The Haymarket Affair

People v. August Spies, et al  (Criminal Court #18727 et seq., 1886)
Times were very hard for immigrants who came to America's cities after the Civil War.  Nineteenth-century industrial workers endured poverty, suffered frequent layoffs and hazardous working conditions, and toiled six-day weeks for ten hours a day.  The labor union movement gathered strength and numbers, and by 1886 the push for an eight-hour day sparked protests and strikes.  On May 1, striking McCormick Harvester workers in Chicago held a large but peaceful meeting that was brutally broken up by police.  Union leaders planned a May 4 rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square near Randolph and Desplaines Streets, just west of Chicago's present-day Loop.  Again the meeting was orderly even Mayor Carter Harrison dropped by and affirmed the peaceful atmosphere.  However, the Chicago Police Department's Captain Bonfield disregarded this information and marched his men to the rally.  Suddenly, just as the rally was ending, someone threw a bomb into the crowd.  The explosion left one policeman dead and several fatally injured but the shock waves from this explosion traveled around the world.

Business and civic interests immediately targeted labor unionists as a threat to the foundation of the Republic.  The press inflamed the public outcry by inaccurately describing the Haymarket "Riot" as violent and disorderly, and by blaming the mostly foreign-born unionists for threatening public safety.  Hundreds of workers were beaten and arrested, but of the twenty or so eventually indicted by the grand jury, only eight men were tried in the case.  The identity of the bomb thrower was never discovered.  Named by the grand jury were about twenty men, including the eight actually prosecuted:  George Engel, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Albert Parsons, Michael Schwab, and August Spies.  Of the eight men later convicted, only three were actually present when the bomb detonated.

Judge Joseph E. Gary firmly held that the defendants had caused the bombing by speaking and writing their ideas publicly.  He appointed bailiff Henry L. Ryce to select a jury which was hardly impartial one juror was even related to a bomb victim.  Defense objections by attorney Captain William P. Black were denied, and the trial commenced June 21.  No defendants ever were connected to the bomb or to the numerous weapons displayed in open court by states attorney Julius Grinnell.  Yet on August 20 the jury found all eight men guilty and set the death penalty for seven (Neebe received a prison sentence).  Receiving the case on appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court in September 1887 admitted that the trial had not been fair but still upheld the guilty verdict.  The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

By this time, public opinion had shifted toward support of the defendants.  Prominent persons representing the law, labor, and academia spoke out in protest.  Just before the November 11 hanging, Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby commuted two death sentences to life imprisonment (Fielden and Schwab).  The night before the execution Lingg committed suicide.  The four remaining defendants were transformed into martyrs when they met their deaths by bravely speaking their last words in support of free speech and workers' rights.

A funeral procession of thousands carried the dead to German Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, where they rest with others honored for support of free speech.  In 1893, Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld fully pardoned all eight defendants, simultaneously issuing a scathing reprimand of the judiciary process.  A monument in Waldheim to the Haymarket martyrs was dedicated then and still stands.  The Haymarket Affair for decades overshadowed the labor movement's struggles in Chicago.  But the eight-hour day did finally arrive, and today workers the world over celebrate May 1 as well as Labor Day. 

To view the original Criminal Court trial files, contact the Archives at 312 603-6601.   The case files contain over a dozen indictments, some of "persons unknown," for murder, conspiracy, and variously worded charges.  The defense filed petitions for a new trial, for separate trials, and to quash the indictments.  Of particular interest is the challenge to the grand jury array, with testimony regarding the prejudice operating in this process.  Other documents include depositions, subpoenas, instructions to the jury, penitentiary mittimus.  These files do NOT contain a trial transcript.  The Chicago History Museum has the original trial transcript.

The Archives also has a microfilm copy of the appeal case trial transcript available for viewing (Case # 22781, Spies, et al v. State of Illinois, courtesy of the Illinois State Archives).  To see the original appeal case, contact the Illinois State Archives .

The Chicago Historical Society offers an outstanding online exhibit of the Haymarket Affair that displays documents from the Haymarket trail as well as other artifacts and documents, with illuminating narrative text.

The following books may help expand your knowledge of this landmark case:

Avrich, Paul.  Haymarket Tragedy.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1984.

Henry, David.  The History of the Haymarket Affair.  New York:  Farrar and Rinehart, 1936, 1958 rev.

Kogan, Bernard R.  The Chicago Haymarket Riot:  Anarchy on Trial.  Boston:  Heath, 1959.

Smith, Carl.  Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995.

For young people:

Meltzer, Milton:  Bread and Roses .  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.

Naden, Corinne J.  The Haymarket Affair, Chicago, 1886.  New York:  Franklin Watts, Inc., 1968.