Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 4, 1886

This Day in Labor History: May 4, 1886


On March 4, 1886, during a protest march against police brutality in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a bomb went off in the middle of a group of policemen, killing 7 officers. The aftermath of the Haymarket bombing showed the fear American capitalists had of working-class ideologies, the lack of civil liberties during the Gilded Age, and the tenuousness of labor organizations during these years of class formation.

The mid-1880s saw the native-born working class struggling to understand the new labor system of the Gilded Age. With the promises of mutually respectful employer-employee relations at the center of early Republican free labor ideology shown to be a farce and workers living increasing desperate lives in dirty and dangerous factories and condemned to poverty, the American working-class sought to even the playing field between employer and employee. The Knights of Labor promised the eight-hour day; in a period when labor looked for a single panacea to solve all problems rather than a deep class analysis of labor-employer relations, the working-class jumped to the idea. The Knights, led by Terence Powderly, grew rapidly in the mid-1880s, even though Powderly didn’t really envision the organization as a radical challenge to capitalism. Still, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, Eight Hours for What You Will” became the slogan for a million or more Americans. But Powderly’s control over the organization was tenuous and with the Knights defined as open to all workers, it meant that anarchists and other radicals could easily join and then try to convert workers to their cause.

The center of 8-hour organizing was in Chicago, where small numbers of radicals began organizing workers to demand the 8-hour day and threaten a general strike if denied. On May 1, 1886, between 300,000 and 500,000 workers walked off their job around the nation. Probably 80,000 of those workers were in Chicago. The police responded with sadly predictable violence. On May 3, police murdered 6 strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant. The McCormick workers had been battling with their employer for a year, who had hired Pinkertons to beat them. They combined their already existing struggle with the 8-hour day to become some of the most respected working-class militants in the city. Responding to the murders, anarchists called a march to protest police violence the next day at Haymarket Square, which maybe 1,500 people attended. It was not a particularly large rally for the moment.

The truth was that these anarchists did not represent many of the workers in Chicago. A few were working within the 8-hour day movement. But the anarchist movement was mostly made up of German immigrants, often fleeing political violence at home. They came to the U.S. and their view of the American working class is that they were dupes. So they organized in Chicago but mostly didn’t even bother trying to communicate with American workers. Most of their writings remained in German, for example. Moreover, many came under the influence of man named Johann Most, who propagated what became known as “the propaganda of the deed.” This meant that violence–even deaths–that hurt innocents was politically justifiable because it would spur greater revolutionary activity and lead to the overthrow of the corrupt capitalist state. To say this was a morally dubious position is an understatement. But this was the ideology of many Chicago anarchists, who openly talked of violence in their speeches and publications.

Among the speakers was Albert Parsons. Born in Alabama, Parsons grew up in frontier Texas in the 1850s. Although he volunteered for the Confederacy as a young man, he became a southern white Republican in the years after the war. Parsons repudiated his Confederate past and supported not only the principles of Reconstruction but voting rights for African-Americans. He then married an African-American woman named Lucy Parsons, had a long and amazing career of her own, including being at the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, fighting with Emma Goldman over the role sex should play in anarchist politics (despite having many affairs later in life, she was outraged by the idea of discussing sex publicly), being involved in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, and inspiring the young Studs Terkel. Anyway, Parsons and Gonzalez were forced out of Texas due to intolerance to both their political beliefs and their interracial marriage. They moved to Chicago where they both wrapped themselves in the political maelstrom of the time. Parsons became a socialist newspaper editor, attended the first convention of the National Labor Union in 1876, and in 1880, withdrew from electoral politics to immerse himself in anarchism. He became obsessed with the 8-hour day and in 1884 began an anarchist newspaper in support of the idea.

Poster announcing the Haymarket rally

Albert Parsons gave an hour-long speech and by the time he finished, only around 500 people remained. As Samuel Fielden closed the rally with one last speech, the police marched into the square to end it by force. When the police moved in on the marchers, someone threw a bomb. The police responded by firing into the marchers, killing a disputed number (probably between 4 and 8) before cease-firing, fearful they would shoot each other in the darkness and confusion. Maybe 50 people on both sides were wounded.

The media reacted with anti-radical hysteria. The Chicago Tribune called to bar any “foreign savages who might come to American with their dynamite bombs and anarchistic purposes.” Unsure who actually threw the bomb but assuming it was a conspiracy, authorities tried eight of Chicago’s leading anarchists for the murders. That included Albert Parsons and August Spies, both of whom definitely did not throw the bomb. Parsons was actually in a nearby bar drinking a beer after his speech. Louis Lingg openly admitted making bombs but said he would have admitted it had he thrown it. Parsons argued that someone working for the corporations threw the bomb to provide an excuse for police violence and repression. The most likely candidate was an anarchist named Rudolph Schnaubelt, who fled the nation immediately after the killings and perhaps lived the rest of his life in Argentina. Yet no one knew for sure. Despite the lack of evidence, seven defendants received the death penalty and another fifteen years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. Louis Lingg committed suicide the day before his execution, while Parsons, Spies, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel were hanged on November 11, 1887.

Famed image of the Haymarket bombing from Harper’s

The aftermath of Haymarket completely destroyed the Knights of Labor and the 8-hour movement. Powderly repudiated the violence but was also totally unprepared for every part of the situation, from the size of the Knights to the official repression of labor radicalism. The Knights crumbled soon after and though workers still dreamed of the 8-hour day, it would take another half-century and countless dead workers to see it become a reality.

This series has also covered such other highlights of denying civil rights to the working-class as the Centralia Massacre of 1919 and the Bisbee Deportation of 1917.

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  • Holden Pattern

    You know what I’m getting from this? That by analogy, Robert Byrd was both a racist AND an anarchist, and should probably have been hung.

    • rea

      Don’t forget the key role Haymarket plays in the Ayers/Obama conspiracy!

  • Malaclypse

    You have clearly failed to adequately explain the differing extent to which Haymarket was caused by the objective economic suffering of labor, as opposed to the political responses of government. I feel the need to post endlessly about base/superstructure distinctions.

  • Furious Jorge

    Great post, Erik.

  • RhZ

    That’s the anarchistisch German font.

    • It is appropriately medieval-y

      • wengler

        It’s pre-WW2 German script and bugs the hell out of me when I read it.

        • Yeah, I don’t know anything about the history of this, but I do know it drives me crazy whenever I watch a German silent film.

          • Scott P.

            It was banned by Martin Bormann, who described it as “Jewish letters”. That’s why you don’t see much of it after WWII.

        • Hogan

          Don’t go hatin on the Fraktur.

          • Emily Litella

            It’s ruining vast tracts of rural Pennsylvania and New York State, and you’re telling me not to worry…

            Oh, never mind.

          • JoyfulA

            I thought you meant the fractur I have hanging in the hallway with other art.

  • mike in dc

    It’s almost as if there’s some sort of consistent pattern of employer hatred and contempt for those whose labors help produce/increase their prosperity. There should probably be some field of academic study created to look into this further.

    • Dave

      What for, it’s all in the past…?

  • joel hanes

    The poem Carl Hamblin in Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology is a bitter response to the hanging of the Haymarket anarchists.

    • Davis X. Machina

      It’s as unfashionable as hell, but I still love the Spoon River poems.

  • Murc

    With the promises of mutually respectful employer-employee relations at the center of early Republican free labor ideology shown to be a farce and workers living increasing desperate lives in dirty and dangerous factories and condemned to poverty

    Something I always have to try and keep in mind when it comes to labor relations during the Gilded Age is how contemptuous wide swathes of society were towards the workingman.

    I know, I know, “How is that different from today?” Well, today, doing work, for wages, is considered to be honorable work, and even people who work hard to depress wages and benefits and social mobility have to profess in public a deep and abiding admiration for doing so. Some of them even believe it; a number of the craziest Republicans I know genuinely think of themselves as champions of the working class, and speak with rosy nostalgia of the days when a man by himself could support his whole family by doing line work in a factory.

    It was NOT the case in the 19th century. Doing work, for wages, made you scum in the eyes of a large part of society. You were unambitious, not that smart, and unworthy of the rights of citizenship. (There were a number of pushed to disenfranchise anyone doing work for wages because it was a thought that anyone whose livelihood was in the hands of another couldn’t be relied upon to vote in an independent fashion.)

    It didn’t even really matter how much money you were making; if you were a talented factory overseer who had self-taught himself a fair bit of engineering and who could run the whole operation damn near by himself, living a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle, you could be less socially respectable than the dirt-poor town drunk, as long as the town drunk owned a bit of land and tried to make a go of it as a farmer. HE was a landowner, and he called no man master. YOU were just barely one step up from a servant.

    • Malaclypse

      It was NOT the case in the 19th century. Doing work, for wages, made you scum in the eyes of a large part of society. You were unambitious, not that smart, and unworthy of the rights of citizenship.

      It has been a long time since I’ve read anything on this topic, and much of what I’m drawing from is half-remembered Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, but what I recall of “wage-slavery” discussions involved the idea that working for wages stunted independence *, not that wage workers were scum. Much of the criticism of wage-work struck me as reasonable-but-naive **, rather than cruel and dismissive.

      * see both Adam Smith and Karl Marx as well on this topic.

      ** And if memory serves, much of it echo’s BradP’s libertarianism, although I don’t want to speak for him in this area.

      • Murc

        Well, the one feeds into the other.

        When this discussion first started being had seriously in American, in 1830s and 40s, a lot of the tone was as you say; it revolved around the idea that working for wages stunted independence, often roundly criticizing those who were taking advantage, and pondering ways in which people laboring for wages could be made into independent.

        That tone changed VERY quickly. The monied classes started seeing people who had worked for wages their whole lives, and who were the children and grand-children of wage earners, and often who were non-Anglo immigrants. And it quickly turned into “these people clearly don’t WANT to not work for wages even if the opportunity is offered. What’s WRONG with them?”

        And the answer to the ‘what’s wrong with them’ question could get super ugly, super fast.

  • DrDick

    Ain’t capitalism grand?

  • JoyfulA

    Some days I need a reminder that things are not worse than ever, that justice is not blinder, that police are not more brutal—-

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