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The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 (2002) 315-344

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The 1886 Chicago Haymarket Bombing and the Rhetoric of Terrorism in America

Jeffory A. Clymer


On 4 May 1886, about two thousand Chicagoans gathered at Haymarket Square to protest against the city's police, who had shot and killed at least two striking workers outside the McCormick reaper factory on the previous afternoon. The demonstration was peaceful, and only a few hundred people remained when, late in the evening, 170 Chicago policemen suddenly arrived and demanded that the protesters disperse. Nonplused by the anticlimactic arrival of the police at the close of a peaceful rally, Samuel Fielden, the evening's last speaker, pointed out the meeting's non-violent nature in response to the peremptory dispersal order. At this point in the exchange, someone tossed a dynamite bomb into the police ranks. The explosion immediately killed Officer Mathias Degan, wounded several others, and prompted a cacophony of gunfire, most of it from police pistols. In the chaos, the police shot several of their own officers as well as many of the fleeing civilians. While the number of dead among the police rose to seven over the next few days, the actual number of casualties among the protesters, like the bomb thrower's identity, was never determined.

In the weeks after the bombing, the police rounded up and arrested virtually all known radical sympathizers in the Chicago area, shut down radical presses, and suppressed gatherings in known anarchist meeting places. Court proceedings against eight known anarchists, some of whom were demonstrably not at Haymarket Square at the time of the bombing, and none of whom were identified by credible witnesses, began in June 1886. On 20 August, a jury comprised mostly of men who openly admitted anti-radical prejudices handed down eight guilty verdicts as the outcome of a trial beset by paid prosecution witnesses and a judge clearly partial to the state. One defendant, Oscar Neebe, was sentenced to fifteen years hard labor, and the other seven men were condemned to hanging. Within days of the execution, however, two of the condemned men's sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, while Louis Lingg committed suicide in his cell by biting a fulminating cap. The other four men—Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer—were hanged on the morning of 11 November 1887. [End Page 315]

Prescience, Paranoia, Terrorism

The Haymarket bomb exploded in an ethnically- and class-striated city that frequently witnessed large labor demonstrations, boisterous workingmen's rifle clubs with militias that regularly drilled and practiced, as well as massive anarchist celebrations, picnics, and holiday revelry. Chicago's anarchist community also included a thriving radical press, fraternal halls, singing societies, and other sites of class- and ethnic-based communal gathering. And throughout the years leading up to the Haymarket bombing, the city's radicals had particularly and repeatedly antagonized middle-class Chicagoans with annual fetes that celebrated the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1881 dynamite assassination of Russia's Czar Alexander II as key moments in the working class's economic and political liberation. 1

When the bomb exploded at Haymarket Square, it arrived in this already highly confrontational environment. The blast shattered the tense peace between Chicago's most radical workers and factory owners that had obtained since the spontaneous violence of the 1877 railroad strikes had rocked Chicago and many other cities. Indeed, the 1877 strikes had catalyzed Americans to prophecy future violence. Pennsylvania Railroad president Thomas Scott, writing in the staid North American Review, had nervously suggested that "the late troubles may be but the prelude to other manifestations of mob violence, with this added peril, that now, for the first time in American history, has an organized mob learned its power to terrorize the law-abiding citizens of great communities." And in November 1885, only a few short months before the Haymarket bomb exploded, genteel clergyman Lyman Abbott warned that "communism" and radical labor organizations not only had become "fatally prolific" in America, but were...


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