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Hanging in Chicago's Haymarket: November 11, 1887

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.


The Winter of 1885–86 was bitterly cold. Thousands were out of work, and soup kitchens did not have provision enough to feed all the hungry. Workers at Cyrus McCormick’s factory in Chicago had gone on strike, and McCormick had locked them out. With the protection of police and Pinkerton detectives, McCormick had hired other workers to replace the strikers. The strikers derisively referred to these workers as “scabs.”

Albert Spies’ first flier, with the words, “Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force,” removed in the second printing of the flier

Several strikes had gone off badly in Chicago in recent months; police chief John Bonfield had not shied from using violence to suppress them. But in the weeks before May 1, 1886, labor leaders had pulled off a series of successful public meetings. Prominent among these leaders were two anarchists, August Spies, a German immigrant, and Albert Parsons. Born into a prominent Southern family, Parsons had joined the Confederate army at the age of 13. After the war he had found his way to Chicago, where he became involved in union agitation and socialism. Employers had blackballed Parsons because of his role in the Great Strikes of 1877.


On Sunday, May 1, 1886, 30,000 gathered in Chicago for a peaceful labor rally. The next day, another rally was held in front of the McCormick factory to protest the lockout. In the midst of the rally, McCormick’s scabs began coming out the building, for they had been given a half-holiday to celebrate McCormick’s acceptance of the eight-hour day (which had been among the strikers’ demands). The angry strikers turned on the scabs and forced them back into the building. Soon over 200 police arrived at the scene and attacked the strikers with their billy clubs, killing one striker and wounding six others.


It was not long before the rumor spread that the six wounded strikers had been killed. In response to the rumor, August Spies printed a broadside that read, “REVENGE! Workingmen! to Arms!” Spies printed another flier, calling for a mass meeting, to be held May 4 at Haymarket Square, to protest police violence. The first proof of this flier carried the injunction, “Workingmen arm yourselves and appear in full force!” but Spies ordered that line expunged. Of the 20,000 fliers printed, maybe only 200–300 contained this line.


Engraving of the Haymarket explosion

At 8 p.m. on May 4, Spies addressed a few hundred workers gathered at Haymarket Square. As he warmed to his subject, he began denouncing McCormick and challenged the workers. “The families of twenty-five or thirty thousand men are starving because their husbands and fathers are not men enough to withstand and resist the dictation of the thieves on a grand scale,” he cried. Albert Parsons next addressed the slowly growing crowd. “I am not here for the purpose of inciting anybody,” he declared. “It behooves you, as you love your wife and children, if you don’t want to see them perish with hunger, killed or cut down like dogs in the street, Americans, in the interest of your liberty and your independence, to arm, to arm yourselves.” The people applauded and cried, “We will do it, we are ready now!”


A rainstorm drove away many of those gathered, and at 10 p.m., when about 180 police arrived, only 300 to 400 remained. The rally had been peaceful, but the police captain ordered it to disperse. No sooner had he spoken than someone threw a bomb into the ranks of police, killing one officer and injuring sixty others. The police fired into the crowd. In the aftermath, one striker lay dead, 12 others were wounded.


Newspaper accounts of the Haymarket episode made it appear that the bomb-throwing had been part of a well-orchestrated anarchist plot. In the weeks that followed, police arrested socialists and anarchists in Chicago and suppressed their newspapers. Among those arrested were August Spies and another anarchist leader, Samuel Fielden. Albert Parsons, who had gone into hiding, decided to give himself up. “I could not bear to be at liberty knowing my comrades were here and were to suffer for something of which they were as innocent as I,” he said.

Engraving of the Haymarket anarchists

Thirty-one radical leaders were indicted as accessories to the bombing. Eight of these — Spies, Parsons, Fielden, Louis Lingg (who manufactured bombs similar to the one thrown in the Haymarket), Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fisher, and George Engel — were put on trial. Throughout the trial, the judge displayed a bias against the defendants and made rulings favorable to the prosecution; and though no evidence linked the eight to the bombing, the jury found them guilty. All but Oscar Neebe (sentenced to 15 years in prison) were condemned to die by hanging.


In his address to the court, Spies declared that he had been convicted simply because he was an anarchist, because he believed the “state of castes and classes — the state where one class dominates over and lives upon the labor of another class . . . is doomed to die, and make room for a free society, voluntary association, or universal brotherhood, if you like . . . If death is the penalty for proclaiming the truth, then I will proudly and defiantly pay the costly price! Call in your hangman! Truth crucified in Socrates, in Christ, in Giordano Bruno, in Huss, Galileo, still lives — they and others whose number is legion have preceded us on this path. We are ready to follow!”


Lawyers for the eight anarchists appealed their case to the Illinois state supreme court, but the justices upheld the verdict of the lower court. A group of lawyers, among whom was old Benjamin (“the Beast”) Butler, next appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. Given the irregularities of the case, they thought it certain that the court would hear the case and grant a writ of error. They were wrong. The justices refused to consider the case.

The only hope left for the condemned men was a governor’s pardon. Illinois governor Richard Oglesby long vacillated between letting the court’s sentence stand and commuting the death sentences to life imprisonment. The plight of the seven men had become of national interest to labor, with Samuel Gompers weighing in for pardon and Terence Powderly calling for justice to take its course. (Powderly himself it seems was trying to deflect criticism that the Knights of Labor were socialist radicals.) Oglesby said if enough businessmen came out for pardon, he would feel assured that he could grant it. Indeed, enough businessmen would have supported a pardon had not the rich and powerful Chicagoan, Marshall Field, voiced his opposition to clemency. Against the powerful Field, no businessmen spoke in favor of pardoning the convicted anarchists.


Hanging of the four Haymarket anarchists

Governor Oglesby finally opted for compromise; he commuted Schwab and Fielden’s sentence to life imprisonment. Spies, Fischer, Parsons, and Engel were led to the scaffold on November 11, 1887. (Lingg had committed suicide in jail by blowing off a dynamite cap in his mouth.) “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!” Spies cried from the gibbet. His comrade, Fisher, shouted, “Hurrah for anarchy,” while Engel chimed, “This is the happiest day of my life!” The trap doors then gave way beneath the condemned, but Parsons had just time enough to raise his voice: “Let me speak . . . Let the voice of the people be heard!”

American Orchestral Music in the Year of the Riot


George Whitefield Chadwick (1859-1931) was a composer of what has been called the New England School. Some think his music to have a distinctly American style. The following is a recording of his Symphony No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 21, composed in in 1881.