution of International Workers’ Day on May 1, a holiday ironically observed in most countries except for the United States. It also began a tradition within the American left of memorializing the Haymarket defendants as the first martyrs to their cause.

Keywords: Haymarket, anarchism, propaganda of the deed, socialism, eight-hour day, red scare, International Workers’, Day, terrorism

There are few events in the labor history of the United States so universally chronicled as the Haymarket Riot and Trial of 1886. Nearly all American history textbooks include some reference to that year’s many strikes for the eight-hour day, the rioting in Chicago, the protest meeting at Haymarket Square where a bomb was tossed into a phalanx of police, and the sensational trial of anarchists for murder that culminated in the hanging of four radical leaders the following year. Hundreds of scholarly and popular books have been written about it. Activists founded labor’s most widely observed holiday, International Workers’ Day (May Day), upon it.

The Haymarket Riot and Bombing achieved its iconic status not only for its own dramas, but because it symbolized the intensification of class conflict in America’s so-called Gilded Age. The dynamite bomb thrown on May 4, 1886 may have been the first dynamite bomb thrown during an American labor conflict, but it was hardly the first outburst of violence in what was an age torn with labor riots. The Haymarket bombing capped a bloody decade that began with the first national strike in 1877, shutting down the railroad system and resulting in at least one hundred deaths. Since the 1877 railroad strike, state governments increasingly used state militias to confront labor protesters and city governments moved to expand and professionalize their police forces. Popular magazines regularly ran features discussing the “labor question” and the “dangerous classes” who were seen as tinder ever waiting to erupt.1

Haymarket Riot and ConspiracyClick to view larger

Figure 1. A dynamite bomb exploding among the police during the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Drawn by T. de Thulstrup from sketches and photos furnished by H. Jeaneret, Harper’s Weekly 30 (May 15, 1886): 312–313.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-796.

On the evening of May 4, 1886, in the midst of a national strike for the eight-hour day, a rally was called to protest the previous day’s shooting of workers by Chicago police at one of the city’s largest factories, the McCormick Reaper Works. The meeting was organized by self-proclaimed anarchists, a small but growing movement that included both recent immigrants (primarily German) and a handful of native-born radicals. Their protest meeting, which took place near the Haymarket Square on Chicago’s near west side, was poorly attended by even the anarchists’ standards. As the crowd dwindled to a few hundred, a phalanx of cops 160 strong marched up from their nearby station and ordered the meeting to disperse. A single powerful bomb was thrown. Moments after the explosion, a quick but heavy exchange of gunfire erupted. The police held their ground and the revolutionaries scattered. By the time the riot ended, seven police officers and at least four protesters were dead or dying.

Haymarket Riot and ConspiracyClick to view larger

Figure 2. The police charging the rioters in old Haymarket Square in Chicago on the night of May 4th. From sketches by C. Bunnell and Chas Upham. Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper (May 15, 1886): 200–201.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-04514.

Historians have seemingly been at a loss to understand the motive of the individual who threw the bomb into Desplaines Street on the evening of May 4. This problem arises from historians’ rejection of the prosecution’s theory that the bombing was part of a broader conspiracy. Instead, historians, like those who championed the cause of the Haymarket defendants at the time, have maintained that the bombing was the work of a lone assailant acting individually and from personal motives.

From the beginning of the Haymarket trial to later 20th-century anarchist remembrances of it, those who memorialized the “martyrs” held that the bomber was either an agent provocateur, someone seeking personal revenge, or a rogue anarchist acting personally. Governor John Peter Altgeld, in his message of pardon of the Haymarket defendants in 1893, put forward the idea that the bomber was neither an agent of the state nor a member of the anarchist movement, but just a disgruntled worker seeking revenge against the cops.2 Haymarket defendant Albert Parsons, in his final address to the court, theorized that the bomb was the work of an agent employed by “certain monopolists” for the purpose of discrediting the eight-hour movement. Defense counsel Captain William P. Black alleged that an undercover policeman was responsible for the murder of his fellows. No evidence of any sort has ever been uncovered in support of the notion that the bombing was the work of those hoping to use the pretext of the bomb as an excuse to crush the labor movement.3

Clearly the most popular theory of the motivation of the assailant among both academics and anarchists has been the theory that the bomb was indeed thrown by an anarchist, but an anarchist acting on his own initiative. A number of men and women close to Chicago’s anarchist inner circle later claimed that they knew the identity of the bomb-thrower, indicating that the culprit was someone associated with the movement, and a few even publicly stated that the bomb-thrower was indeed a fellow anarchist. William Holmes, who, along with his wife Lizzie, were close friends of defendant Albert Parsons, contributors to the English-language anarchist newspaper, The Alarm, and members of the American section of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), is purported to have written a letter to the British socialist artist and philosopher, William Morris, revealing that the bomb-thrower was an anarchist who never got the word that a larger ambush had been called off. Dyer Lum, close associate of defendant August Spies and his successor as editor of the German-language anarchist newspaper, Arbeiter Zeitung, wrote in 1891 that the bomber was an anarchist who disobeyed his orders not to bring arms to the demonstration. America’s most famous anarchist, Emma Goldman, was reported to have confided to one of her lovers that the bomber was an anarchist.4

Most historians have assumed that revenge motivated the bomb-thrower, irrespective of any association with the anarchist organization. This motive seems clear from the events that led up to the evening of May 4. Anarchists and their sympathizers were outraged after the police shot at rock-throwing protesters during the riot at the McCormick works. Immediately after the McCormick riot, anarchist editor and leader August Spies hurried back to his office at the Arbeiter Zeitung, the German-language anarchist daily newspaper, and composed a protest broadside that began with the word, “Revenge!” in large type. The Haymarket meeting was called to “denounce the latest atrocious act of the police” and so, to most historians, it only seems likely that someone took it upon him- or herself to carry these protests into action.

There is, however, another possible motive, a motive that has largely been overlooked even though it played a prominent role in the trial and was the basic theory of the crime put forward by the prosecution. It is also the motive most richly supported by documentary evidence and what is known of the ideology and doctrines of the anarchist movement of the time. Indeed, so frequently and forcefully was this motive publicly proclaimed by anarchist leaders and publications that in order for it to have not been true, the anarchists must have been misrepresenting their own beliefs and leading others down a road they themselves did not follow. At the time, the Chicago anarchists advocated violence to spark revolution, seriously raising the possibility that the Haymarket bomber intended to spark a melee that would escalate into class revolution.

The Roots of Revolutionary Anarchism

Revolutionary anarchism was not new in 1886—it had been developing for at least a decade in several American cities—but it wasn’t taken seriously until the blast at Haymarket Square. This attitude was not because anarchism had been overlooked, but because it had not been believed. For nearly a decade, self-proclaimed “revolutionary-socialists,” “anarcho-syndicalists,” and “anarchists” had threatened and blustered so much that the public had become inured to their peculiarly violent rhetoric. Most people had come to see them as windbags and cranks rather than revolutionaries or criminals. It wasn’t until the echo of the bomb gave way to the sound of the moans of the dying and the cracking of revolvers that this presumption was proved wrong.

Beyond the universal recognition that anarchy meant advocacy of revolutionary violence, few in the public perceived the theoretical positions that distinguished it from other socialist tendencies, which was unfortunate as more philosophical and pacifistic schools of anarchism had long flourished in both Europe and America. Long before the eruption of violent strains of anarchism in the 1870s, the utopian social engineering of Charles Proudhon in France and the cooperative monetary schemes of William B. Greene in America influenced a generation of activists who viewed the state as something that could be rendered obsolete peacefully.

However, when the arrival of new revolutionary ideas redrew the ideological map of the American Left in the late 1870s, a sufficiently fine-grained theoretical vocabulary had not yet been formulated that could distinguish between these different tendencies. As a result, everyone and every idea associated with “anarchism” was susceptible to being labelled as violent and extremist, obscuring the wide diversity of principles, strategies, and outlooks among those who viewed the state as the root of social problems.

There was nothing foreign or even “un-American” about advocating force and armed confrontation as a means to social progress. America was a famously violent society by the 1880s, and its political life was frequently marked with organized violence on all sides, from John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in opposition to slavery to the Southern white night riders who tried to reinstate it in all but name a decade later. Native socialists in the First International in the 1870s praised the courage of the Paris Communards defending their barricades and marched with black militia companies who paraded under rifles in New York City. Labor leaders in California cheered as Denis Kearney led his sandlot mobs in riotous pogroms against Chinese enclaves. Many progressive Irish Americans contributed their pennies to Fenian clubs which used them to export arms to Ireland and, sometimes, explosives to England.

What distinguished the Chicago anarchists of the 1880s from these home-grown militants was their possession of three unique and mutually reinforcing ideas: a romantic glorification of the revolutionary potential of the people, the shortness of time until the day of the insurrection arrived, and faith in the power of individual acts of violence to inspire and educate the masses to their historic duty. These ideas arose and developed in Europe and later immigrated to the United States fully formed.

European anarchism in the 1870s and early 1880s was characterized by its veneration of a tactic that came to be known as “Propaganda by the Deed.” This idea was an outgrowth of anarchism’s belief that conditions were ripe for revolution and therefore the task of revolutionaries was to act, to foment insurrection, and to aid any rebellions that broke out spontaneously. This doctrine arose out of many strands of revolutionary thought, including Karl Heinzen’s 1849 philosophical defense of assassinating rulers. In “Der Mord” (“Murder”), Heinzen wrote that “Murder is the principal agent in historical progress.” It later flourished in the Russian underground and began to take form in the writings of Alexander Herzen, who dismissed all morality as bourgeois and celebrated violence and destruction as creative forces: “Let all the world perish! Long live chaos and destruction!”5

These ideas were given tactical specificity by Mikhail Bakunin, whose own thought coalesced in 1869 when he met a young dropout from the University of Moscow, Sergei Gannadevich Nechaev. Nechaev was part of the Russian revolutionary currents then roiling in St. Petersburg that produced Peter Zaichnevsky and his pamphlet, Young Russia (1862), a tract that called for a “bloody and pitiless” campaign against Russia’s monarchy, a call that coincided with an attempted assassination of the Czar that same year. This collaboration between two Russians, one a son of nobles and the other a son of serfs, brought together a philosophical critique of the basis of government and law, with a naked advocacy of conspiratorial political violence. Though their partnership was brief (Bakunin soon denounced Nechaev and some of the ideas they had cooked up together in Geneva), it focused Bakunin’s attention on tactics over theory and produced the clear-eyed advocacy of terrorism that was eventually known as the “Propaganda by the Deed” doctrine.

This doctrine built on earlier revolutionary defenses of popular violence against the state but extended it by justifying even individual violent acts that were symbolic rather than part of an organized revolutionary offensive. Such hopeless acts had long been viewed as counterproductive and needless distractions. But according to this idea, the point of revolutionary violence was not just to weaken or overthrow the state and class oppressors, but to expose the hidden realities of oppression and awaken the masses who were too downtrodden to fully appreciate their situation. In other words, violence was recast as an important educational tool rather than as a military tactic. A random act of violence targeted at the state was therefore an act of propaganda or, “propaganda by the deed.” As Bakunin urged the workers of France in 1870, “we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.”6

The substance of this revolutionary theory was first officially adopted by a meeting of socialists in Berne, Switzerland in 1876, though most of the small shopkeepers, journalists, and watchmakers in attendance had little inclination to actually employ it. Soon the Jura Federation, once a branch of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) centered in Geneva, Switzerland, proclaimed “propaganda of the deed” as their official policy at their annual party Congress.7

Many accounts credit this revolutionary idea to Johann Most, a German refugee from Bismarck’s antisocialist laws who arrived in America in 1882 and is said to have imported it whole. (Such characterizations of the process of ideological diffusion seem to assume that there was some great gulf of information between Europe and the United States that could only be traversed by literature in an immigrant’s suitcase and ideas in his head.) Rather, the development of anarchist ideology in America evolved directly with that in London, Paris, and Geneva, as radicals corresponded with each other extensively, moved freely between Europe and America, and shared the main journals of radical opinion, Freiheit (London and Geneva), Le Révolté (Geneva and Paris), L’Avant-Garde (Berne), and Arbeiter Zeitung (Berne). Radical communities on both sides of the ocean were not separate. Rather than being divided by geography, radicalism was divided by ideological schools, and radicals of the same mind on either continent were more closely associated than they were with their factional rivals across town.8

By the middle of the 1870s, three elements of the new revolutionary anarchist ideology had coalesced and combined: a belief that the revolution was ready to break out at any time, the idea that violent actions were a superior form of radical education, and an ethical code that justified all means that brought the revolution nearer. This fiery ideology spread rapidly among militant socialists throughout Europe and into America. American anarchists formally incorporated all these aspects of revolutionary doctrine at the Pittsburgh Congress of 1883 into their manifestos and call to arms. When the delegates in Pittsburgh declared that “the work of peaceful education and revolutionary conspiracy well can and ought to run in parallel lines,” they described exactly the activities of the Chicago anarchists who published newspapers, led marches, sang songs, bored deeply into existing unions in an effort to transform them, and also stockpiled guns and bombs. When their “Pittsburg Manifesto” declared: “all attempts in the past to reform this monstrous system by peaceable means, such as the ballot, have been futile, and all such efforts in the future must necessarily be so … there remains but one recourse—force!” they weren’t merely theorizing.

Along with Chicago’s anarchists, New York’s revolutionary socialists were the pioneers of the revolutionary anarchist movement in America. They were the first group to declare that they were no longer interested in just debating theory or educating the masses but were resolved to undertake practical measures to foment revolution. A couple of years prior to the Haymarket bombing, New York’s Social Revolutionary Club resolved to devote itself to developing the capacity to brew its own explosives and build its own arsenal of bombs. It established a “propaganda fund” for this purpose, an appropriately titled budget for a group that believed, as most radical anarchists did at the time, that the best form of propaganda was dramatic violent acts against symbols of the establishment.

Likewise, in the year and a half prior to the Haymarket bombing, Chicago’s revolutionaries began organizing themselves into secret paramilitary cells. For a decade, Chicago’s socialists had played a key role in the workers’ militias, the Lehr und Wehr Verein or “Education and Defense Societies,” that formed in 1875 in response to the military repression of strikes and public protests accompanying the economic downturn of 1873. But as the socialists gradually embraced the more radical ideas seeping in from Europe, they revolutionized these old militias that once were espoused a republican ethos stated in their charter, that the “association is formed for the purpose of improving the mental and bodily conditions of its members, so as to qualify them for the duties of citizens of a Republic.”9 By 1884, anarchist newspapers in Chicago were openly advocating propaganda by the deed and publishing instructions on how to mix chemicals into explosives and build homemade bombs.

The Eight-Hour Movement

Chicago’s bombing in Haymarket Square occurred in the context of the snowballing movement for the eight-hour day. Shorter hours had long been one of the labor movement’s loudest demands, and large demonstrations for a limitation on the hours of the work day dated back to the 10-hour movement of the antebellum era. Though interrupted by the Civil War, the campaign for an eight-hour day revived with the organization of a national trade union federation in the 1880s, the Federated Organization of Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), that would evolve in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by the end of 1886.

Haymarket’s riot and bombing occurred at a moment when the future and leadership of America’s labor movement teetered between two growing and ideologically contrary labor federations. The Knights of Labor, formed in secret in the immediate and chaotic postwar years, officially opposed strikes in favor of boycotts, worker cooperatives, mutual aid, and political action. The FOTLU organized at times with and at times against the Knights. The FOTLU was composed of hard-headed trade unions who relied primarily on the strike, or at least the threat of a strike, and who swore off politics as divisive and a waste of energy. In the year leading up to the tragic events in Chicago, both organizations were growing faster than their leaders could effectively manage. FOTLU’s membership swelled after it announced in 1885 that it would champion a nationwide strike for the eight-hour day in May of 1886. The Knights’ membership leaped in March of 1886 after railroad workers affiliated with the federation struck, boycotted, battled, and forced the railroad companies controlled by the reviled tycoon, Jay Gould, to meet workers’ demands. Such gains were all the more remarkable as they came in the midst of an economic downturn that drove unemployment rates to nearly 13 percent.10

By the fall of 1885, the vast majority of Chicago’s workers, especially those who worked for a daily wage, were energized by the dream of working an eight-hour day for ten hours of pay. In hundreds of union meetings held through the spring of 1886, rank and file union members placed this demand at the top of their agenda with an enthusiasm and dedication rare for even these turbulent decades in American industry. Here, at last, was an issue that had stirred the working class, and according to anarchist theorizing at the time, the working class had first to discover itself and come into self-consciousness through struggle before it could act as a class and fight for class power. Anarchists believed that this was a moment that could rapidly lead to the emergence of a true class struggle and even a revolutionary crisis, even as capitalists fought to retain the profitable status quo and workers discovered their common identity and interests in the fight against them. Thus, it appears, as the eight-hour movement suddenly exploded into popularity, anarchists became less critical of its reasons or aims because it had come to represent a higher stage of working class organization, and anything that effectively brought together workers as a class against employers as a class was a progressive step toward class revolution. Whether the working day was eight hours, ten hours, or two hours no longer mattered. Whether Chicago’s workers demanded fewer hours, higher wages, or softer beds did not matter. All that mattered was that, at last, they began to push in the same direction for something.

The prevailing interpretation of Chicago’s anarchist movement is that the Chicago anarchists were motivated entirely by their interest in the eight-hour day and had no ulterior or contradictory aspirations. While admitting that anarchists initially “held themselves aloof” from the eight-hour movement “because the movement did not strike at the root of the evil,” historians have long claimed that Spies, Parsons, and the other anarchist “leading spirits” threw themselves wholeheartedly into active support for the eight-hour day once it became clear this was not just a theoretical debate but the ardent desire of most workers. By the centennial of the Haymarket bombing it was a universal article of faith that Chicago’s anarchists were late but sincere converts to the eight-hour crusade and that their actions in the spring of 1886 were driven by their devotion to the eight-hour cause. These narratives of the eight-hour movement in Chicago describe the anarchists as being initially dismissive of the eight-hour day as a diversionary reform, but quickly reconsidered their position as the movement grew, later embraced what they had previously criticized, and then quickly emerged by the first weeks of 1886 as leaders of the eight-hour movement.

In speech after speech and article after article, it is clear that most Chicago anarchists initially dismissed the eight-hour demand as a meaningless concession that preserved the structures and relations of capitalism. Though Albert Parsons had been an early proponent of the eight-hour movement—in 1878, Parsons was elected recording secretary of the Chicago Eight-Hour League—his views had hardened by 1885 when he denounced the eight-hour demand, editorializing in The Alarm, “Comrades, for pity’s sake do not longer waste your precious time in vain endeavors.” Even after the Chicago Eight Hour Association was formed in November of 1885, Parsons repeated the anarchist objections in another editorial entitled, “No Compromise.” Parsons wrote, “We of the Internationale are frequently asked why we do not give our active support to the proposed eight-hour movement. Let us take what we can get, say our eight-hour friends, else by asking too much we may get nothing. We answer: Because we will not compromise.”11

Haymarket Riot and ConspiracyClick to view larger

Figure 3. Reproduction of anarchist handbill “Attention workingmen! Great mass-meeting to-night at 7:30 o’clock,” in “The Chicago Anarchists of 1886,” Century Magazine (April 1886): 826.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-75183.

Throughout the weeks leading up to labor’s May 1, 1886 strike deadline, tensions rose between those whose primary goal was the eight-hour day and the anarchists who hoped that the eight-hour demand would become an issue that could galvanize class consciousness and spark class conflict. Given the deep divisions within the labor movement and the anarchists over the tactics and goals of the eight-hour struggle, the violent conflict that the anarchists anticipated and hoped for broke out that weekend in May.

The Conspiracy

On Sunday morning, May 2, 1886, the armed wings of the most militant anarchist groups of Chicago gathered at a secret meeting. Two of the Haymarket defendants, George Engel and Adolph Fischer, led the meeting as they would the next night when a larger secret meeting of armed groups was held in the cellar of a tavern. Engel proposed a plan that was intended not to win a strike or pressure bosses to grant the eight-hour day, but to militarily take over the city. According to one meeting attendee who testified for the state, Engel’s plan was clear: “as soon as it came to a conflict between the police and the Northwestern Groups, that bombs should be thrown into the Police stations and the rifle men of the Lehr and Wehr Verein should post themselves in line in a certain distance and whoever would come out should be shot down … then it should proceed in that way until we would come to the heart of the city.”

This was not idle talk, but a plan repeated and reconfirmed the following night among a group of radicals who had regularly met in secret, drilled with Springfield rifles, and tested homemade bombs out on the prairie. The thirty or so men who sat on wooden benches in the cellar of Grief’s saloon combined Engel’s plan to attack police stations with preparations for a mass rally. They agreed upon a secret code, the word “ruhe,” to be published in a specific box in the anarchist daily newspaper if and when “the revolution” broke out. Upon seeing that signal, the armed militias were to muster at their designated spots, scouts were to be sent to the meeting at the Haymarket, and if a riot should break out, they were to attack according to plan.

The next day the anarchist Arbeiter Zeitung paper printed the signal and the die was cast. That evening the fateful Haymarket meeting took place. Just before the meeting commenced, Louis Lingg carried a heavy satchel filled with bombs to a saloon that was the customary meeting place for militant anarchists and men helped themselves to its contents. All these plans were entirely consistent with what the anarchists themselves had been advocating for years. They distinguished themselves by their absolute rejection of incremental reformism, of business unionism, and of electoral politics. The anarchist manifesto Albert Parsons and August Spies helped to draft in Pittsburgh in 1883 was not idle talk, but a map of their intentions.

The Investigation

The day after the Haymarket bombing, police stormed into the anarchists’ newspaper office, arrested all two dozen of its employees, and searched the premises. In the desk of the managing editor, August Spies, was a letter from Johann Most, a fellow militant anarchist in New York. It read:

I am in a condition to furnish “medicine,” and the “genuine” article at that. Directions for use are perhaps not needed with these people. Moreover, they were recently published in the “Fr.” The appliances I can also send. Now if you consider the address … thoroughly reliable I will ship twenty or twenty-five pounds …

Also in Spies’ desk police found some blasting caps and a coil of fuse. In a closet in his office they found a brown paper package filled with what appeared to be dirt but was declared by an expert loaned from an explosives company to be dynamite.

When confronted with this letter in court during his murder trial, Spies acknowledged he had in fact received it. Nor did Spies deny possessing explosives, blasting caps, or fuses, but explained he kept these things merely for the purpose of “experimenting … just the same as I would take a revolver and go out and practice.”12

Though August Spies claimed he had purchased his dynamite from the Aetna Powder Company, the letter from Johann Most points to Most and his New York City group of revolutionaries as the true source of the dynamite that filled the Haymarket bomb.

While the dynamite most likely came from outside Chicago, all evidence suggests that the Haymarket bomb itself was made by a twenty-two-year-old carpenter in a rented room in a small frame house on Sedgwick Street on the near north side. Louis Lingg was new to Chicago, having arrived in America only a year and a half earlier and still spoke very little English. Lingg rose quickly to the leadership of his carpenters’ union.

Back in the old country, Lingg had been a socialist in the era when that was a crime in Bismarck’s Germany. Even the relatively free air of Switzerland was unsafe for him as he was pursued by the Swiss authorities for being a German draft dodger. He knew a thing or two about living underground, having had some contacts with the most famous German terrorist of his age, August Reinsdorf, the leader of an anarchist cell that had tried to blow up a train carrying the Kaiser and his family.

The Haymarket Trial

A total of eight men were tried, accused of being accessories to the murder of Chicago police officer Mathias Degan, the first policeman to die at the Haymarket Square as a result of his wounds. Not counting the weeks spent selecting a jury, the trial began on July 16, 1886 and ended on August 11, making it the longest criminal trial in Illinois history up to that time.

Though Rudolph Schnaubelt, the man fingered as the bomber by two of the state’s eyewitnesses, successfully avoided the police dragnet and escaped, the prosecution was able to make the case that Degan’s murder was the result of a conspiracy of his associates. Key to this strategy was proving that Louis Lingg made and distributed the bomb used that night. Among the more innovative elements of the prosecution’s case was the first use of forensic chemical evidence in an American criminal trial when a chemist from Rush Medical College testified that the particular alloy of lead found in bomb splinters removed from Degan’s body matched the alloy of unexploded bomb shells found in the apartment of defendant Louis Lingg.

A number of witnesses, including Lingg’s housemate, testified that they assisted Lingg in manufacturing bombs the day of the Haymarket meeting and filled a satchel with bombs that they took to Neff’s Saloon, a meeting place so frequented by radicals that it was known as “the shanty of the communists,” and left them for the taking. Lingg’s sudden bomb-making haste that day provided the crucial evidence needed to cement their allegation that the Haymarket meeting was planned as a police ambush all along. Defense lawyers later surprised the court by admitting that Lingg had in fact manufactured homemade bombs, arguing that Lingg had a right to do so and that the bomb thrown at police was not one of Lingg’s.

The other seven defendants were tied into the plot in various ways. Anarchist leader August Spies was implicated in the actual bombing by Harry Gilmer, a house painter who attended the Haymarket rally and testified that he saw Spies light the fuse of the bomb that was thrown by Rudolph Schnaubelt. Several anarchists turned state’s evidence and revealed details about the anarchists’ secret plans, including Gotfried Waller who chaired one of the secret meetings. Waller testified that one of the defendants who was present, George Engel, proposed bombing police stations if riots should occur. Waller also testified that another defendant, Adolph Fischer, proposed holding a public meeting the following night, not at Market Square, the usual gathering place for anarchist rallies, but at the Haymarket, because Market Square was “a mousetrap” if the police should attack. It was then said, as Waller testified, “we should meet at the respective places; only a committee should be present at the Haymarket, and if they should report that something had happened then we should come down upon them—attack them [the police].”

The evidence against some defendants was thin at best. Michael Schwab was implicated because of the dynamite and fuse coils found in a closet near his desk at the Arbieter Zeitung editorial offices and because a bystander claimed he saw him walking around the Haymarket with the bomber, who happened to be his brother-in-law, before the protest rally. Samuel Fielden, who was speaking atop a parked wagon when the bomb was thrown, was implicated because witnesses said he gave a signal for the bomb to be thrown and was later seen firing toward police. Witnesses claimed Albert Parsons attempted to purchase forty revolvers in the weeks leading up to the protest. Oscar Neebe was convicted on testimony that while distributing leaflets announcing the Haymarket meeting, he told some men in a bar that “It is a shame that the police act that way, but maybe the time comes that it goes the other way—that they get the chance, too.”13

From the beginning of the trial the defense lawyers made a series of strategic blunders that helped convict their clients. They mishandled their use of a generous number of preemptory challenges allowed by the judge, contradicted their own motions for severance of the defendants into separate trials, and encouraged Albert Parsons to surrender himself to the court to stand trial with his comrades when they could have waited and secured for him a separate trial. The jury took little time to convict all eight men, but on recommendation of the prosecuting attorney, sentenced Oscar Neebe to fifteen years in prison rather than condemning him to death with the others.

Even before the trial was completed, an international campaign defending the anarchist leaders was organized. William Dean Howells, the editor of the influential Atlantic magazine, not only wrote critically of the court’s verdict but encouraged other opinion-makers to follow suit. Robert Ingersoll, the famous orator known as the “Great Agnostic,” spoke out against what he viewed as the irregularities of the trial as did Congressman Benjamin Butler. Samuel Gompers and the newly founded American Federation of Labor defended the anarchists, although they shared little in common ideologically, while Terrence Powderly, the “Grand Master Workman” of the Knights of Labor, condemned them, saying labor owed them nothing but a “debt of hatred.” In England, George Bernard Shaw and William Morris led a campaign for clemency for the condemned anarchists and France’s Chamber of Deputies voted on a resolution protesting the condemning of the American labor leaders.14

The anarchists’ convictions were upheld on appeal by both the Supreme Court of Illinois and the US Supreme Court. The international campaign for clemency pushed Illinois governor Oglesby to commute the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life in prison. On November 11, 1887, August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer were executed. Lingg cheated the state the night before his hanging by reclining on his jailhouse cot, clenching an explosive charge between his teeth, and lighting it like a cigar. Seven years later, in 1893, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the three remaining imprisoned anarchists.

Discussion of the Literature

For more than half a century following the Haymarket trial, there were no academic studies of this event, only literature generated by those who participated in the trial or campaigned for clemency of the defendants.

The definitive study of the trial for nearly fifty years was that of Henry David, who chose the Haymarket bombing and trial as the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University in the mid-1930s and published it in 1936 as The History of the Haymarket Affair. David’s final assessment of the Haymarket case was strident and certain:

Parsons, Spies, Fielden, Neebe, Engel, Fischer, Schwab, and Lingg were not guilty of the murder of Officer Degan in the light of the evidence produced in court. A biased jury, a prejudiced judge, perjured evidence, an extraordinary and indefensible theory of conspiracy, and the temper of Chicago led to the conviction. The evidence never proved their guilt, nor can the conclusion that the bomb was probably thrown by a member of the social-revolutionary movement affect this statement.15

In 1969, interest in the Chicago anarchists was revived by labor historian Philip Foner, who compiled a series of short memoirs written by the Haymarket defendants while they languished through the many months of court appeals. A few years later, Chicago historian William Adelman worked with the Illinois Labor History Society to publish Haymarket Revisited, a comprehensive guidebook to historical sites and locations relevant to the events of 1886. Both Foner and Adelman, however, relied on existing secondary sources to write their overviews of the affair, largely repeating the claims of the anarchists’ defenders.

Paul Avrich’s 1984 prize-winning book, The Haymarket Tragedy, became the standard source for all research into the event. Avrich concluded that the trial was not only unjust, but perhaps the most unfair legal proceeding in all of American history: “Although Haymarket was by no means the only instance where American justice has failed, it was nonetheless a black mark on a legal system that professes truth and fairness as its highest principles … As a barbarous act of power it was without parallel in American legal history.”16 However, neither scholar consulted the full transcript of the trial in preparing their studies and leaned heavily on defense sources, causing them to miss much of the incriminating detail assembled by prosecutors.

David and Avrich’s research was synthesized and repeated in James Green’s 2006 Death in the Haymarket, a book that wrapped these events in a greater degree of historical context than either David or Avrich did, but that also added little to knowledge about the anarchists or the trial.

About the same time as Death in the Haymarket appeared, Timothy Messer-Kruse and a team of chemists from the University of Toledo and Yale University retested one of the bombshells found in Louis Lingg’s apartment with a piece of shrapnel taken from one of the fallen police officers in 1886 and found no inconsistencies in the expert testimony of chemists in the original trial.17 Subsequently, Messer-Kruse was the first scholar to mine the full transcript of the legal trial, and in his 2011 The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists, uncovered much evidence connecting Chicago’s martyred anarchists to the bombing, which had long been ignored by scholars.

Primary Sources

There are three key sources of information about the events leading up to the Haymarket bombing and trial and the social context in which they are embedded: the trial transcript, the memoir of the leading detective in the case, and the autobiographies of the defendants themselves.

First and most importantly is the full trial transcript itself that for many years was only available in two repositories, the Chicago Historical Society and the Illinois State Archives. In 2004, the Library of Congress and the Chicago History Museum partnered to digitize this long overlooked resource and make it available through the internet. The result of this partnership was called the Haymarket Digital Affair Digital Collection and it contains both the thousands of pages of pretrial motions, affidavits, exhibits, and verbatim testimony transcripts as well as full versions of all appellate briefs and decisions.

Michael Schaack’s Anarchy and Anarchists: A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe. Communism, Socialism, and Nihilism in Doctrine and in Deed. The Chicago Haymarket Conspiracy and the Detection and Trial of the Conspirators is both a lurid pulp novel and a valuable archive of police documents otherwise lost to history. Schaack cashed in on the fame of this event by writing his detective memoir but loaded it with excerpts from police reports of interrogations of suspects, many of whom never testified in court. While Schaack’s self-serving accounts of his own exploits are only of literary interest as a good exemplar of the genre, these embedded reports provide a rare view of the anarchist underground.18

Finally, the autobiographies of each of the eight Haymarket defendants, though largely written under the threat of the noose, reveal much about the thinking and values of the men caught up in this tragedy. Though originally published at various times in several obscure labor papers, they were collected and reprinted by Phillip Foner in 1969 as the Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs.

Haymarket Affair Digital Collection (HADC), Chicago History Museum

Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan

Further Reading

Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

    David, Henry. The History of the Haymarket Affair: A Study in the American Social-Revolutionary and Labor Movements. New York: Russell & Russell, 1958; originally published 1938.Find this resource:

      Fink, Leon. Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.Find this resource:

        Foner, Phillip. The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs. New York: Humanities Press, 1969.Find this resource:

          Goyens, Tom. Beer and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880–1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.Find this resource:

            Green, James. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, The First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.Find this resource:

              Messer-Kruse, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.Find this resource:

                Nelson, Bruce C. Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago’s Anarchists, 1870–1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

                  Parsons, Lucy. Famous Speeches of the Eight Chicago Anarchists, 1910. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969.Find this resource:

                    Roediger, David, and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook. Chicago: Charles Kerr, 1986.Find this resource:

                      Schaack, Michael. Anarchy and Anarchists. Chicago: F. J. Schulte & Co., 1889.Find this resource:


                        (1.) James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, The First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 9–12.

                        (2.) John P. Altgeld, “Reasons for Pardoning Fielden, Neebe and Schwab” (Chicago: s.n., 1893), 50.

                        (3.) Albert R. Parsons, “Autobiography,” 1886. Handwritten manuscript, Chicago Historical Society, 45; Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 437; and Henry David, The History of the Haymarket Affair: A Study in the American Social-Revolutionary and Labor Movements (New York: Russell & Russell, 1958, originally published 1938), 515.

                        (4.) Jack McPhaul, “Who Hurled the Haymarket Bomb?” Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1957.

                        (5.) Isaiah Berlin, “Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty,” in Russian Thinkers, ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly (New York: Penguin, 1978).

                        (6.) Sam Dolgoff, ed., Bakunin on Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), 195–196.

                        (7.) James Joll, The Anarchists (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1966), 121–123.

                        (8.) Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 67.

                        (9.) Hartmut Keil and John B. Jentz, eds., German Workers in Chicago: A Documentary History of Working-Class Culture from 1850 to World War I (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 239.

                        (10.) David R. Roediger and Philip S. Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989), 124–132.

                        (11.) The Alarm, August 8, 1885, December 12, 1885.

                        (12.) Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 95.

                        (13.) Illinois v. August Spies et al., vol. O, 164, Illinois Supreme Court (1887). Reproduced in the Chicago Historical Society, Haymarket Affair Digital Collection.

                        (14.) Powderly quote in Roediger and Foner, Our Own Time, 143.

                        (15.) Henry David, The History of the Haymarket Affair: A Study in the American Social-Revolutionary and Labor Movements (New York: Russell & Russell, 1958), 541.

                        (16.) Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 456.

                        (17.) Timothy Messer-Kruse, James O. Eckert Jr., Pannee Burckel, and Jeffrey Dunn, “The Haymarket Bomb: Reassessing the Evidence,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 2, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 39–51.

                        (18.) Michael Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists: A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe. Communism, Socialism, and Nihilism in Doctrine and in Deed. The Chicago Haymarket Conspiracy and the Detection and Trial of the Conspirators. (Chicago: F. J. Schulte & Co., 1889).