May Day & the Memory of the Haymarket Massacre

By James Keith

On July 14th, 1889, the centennial of the French Revolution, the International Workers’ Congress in Paris declared May 1st “May Day” in honor of the “Martyrs of Chicago.” This is the reason that we celebrate May Day here in the United States as well. What happened in Chicago that inspired such an outpouring of international solidarity? To truly understand the impact of what would later be called the “Haymarket Massacre,” we must lay some groundwork.

In the 19th century, Chicago was a heavily industrialized city and therefore had a mass of underpaid laborers struggling against the capitalist owners that held power. In 1872, the Great Chicago Fire claimed the lives of between 120 and 300 people and left 100,000 homeless. To help placate the population, wealthy businessmen and high-society members got together and started the Relief and Aid Society in order to offer assistance to the displaced masses. It wasn’t long, however, before accusations arose that members were using some of the money to help themselves instead. Upon hearing this, thousands of starving workers marched on their building, but police drove them into a nearby tunnel and beat them with batons.

Beginning to sense the unrest and the capitalists’ need for protection, Inspector John Bonfield and Captain Michael Schaack of the Chicago Police Department went to the owners of large local businesses and negotiated a deal that would set up a slush fund with $100,000 in it (about $1,000,000 today). This was a game-changer, as it created an environment in which it was in the interest of the police to incite fights in order to continue to drive demand for protection. They would even go as far as to stage events and hire actors to incite crowds to provoke a confrontation.

While the eight-hour workday was already on the books in the US, the businesses in Chicago refused to honor it and were not held accountable to anyone. So in 1877, 8,000 workers marched in protest on the south side. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing three and wounding seven. Years later in 1885, streetcar workers went on strike, so on the orders of Bonfield, the police beat them until they dispersed. In 1886, Cyrus McCormick, owner of Harvesting Machine Company, locked 1000 workers out of the plant as a response to a general strike. On May 1, a labor organizer and prominent socialist named August Spies led 80,000 workers down Michigan Ave in protest of the still un-enforced eight hour workday, so on May 3, the striking workers were attacked by the police, leaving two dead.

On the morning of May 4, Spies and other prominent labor organizers planned a gathering to protest the police brutality. Adolph Fischer, an activist and printer at the local leftist newspaper, printed fliers for the event. After Spies read it, he immediately asked for a reprint. He had had a meeting with the mayor that morning, vowing that there would be no violence, so the words “Workingmen! Arm yourselves and appear in full force!” were removed and the new fliers were printed and distributed.

The Chicago Tribune at the time was well known for sensationalizing any leftists and members of labor parties as cartoonish bomb-throwing anarchists. This would have effects still felt today, as they delegitimized the once-significant anarchists. Bonfield and Schaack used this local fear to get the mayor to agree to allow the CPD to keep 176 police on-hand as a precaution.

At 7:30 that evening, 2,500 people rallied in Haymarket Square. Spies arrived and gave a rousing, hour-long speech. At 9pm, ex-Confederate and anarchist Albert Parsons (husband of radical activist, organizer, and socialist Lucy Parsons) took the stage, and was followed by Samuel Fielden, socialist anarchist organizer and Methodist preacher. After twenty-five minutes, the police in attendance ran to the nearby station to inform Inspector Bonfield that Fielden was using “inflammatory language.” Bonfield marched his 176 officers to the gathering and, as police to this day do every time they see things that disrupt the status quo, told the crowd to disperse. Fielden turned to the officer reading the dispersal decree and said, “But this is a peaceful meeting!” There was no opportunity to respond, however, as a five-pound dynamite bomb was detonated in front of the line of police. One would be killed by shrapnel, but six more would fall that day. Most witnesses would later say that they all died to friendly fire. Four protesters were killed and as many as seventy were wounded.

The following day, May 5, martial law was declared in Chicago. Hundreds were arrested. Eventually eight were brought to trial. After a suspicious trial with an openly hostile judge, Spies (who had left the gathering after his speech), Fielden, alleged bomb-maker Louis Lingg, George Engel (who had helped plan the rally but didn’t attend), Michael Schwab (who had given a speech to another group in another area that prosecutors would testify “could have inspired someone to violence”), Albert Parsons, and typesetter Adolph Fischer were all hung. Pacifist Oscar Neebe, whose only “direct” connection was $2 he had donated to help buy the printing press for the newspapers two years earlier, was given fifteen years in prison. The defense maintained the entire time that Pinkertons had been responsible for the frame-job, but could never provide enough evidence to prove it.

These are the “Martyrs of Chicago” that are still remembered today. The violent collaboration between business owners and the police against workers continues, and every year as we celebrate May Day, we join in solidarity with comrades past and present.

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