On Saturday, May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States went on strike in an attempt to force employers to institute an eight hour workday. The action that day was peaceful—there were parades in big cities such as New York, Detroit, and Milwaukee. In Chicago, bands of girls from the sewing factories gathered together and danced and sang in the streets.
The strikes continued into the week. On Monday, May 3rd, workers gathered outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago. Everything was relatively quiet until the whistle blew for the end of the day. As strikebreakers were escorted from the factory, a scuffle broke out between them and the crowd of locked out workers. Shots were fired and four strikers died.
As news of this outrage spread, an assembly was planned for the next day. It was to be located at the Haymarket.
The turnout on the evening of May 4th was somewhat disappointing turnout, hundreds where thousands had been hoped for. Speeches were given. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison stopped by, just to keep an eye on things. He thought it was “tame,” and told the police chief at the nearby station that it looked like nothing would happen, and that the reserves of police who had been called to duty could go home.
Nevertheless, a column of police officers, with revolvers drawn, had gathered near the assembly. The police demanded that the assembly disperse. One man pointed out that they were acting peaceably, but the police repeated their demand. Past ten o’ clock, with a light drizzle beginning, the crowd began to break up anyway.
Then suddenly, there was a flash of light and an explosion. Shots rang out and everyone began to run. One police officer died at the scene. Within the next few days, six more died of their wounds. Three civilians died, and an unknown number of police and civilians were wounded. And the labor movement of the 19th century, in which people, mostly foreign and poor, fought for the right to decent working conditions, had once again been stained with blood.
James Green’s Death in the Haymarket tells not only about what happened on that fateful May Day, but about the conditions that led up to it and how the fears and class warfare of the time led to the, at best, flawed, at worst, downright illegal convictions and executions of four men purported to have been involved in the riot. All of the men were known to have radical political views. Two had spoken at the assembly. But there was not one bit of evidence showing that any of them had thrown the bomb or had conspired with anyone to throw the bomb.
It can be hard in this day and age—unless you’re living in a Third World country—to remember how important an issue the eight hour work day was. It’s one thing to be an associate at a law firm or a trader at an investment bank who’s putting in 12 hour days. There’s a reward at the end of the rainbow for people now who put in that kind of face time. But in the 19th century, it meant standing in front of a machine all day and the reward was another day that was exactly the same. With the low wages, and the amount of time (and we’re talking about six days a week, not five) spent at these jobs, it’s not like anyone could save money, take time to learn something else or go to school. That was it. That was your life. There was very little chance (short of an inheritance or a marriage to someone whose family owned a good business) of advancing in life. This was one of the very reasons why the workers were agitating for the eight hour day—it wasn’t just the exhaustion of the work. They believed that if they only worked eight hours, they could have time at night to “improve themselves” and then possibly move up in the world. An eight hour day meant gave a chance for the poor and the new immigrants to join the society—to even become consumers.
To say the employers didn’t see it that way is an understatement. The first attempts by workers’ groups to mandate the eight hour day began in 1867. They failed, but for the next two decades different groups rose up and agitated: strikes, riots, the inevitable clash that led to one or two deaths, the recalcitrant large companies that although competitors in the marketplace, were willing to band together to crush the labor movements. Socialist groups formed and tried to change laws by putting their candidates into city and state governments. When these failed, some became more radical—anarchists, calling for an end to government, but not (in most cases) violence.
The eight men put on trial for the Haymarket deaths should never even have been indicted. Their lawyers pointed out to the grand jury that they couldn’t be charged with murder as there was no evidence any of them had thrown the bomb. They couldn’t be charged as accomplices when there was no one charged for committing the crime. They couldn’t be charged for conspiring to cause the deaths because there was no proof a conspiracy had been planned. The assembly had been quiet and even the mayor had said the speeches were not inflammatory. One of the men charged, Albert Parsons, pointed out that he had brought his wife and children to the assembly—would he have done that if he had planned to throw a bomb there? Essentially, they were being tried for being anarchists, not for having done any specific action at Haymarket that night other than show up with known “dangerous” political views.
The trial was a mess. The judge treated it, like a party, with high-society ladies invited to come sit on the bench to watch the proceedings. The prosecution’s witnesses had so little credibility that it was laughable. And again, they weren’t being charged for any legitimate crime. Nevertheless, seven were condemned to death. One who had not even been there, but ran an anarchist newspaper, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
When the trial began, and even after the sentencing took place, the public had been widely against the men. They had killed police officers; they were anarchists; most of them were foreign. But as more information came out about the trial and as reporters came to know them, and write sympathetic accounts about them, the tide began to turn. As their lawyers started a long appeals process, they were aided by a stream of people, both famous and infamous, who were willing to write to Illinois governor Richard Oglesby and beg for clemency. Some who even believed the men guilty, or at least dangerous, who had called for their deaths reversed their positions—they feared that if the men were executed, they’d become martyrs to the anarchists’ cause, and raise the masses to take even more dangerous actions.
In the end, two of the men who had written to Oglesby had their sentences commuted to life in prison. One man committed suicide before the execution. The others, including Albert Parsons, a charismatic speaker and leader, were hung on November 11, 1887.
Their deaths set off an outcry and they did become martyrs, more so in Europe than in the US, though. However their deaths and unfair trials acted as the matches that lit the fires in such famous agitators and leaders of the time as Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Bill Haywood.
The sentences of the surviving men were commuted by the next governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, and they went off to live and die quietly. Lucy Parsons, herself a figure of controversy when Albert was alive (she was said to be African-American, though she claimed to be Native American and Mexican) became a symbol of labor’s struggles, living until well into the next century.
Green does a fine job of telling this story, tracing the evolution of the many different labor groups and political organizations that formed amongst the poor of Chicago. He does a particularly good job of setting the scene in Chicago, a busy prosperous city in some places, but in others, a mix of slums and factories, with the poor living in a world where they never saw the sun, because the buildings were too close and too high and the smog too thick, and where the air was filled with the smell of burning coal, of blood and meat from the many slaughterhouses, of iron and wood. Quite a change for those of the poor who had come to Chicago from the farms and countryside, hoping for a better life.
Despite this, and even with the presence of such intriguing characters as the Parsons, the story never quite leaps to life. It’s very interesting—I read it very quickly—and all the facts are laid out very clearly, but I never was quite captivated or swept away by it. It’s still worth reading, especially because this was such an important moment in history, and one that probably does not get its due, but again (I know, I know) I did not fall in love, and wish I could have. But that's unlikely now, isn't it?