On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally near Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police. At least eight people died as a result of the violence that day. Despite a lack of evidence against them, eight radical labor activists were convicted in connection with the bombing. The Haymarket Riot was viewed a setback for the organized labor movement in America, which was fighting for such rights as the eight-hour workday. At the same time, the men convicted in connection with the riot were viewed by many in the labor movement as martyrs.
U.S. Labor in the 1800s
Strikes by industrial workers were increasingly common in the United States in the 1880s, a time when working conditions often were dismal and dangerous, and wages were low.
The American labor movement during this time also included a radical faction of socialists, communists and anarchists who believed the capitalist system should be dismantled because it exploited workers. A number of these labor radicals were immigrants, many of them from Germany.
Haymarket Riot Begins
The May 4, 1886, rally at Haymarket Square was organized by labor radicals to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by the Chicago police during a strike the day before at the McCormick Reaper Works.
Toward the end of the Haymarket Square rally, a group of policemen arrived to disperse the crowd. As the police advanced, an individual who was never identified threw a bomb at them. The police and possibly some members of the crowd opened fire and chaos ensued. Seven police officers and at least one civilian died as a result of the violence that day, and an untold number of other people were injured.
Aftermath of the Haymarket Riot
The Haymarket Riot set off a national wave of xenophobia, as scores of foreign-born radicals and labor organizers were rounded up by the police in Chicago and elsewhere. In August 1886, eight men, labeled as anarchists, were convicted in a sensational and controversial trial in which the jury was considered to be biased and no solid evidence was presented linking the defendants to the bombing.
Judge Joseph E. Gary imposed the death sentence on seven of the men, and the eighth was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On November 11, 1887, four of the men were hanged.
Of the additional three who were sentenced to death, one committed suicide on the eve of his execution and the other two had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby. The governor was reacting to widespread public questioning of their guilt, which later led his successor, Governor John P. Altgeld, to pardon the three activists still living in 1893.
In the aftermath of the Haymarket Riot and subsequent trial and executions, public opinion was divided. For some people, the events led to a heightened anti-labor sentiment, while others (including labor organizers around the world) believed the men had been convicted unfairly and viewed them as martyrs.