The Haymarket Affair Narrative

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The Haymarket Affair Narrative

What has come to be known as the Haymarket Affair began on May 3, 1886, when Chicago police fired into a crowd of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing and wounding several men. The following evening, anarchist and socialist labor leaders organized a meeting of workingmen near Chicago's Haymarket Square. Speakers at the meeting denounced the police attack of the previous afternoon and urged workers to intensify their struggle for an eight-hour workday and other improvements in labor conditions.


Just as the meeting was breaking up, the police, led by Captain William Ward and Inspector John Bonfield, arrived on the scene and attempted to disperse the crowd. During this effort, someone threw a dynamite bomb into the ranks of the police, killing one officer outright and injuring others. In the rioting and confusion that followed, police, and probably others in the crowd, fired shots. Seven police officers were killed or mortally wounded, and one died of his wounds several years later. How many casualties the workers sustained that evening is not known, as those who fell were quickly dragged to safety or to medical attention by their comrades.


The unknown bomber's act resounded nationwide. Public opinion was instantly galvanized against the radical left, resulting in the first "Red Scare" in America. In a climate of political paranoia fueled by the popular press, the police arrested eight prominent Chicago anarchists and charged them with conspiracy to murder. The eight were tried before Judge Joseph E. Gary in the Circuit Court of Cook County. Although no evidence emerged to tie any of the men to the bombing, the jury returned a verdict of guilty after deliberating for less than three hours. The court sentenced Oscar Neebe to fifteen years in the penitentiary and the others to death by hanging.


The attorneys for the defense immediately appealed the verdict to the Illinois Supreme Court which upheld the verdict against the anarchists on September 14, 1887. The defense then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of error. After three days of testimony by counsel for the convicted, however, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition on November 2, 1887, leaving amnesty as the only remaining option for the defendants.


On November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer were hanged. Louis Lingg escaped the hangman's noose by committing suicide in his cell the day before he was scheduled to climb the scaffold. Illinois governor Richard Oglesby commuted the sentences of Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab to life in prison. In 1893, Oglesby's successor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the three surviving defendants, Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe, at the cost of his own political career.


The Haymarket Affair was a momentous and controversial event in Chicago's history and in the history of the American labor movement. In Chicago, a monument was erected in Haymarket Square to memorialize the police officers who lost their lives. Throughout the United States and Europe the executed anarchists became known as "the martyrs of Chicago."

SOURCE: The Haymarket Affair Digital Collection from the Chicago Historical Society. (

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