THE HAYMARKET SQUARE RIOT
A JOURNEY INTO CHICAGO'S VIOLENT PAST

In the years after the Great Chicago Fire, wealth and prosperity returned to Chicago, but according to many reformers and activists, that wealth remained in the hands of the privileged few. They were men like Marshall Field, George Pullman, Cyrus McCormick and Phillip Danforth Armour... who saw constant unrest among their workers over job conditions, wages and shorter work days. There was no question that conditions in many plants (especially in the slaughter houses) were questionable at best and men worked 10-12 hours, six days a week, for very little pay. Strikes and protests had become commonplace by the time of the Haymarket Square Riot in 1886, but this event would change the face of the labor movement forever.

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The events that culminated here had been brewing since the end of the Civil War as trade unions began to organize to protect the rights of workers. It should also be pointed out that many of the organizers were blatant socialists and some were not content to merely let strikes and walk-outs speak for them. Many of them endorsed a more violent form of action. That action reached its peak in Haymarket Square, where rural farmers came to exchange produce for cash, in May 1886.

Recent troubles at the McCormick Reaper Works had turned Chicago into a labor battleground. There was trouble simmering in the city, hidden just below the surface, but threatening to boil over. On Tuesday evening, May 4, a mass meeting of workers was called to protest police actions against striking employees at the McCormick factory, who were trying to force and eight-hour work day. A crowd of 20,000 had been expected but a cool rain kept many in. Eventually, about 2,500 tired spectators showed up to hear the speeches by Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden and August Spies. All three men were considered “dangerous agitators” and “anarchists” by city business leaders however Mayor Carter Henry Harrison, issued a parade permit for the gathering, believing there was no cause for concern.

Others were not so sure. Responding to pressure from businessmen, Police Inspector John Bonfield called up 600 police reserves into duty that night at the West Chicago, Harrison and Central stations. He led them to believe that a citywide riot might occur. One 100 more officers were added to the Des Plains station, less than a half block from Haymarket Square.

The rally began at 8:30 pm and the crowd was fairly listless, plus damp from the drizzling rain. Mayor Harrison rode by on his horse a short time later and was satisfied that it was a peaceable gathering. He ordered Bonfield to send the reserve officers home. The police inspector refused and two hours later, he ordered his men to disperse the crowd. The speakers were approached by Captain William Ward, who commanded the meeting to end in the “name of the people of Illinois”.

Suddenly, according to author Richard Linberg, a crudely manufactured pipe bomb was thrown from a vestibule at Randolph and Des Plaines Streets. The bomb exploded in the midst of a 200-man police column. Officer Mathias Degan was killed instantly and six others were mortally wounded. Although momentarily stunned, the officers quickly recovered and began shooting wildly into the fleeing crowd of laborers. The shooting continued for more than five minutes.

While the mayor pleaded for calm, Bonfield and Police Inspector Michael Schaak took it upon themselves to find the culprits who had thrown the bomb....or who had caused the bomb to be thrown in the first place. The officers began a reign of terror among working class citizens in Chicago. All rights (such as they were then) were suspended and hundreds of suspects were arrested, beaten and interrogated at all hours of the night. False confessions were violently extracted from those thought to be “anarchists” or sympathizers of the labor unions. Whoever the bomb thrower actually was.... he faded away into history.

Eventually, eight conspirators were brought to trial for the riot and seven of them received the death sentence, while the eighth was given 15 years in prison. All of them were tried and sentenced on conspiracy charges to incite violence that led to the deaths of the police officers. On November 11, 1887, August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged at the Criminal Courts Building on Hubbard Street. Another of the conspirators died in an explosion and the death sentences of the others were commuted to prison terms.

The city of Chicago erected a statue of a police officer in Haymarket Square on May 4, 1889 and it became the first such monument in the nation. For many years, the police were seen as the martyr’s of the riot but with the rise of the big labor unions, that perception slowly changed. During the 1960’s, the statue was defaced, blown up twice, repaired and finally removed to the Chicago Police Training Academy by Mayor Richard J. Daley. Nothing remains to mark this area today..... save for the memories of the past.

 

COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.