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History

May 3, 2012

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSONS: The Haymarket Square Massacre

TERRE HAUTE — One unhappy byproduct of the Industrial Age was the growing discontent of its industrial workers, who constantly agitated for better pay and more humane working conditions.  

In America, for example, a strike for an eight-hour work day on May 1, 1886, drew 350,000 workers nationwide, including some 40,000 strikers in Chicago. While the Chicago strike ultimately ended peacefully, two days later Chicago police fired on picketers outside of a McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. plant, killing two and wounding several.

Radical political movements were another byproduct of the Industrial Age, including Socialists and Anarchists who denounced Capitalism as human exploitation, and on May 4, at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, numerous Socialists and Anarchists held a rally to protest the violence at the McCormick plant.

This rally also was peaceful until the 300 Chicago police observing it were ordered to break it up, but just at that moment a huge bomb exploded, rocking Haymarket Square, killing police officer Mathias Degan and wounding several others.

In a panic, the police began firing indiscriminately, killing several protestors and, it was determined later, mistakenly killing fellow officers.  

It was dubbed “The Haymarket Square Massacre,” and in its wake eight of the protest organizers were arrested and tried for Officer Degan’s murder.  Unsurprisingly, all eight were identified as Socialists and Anarchists, and six of the eight were immigrants.

Indeed, a third byproduct of the Industrial Age was pervasive animosity toward foreign-born “agitators” and “radicals,” as evidenced by the sham trial the eight defendants underwent.  The presiding judge said at the outset he considered the defendants guilty.  The jury comprised business owners and professionals — hardly “peers” of the defendants — and many jurists openly admitted they too were prejudiced against the defendants.  One jury member was related to one of the slain policemen.

Meanwhile, the prosecution admitted it had no evidence connecting the defendants to the bombing.  Instead it accused them of spreading dangerous ideas and inciting violence, and after deliberating just three hours the jury found all eight defendants guilty. Seven were sentenced to death and one to 15 years in prison, and although one defendant committed suicide and two others had their sentence commuted to life in prison, the remaining four were executed.

Six years later Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned the three defendants still in prison, having concluded that all eight defendants were innocent.  He believed his pardon would cost him his political career and he was right.

Subsequently, nations around the world made May 1 — “May Day” — the annual commemoration of the international labor movement in honor of those events that occurred that May, in Chicago, in 1886. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one country that does not officially observe “May Day” is the United States.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s e-mail address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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