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4 May 2009

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.

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