AS THE SUN ROSE over Lake Michigan on May 5 in 1886, Chicagoans beheld one of the brightest mornings in memory. In the early light of day, merchants, managers and brokers boarded horse-drawn streetcars on the South Side and headed north on Michigan Avenue toward the business district. Along the way they encountered a few high-hatted rich men, like the great manufacturer George Mortimer Pullman, being driven uptown in fancy carriages from their mansions on Prairie Avenue. Marring the commuters’ eastward view of Lake Michigan’s azure blue reaches, black freight trains rolled along the shoreline laden with baled cotton from the Mississippi River delta, cut lumber from the piney woods of Texas and soft coal from the mines of southern Illinois—all crucial ingredients in the city’s explosive industrial growth during the 1880s. Indeed, the businessmen who went to work in Chicago’s financial district that spring day in 1886 were in the midst of a golden decade of profit, when the net value of goods produced by the city’s leading industries multiplied twenty-seven times, ten times faster than the average yearly wage.1
But that first Wednesday in May when commuters gazed west over the widest industrial landscape in the world, they saw something unusual: a clear sky above the prairie horizon. Gone was the cloud of thick smoke that always hung over the city. The only signals of industrial activity came from the tall chimneys of the huge McCormick Reaper Works two miles away, where strikebreakers, guarded by Chicago police, kept the factory in operation. Scores of other plants and shops remained shut down on this fifth day of a mammoth general strike for the eight-hour day that had begun on May 1.
As the black-coated businessmen entered the downtown area, they could see knots of pickets around the soot-blackened warehouses that stretched along State Street all the way up to the Dearborn Station. Striking freight handlers had stanched the flow of interstate commerce through Chicago’s immense grid of iron rails. In solidarity, switchmen had refused to switch trains in one central railyard, crippling the mighty Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the city’s largest freight handler. 2 Trains still chugged into the city that day, but when the locomotives reached the depots, they sat idle, stuck on the tracks with unloaded cargoes.
Looking back into the rising sun, the businessmen would have seen hundreds of boats riding at anchor in the outer harbor. The captains of side-wheel steamers had banked their boilers, and sailors on lake schooners had struck their sails under orders from the alarmed vessel owners. A vast quantity of wheat and cut lumber awaited shipment, and there were lucrative tons of iron ore and anthracite coal to be unloaded, but the spring shipping season had been ruined by the storm of strikes that had swept over the city. Vessel owners feared for the safety of their ships if they ventured down the South Branch of the Chicago River to unload in the industrial zone because angry strikers, many of them Bohemian lumber shovers, had taken over the lumberyards and could, at any moment, put a torch to their wooden boats and the acres of dry lumber nearby.3
The strike wave even reached outside the city, to the enormous railroad car shops in the model town George Pullman had built to escape the turmoil of Chicago. Seemingly unconcerned with labor unrest in the city and in the town he owned, Pullman arrived for work as usual at his palatial company headquarters on Michigan Avenue. Stepping out of a carriage driven by a well-dressed black man who wore his own high hat, the world-renowned industrialist and city builder entered his office building looking as he did every morning, walking purposefully and wearing his usual outfit—a Prince Albert coat, striped trousers and patent-leather shoes.4
Yet, beneath his businesslike demeanor, George Pullman suffered from feelings of uncertainty. “My anxiety is very great,” he wrote to his wife, “although it is said that I appear very cool and unconcerned about it.” The stunning breadth of the eight-hour strike shocked him. He had constructed his company town nine miles from industrial Chicago, where poverty and despair had poisoned relations between manufacturers and their hands and caused frequent strikes, lockouts and riots. In Pullman’s model community, carefully selected workmen earned high wages, rented comfortable new houses and lived a healthy life in a clean place. Now the toxic fumes of class antagonism were wafting through the streets of his planned community. “Some change must occur very soon now,” he told his wife, “but I cannot yet predict what it will be.” 5
Like George Pullman, other businessmen headed for work on May 5 just as they always did and with their usual frantic energy. When they arrived downtown, these men usually stopped to buy the morning edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, the self-proclaimed businessman’s paper. But on this Wednesday, men grabbed the paper eagerly because they had heard rumors about a riot on the West Side the night before in which many policemen were hurt, and no one knew with any certainty what had happened. When they read the morning headline, they were stunned because it carried news of an event far worse than any of them imagined.
A HELLISH DEED
A Dynamite Bomb Thrown into a Crowd of Policemen. It Explodes and Covers the Street with Dead and Mutilated Officers— A Storm of Bullets Follows—The Police Return Fire and Wound a Number of Rioters—Harrowing Scenes at the Desplaines Street Station—A Night of Terror.
The editors used all seven columns of the front page to describe the shocking events of May 4 in elaborate detail. A bomb thrown into the midst of six police divisions took an awful toll: at least fifty patrolmen had been wounded; several were near death, and one of them, Mathias Degan, had already expired in the arms of a fellow officer. The list of injured men was long, and the descriptions of their wounds were sickening. 6
The news story explained that the bombing occurred at the end of a meeting called by the city’s socialists on Tuesday evening, May 4, in order to denounce the police for killing some strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works in a skirmish that took place the previous afternoon. Roughly 1,500 people had gathered for a rally that began that Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. on Desplaines Street, quite close to Randolph Street, where it widened to become the Haymarket, a busy place where farmers sold their produce by day. August Spies, the city’s leading German socialist, had called the meeting to order and then had introduced the renowned labor agitator Albert R. Parsons, who spoke for nearly an hour.
By the time the last speaker mounted a hay wagon to close the meeting, only 600 people remained, according to the news report. Samuel Fielden, a burly stone hauler, had begun his speech by noting premonitions of danger obvious to all. He told the crowd to prepare for the worst, claiming that since the police had shown no mercy to the unarmed workers they gunned down at McCormick’s, then the police deserved no mercy in return. “Defend yourselves, your lives, your futures,” Fielden shouted to a crowd the Tribune described as composed of Germans (who were the most enthusiastic), along with Poles, Bohemians and a few Americans.
At this point, “[a] stiff breeze came up from the north and, anticipating rain, more of the crowd left, the worst element, however, remaining,” according to the Tribune’s lead reporter. Fielden was winding up his address when witnesses saw a dark line of men forming south of Randolph in front of the Desplaines Street Police Station. A few minutes later the line started to move, and men on the outskirts of the rally whispered, “Police.” The large contingent of 176 officers moved rapidly down the street, marching double-time, like soldiers. The silver stars and buttons on the policemen’s blue coats glittered in the light cast off from the nearby Lyceum Theater, the only building in this dark grid of streets that glowed with electric lights. The police column was so broad that it filled the width of Desplaines Street, forcing onlookers to move onto the wooden sidewalks.
When the first division of police stopped just before the wagon, the officer in charge said to Fielden in a loud voice, “In the name of the law, I command you to disperse.” Then, said the Tribune, came the “response.” With no warning “something like a miniature rocket suddenly rose out of the crowd on the east sidewalk.” It gave off a red glare as it arced about 20 feet in the air before falling in the middle of the street among the police. The bomb lay on the ground for a few seconds and then “exploded with terrific force, shaking buildings on the street and creating havoc among the police.” The blast stunned the officers and, before they could come to their senses, the newspaper reported, another shocking scene unfolded as “the anarchists and rioters poured a shower of bullets into the police.”
The patrolmen immediately let loose with their pistols and kept up an incessant shooting for nearly two minutes as the dark sky above the street glowed with the flashes of gunfire. The civilians gathered on Desplaines Street ran for their lives. Some went west on Randolph and others east toward the Chicago River. Either way, those in flight ducked as bullets whizzed past them, and many of them dropped on the streets before they could escape. “The groans of those hit could be heard above the rattle of revolvers,” wrote one reporter. Some of those who fled took refuge in the halls or entrances of houses and in saloons. When the shooting stopped, they cautiously ventured forth, only to face more gunfire from the police.
After this second assault ended, reporters saw men crawling on their hands and knees. Others tottered “along the street like drunken men, holding their hands to their heads and calling for help to take them home.” Many victims had their wounds dressed in drugstores and on wooden sidewalks, while others boarded streetcars going in every direction and containing wounded people fleeing from the Haymarket.
At this point the journalists on the scene ran across the river to “newspaper alley” seven blocks away so they could file the biggest story of their lives. The news of the sensational events at the Haymarket flew across telegraph lines to newsrooms all over the nation and across the Atlantic to Europe as well. Every paper in London reported the event, and several even published long and graphic special sections with reports rendered in minute detail. Overnight, the Haymarket event became the biggest news story since Lincoln’s assassination twenty-one years earlier. “No disturbance of the peace that has occurred in the United States since the war of rebellion,” said the New York Times, “has excited public sentiment throughout the Union as it is excited by the Anarchists’ murder of policemen in Chicago on Tuesday night.”7
At 11:30 p.m. police wagons rumbled into the Haymarket district from other precincts carrying reinforcements who cleared the streets around the station and “mercilessly clubbed all who demurred at the order to go.” After patrolmen drove all pedestrians from the area, the West Side fell silent, and “Desplaines Street looked black and deserted, save where the gas-lamps showed blood on the sidewalks and the curbstones.”
The Tribune’s account then described the scene at the Desplaines Street Station: a “harrowing spectacle of wounded and dying men on the floor oozing blood that flowed literally in streams” until almost “every foot of the space was red and slippery.” Officers stoically bandaged up their own wounds but reportedly never moaned, according to one reporter who wrote that he had never seen such heroism.
The station’s basement was filled with wounded civilians who were scattered around on the floor, some with serious wounds. One of them moaned and screamed, “but the remainder were as quiet as the death which was settling down upon quite a few of their number.” Thomas Hara of Eagle Street near the Haymarket, one of those shot in the back as he fled the melee, “claimed to be an unoffending citizen” but was probably a rioter, according to the Tribune reporter. Policemen interviewed at the station expressed no sympathy for the men in the basement who were suspected rioters, including socialists and anarchists who had been “preaching dynamite for years.”
Reporters finally buttonholed Chief Inspector John Bonfield, who had ordered the police advance on the protest rally. “The Communists were bent on mischief” for some time, he explained, and therefore the police, anticipating “the hellish intent of the Haymarket meeting,” had massed a force of 176 officers at the Desplaines Street Station the previous night. When the meeting started, the inspector sent officers in civilian clothes out into the crowd with orders to report back to him if the speeches became dangerous. “When finally the speakers urged riot and slaughter” to seek revenge for the deaths of the strikers killed at McCormick’s, the inspector said he issued his fateful order to march on the meeting.
NONE OF THE businessmen who read this terrifying story in the Tribune on May 5 had any reason to doubt the reporters’ accounts. The news appeared in their paper, the city’s paper of record, which was edited by Joseph Medill, perhaps the most respected journalist in the nation. An early champion of Lincoln and of war against the southern secessionists, Medill had served a term as a reform mayor of Chicago, and by 1886 he was a powerful force in the Republican Party and an influential voice in the business community. 8
For all these reasons, the Tribune’s account of the events of May 4 provided a governing narrative for the city’s propertied classes and for the state’s attorney who would prosecute the alleged perpetrators. The news reported on May 5 carried an aura of authority and objectivity, but it also contained some curious inconsistencies and contradictions that would come into sharper focus when the smoke cleared from the streets, leaving more than a few people wondering what really happened in the Haymarket that terrible night.
In the immediate aftermath, the Tribune called for severe action against those aliens responsible for the massacre. The riot in the market would not have occurred, the editor added, but for “the excessive, ill-conceived toleration” the mayor and city officials accorded to radical agitators. A bloody lesson had been learned; the government must deport these “ungrateful hyenas” and exclude any other “foreign savages who might come to America with their dynamite bombs and anarchic purposes.”9
These staunch opinions failed, however, to reassure the public that law and order would prevail. City residents were seized with panic as fantastic rumors swept through the city. Remembering this moment during her difficult time as a widowed dressmaker in Chicago, Mother Jones wrote that “the city went insane and the newspapers did everything to keep it like a madhouse.” On the morning after the violent encounter, one observer said, he passed many groups of people on the streets engaged in excited conversation about the events of the previous night. Everyone assumed that the speakers at the Haymarket meeting and other “labor agitators” had perpetrated the horrible crime. The air was charged with hatred and cries of “Hang them first and try them afterwards!”10
It was no time for careful public discussion of what had actually taken place in the Haymarket. In those first days of rage over the bombing, the daily press not only shaped but also reflected a popular certainty about who was to blame for the tragedy. There would be no discussion about why this catastrophe had occurred in Chicago, no talk of what might have been done to prevent it. Filled with horror at accounts of an unspeakable crime, citizens demanded an immediate response from the state, one that would punish not only the “dynamite orators” responsible for the bombing, but also those who sheltered and encouraged them.11
And yet affixing blame for the tragedy did little to diminish the acute anxiety that swept the nation after the bombing. Indeed, identifying the anarchists as secret conspirators responsible for the lethal deed led to wild exaggerations of the menace these subversives posed to social order. In New York City, for example, the Times reported that workers who “placed responsibility for their poverty upon the bourgeoisie” were armed with rifles and bombs and were prepared with plans to bring down “the ruling class.” Even after these rumors disappeared from the press, the specter of radicalism would remain alive in “the bourgeois imagination.” 12
The Haymarket bombing confirmed the worst fears of violent class warfare wealthy urban dwellers had harbored ever since the railroad strikes of 1877, when more than 100 workers and civilians were killed by policemen and militiamen. In all the street fighting that broke out episodically for the next nine years, strikers and rioters had been put down by the superior forces of state and local government, whose officers had suffered no fatalities of their own. Then on May 4, when one bomb thrown by a single hand shredded the ranks of the nation’s strongest police force, many citizens reacted hysterically, experiencing a kind of fear they had never known before. The invention of dynamite had changed the calculus of power. Now the weakest, most wretched elements of society had a weapon that could inflict incalculable damage.
Politically motivated bombings had occurred the year before in London, where Irish-American nationalists attacked British colonial targets, and earlier in other European cities, where anarchists targeted imperial rulers, but nothing like this had ever happened in post–Civil War America. There had been many riots in the nation’s cities, but now, “for the first time in the history of the Republic,” the New York Times observed, law officers had been “killed by citizens attacking the right to private property.” As a result, the Haymarket affair generated emotional shock waves that would reverberate through the country for years to come.13
As the frenzy of panic that gripped Chicago spread across the nation, it became clear that Americans were reacting to more than a single terrifying attack on the forces of law and order. No event since the Civil War had produced such profound excitement as the Haymarket violence, a perceptive Chicago minister observed. This was not just because this warlike act occurred during peacetime, but because the catastrophe provoked the widespread fear that the bombing was but “the first explosion of a deep discontent on the part of millions of poor people in this and other countries.”14
THE BOMB BLAST on May 4 triggered an avalanche of events: a police riot in which at least three protesters died, a wave of hysteria in which police and prosecutors violated civil liberties, a sensational show trial of the eight workers accused of the bombing and the intensely publicized hanging of four anarchists accused of committing the crime of the century. Indeed, the whole Haymarket affair, lasting from May 4, 1886, until November 11, 1887, when the anarchists swung from the gallows in the Cook County Jail, produced what one historian called “a drama without end.”15
The hangings did not bring down the curtain on this drama, however. The Haymarket affair troubled the consciences of many citizens for years, and for the next two decades and beyond as jurists, trade unionists, journalists and other writers, even elected officials, kept trying the case over and over. The whole violent string of events in Chicago left a bitterly divided memory as its legacy. To most Americans, the dead anarchists were, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, “the foulest sort of murderers.” But to other people, especially immigrant workers in America, the Haymarket anarchists were heroic martyrs, brave enough to die for the cause of working-class emancipation. Indeed, the anarchists’ trial and execution became, in the hands of working-class preservationists, a passion play about the prophets who surrendered their lives in order to give birth to a worldwide workers’ movement. No other event in American history has exerted such a hold on the imaginations of people in other lands, especially on the minds of working people in Europe and the Latin world, where the “martyrs of Chicago” were annually recalled in the iconography of May Day.
In retrospect, the Haymarket affair marked a juncture in our history when many Americans came to fear radicals and reformers as dangerous subversives and to view trade unionists as irresponsible troublemakers. The explosion erupted at a time—the mid-1880s—when popular radical movements were attracting millions of farmers and workers, but after the bombing these movements labored under a cloud of suspicion. For mainstream trade unionists struggling to survive in a hostile environment, Haymarket was a catastrophe they wished to forget. The whole affair gave anti-union employers and government officials an opportunity to brand all labor activists violent subversives and to reject out of hand all ideas about cooperating with their workers. Still, even conventional union leaders like Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor could not forget that the revolutionaries put to death in Chicago were union organizers and leaders of the crusade for the eight-hour day—the cause that mobilized America’s first national labor movement in 1886.16
The consequences of this tragedy for immigrants were far-reaching. Europeans of all nations had been welcomed to American shores during the post–Civil War years, but after the bombing in Chicago even the much-admired Teutonic peoples of Germany became suspect. At a time when immigrants seemed to be overwhelming cities like Chicago, the Haymarket events provoked a new kind of paranoia among millions of native-born citizens, who grew much more fearful of aliens in their midst. The memory of Haymarket haunted the national consciousness for decades because nativists painted a terrifying picture of the alien anarchist as “a ragged, unwashed, long-haired, wild-eyed fiend, armed with a smoking revolver and a bomb.” This reaction to the Haymarket bombing created a long-lasting popular impression of the immigrant as a dangerous figure, somehow more menacing than even the most violent American.17
Indeed, the explosion and the red scare that followed the event produced an atmosphere of fear and hatred that prevailed for decades and influenced the fates of other immigrant radicals, particularly those of Sacco and Vanzetti. The ordeal of these two Italian anarchists, executed in 1927 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, dramatically reprised the case of the Haymarket anarchists put to death forty years earlier. What Edmund Wilson said of the Sacco and Vanzetti case and its meaning for twentieth-century America applied to the Haymarket anarchists’ case as well: “It revealed the whole anatomy of American life, with all its classes, professions, and points of view and all their relations, and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system.”18
The Haymarket case refuses to die because it involves so many troubling questions about the causes of violent conflict and the limits of free speech, about the justice of conspiracy trials and the fairness of the death penalty and about the treatment of immigrants, particularly foreign-born radicals, by the police, the newspapers and the courts. And perhaps most troubling of all, the Haymarket case challenged, like no other episode in the nineteenth century, the image of the United States as a classless society with liberty and justice for all.
Americans had been using various languages of class to describe social reality since the American Revolution, and in the years after the Civil War they began to express serious worries about the possibility that bloody battles between workers and employers would erupt, as indeed they did in the mid-1870s. But almost everyone, politicians and preachers, employers and trade union leaders alike, thought these episodes were simply the product of hard times or the result of agitation by a few rabble-rousers. After the Haymarket events, however, more and more commentators openly expressed their concern that class conflict in the United States was becoming irreconcilable. For years this extreme view had existed only on the radical margins of public opinion, but in 1886 it moved toward the center of American public discourse about what came to be known as “the social question.”19
IN THE DAYS AFTER the bomb exploded on Desplaines Street, as most Americans concluded that crazed immigrants were alone responsible for the Haymarket calamity, a few prominent men privately worried that the violence might have been caused by other forces, forces that menaced the well-being of the democracy itself.
One of these thoughtful citizens was George Pullman. In 1883, three years before the tragedy, the industrialist had told a Senate committee that he was “deeply disturbed” that the conditions of life in industrial cities had become so “dangerous and deplorable.” He had invested millions in building a model industrial town to avoid the dangers of Chicago’s urban jungle, but in the process he had created a feudal domain that denied his employees the freedom they cherished. On the morning of May 5, 1886, as Pullman wrote letters in his Michigan Avenue office, he learned that his own loyal employees, most of them native-born Americans or assimilated immigrants, were ready to strike for an eight-hour day. Even these privileged employees whose loyalty to Pullman had been rewarded with high wages and good housing had not escaped infection by the strike fever that gripped Chicago that spring.
One of the letters Pullman wrote that day was to his friend Andrew Carnegie in Pittsburgh, to thank him for sending a copy of his popular new book. In Triumphant Democracy the richest man in the world praised republican government as the reason why Americans enjoyed such exceptional opportunity, prosperity and domestic tranquility. Carnegie predicted that a new “American race” would be created when immigrants were educated and fused with natives “into one, in language, in thought, in feeling and in patriotism.” Pullman ended his letter by telling Carnegie that publication of his book was very timely, because “owing to the excesses of our turbulent population, so many are uttering doubts just now as to whether democracy has been a triumph in America.”20
Many ambitious men like George Pullman had been attracted to Chicago in the mid nineteenth century, a time when the city embodied just the kind of triumphant democracy his friend Carnegie extolled. But after working-class discontent surged through the city on May Day of 1886 and spilled into Pullman town, the famous manufacturer and reformer beheld a democracy in crisis, a society divided by mistrust and class conflict.
The governor of Illinois, Richard J. Oglesby, shared some of Pullman’s anxieties during those frightful days of early May 1886. He was appalled by the news he received from Chicago of “a vicious and riotous disturbance by the anarchists,” but he resisted demands from leading businessmen to call out the state militia immediately after the bombing. The governor feared that inserting militia companies might turn a tense situation into an urban civil war, because he knew that the discontent among urban workers ran deep, so deep that Chicago seemed to him like a “social volcano” ready to blow.21 Indeed, the city had become so divided that it was difficult for Oglesby to imagine how Chicagoans would come back together again as they once had been when he had arrived in the city on another May Day not so long before. That May 1 had been in 1865, when the governor entered Chicago and saw its people standing by the thousands in the rain, bonded together in grief. The slow train that Oglesby rode into the city that dismal morning was decked out in flags and black crepe, and it bore the remains of his old friend Abraham Lincoln, the rail-splitter he had helped to make president of the United States.