- Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America
In the evening of May 4, 1886 workers gathered to attend a rally in Chicago's Haymarket square. The demonstration condemned the recent use of lethal force by the city's police force in suppressing strike activity at the McCormick Reaper Works. Speakers addressed the audience in both English and German, and as the speeches drew to a close six police divisions arrived to bring an end to the demonstration. At this moment, the eerie incandescence of a sputtering red fuse illuminated the standoff as a small projectile arched through the night air and landed amidst the police. When the bomb exploded pandemonium ensued. A police riot followed as officers emptied their pistols into the crowd. The fallout of this bomb blast was a wave of hysteria in which police and prosecutors violated civil liberties, culminating in a sensational show trial of the eight workers accused of committing the crime of the century. The accused were primarily immigrant [End Page 466] labor activists, and although the bomb thrower was never identified, four of them went to the gallows in 1887. It is not surprising that this event has been a site of historical investigation for generations of scholars; the bomb that exploded in Haymarket square remains a violent story from a violent time.
Social historians are not strangers to this violence. Paul Avrich investigated this event through biographies of the movement's leaders who stood trial for this crime, and Bruce Nelson broadened our understanding of Haymarket by focusing on the rank and file of the anarchist movement.1
Labor historian Jim Green revisits this smoldering narrative of industrial unrest in the Gilded Age, paying particular attention to developments in Chicago. Green lights the fuse of the Haymarket bomb back in 1865 with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War. Although Lincoln's funeral train passed through Chicago, more of the city's residents were on hand to watch the funeral procession of the executed Haymarket anarchists. While the end of the Civil War united Americans in triumph and tragedy, the bombing two decades later alluded to growing divisions within industrializing America.
Why did anarchist violence appear in Republican America, and what happened in Chicago that facilitated growth of the anarchist movement? Rapid industrialization and a large immigrant population were present in many other cities, but Green looks to the particularities of Chicago. From the perspective of this rising industrial city, Green merges the international with the local, balancing reaction to the Paris commune and the Chicago fire of 1871. Green also pays particular attention to national trends such as the movement for the 8-hour day and the economic turbulence that characterized the Gilded Age. In this chaotic climate socialists gained increasing audience with the city's workers, and during the early 1870s electoral politics seemed to many to be an adequate means of addressing the growing industrial unrest in Chicago. Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons ran unsuccessfully for alderman, state assemblymen, sheriff, and country clerk, and in 1879 the Socialist Labor Party even nominated him for President. However, in the spring of 1880, Chicago election officials rigged election results in order to unseat socialist alderman. The fraud failed, but Parsons and others increasingly lost faith in representative democracy. By 1881, a congress of revolutionaries condemned voting as an invention of the bourgeoisie to fool the workers. As Green writes, an alternative worldview emerged where "The invention of dynamite had changed the calculus of power. Now the weakest, most wretched elements had a weapon that could inflict incalculable damage" (p. 10). Then the "Upheaval of '86" brought unprecedented strikes and boycotts to industrial centers across the United States; at stake for many of those involved was nothing less than the future of the good society. Chicago's working class did not stand idle, and within this charged climate Green...