TODAY in HISTORY – Chicago’s Deadly Haymarket Affair

by William “Doc” Halliday

In April of 2013 two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and 260 wounded. This was not the first time that a bomb has been set off at a gathering. Sometimes we forget that history repeats itself. One hundred and thirty years ago today, on May 4, 1886, the Haymarket Affair took place. No, it is not that kind of an affair. A bomb was thrown at policemen trying to break up a labor rally in Chicago. The police response was to fire into the crowd.

It was a peaceful rally until about 10:30 p.m. when the police arrived. A bomb was thrown, and the police fired their revolvers into the crowd. Seven policemen and four civilians were killed, most likely all by police bullets. There were also about 100 people injured.

American workers had begun organizing into labor unions after the Civil War, and by the 1880s many thousands were organized into unions. The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was the first major American labor union. It was formed in 1869 as a secret society of garment cutters in Philadelphia. The union recruited both skilled and unskilled workers in all fields. This was very unusual, as up to that point, labor organizations tended to focus on particular skilled trades. The Knights of Labor, as it was referred to, grew throughout the decade of the 1870s, and by the mid-1880s it had more than 700,000 members. The union was able to secure negotiated settlements from hundreds of employers across the United States as a result of strikes it organized.

In October of 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada in a unanimous vote at their convention, selected May 1, 1886, as their date to enforce an eight-hour work day. In February of 1886 workers were locked out at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago. That factory made farm equipment including the famous McCormick Reaper, which was a mechanical harvester invented by Cyrus McCormick prior to the Civil War.

On Saturday, May 1, 1886, there was a general strike by as many as a half million workers throughout the United States. In both New York and Detroit, at least 10,000 workers demonstrated. In Chicago which was the center of the union organization, perhaps 40,000 went on strike. The workers who went out on strike demanded an eight-hour workday with the same pay as the previous ten-hour workday. This was a huge change, considering that thousands of workers were employed in Chicago at $1.50 per day. Sixty hour work weeks were common at that time. In retaliation, the company locked out the workers and hired strikebreakers. This was also a common practice for employers at the time.

A large May Day parade was held in Chicago on May 1, 1886, with the rallying cry of “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.” On May 3 at a rally outside the McCormick plant, police fired into the crowd with their revolvers and killed at least two people. Flyers were quickly printed by the union organizers calling for another rally the next day at Haymarket Square. This was a busy retail area at the intersection of Des Plaines Street and Randolph Street.

It was a peaceful rally until about 10:30 p.m. when the police arrived. A bomb was thrown, and the police fired their revolvers into the crowd. Seven policemen and four civilians were killed, most likely all by police bullets. There were also about 100 people injured.

The police work leading to the arrest of eight individuals (who may have been guilty of some other crime) was shoddy or non-existent at best. The trial began in June and ended in August with one defendant being sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The other seven defendants were sentenced to death by hanging. Appeals through the legal system went to the Supreme Court where it was denied. Four defendants were hanged; two had their sentences commuted to life in prison, and the last committed suicide. None of the eight were accused of being the actual bomber, and no actual bomber was ever brought to trial.

The Haymarket affair is generally considered to be significant as it is the origin of international May Day observations for labor union workers. The location of the occurrence was designated as a Chicago Landmark in 1992.

William “Doc” Halliday is an historian and writer. He can be contacted at doc@dochalliday.us .

William "Doc" Halliday

Historian, Political Commentator

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