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4 May 2008

On this day in history: Haymarket Affair, 1886

In the late nineteenth-century workers' groups around the world agitated for an eight hour working day. To this end, in October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a general strike of all federated members in the United States and Canada from 1st May 1886.

In early May, Striking workers held rallies across the countries. In Chicago the striking workers included employees of the McCormick Reaper Works who had been locked out since February of that year, and replaced with strikebreakers. Each day, hundreds of Chicago police officers provided protection for the strikebreakers. On May 3rd, some of the strikers approached the factory gates to confront the 'scabs' at the end of the working day. The police responded by firing into the crowd, killing six workers.

The next evening - 4th May 1886 - outraged Chicago workers attended a rally organised by anarchists near Haymarket Square. After the final speaker had addressed the crowd, and as they began to leave, the police moved in to disperse the meeting. As they did so, somebody in the crowd threw a bomb into the police ranks, killing one officer immediately and injuring several others. Shots rang out as the police fired on protesters, who - according to some accounts - returned fire.

In all, seven police officers died in the fire fight with one dying later from his wounds. There are no records of how many strikers died, as any bodies were removed from the scene by their comrades. Eight men were arrested for the murder, all were anarchists, and had connections - direct or indirect - with the organisers of the rally. All were found guilty.

Of the convicted, four were hanged, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, August Spies; Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison; Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment on appeal.

The tragedy near the Haymarket sharply divided opinion at the time, and continues to do so today. To find out more visit the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection on the Chicago Historical Society site, or the The Haymarket Massacre Archive at Anarchy Archives.


Johnguru said...

This is a major event in American history. I first read about it-- I'm not sure, an elementary school american history class. Sixth or seventh grade. At the time it aroused resentment of the blue-uniformed minions of moneyed power, and it still does

Johnguru said...

I should probably add that my father was a loyal member of United Auto Workers throughout his working career, and he always told us kids it was because of the Unions that we had anything at all.

Stepterix said...

Thanks for your comments, John.

I had no idea that this was seen as a major event in US history. But then, I guess it is similar to Britain's Peterloo Massacre, or the Champs de Mars massacre in France.

Until I researched the event I didn't realise its importance in fixing the image of the bomb-throwing anarchist in the public imagination.