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April 15, 2009 / howardmestas



In The Haymarket

We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure God has willed it.
And we mean to have eight hours

On May 1, 1865, the body of Abraham Lincoln arrived in Chicago on its way back to Springfield for burial. Fifty-thousand mourners came to pay their last respects to the Great Emancipator on his final visit to the city. Carl Sandburg wrote that amid the gloomy procession were, “native-born Yankees and foreign born Catholics, blacks and whites, German Lutherans and German Jews—all for once in common front.” The city was unified in their grief over the dead president; however, the next couple decades would see many challenges to that solidarity. On another May 1st, twenty-one-years later, a worker’s protest demanding and eight-hour workday would escalate into a disastrous affair that would deal a blow to social advancement in the midst of Gilded Age America.

In his book, “Death In The Haymarket,” historian James Green reveals the rise of the first great labor movement in post Civil War America, and a bloody event at Haymarket Square, in Chicago, on May 4, 1886. A subsequent trial culminating in executions of working-class agitators would distance the business class from wage earners, both foreign and native born. The setbacks that followed would take the worker’s movement decades to recover.

Chicago was a bustling city enjoying a decisive competitive edge over all other industrial rivals because of its access to eastern markets via the Great Lakes, and to the Midwest farms and forests through the Illinois & Michigan Canal to the Mississippi River. During the Civil War the city’s slaughterhouse and packing industry boomed after securing many lucrative military contracts. As Saul Bellow wrote, progress was written, “in the blood of the yards.” By the end of the Civil War, it was the destination of every railroad system west of the Mississippi all the way to the Pacific. The never ending need for wage workers would lead to the influx of European immigrants with Chicago’s population doubling in the 1860’s. In the 1880’s nearly 250,000 souls migrated to the city looking for work and were no doubt part of the 800 freight and passenger trains leaving and entering the city daily.

Green explains that Chicago’s population grew 118 percent in the 1880’s which was a rate of growth five times faster than that of New York City. The city’s foreign-born population reached 450,000 which was larger than the total population of St. Louis, or any other city in the Midwest. As could be expected the new arrivals were overwhelmingly represented by impoverished peasants, or refugees fleeing foreign oppressors. With the supply of available labor at a premium, profiteers would see their net value increase far faster than the average yearly wage. This would undoubtedly lead to class tension, with animosity revealing its ugly side in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. In that year, Mayor Carter H. Harrison, found the spark that would ignite a fire of class hatred that would envelop the city for the ensuing decade. His name was John Bonfield, and as police captain he would write the text on how to use “disciplined brutality” in suppressing worker rebellions.

In his call to action against the railroad strikers, Bonfield led the assault with one observer noting, their “clubs descending right and left like flails.” During the melee, the captain personally beat down an elderly man who did not respond to his order to fall back. Two men were clubbed unconscious, with one suffering permanent brain damage. The following day Socialist militant, August Spies, spoke to a crowd of several thousand workers, denouncing Bonfield’s “vicious attack” on the citizenry and according to one report, “advised streetcar men and all other workingmen to buy guns and fight for their rights like men.” When leading citizens called for Bonfield’s dismissal he was retained, “on account of his political influence.” To the fury of organized labor, a few months later the ill-tempered captain was promoted by Mayor Harrison to be chief inspector. The battle lines had been drawn for years to come, and as Green explains, “During the fall of 1885 a cloud of class hatred hung over Chicago; it seemed as thick as the smoke that darkened its streets.”

We’re summoning our forces
Shipyard, shop and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.

May 1, 1886, was the beginning of several days of peaceful protests and demonstrations at the McCormick Reaper Works, until a small group of unarmed picketers were shot and killed by Chicago police. The next day, May 4, a mass protest led by anarchists was held at Haymarket Square on the city’s West Side. Again police entered the scene to disperse the crowd as the meeting began to wind down. Out of the night, an unknown individual (and today we still do not know who it was) threw a dynamite bomb in the direction of the police, killing one immediately and fatally wounding six others. The police fired their handguns in a wild frenzy killing at least three protesters and wounding many others.

The Chicago Tribune published an exaggerated and unfounded account of the events in the following day’s edition with other newspapers and magazines nationwide following its lead. Mass hysteria would result in police taking extraordinary measures in a reign of terror that would arrest the rights of all “alien” workers throughout the country, but especially in Chicago. As Green puts it, “the first Red Scare was in effect,” and hostility toward Chicago’s immigrant population came from every possible demographic. The eight hour movement lost all momentum and labor reform came to a screeching halt. A sensational trial followed that summer, and a stacked jury found seven anarchists guilty, resulting in their condemnation for their part in “assisting” the still unknown bomber. The labor movement and social reform would be put on hold.


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