Haymarket blast shook the world - 100 years later, Chicago remembered

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After the bomb explosion at the Anarchist riot in Haymarket Square May 4, 1886.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally ran on April 23, 1986, as part of the 100th anniversary coverage of the Haymarket riots.

Here, it happened here, around this shabby patchwork of parking lots and soot-covered brick stores, offices and warehouses.

There’s not much northeast of Haymarket Square to tell you of the few minutes here on May 4, 1886, that led to one of the most unjust trials in American history, weakened free speech and split further an already divided America. Now, at the 600 block of West Randolph at Desplaines, quiet duty seems the byword as workers pack and sell and load and repair, the smell of peanut brittle benevolently filling the air.

A century ago, at a protest over killings at a McCormick reaper plant the day before, an English-born anarchist exhorted a small crowd here to “throttle” the law. A headstrong police inspector marched troops into the meeting. Then someone threw the first fatal dynamite bomb in the United States.

Eventually four anarchists – none accused of throwing the bomb – were hanged. Three others went to prison.

This month and next, historians, laborers and artists in Chicago will commemorate the events known as the Haymarket Affair.

The incident brought results as diverse as this country’s first “red scare” and the creation of Fort Sheridan and the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It focused attention on the movement for an eight-hour workday and made May 1 a near-international labor day, ironically one all but ignored in the country of its origin. It engraved upon the public mind the stereotype of anarchists and bomb-wielding foreigners, giving lawmakers the impetus to restrict immigration.

Eight policemen died as a result of the brief melee, and about 60 officers were wounded. As many as seven or eight civilians may have died, with 30 to 40 injured. Eight well-known anar chists were blamed and convicted – for speeches and publications that had incited the unknown bomb thrower.

And the powers that were applauded, denouncing anarchists and socialists from pulpits, podiums and in the press.

Anarchists were “enemy forces,” according to the Chicago Times. “Foreign sav-ages,” said the Tribune. Even Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, to which some of the eight belonged, disavowed the Chicago “monsters.”

A century later, some major Chicago institutions – the Chicago Historical Society, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago Federation of Labor, Peace Museum, Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, Newberry Library – are sponsoring programs for the Haymarket centennial. Events are supported by the Illinois Arts Council.

“I think it’s one of the most exciting stories in United States history,” said UIC labor historian William Adelman, author of Haymarket Revisited. Adelman, 53, talks about the Haymarket principals as if they were familiar.

He and others who are active in the centennial committee refer to ways the world hasn’t changed since Haymarket , citing the McCarthy era, Chicago police “Red Squad,” the Chicago 7 trial and current labor struggles.

The city was divided among ethnic lines, between WASPs and ethnic Europeans when 63-year-year-old William Neebe’s grandfather was convicted for Haymarket . “It’s divided on black and white lines now,” he said.

“You think it couldn’t happen in the United States. It did,” said Phyllis Johnson, 35, who is making a documentary on Haymarket with the Lucy Parsons Collective, which is named for the activist and wife of Haymarket anarchist Albert Parsons.

The Haymarket protest meeting of 1886 was a result of years of labor unrest, which worsened in the cycles of depression and prosperity in the last quarter of the 19th century. Inspired by the writing of Paine and Jefferson, as well as Marx and Engels, disillusioned by political corruption, the anarchists talked and wrote of dynamite, the great leveler. Business leaders also had advocated using dynamite on the anarchists.

Workers – many German, Irish and Eastern Europeans – had flocked to Chicago to build the booming city, and to rebuild it after the fire. The city became a center for the movement advocating an eight-hour workday and other labor agitation. Chicago was home to key members of the International Working People’s Party, which called for an end to class rule, equality of the sexes and races, an end to “profit mongery,” making unions the “instruments of revolution.”

On May 1, 1886, Chicago braced itself for trouble when 40,000 workers struck and 80,000 protesters marched down Michigan Avenue in the nation’s largest parade in support of an eight-hour workday. There was no violence.

It came two days later when two people were killed in a police clash with strikers at the locked-out McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. plant in Pilsen.

The next night a protest meeting was called at Haymarket Square. It was poorly organized, with mixed signals about weapons and a delay in speeches. As clouds threatened, the crowd of 2,000 or 3,000 dwindled to 200 or 300. Just after 10 p.m., Mayor Carter Harrison, who was there to ensure order, left, stopping at the nearby Desplaines Street police station to tell Inspector John Bonfield that the meeting was “tame” and unlikely to become violent.

Nevertheless, Bonfield, sworn enemy of the labor movement, marched in 176 men and ordered the meeting to disperse. Someone threw a bomb.

It killed one officer on the spot. In the next few weeks, six others died from their wounds – mostly from bullets shot by other policemen. An eighth officer died of complications two years later. In other labor confrontations in Chicago, workers, not police, had been killed.

Panic and hatred seized Chicago and the rest of the country. The city was under virtual martial law for almost eight weeks. Police ransacked homes and offices of hundreds of suspected radicals.

A grand jury indicted a predominately German cross section of the anarchists’ movement who had been dogging the city with marches, protests and speeches. The non-Germans were Samuel Fielden, an English-born teamster and lay preacher, and Albert Parsons, descendant of Revolutionary War heroes, an ex-Confederate soldier, and editor of the anarchist paper, the Alarm.

The rest were German, feeding fears of foreign agitation.

Most of the city was against them, and the jurors were no

exception.

“The prosecution wanted to prove it was part of a huge movement to destroy Chicago,” said Adelman.

Before the trial, each jury member had expressed an opinion against the men. Judge Joseph Gary limited the evidence the Haymarket anarchists’ lawyers could bring up, but allowed the state’s attorney free rein. The state’s attorney admitted in court that the defendents “were not more guilty than the thousands who follow them.” He told the jury to make examples of them.

Neebe’s grandfather was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and the rest, to death. Two defendants later received life sentences.

On Nov. 11, 1887, despite appeals and protests throughout the United States and Europe, the four were hanged. The bomb thrower never was identified or tried.

Anxious to forestall another Haymarket , Marshall Field and other prominent businessmen bought land north of Chicago, gaving it to the federal government in 1887 to establish what is now Fort Sheridan. Another group gave 100 acres for Great Lakes.

In 1889 and 1892, international labor and socialist groups adopted May 1 as labor day and a time to honor Haymarket ‘s “martyrs.”

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland made the first Monday in September national Labor Day. The labor movement was divided in its observance of labor days, said Adelman, but after the Russian Revolution, May 1 was associated with communism and eventually the date became Law Day in this country.

Which explains why William Neebe hadn’t gone to a May Day parade until he was a 15-year-old visiting Mexico City, why he hadn’t heard of his grandfather’s connections with Haymarket until then, and was surprised to see a Diego Rivera mural with his grandfather’s picture.

Over the years, workers and other people who want to remember Haymarket have reclaimed May 1. The Illinois Labor History Society is petitioning the Chicago Park District to open a park and erect a monument near Haymarket Square. There is little at the site to commemorate the events, just the base of a statue – a reproduction is now safe in the police academy after the original was bombed twice-in honor of police, a rusting metal plate showing the whole statue and photographs inside Noon Hour Inc. wholesalers.

The only sign at Haymarket that there’s another side to the story is faint red spray paint on the base, which stands next to the Kennedy Expy. It says “imperialism” or “imperialist.”

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