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Remembering the Haymarket Martyrs

By Charles Sullivan

05/16/06 "
Information Clearing House' -- -- Every now and then events transpire that cut through the rhetoric, the carefully contrived images purveyed in the press and historical texts, and reveal a nation’s dark soul in ghastly detail. Such an event occurred in the streets of Chicago on May 4, 1886, and continued through November 11 of 1887. They were set in motion years before.

At noon on that day four of labor’s most courageous warriors: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel were hanged for a crime they did not commit. A fifth man, Louis Lingg, was slated to share the fate of his comrades but he cheated the hangman and the state of his innocent blood when he exploded a dynamite cap in his mouth from his jail cell just hours before the execution. The explosive had been smuggled in to him by an anarchist comrade. Another anarchist, Oscar Neebe, has sentenced to fifteen years of prison and hard labor. Three others had their death sentences commuted to life sentences.

In the U.S. only a relative few working class people know that Labor Day, originally May Day (May 1) originated with the hanging of these men. The rest of the world celebrates their heroism on May 1; however, the U.S. does not officially recognize their sacrifice by honoring them with a national holiday. Virtually every worker worldwide owes a tremendous debt to the Haymarket Martyrs, who provided the impetus and paid the ultimate price for many of the benefits that all workers, including the rank and file and upper management, now enjoy.

Those were tumultuous times not only in Chicago but all across America, when revolution was in the air and nationwide strikes crippled the burgeoning economy. In Chicago alone 400,000 were out on strike protesting not only reductions in wages but also demonstrating for the eight hour work day—one of the central organizing principles of the anarchist’s political philosophy. The Chicago anarchist movement that took root in 1884 was both strong and effective. Its leaders were skilled organizers and eloquent orators.

The Chicago police of the day were corrupt and routinely moved on the strikers at the behest of the business community, prodded by the daily newspapers. In those days companies had their own militias which were used to put down worker insurrections with coercion and violence. They also hired Pinkertons to intimidate and kill workers in order to prevent strikes and to maximize profits. But when the strikers began organizing militias for their own protection the state legislature outlawed them. The business militias, however, were allowed to continue their grim work, leaving the workers without protection and vulnerable. Strikers were routinely beaten, imprisoned and killed by their employers and the police.

On May 4, 1886, several unarmed strikers were shot dead by the Chicago police and hundreds were brutally beaten, including innocent bystanders at the McCormick Reapers Works. August Spies witnessed the affair with horror and righteous indignation. His comrades were being murdered in the streets and the killers did so with impunity. It seemed that all the forces of Chicago were arrayed against the working people.

An outraged August Spies organized a peaceful rally the following evening at the Haymarket Square. After beginning in clear moonlight, the weather suddenly turned cool and threatened rain, after a crowd of 3,000 gathered to hear the orators in the gathering gloom of the chilled night air. Standing upon a hay wagon near a lone street lamp the speakers berated the Chicago police for their indiscriminate killing of unarmed workers. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, a just and honest man, was in attendance. Satisfied that the gathering was peaceful and nearing conclusion, Mayor Harrison informed the chief of police, John Bonfield, who had sanctioned the shootings and mass beatings of the previous day, not to march on the group or disrupt their meeting.

It was getting late and the cold was penetrating when Albert Parsons and most of the speakers left the rally to warm themselves at Zephf’s Hall. Acting without legal authority, John Bonfield gathered a troop of 180 armed policemen and ordered them to disperse the dwindling crowd. After a mild verbal confrontation, Samuel Fieldon, who was speaking to the crowd when the police arrived, agreed to peacefully disperse. As Fieldon leaped down from the hay wagon, an unknown assailant hurled a stick of sizzling dynamite into the crowd of policemen. One officer was killed and six others died in the ensuing mayhem as the result of the panic stricken police firing indiscriminately into the fleeing crowd.

A reign of terror soon swept over Chicago in the aftermath of the Haymarket bombing. The press and the city’s business men, always hostile to the strikers, blamed the anarchists and the socialists and cried for their blood. The principal anarchists were quickly rounded up and put into jail, except for Parsons who, though far from the site of the incident, knew that Chicago’s business men demanded his head and skipped town.

Demonized in the press and the business community, the anarchists were immediately tried, convicted and executed in the Chicago Tribune and other daily newspapers even before any evidence was gathered. The judge presiding over the trial did nothing to conceal his prejudice and hostility toward the accused. Twelve impartial jurors could not be found, so those who openly proclaimed the guilt of the accused were paid to judge the case. During the early stages of the trial Albert Parsons dramatically walked into the courtroom and took his place at the side of his comrades to face his fate with them.

With the impossibility of a fair trial, and the irrational fear that Chicago’s ruling elite felt toward immigrant social agitators, the men were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Predictably, the trial was a farce, a media circus and a travesty of justice. The jury consisted of businessmen, their clerks and a relative of one of the dead policemen. Not a single working man or woman was selected for the jury.

No evidence was produced to link any of the accused with the bombing during the trial. None of them were at or near the scene of the crime. No evidence was brought forth to demonstrate that the anarchists had conspired to incite violence that evening. But they were anarchists and socialists, a threat to capital, and they were bound to hang for their political views.

State attorney Julius Grinnell openly declared that anarchism was on trial. By hanging the anarchists, Grinnell reasoned, the sacred institutions of society would be saved. In essence, free speech and the right of peaceful assembly were also on trial. Laws to protect the rights of suspects were suspended and new precedents established to hasten their conviction. The real agenda of Chicago’s business community, however, was to put an end to the successful drive for the eight hour work day and to permanently demonize organized labor. It would require another fifty-one years for the eight hour work day to become law as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Just a few hours prior to the execution Albert Parsons wrote a friend that “The guard has just awakened me. I have washed my face and drank a cup of coffee. The doctor asked me if I wanted stimulants. I said no. The dear boys, Engel, Fischer and Spies, saluted me with firm voices. Well, my dear old comrade, the hour draws near. Caesar kept me awake last night with the noise, the music of the hammer and saw erecting his throne—my scaffold.” Parsons remained awake most of the night singing one of his favorite songs, “Annie Laurie” in a soft, melancholy voice filled with emotion.

More than 200 reporters gathered to witness the execution, as did the citizenry. None of the friends or relatives of the anarchists were permitted to attend. Albert Parson’s wife, Lucy, and their children were not permitted to bid their beloved husband and father a final farewell. Lucy Parsons was arrested in the attempt and taken to jail in another part of the city.

A few minutes before noon the four men were paraded onto the gallows scaffold. A reporter described the scene, “With a steady, unfaltering step a white robed figure stepped out…and stood upon the drop. It was August Spies. It was evident that his hands were firmly bound behind him beneath his snowy shroud.” Another reporter wrote, “His face was very pale, his looks solemn, his expression melancholy, yet at the same time dignified.” Fischer, Engel and Parsons followed in orderly procession. Another reporter noted that Parsons “Turned his big gray eyes upon the crowd below with such a look of awful reproach and sadness as it would not fail to strike the innermost chord of the hardest-heart there. It was a look never to be forgotten.”

The nooses were placed around the men’s necks and muslin shrouds placed over their heads. The executioner took up the axe that would in a moment cut the rope and spring the trap doors upon which the four men stood, sending them into ancestry. There was apprehension in the air thick as soup. Four innocent men were about to be executed by the state. Just then a “mournful solemn voice sounded.” It was August Spies speaking his final words, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Next, George Engel shouted in his native German tongue, “Hurrah for anarchy!” Adolph Fischer chimed, “This is the happiest day of my life.” Just as Albert Parsons began to utter his final words that began, “Harken to the voice of the people,” the executioner’s axe fell. The trap doors sprung open with a bang and the four men jerked violently on the end of their ropes and then dangled in the air.

None of them died quickly of broken necks, as was supposed to happen; they violently twisted and strangled to death over a period of several minutes, some of them kicking and writhing in agony. The captains of industry celebrated the death of the anarchists while the workers mourned for their fallen comrades. But the dream of the eight hour work day, while strangled, did not die with the Chicago anarchists. It lived on in the lives of Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood, who were inspired by the Haymarket Martyrs and went on to organize.

Some 600,000 workers turned out for the anarchist’s funeral. Lucy Parsons was inconsolable in her grief and spent the remainder of her life continuing the work that she and Albert had begun years before in Texas and later Chicago. This was the event that precipitated the eight hour work day, the internationally celebrated May Day, and Labor Day in the U.S. It is tragic that so few working class people are aware of the tremendous price that the Haymarket Martyrs paid for the freedoms that so many of us take for granted today.

On June 26, 1893, newly elected Illinois Governor John Altgeld set the remaining anarchists free and cleared the names of the hanged. Altgeld, a fair minded man, after examining transcripts of the trial and reams of related documents declared that all of the anarchists were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Altgeld concluded that the hanged men had been victims of “hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge.” Later, evidence came to light that the dynamite may have been thrown by a police agent working for police captain Bonfield, as part of a conspiracy hatched by local business men to discredit the entire labor movement.

The state sponsored murder of the Haymarket anarchists, while particularly poignant, is by no means an isolated incident in American labor history. In the spring of 1886 America was on the verge of becoming something other than what she was. A new dawn in which working class people were on a par with business elites was almost within grasp and the eight hour work day virtually assured. Had justice prevailed that year in a hot Chicago courtroom and the normal procedures of the law followed, America would have been a very different place; a more just and peaceful future than the one we have now would have been possible and likely.

The entire Haymarket affair betrays the violent nature of capital and reveals its modus operandi. Aside from all the rhetoric about free speech and democracy, it exposes who runs the country, who makes the laws and who enforces them. It is capital, not we the people that are running things. Time and again the ugly side of America has been revealed when the status quo was threatened with real democracy. And it will happen again until the class struggle is finally resolved with just outcomes. The judgment of History has exonerated the fallen victims of predatory capital and indicted the real perpetrators of crimes against humanity, but who go unrepentant and unpunished.

Until millions of ordinary working class people awaken to the kind of country America really is, the death of Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel will have been in vain. Workers the world over owes a great debt to these courageous men, whose lives, strangely, are celebrated abroad but scarcely known here. Unless we remember these men and honor what they did for us their sacrifice will have been in vain. We owe them nothing less and much more.

Author’s note: I urge those who wish to know more about these events to read labor historian James Green’s recently published book “Death in the Haymarkett: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America.”

Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina. He welcomes your comments at earthdog@highstream.net

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