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Friday Flashback: The Haymarket Massacre

By Prescott Carlson in Miscellaneous on May 1, 2009 5:20PM

Photo of the Haymarket memorial sculpture by swanksalot

Since today is International Workers' Day, a day meant to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre that took place in Chicago in 1886, we thought a brief look at the tragic event important to the labor movement around the globe was in order.

On May 1, 1886, 35,000 Chicago workers walked off their jobs as part of a national movement by laborers, unions, socialists and anarchists demanding an 8 hour work day. As the word was spread across the city, tens of thousands more also went on strike during the next few days. The strike went smoothly until May 3, when violence started at the International Harvester McCormick Reaper Works near 26th and Western and police fired into the crowd, killing at least two workers. In response to the shootings, anarchists organized a protest meeting the next day, May 4, at the West Randolph Street Haymarket at Randolph and Desplaines. They distributed notice about the event in "inflammatory leaflets, one of which called for 'Revenge!'"

Initially described as "peaceful," the group protested without incident until one speaker tried to rev up the crowd by urging them to "'throttle' the law," at which point 176 Chicago police officers were sent to the area and ordered the protesters to disburse. The order was met with resistance, and a member of the crowd threw a bomb at police, killing one officer. In response, police immediately drew their guns and began firing, which resulted in 60 officers being injured and 8 killed, and an unknown number of protesters hurt or killed. Police arrested hundreds, but the identity of the bomb thrower that sparked the incident was never determined.

Business leaders used what happened at Haymarket to try to further negative views towards organized labor, a battle that still wages on today. The violence and the ongoing reactions by the police and the local press at the time "demoralized strikers, and only a few well-organized strikes continued." The trial of 8 anarchists from the Haymarket Affair for murder lacked any sort of evidence, so "prosecutors focused on their writings and speeches... the trial is now considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history."

If you want to research more about the Haymarket Massacre and what happened afterward, the Chicago History Museum has put together a lengthy bibliography on the subject (PDF). [Source]