Chapter Ten

A Storm of Strikes

APRIL 30, 1886–MAY 3, 1886

ON THE EVE of May Day, Chicago throbbed with excitement as workers met and rallied all over the city. Leaders of the Upholsterers’ Union, for example, organized what they claimed was the largest meeting of upholsterers ever held in the United States. The members voted to take Saturday off and to return to work Monday on the eight-hour system. Minute instructions were issued to members on how to act in case any shop refused to accede to the new system. 1 Freight handlers on the city’s major railroads also gathered and rallied to support men who had already struck for eight hours. Their leaders called a “monster mass meeting” of all warehouse workers on the morning of May 1 at the Harrison Street viaduct. Chicago, the nation’s freight handler, was on the brink of paralysis.

The Tribune feared the worst trouble would come in the lumber district, where 12,000 workers had demanded “reduced hours and advanced pay with no probability of getting them.” The German section of the Lumber Workers’ Union met at Goerke’s Hall and decided to walk out if yard owners refused to accept their demand for eight hours’ work for ten hours’ pay and double pay for overtime. The Bohemian branch, which added 400 new members in one day, was expected to do the same. “The Lumber Workers Union is not a branch of the Knights of Labor but of the notorious Central Labor Union,” the Tribune explained, adding that the majority of the men employed in the lumberyards followed the anarchists. The lumberyard owners called these demands “very impudent and imperative” and vowed to reject them. That meant that a strike by the lumber shovers, chiefly Germans and Bohemians, would completely paralyze the vital lumber trade. An unidentified anarchist told the paper that these two groups of immigrant workers were ready to do the aggressive work and to defend themselves with arms if necessary. But this leader did not expect serious trouble because he believed employers would give in rather than allow their competitors in other cities to steal their business.

ON THE MORNING OF Saturday, May 1, the Arbeiter-Zeitung’s headline shouted THE DIES ARE CAST! THE FIRST OF MAY, WHOSE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE WILL BE UNDERSTOOD AND APPRECIATED ONLY IN LATER YEARS, IS HERE.Even “the businessmen’s newspaper” expressed excitement over the momentous events about to unfold. THE GREAT DAY IS HERE, announced the Tribune—LOUD CRY HEARD FROM WORKINGMEN ALL OVER LAND. The first five pages of the paper were crammed with detailed reports from hot spots all over the city. Telegraph messages poured in from other cities, where the general strike had begun, but by noon it was clear that Chicago was hardest hit. At least 30,000 laboring people were on holiday from work of their own accord. A “storm of strikes” affected almost every segment of the workforce, from the men who handled freight in the railroad warehouses to the girls who sewed uppers in the shoe factories. “The streets were thronged with people, the manufactories were silent, and business in general was almost at a standstill,” recalled one reporter. For once, the dark, sooty sky over the city was clear. “No smoke curled from the tall chimneys of the factories, and things assumed a Sabbath-like appearance.”3

The great refusal of May 1 quickly transcended boundaries that separated Chicago’s polyglot working class. Craft workers, who had reached agreements with their bosses, took actions to support workers already on strike. More generally, workers and consumers boycotted sweatshops and bought eight-hour cigars and wore eight-hour shoes.Meanwhile, certain groups of strikers revived an old ritual of solidarity prominent in the uprisings of 1867 and 1877—the strikers’ march, “a moving torrent of men, women and children closing every workplace in its path.”5

At one shop, sheet metal workers agreed to remain at work because the proprietors answered their demands with a proposal that the firm share a certain percentage of the profits with the men, who would set their own hours at eight or more. “The proposition, when presented to the men, was received with cheers and expressions of confidence which were very gratifying to the firm.” Packinghouse owners decided to avoid a strike at the stockyards by letting the men “have their way in the matter of fixing hours.”Concessions like these emboldened other strikers. Spurred on by the anarchist leaders of the Central Labor Union, some workers, like a group of Bohemians on the lumber docks, began to act on the audacious demand of eight hours’ work at ten hours’ pay. In other places, laborers wanted not only more freedom from work, but more freedom at work. The German brewers and maltsters insisted on the eight-hour day achieved by other members of the Central Labor Union, but they also desired more free time to rest, eat their dinners, enjoy conversation and drink free beer. They proposed that two hours a day be set aside “for visiting the tap room and for meals,” meaning that a brewery worker could take “the whole two hours for food and drink or divide up the time as he chooses.” The Tribune was aghast at the demand and about the news that the owners might comply “with the terms and conditions of their thirsty Communistic hands.”7

Amid these surprising events, the most amazing development of all unfolded at the McCormick works, where locked-out union molders continued to harass the employees who kept the foundries and molding machines running under the protection of a police garrison. The workers inside the plant could not be quarantined, however, and as eight-hour marchers swept through the factories on the South Side, even loyal McCormick employees were infected. Half of the newly recruited replacement workers suddenly joined the strike movement. Management, now desperate to hold the loyal employees at work, promised the strikebreakers an eight-hour day if they would return, but made no such concession to the strikers, who remained locked out of the plant.8


Workers at Horn Brothers Furniture Company just prior to the May 1, 1886, strike

The Great Upheaval was frightening to employers for many reasons, and not simply because it aroused militancy among loyal workers or because it propelled anarchists into leadership roles. The insurgency was largely nonviolent, so it could not be branded a civil insurrection; indeed, it was planned, coordinated and mobilized by a new kind of labor movement. It was a movement that pulled in immigrants and common laborers, as well as artisans, merchants and even populist farmers in Texas, where the Farmers’ Alliance was regarded as “the spinal column” of a great people’s war against railroad king Jay Gould. What happened on May 1, 1886, was more than a general strike; it was a “populist moment” when working people believed they could destroy plutocracy, redeem democracy and then create a new “cooperative commonwealth.”9

What is more, the upheaval arose during an era of great uncertainty. The 1880s were years when the enormous power of industrial and financial capitalists had become fully apparent, but millions of Americans questioned the moral and social legitimacy of large private companies and their owners; when the laws of the market operated freely without any public restraints, but millions of Americans rejected those laws as immoral and inhumane; when wage labor had completely replaced slavery as well as most forms of industrial self-employment, and yet nearly all leaders of the first American labor movement denied that wage labor was free labor and agreed that the wage system had to be abolished. The events of the 1880s revealed other paradoxes as well. More Europeans than ever were emigrating to the United States, hoping and searching for liberty, yet immigrants increasingly questioned whether America was the land of liberty. Urban police forces began modernizing and arming themselves, yet middle- and upper-class city dwellers felt insecure and more worried about working-class violence than ever before. Federal armies had defeated all but a few Indian tribes and had brought “civilization” to the frontier, but the United States government was unprepared to deal with large-scale worker insurgency in its most advanced cities.

ON SATURDAY May 1 the sun shone brilliantly over the city of Chicago as workers took a “holiday” from their normal duties, and eight-hour marchers trod their way through industrial districts. The mood was a festive one, and the marches were peaceful. The Knights and Federation members carried the Stars and Stripes and held signs bearing symbols of their trade and the mottoes of the movement, while the anarchists waved crimson banners, though the Tribune reported fewer red flags than were normally seen at Chicago street demonstrations.

It was a day the Internationals would never forget, and it was, as the Arbeiter-Zeitung predicted, a day of “historical significance” that would be appreciated in the future. Indeed, only four years later May Day gained symbolic power in the international labor movement as radical workers established a tradition of demonstrating their power by parading with red flags and wearing the crimson flowers of the season.10

As the sun sank over the prairie horizon that evening, the first day of the general strike ended peacefully. Saturday nights in Chicago were always filled with sounds of revelry that lasted long hours, but the evening of May 1, 1886, was an especially boisterous one. Striking workers joined their neighbors and shop mates dancing polkas and waltzes in music halls and drinking beer and whiskey in thousands of saloons uptown and downtown, from Swedish beer gardens on the North Side to the Irish pubs in Bridgeport. On Lake Street on the West Side, the gaslights in Grief’s Hall and Zepf’s Hall burned later than ever that night as German anarchists toasted each other and celebrated their “Emancipation Day.”

The English-speaking Knights of Labor and the trade unions celebrated May Day in a more formal way with an “eight-hour ball” in an armory, where 1,000 dancers enjoyed an evening of speeches and lively music—all presided over by the movement’s godfather and guest of honor, Andrew C. Cameron, the feisty printer and workingman’s advocate who had initiated the city’s first eight-hour movement in 1863, only to see it betrayed on another May Day, in 1867.

There was no dancing or merrymaking in store for Albert Parsons that night. While the city’s workingmen drank to a new day, he rode a night train to Cincinnati, where 30,000 workers had struck that afternoon. The Internationals there wanted the famous Parsons to address a rally on Sunday and bring them news from the storm center of the great strike. The next morning Parsons took part in a second huge parade of eight-hour demonstrators led by 200 members of the Cincinnati Rifle Union bearing Winchester carbines. They marched behind a large red flag through downtown in a “jolly” mood, as one German striker recalled, because they were “dead certain” of victory. When they arrived at a park, Parsons addressed the throng and told them that their movement was not a “foreign” crusade, as their enemies charged. The desire for liberty and justice concerned all Americans, native and foreign-born.11

MEANWHILE, THAT SUNDAY began quietly in Chicago, so quietly that many hoped the excitement had died down and that on Monday workers and employers would resolve their differences. There were no demonstrations, no marches led by rifle-toting Internationals. In fact, there were hopeful signs that the crisis might indeed end on Monday. The city’s powerful railroad company executives met and raised the expectation that they might accept the freight haulers’ demands. This action, if taken, would influence other employers to follow suit and make the eight-hour day a reality. “Good feeling seemed to prevail in most quarters,” according to one Sunday report, except in the old “terror district” around the lumberyards, where police detectives from the Hinman Street Station kept a close watch on Bohemian and Polish lumber shovers who had marched the day before with red flags and with American flags turned upside down.12

Tensions within the labor movement had not disappeared even amid this euphoria. George Schilling of the Eight-Hour Association was furious with his old comrade Parsons and other anarchists who raised the “impossible demand” of eight hours’ work with no pay cut. A protracted session of the Trades and Labor Assembly led to a hot debate when the carpenters proposed making a closer alliance with the anarchist-led Central Labor Union because it had, according to some delegates, such “great influence among the workingmen.” The venerable A. C. Cameron warned against closer cooperation between the two bodies, because he could not see how those who carried the “red flag of European socialism” could be truly joined with those who carried the banner of American “democratic republicanism.” 13

Scores of other eight-hour meetings took place in other venues, such as Ulrich’s Hall, where 300 male and female dry-goods clerks met to plan concerted action for shorter hours. Their own organization, the United Dry-Goods Clerks’ Union, had asked their employers to close stores every night at six o’clock, except on Saturdays, and to remain shut all day Sunday. This proposal infuriated Marshall Field, the city’s richest, most influential capitalist, and the first merchant to electrify his dry-goods establishment so that shopping and selling could go on in his State Street emporium from morning to evening seven days a week. That Sunday, Field seethed with anger at the owners of dry-goods stores like City of Paris who had already conceded to their salesclerks’ requests to close up shop on the Christian Sabbath.14

While Marshall Field fumed, railroad managers worried that the freight handlers’ strike would expand and cripple midwestern commerce, and the owners of Great Lakes vessels feared that Bohemian strikers might set fire to their boats and to the nearby lumberyards. But most Chicagoans seemed to put their worst fears aside on that cool spring day of rest and enjoyed their normal Sunday activities. Families picnicked in the groves, couples strolled in Lincoln Park and derby-hatted men watched sandlot baseball games and talked with great anticipation about the opening of the professional season, when the city’s heroic White Stockings were expected to take another pennant.

That morning, Protestant churches were full of worshipers listening to sermons titled “Jesus, the Peacemaker” and “Labor and Capital Viewed in the Light of Christ’s Dictum” by ministers who felt compelled to address the burning question of the day. The city’s most liberal clergyman, Dr. Hiram W. Thomas, known as “the Emerson of our American pulpit,” addressed the social question directly. Preaching in a tabernacle attached to McVicker’s Theater, Thomas sensed a queer uneasiness sweeping the land as workmen made unrealistic, immoderate demands. He wondered if there was something in the stars that caused working people to question the way of the world. There would always be men with property and men without, he explained. Workmen should realize that capitalists made their labor possible. “The laboring classes,” he concluded, “are trying to wrestle from fate a thing that fate had made impossible.”15

The city’s famous revivalist, Dwight L. Moody, who rarely addressed political questions, departed from his usual form that day. The great Moody, who had returned from evangelistic labors in the South, spoke with his penetrating voice to 5,000 people at a Sunday-evening service at the Casino Rink. “What’s all the unrest of this strike that’s agitating the city?” he wondered. It seemed natural that workingmen were simply “in the pursuit of rest.” But it was a vain pursuit, he warned, because there was no rest, not for the mechanic or even for the millionaire. “There is only one place where it can be found,” Moody preached: “at the foot of the cross.” This message reassured a nervous audience of middle-class Protestants who hoped that Moody’s words would inspire the restless urban masses, whose refusal to work for more than eight hours seemed like a wild intoxication that would pass on Monday when business resumed as usual and employees came to their senses.16

AND INDEED, ON MAY 3, it seemed that the passive mood of Sunday might prevail. In the planing-mill section of the lumber district along 22nd Street, the day passed quietly, even though the side streets swarmed with strikers and locked-out men who enjoyed playing games and drinking bock beer on the streets.17 Uptown, 400 girls and women left their sewing shops on Division Street in a joyous mood; they “shouted and sang and laughed in a whirlwind of exuberance that did not lessen with the distance traveled.” Several hundred workingmen followed, offering their support. The whole carnival-like procession was headed by two tall Bohemians armed respectively with an ax and a mallet. When the strikers crossed the river and streamed into the downtown area, their chants and songs became more vociferous. A reporter described them as “shouting Amazons” infected “with a particularly malignant form of the eight-hour malady”—that is, they were demanding the same wages for less work.18

The anarchists were thrilled by the progress of the eight-hour strike. Many city employers had already given in and more would follow. The railroads would have to yield because, one socialist observed, they had too much at stake and could not afford to be idle. He expected further that the Knights would soon bring out the English-speaking workers, who had been holding back awaiting developments. This prediction seemed to be validated later that day, when two English-speaking crews of workers walked out of the Pullman wheel shops to win eight hours’ work at ten hours’ pay. More were expected to follow on the morrow. Even the residents of George Pullman’s model town were stirring.19

The labor movement had much to celebrate on May 3. The brewery owners agreed to employ only union members, to reduce the use of apprentice boys, to limit Sunday work to three hours and to set five break periods each day when workers could drink beer in the taprooms. More important, when the pork and beef producers gathered at the Grand Pacific Hotel to discuss an unexpected strike of 3,000 butchers and laborers in five packinghouses for increased wages and decreased hours, they agreed to an experimental settlement offering to pay their men at the ten-hour rate for a reduced workday. The labor movement was, it seemed, “having things pretty much its own way.”20

Then, on the afternoon of May 3, came news of two calamitous events that shook the confidence of the ebullient strikers.

First came word that the Knights of Labor had been vanquished on Jay Gould’s railroads. Their national leader, Terence Powderly, had unilaterally ended the southwestern strike because he believed it was doomed to failure. At the Tribune, Joseph Medill composed a stern editorial: “The Southwestern Knights have been starved into submission . . . ,” he proclaimed. “The surrender is unconditional.” Management would take back only such strikers as it saw fit, “leaving all the other instigators, agitators and perpetrators of violent acts permanently blacklisted.” When this news arrived in railway offices, it galvanized the superintendents, who then organized an unprecedented meeting at the Burlington Building. The railroad managers announced the next morning that every man who did not appear for work would be discharged and his place filled by a new employee.21

The lumberyard owners also deliberated over their employees’ demands that day. The stakes could not be higher, said a Tribune editorial; enormous amounts of skill and capital had been invested to keep the Chicago trade strong in the face of competition from many new lumber centers. Now the strike of “Communistic yard men and lumber-handlers” put the whole industry in jeopardy. “The suddenness of the blow has paralyzed this great business and there is no alternative left but to stop it,” the editorial concluded.

Once again, Chicago capital had its back up, as it had when the eight-hour law was to take effect on May 1, 1867, and once again, city leaders had their armed forces at the ready. However, conditions had changed: the old-time police department had included only 250 patrolmen to protect an enormous city; by 1886 the force had grown to nearly 1,000 well-armed officers, including the nation’s largest corps of battle-tested veterans, men experienced in suppressing demonstrations, controlling riots and breaking strikes. Chief Inspector Bonfield placed the regular force on round-the-clock alert and ordered training exercises for a reserve force of 75 men recruited from the banks, commercial houses and railroad companies to serve as specials. Militia commanders also prepared their troops for action. The area around the First Regiment Armory was abuzz with activity as National Guard companies drilled in the streets, while soldiers assembled their new Gatling gun.22

The second shocking event of May 3 occurred on the Black Road at the gates of the McCormick works, the scene of many violent clashes in the past. On this afternoon a fatal confrontation took place that set relentless forces in motion, forces that would propel striking workers and Chicago policemen toward the tragic climax of their struggle.

AUGUST SPIES SEEMED to be everywhere in the city on that tension-packed Monday, putting together a general strike edition of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, rallying the striking sewing girls and addressing groups of strikers all over the city. By Monday, he was exhausted from weeks of speaking in public and late nights spent putting out a daily newspaper, but he was elated by the breadth and depth of the general strike. Early in the afternoon a Czech leader of the lumber workers asked Spies to come down to the Southwest Side and speak to a meeting of German and Bohemian lumber shovers on the prairie along Blue Island Avenue. Spies was reluctant to make the trip and give yet another speech, but a committee of workers insisted that he was needed and persuaded him to go.

Arriving at the rally about three o’clock, Spies was impressed by the size of the crowd but dismayed that the speakers were so poor and that workers seemed uninterested. He mounted a boxcar on the Burlington tracks and began to speak in German to the lumber shovers gathered on the railbed and the prairie beyond. Behind him, a short distance away, the machinery of the McCormick Reaper Works ground away. At the rear of the crowd in front of him was a group of 200 restless workers who had been locked out of the plant and had endured weeks of combat with Pinkertons and policemen around what they called “Fort McCormick.”23

Shortly after he began, Spies was heckled by some Catholic strikers, but he persisted. The speaker carried on for about twenty minutes, addressing the eight-hour question and telling the men “to hold together, to stand by their union, or they would not succeed.” He referred mostly to the struggle in the lumberyards and did not mention the McCormick lockout. While he was still orating, the factory bell at McCormick’s clanged behind him, signaling the end of the workday for the strikebreakers still toiling in the plant. Before Spies could grasp what was happening, someone cried out in an “unknown tongue” (probably Czech or Polish) that the scabs were leaving the plant. The group of McCormick strikers wheeled away en masse and surged toward the factory gates. Spies continued to speak, urging the lumber shovers not to join the rush on the plant. Then he heard the crackle of gunfire from the factory yard. He was told the strikers had attacked the strikebreakers and that the police were firing on them. Again, he beseeched his audience to remain still. But it was no use. Most of the lumber shovers fled up the Black Road back to Pilsen.

Spies clambered down from the boxcar and ran toward the plant, where he saw a wild melee in progress. Roughly 200 police officers were attacking the strikers with clubs and firing at them with their pistols. Some men were hiding behind railroad cars on the Burlington spur, and others were running as the police fired pistols at them. The sight, Spies recalled, made his blood boil. A young Irishman peeked out from behind a car and told Spies that he had seen two men lying dead and that four others had been killed by police gunfire. After hearing this, Spies raced back to the lumber shovers’ rally and urged those who remained to come to the aid of the men under attack, but few workers remained on the prairie, and none of them rallied to his call. He looked back down the Black Road to the reaper works and said to himself, “The battle is lost.”


Painting of August Spies speaking near the McCormick Reaper Works on May 3, 1886

Spies returned to his newspaper office with the sound of Colt revolvers ringing in his ears and dashed off a circular denouncing the attack. “I was very indignant,” he later testified. “I knew from experience of the past that this butchering of people was done for the express purpose of defeating the eight-hour movement.” Spies sent his leaflet to a compositor, who boldly added his own single-word title at the top of the leaflet: REVENGE! The rest of the text read: “Workingmen, to Arms!!! Your masters sent out their bloodhounds—the police—they killed six of your brothers at McCormick’s this afternoon.”24

For days Spies had been speaking as a leader of a disciplined union campaign for the eight-hour demand. Now the voice of the revolutionary broke through: “You have for years endured the most abject humiliations; you have endured the pangs of hunger and want; you have worked yourself to death; your children you have sacrificed to the factory lords.” Worse yet was what happened when the workers demanded relief: the master sent “his bloodhounds out to shoot you to kill you!” “If you are men,” the circular concluded, “if you are the sons of grand sires who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms, we call you. To arms!”25

THAT NIGHT, ANARCHISTS DISTRIBUTED hundreds of English and German copies of what came to be known as the “Revenge” circular. A horseman rode down Lake Street dropping leaflets at union halls and saloons, including Grief’s Hall, where anarchists of the Northwest Side group were meeting in the basement. George Engel and Adolph Fischer attended the meeting, as did two commanders of the Lehr und Wehr Verein. These were hard men who had little faith in the eight-hour movement or in the leadership of union-oriented anarchists like Spies, Schwab, Parsons and Fielden.

This meeting would later take on enormous significance in the trial of the eight anarchists accused of the Haymarket bombing, even though only two of the defendants, Engel and Fischer, were present in Thomas Grief’s saloon cellar that night. During the trial prosecutors would describe this gathering as the birthplace of the “Monday night conspiracy” to commit murder and mayhem at the rally the next evening. Two anarchists who turned state’s evidence in return for cash and safe passage out of the country testified that this group endorsed a plan Engel had laid out the night before to organize an armed response in case the police attacked striking workers. In the event of a dire crisis, a signal would be given by the appearance of the word Ruhe (rest) in the letter column of the Arbeiter-Zeitung. Then, according to the witnesses, armed groups would form to take action, bringing down telegraph lines, storming arsenals, bombing police stations and shooting law officers—all tactics, said the state’s attorney, prescribed in Johann Most’s writings. However, Engel also made it clear, according to witnesses, that the plan would take effect “only in the event of a police attack”—that is, as an act of armed self-defense. 26

This serious business had been transacted when news of the deaths at McCormick’s arrived. Shouts and curses burst forth from the men in Grief’s basement. They were determined to respond to the outrage, but they did not decide to put Engel’s plan into action. Instead, the group agreed to organize a public protest rally the next day in the usual meeting place on Market Street. Fischer argued, however, that this enclosed block would serve as “a mouse trap” if the police assaulted the assembly; and so the group agreed to hold the event the next evening in a much larger space—at the Haymarket, west of the river, where Randolph Street widened after it crossed Desplaines Street.27

As the Northwest Side anarchists headed home from Grief’s Hall, the city’s newspaper editors prepared their reports on what happened on the Black Road that afternoon. The Tribune offered the news this way: “Wrought up by the inflammatory harangues of a lot of rabid Anarchists, a mob of nearly 10,000 men, most of them fighting drunk, attacked the employees of the McCormick Reaper Company as they came home from work yesterday afternoon.” When reinforcements arrived, “a sharp battle between the police and the rabble followed” in which a number of men in the mob were shot and carried away by their friends. The newspaper blamed one man, August Spies, for this “barbarian attack” upon the reaper factory.28

That evening, after quiet descended on the Black Road, the police escorted the employees trapped in the McCormick works to their homes. As they did, the wives, daughters and mothers of strikers attacked the officers with stones and sticks while shouting curses at them in broken English. At one point, police charged on these angry women and drove them off the streets.29 “A bitter and vindictive spirit” prevailed on the South Side toward the police, according to the Tribune, but the forces of law and order had triumphed in Chicago’s worst trouble spot. Chief Inspector Bonfield announced that the city was secure. “I believe we are strong enough to suppress any uprising,” he declared. The police were ready to take action in all potential trouble spots. There would be more rioting, Bonfield warned, with “some blood spilling perhaps,” but he did not anticipate anything like the riots of 1877. “The police had finally grappled with the McCormick rioters in dead earnest,” a reporter observed, and whenever the men in blue were aroused to that point, he added, “then peace was sure to come to the city.”30

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