Haymarket Riot: May 4, 1886

Haymarket Riot: May 4, 1886

On May 4, 1886, a bomb was detonated during a peaceful labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The bomb and ensuing violence left seven policemen and a number of civilians dead and many others wounded.

Headline about the Haymarket Riot
The day before the incident at Haymarket Square, two striking workers had been killed at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company during an altercation with police. The following day, thousands of people gathered in Haymarket Square to protest the police violence and to listen to a number of labor leaders speak in support of better working conditions.

The gathering was peaceful and, due to poor weather, eventually dwindled to about three hundred people. When 180 policemen were dispatched to disperse the crowd, someone threw a bomb at the police. The police (as well as some in the crowd) responded by opening fire, and when things finally calmed down, one policeman and at least four civilians had been killed (six other policemen would later die of their injuries); numerous other policemen and bystanders were wounded.

Although the person who threw the bomb was never identified, eight labor activists were arrested and put on trial. Seven received death sentences, and the other was given 15 years in prison. Of the seven who were sentenced to death, four of them were hanged in 1887, one committed suicide, and two had their sentences commuted to life in prison. In 1893, the surviving three were pardoned by the governor based on the unfairness of the original trial.

Public opinion immediately following the Haymarket Riot generally landed on the side of the police. Because the eight defendants (and others involved with the labor movement) were immigrants and socialists or anarchists, the public increasingly saw the labor movement as a hotbed of foreign-born radicals. Anti-anarchist hysteria grew, spurred by the exaggerated accounts of many newspapers. However, for those within the labor movement, the Haymarket Riot came to represent the struggle for workers’ rights, and the event inspired many future labor activists.

Do you have any family stories about the Haymarket Riot or the labor movement? Share them with us! Or learn more about the event by searching Newspapers.com.

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54 thoughts on “Haymarket Riot: May 4, 1886

  1. I love these history reviews. Some of them are obscure and I’ve never heard of them. It’s very interesting to read them. Thank you so much.

  2. We studied this in high school and college, it was the symbolic beginning of the Union movement

  3. I researched the Haymarket Riot years ago, and found that one of my ancestors may have been one of the labor activists that were executed. Augustus Spies was 18 and may have been a relative of my gr-grandmother, Katherina Spies, both of whom came from Germany and settled in the Philadelphia area. Never did establish that Augustus was a relative, but the timelines suggested a connection. Research in Philadelphia drew a blank. Any help would be appreciated.

    1. My great-grandmother, Maria Elisabetha
      Spies Snear , was married to Christian Ernest Otto Snear (Schnorr, Scneer.
      Schnarr, etc)in Germany. They emigrated to Philadelphia around 1800 and settled there. My line is
      Christian Ernest Otto Snear
      Christian Wilhelm Snear
      William Thomas Snear
      William Herbert Snear
      Barbara Snear Crane

      Any connection???????

      1. We started finding it by going through newspapers and finding where they bought homes. Then we used Ancestry. There are lots of City directories for the time. We could match homes that were bought with the city directory. Then we had a year by year timeline. Then we went back to the newspapers and found little mentions of them being voting prescinct heads, then later about how there had been “irregularities “ in certain polling places. It took a long time, but we were able to construct a pretty tight timeline.

      2. Can’t find a connection. My gr-grandmother, Katherina (or Catharina) Spies, emigrated to the US in 1840 and married my gr-grandfather, Wilhelm (later William) Weyand. They settled in Bridesburg, now a part of Philadelphia. My research into much of their life has been unsuccessful, even though I’ve worked through the Philadelphia Historical Society. Some research I did years ago turned up Augustus Spies as a possible younger relative of my gr-grandmother.

  4. Very interesting. I really appreciate Newspapers.com.
    My distant relative, Augustus Clinton Rallya was living in Chicago when this took place. Had never heard of this occuring, so thank you so much.

  5. If we did discover something in old family papers, directly related to the riot, who exactly would we contact? Would anyone care anymore? Would anyone even value additional information or would it somehow be confiscated?

    1. CRapp, the Chicago History Museum in Chicago or the Labor Museum in New Jersey or even the Library of Congress could benefit if you find something. Sharing historical materials with public institutions is so important, if you think of all that has been lost because family members or decendents didn’t realize the importance of what they had. How much of great interest has been destroyed in the past? We’ll never know! I love history and the labor movement and I know many people would be likewise interested.

    2. As far as confiscation, no one could take anything from you, CRapp. Some people donate materials to public museums but retain ownership, and the items are usually marked “ loaned with permission by CRapp” or some such disclaimer.

    3. My 3x great grandfather lived about 300 yards from one of the union meeting halls. Previous to living in Chicago, he lived in Michigan and Indiana and was a carpenter. He built many fine homes and businesses. He also built many secret hiding places in those buildings for runaway slaves and the Underground Railroad. After the war and then the great fire in Chicago he moved there where he and his grown sons were all very involved in the unions, participating in suspected ballot fixing. The union members at the time thought there would eventually be a war and they built hidden passages and hiding places in their neighborhoods in Chicago. We have hand drawn maps of the very neighborhood they lived in and where the riot was. These maps have routes on them, not street routes, routes through buildings. We also have hand drawn instructions for building black powder bombs that the current owner thought came from the civil war but in light of our research into the Riot and time period, we now wonder. And here’s a fun fact. My grandfather taught us all to make teeny tiny black powder bombs that we would throw into the lake. They were no bigger than a small marble. Grandpa had learned from his father and so on. There was a big disconnect between the generations and Chicago was NEVER talked about even when my grandfather was a child. He knew nothing of this and would never have taught us bomb making if he had the slightest idea of why he knew how to do it.

      1. Those secret maps do sound interesting! What an interesting family history.

        1. It really crazy anything or everything you want to no about a family member you have to pay just to read the headline . They dont even give you abreak and slide a little help for fun in there .

      2. As a carpenter, your 3x great grandfather was in a perfect position to build secret passages and hiding places. This is what makes genealogy so interesting- it’s the history of our country!

        1. What a fascinating story! I wish we heard more of this in school and less about generals and politicians.

          1. True, Dana! The lives of ordinary people are every bit as interesting, and often more interesting than generals and politicians. Genealogy has taught me what enormous struggle people endured – the dangers of childbirth, the hard work lasting well into old age, the impact of the course of history on the lives of the common person, especially wars- all gleaned by delving into family history!

      3. Since we have peaceful times of many years in between we think what is happening to us is new. Anarchy and socialism has always been a problem here and abroad, I’m talking Greeks in Roman times too. It’s just back here with us again. Including the Islamic uprising a thousand years ago that took over Spain. It seems to be a natural cycle of human society. We just need to beat it back down again.

        So at least these two different Cycles have come about at this time. I’m sure we could look at some other similarities

      4. I hope you have taken pictures or copies of the maps. It would certainly be fun to follow them, and see if any of it is remaining today, especially the hidden passages, and hidden rooms. I bet you could find some still unknown ones.

  6. My great great grandfather was one of the jurors on the trial. I’ve seen his name in books. He was a men’s suit salesperson in Chicago, and a civil war vet, with a minie ball still stuck in his leg that they couldn’t remove. He was Charles Barker Todd.
    As I am a union supporter, it’s kind of ironic.

  7. Related Sidenote: My Great (x3) Grandfather Frederick Korth, was one of the stonemasons working on the foundation for the Memorial Monument to the policemen killed during the riot. He found a piece of gas pipe plugged at both ends among the stones. He thought it might be a pipe bomb and took it to the Des Plaines Street police station where Desk Sgt Dammann removed one of the plugs and found it to be empty. (Chicago Tribune, Sat. Dec. 15, 1888, P. 7, Col. 4, bottom.) The statue was unveiled on May 30, 1889. After numerous incidents, the original statue was blown up on Oct 6, 1969. Various replacements were made after subsequent bombings. The final replacement was put under 24 hour guard and finally relocated to police headquarters.

    1. Chicago Park has a statue of gov Algeld who pardoned the 4. Very controversial and erecting it was delayed time and time again but it’s there.

  8. My 2x great uncle was Inspector John Bonfield of the Des Plaines precinct who led the Chicago Police officers into the fray. Apparently, he was a very controversial character. Some praised his dedication to upholding the law (with an “iron fist”), and others hated him and called him “corrupt”. His youngest brother, Martin Bonfield, was my great grandfather. There were many in the “Bonfield” family who served as law enforcement officers including my great grandfather. My great uncle, Julian Bonfield (John’s nephew and Martin’s son) was also a Chicago cop and was killed while trying to apprehend a criminal in 1926. There was a “contract” put out after the Haymarket executions to murder John, the judge, and one other. Luckily, the conspirators were arrested before they could carry out the assassinations. This was a very colorful time in Chicago history.

  9. Thank you Cathi and Dennis. In a similar note regarding this time in history, PBS recently aired an “American Experience” episode that covered an anarchist bombing in Wall Street, and while the perpetrator was never found, it was used as an “excuse” by the government to crack down on the union movement and immigrants around the country. This happened well after Haymarket, but shows the enduring suspicion of unions and immigrants for over 40 years from the 1880’s-1920’s.

  10. Since we have peaceful times of many years in between we think what is happening to us is new. Anarchy and socialism has always been a problem here and abroad, I’m talking Greeks in Roman times too. It’s just back here with us again. Including the Islamic uprising a thousand years ago that took over Spain. It seems to be a natural cycle of human society. We just need to beat it back down again.

  11. Of course the so-called Haymarket Riots are the origin of May Day, the international Labor Day celebrated everywhere but the USA.

  12. Thanks for the information regarding this article. I had never heard of this and it is so interesting. I believe that I may have had relatives living in the area when this took place.

  13. Buncha Fenians, commies, and terrorists on this board. Czar Donald 1 needs to fire up the deportation golf cart….

    1. The National Review is not an unbiased source. In a climate of hysteria, an unfair trial was indeed the outcome. Thank goodness that scientific advances have improved the chances for fair trials.

      1. As the articles say, there were over a hundred witnesses in a lengthy trial. As the quoted student asked her professor (I’m paraphrasing) “If they was no evidence of guilt, what did they talk about at the trial for all those weeks?”

        1. You’re kidding, right? I think most people can distinguish hard evidence specific to individuals from a dragnet or circumstantial linkages.

      2. I found teh correct quote from teh student, which prompted her professor to dig deeper:
        “Well if there was no evidence presented, what did they talk about for six weeks during the trial?”

        1. A variation of, “Well, if they were innocent they never would have been prosecuted.”

          1. The trial lasted some six weeks and went over the evidence and eyewitness reports from MANY witnesses. Clearly, there were serious reasons to prosecute.

          2. ….because convictions are always 100% accurate, right? Look at the relatively high rate of death penalty convictions that have been overturned based on DNA evidence. Those cases had “eyewitness testimony” and circumstantial evidence too. When there is intense pressure to convict, there can be no free and fair trial. Skepticism warranted.

    1. Note the history museum comment on Messer-Kruse’s remarks: “That view is bound to stir up controversy among historians and legal scholars who more generally consider the trial a travesty”.

      1. Precisely!!! The great African-American economist Thomas Sowell diagnosed exactly this situation: “People will forgive you for being wrong, but they will never forgive you for being right — especially if events prove you right while proving them wrong.”

    1. Again, no proof- just hearsay- the definition of which is “information received from other people that one cannot adequately substantiate; rumor”. There was not ever going to be NO conviction. As all too often happens in moments of national hysteria, any conviction will do. Many people paid for the act of what mostly was the act of a lone wolf, not an organized conspiracy.

    2. For those with doubts, READ THE ARTICLE. A storekeeper across the street “found the indentations where the bomb struck the street and then bounced and exploded. He was able to describe that in great detail. The indentations showed, because of the oblong nature of the indention in the wood, the direction from which the bomb was thrown.” Looking at the full transcript also reveals “They caught these guys who had bomb-making materials, who were casting bombs, who had caches of dynamite, revolvers and ammunition. It wasn’t just one or two little pieces of evidence.”

  14. I was watching American Experience: Chicago. They mentioned the Haymarket Affair and an Albert Parsons whose family came over in 1600s. I remembered I had a Parsons around that same time. Turns out Albert Parsons’ ancestor is brother in law to my ancestor Mary Bliss-Parsons who was accused of being a witch

    1. Hello, My great Uncle, Charles Peters was Cook County Deputy Sheriff for many years. He attended the hanging of the anarchists and according to “Chicago Tribune,” spoke the last words to one, who was a longtime acquaintance,
      before the trap was sprung. I believe he is depicted in the sketch of the hanging. He was a new deputy at that time but had worked his way up from immigrant bookkeeper to
      A rung on the ladder of Chicago politics, I was a relative, also, of Mary Bliss Parsons, the witch? My great great grandfather was
      JohnParsons Tracy.
      My great great grandfather

  15. This information is interesting. I’ve been doing some research regarding The Jr. Order of United American Mechanics, and some of the rioting, etc. is going on at about the same time frame. The Order was involved in some of the same activities and were against immigrants taking jobs they believed belonged to native born Americans. It would be interesting if you could print information regarding them also.

  16. First of all this they did / they didn’t is like the Kennedy killing when there is the same type of misinformation and only the “EXPERTS” can prove it from a book or even from the newspapers. Yes there are a few people who are setting on death row whom they have found did not kill or commit the crime but this is a problem -sure but what do you do let them walk free ? If the DNA finds an innocent then they should be let go AND given restitution for the time in prison. Go back 70 years or more and they did not have DNA. One can sit here and judge just like both sides in Chicago did. One can not correct that crime on either side…. Yes we can make judgement like they did in the Haymarket Affair
    but it will be the same thing 100 years from now-you will still be trying to make a right judgement.
    Back in the 1950’s as a Florida National Guard ’18 year old, when a strike occurred In Pensacola. Like those cops I didn’t necessarily want to go to face those strikers as a lot of those strikers were neighbors –Did those people in the Haymarkt Affair throw the bomb do it? Maybe or maybe not. You will never know.
    Most are Monday morning quarterbacks with no evidence only newspapers …..good hunting!

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