The Haymarket Riot

Color illustration of 1886 Haymarket Square Riot
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The Haymarket Riot in Chicago in May 1886 killed several people and resulted in a highly controversial trial followed by executions of four men who may have been innocent. The American labor movement was dealt a severe setback, and the chaotic events resonated for many years.

American Labor on the Rise

American workers had begun organizing into unions following the Civil War, and by the 1880s many thousands were organized into unions, most notably the ​Knights of Labor.

In the spring of 1886 workers struck at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago, the factory that made farm equipment including the famous McCormick Reaper made by Cyrus McCormick. The workers on strike demanded an eight-hour workday, at a time when 60-hour workweeks were common. The company locked out the workers and hired strikebreakers, a common practice at the time.

On May 1, 1886, a large May Day parade was held in Chicago, and two days later, a protest outside the McCormick plant resulted in a person being killed.

Protest Against Police Brutality

A mass meeting was called to take place on May 4, to protest what was seen as brutality by the police. The location for the meeting was to be Haymarket Square in Chicago, an open area used for public markets.

At the May 4th meeting a number of radical and anarchist speakers addressed a crowd of approximately 1,500 people. The meeting was peaceful, but the mood became confrontational when the police tried to disperse the crowd.

The Haymarket Bombing

As scuffles broke out, a powerful bomb was thrown. Witnesses later described the bomb, which was trailing smoke, sailing above the crowd in a high trajectory. The bomb landed and exploded, unleashing shrapnel.

The police drew their weapons and fired into the panicked crowd. According to newspaper accounts, policemen fired their revolvers for a full two minutes.

Seven policemen were killed, and it’s likely that most of them died from police bullets fired in the chaos, not from the bomb itself. Four civilians were also killed. More than 100 persons were injured.

Labor Unionists and Anarchists Blamed

The public outcry was enormous. Press coverage contributed to a mood of hysteria. Two weeks later, the cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine, one of the most popular publications in the US, featured an illustration of the "bomb thrown by anarchists" cutting down police and a drawing of a priest giving the last rites to a wounded officer in a nearby police station.

The rioting was blamed on the labor movement, specifically on the Knights of Labor, the largest labor union in the United States at the time. Widely discredited, fairly or not, the Knights of Labor never recovered.

Newspapers throughout the US denounced “anarchists,” and advocated hanging those responsible for the Haymarket Riot. A number of arrests were made, and charges were brought against eight men.

Trial and Executions of the Anarchists

The trial of the anarchists in Chicago was a spectacle lasting for much of the summer, from late June to late August of 1886. There have always been questions about the fairness of the trial and the reliability of the evidence. Some of the evidence presented did consist of early forensic work on bomb building. And while it was never established in court who had built the bomb, all eight defendants were convicted of inciting the riot. Seven of them were sentenced to death.

One of the condemned men killed himself in prison, and four others were hanged on November 11, 1887. Two of the men had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by the governor of Illinois.

The Haymarket Case Was Reviewed

In 1892 the governorship of Illinois was won by John Peter Altgeld, who ran on a reform ticket. The new governor was petitioned by labor leaders and defense attorney Clarence Darrow to grant clemency to the three imprisoned men convicted in the Haymarket case. Critics of the convictions noted the bias of the judge and jury and the public hysteria following the Haymarket Riot.

Governor Altgeld granted the clemency, stating that their trial had been unfair and was a miscarriage of justice. Altgeld’s reasoning was sound, but it damaged his own political career, as conservative voices branded him a “friend of anarchists.”

Haymarket Riot a Setback for American Labor

It was never officially determined who threw the bomb in Haymarket Square, but that didn't matter at the time. Critics of the American labor movement pounced on the incident, using it to discredit unions by linking them to radicals and violent anarchists.

The Haymarket Riot resonated in American life for years, and there is no doubt it set back the labor movement. The Knights of Labor had its influence plummet, and its membership dwindled.

At the end of 1886, at the height of the public hysteria following the Haymarket Riot, a new labor organization, the ​American Federation of Labor was formed. Eventually, the AFL rose to the forefront of the American labor movement.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Haymarket Riot." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Haymarket Riot. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Haymarket Riot." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).