The Trial of the Month for August reminds me that social issues, like human virtues and flaws, may never be completely original. They merely represent a repackaging of our time-weary conflicts.
At the end of the 19th Century, Chicago teemed with militant labor unions. Many of the low wage employees of the city’s factories were recent immigrants to the country, mostly of German descent. The workers’ push for an eight-hour work day brought them into conflict with the manufacturers and industrialists of the city, chief among them, Cyrus McCormack. Chicago had fallen into a depression in 1884. Class awareness, the struggle between haves and have-nots reached new heights. Labor organizers maintained that the wealthy lived extravagantly while cutting wages for their poorest workers. Strikes and violence became common. The newspapers for both sides claimed the others printed false claims and sensationalized.
By the Spring of 1886, the push for the eight-hour day had swept the country. Chicago braced for Emancipation Day, the May 1st strike day in support of limiting the number of working hours. Huge crowds attended, and the day ended peaceably.
The speeches and rallies continued. On May 3rd, striking workers roused by speeches from the labor organizers clashed with replacement workers outside the McCormack factories. The police arrived, shots were fired and at least two strikers were killed.
Furious and aroused, a pamphleteer, August Spies, produced leaflets describing his version of events, finishing with the words, “To Arms, to arms, we call you.” Copies of the leaflet were delivered throughout the city, including to Grief’s Saloon, where a group of German immigrant anarchists met. They called for a meeting in Haymarket Square the following night, where “Good speakers will denounce the latest atrocious act of the police.”
On the night of May 4th, the rally began at 7:30. Overcast skies threatened rain. The crowds were relatively small, estimated at 3-4,000. August Spies led off the speakers. He stood on a wagon above the crowd and emphasized that this was to be a peaceful demonstration. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss and not to provoke a riot. He was followed by another labor leader, Albert Parsons. Although he concluded with a call for all Americans who love liberty to arm yourselves, his remarks were considered tame. After Parson’s speech, Chicago’s mayor who had observed the rally from atop his white horse saw no threat to public safety in the gathering and rode home.
The final speaker, Samuel Fielden, took a different approach. Although the impending rain reduced the crowd to approximately 300 listeners, he urged them to “lay hands on [the law] and throttle them until it makes its last kick. A police captain stepped to the foot of the wagon and shouted orders for the gathering to disperse peaceably. Fielden reportedly agreed to end the rally.
As he concluded, a bomb flew over the crowd and landed among the assembled police officers. The explosion killed and wounded the police. They began firing into the crowd, hitting and scattering civilians. The Haymarket Riot lasted only a few minutes but by its conclusion seven police officers died and at least sixty more were injured. Many were shot by officers firing wildly. At least four civilians were killed.
“Let us whip these slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue, or i[n] some way exterminate them,” read an editorial in the Chicago Times. August Spies was arrested. Fielden, recovering from a gunshot wound he received, was also taken into custody. Parsons fled into hiding before he could be arrested. In all, twelve men were charged with conspiracy including one man, Louis Lingg who was believed to be the bomb maker and thrower. (Rudolph Schnaubelt was also fingered as the bomber. He was arrested twice in the investigation and released. He fled Chicago and escaped to Europe. He was never tried.) Another defendant testified for the government. In all, eight men went to trial in the Haymarket case.
After the defense motions to try the defendants separately were denied, Parsons walked into the packed courtroom and joined his co-defendants at the defense table. He had been persuaded by the lead attorney, William Black, that his flight cast a pall of guilt over the defendants.
Things did not begin well for the defense. None of the jurors selected were immigrants, laborers or held radical political beliefs. The defense attorneys likely overplayed their hand during the trial. They labeled the police “knaves” for supporting the industrialists. They compared the defendants to Jesus, “the ultimate socialist.”
One witness claimed to have seen Spies light the bomb. Another allegedly saw him talking to Schnaubelt, the believed bomb-thrower. Most testified that the bomb did not come from the speakers’ platform and that Spies and Fielden remained there until the riot. The prosecution also overwhelmed the jury with dangerous bombs and radical literature. The defendants testified, denying knowledge of the bomb or participation in the horrific events at Haymarket Square. Although Parsons and other conspirators had left by the time of the bombing, the prosecutors argued that they created the climate of violence.
The judge gave the jury his instructions on August 19th, 1886. The defense attorneys argued that the prosecution’s case was built on passion and prejudice. They challenged the jury to abide by the rule of law or “it will haunt you to the grave.” The prosecution, meanwhile, urged the jury to convict. Acquittals would bring radicals into the streets “like rats and vermin.”
By noon on August 20th, the jury returned verdicts. Convicting all eight and sentencing seven of the men, including Parsons, Fielden and Spies, to death. Parsons labeled the proceedings “judicial murder.”
Governor Ogelsby of Illinois subsequently commuted the death sentences of Fielden and another conspirator. They were the only two who asked the governor in writing for relief. Lingg committed suicide by biting a dynamite cap that had been smuggled into his cell. The remaining four defendants were hung together at noon on November 11th, 1887.
In 1893, the three surviving defendants were pardoned by then Governor Altgeld. He lost the next election. Forty-five years later, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act imposed the eight-hour work day.
Literature has chronicled the Haymarket Riots and the subsequent trial. Howard Fast, most famous for the story of the Roman slave Spartacus, wrote The American, a story of Governor Altgeld. The novel lionized Parsons, the defendant who emerged from hiding to join his comrades.
The trial and the events leading up to it, present claims of biased reporting, fake news, the link between immigration and terrorism, xenophobia as well as police/community relations and police use of deadly force.
Rather than a novel about the Haymarket, perhaps I’ll read my local paper. Most days I find the same issues there.