Monday, May 6, 2013
Hussain: The Haymarket Affair
The Haymarket Affair
The United States Civil War led to a depression era caused by an economic recession between the years of 1873 and 1879. During these years, factory workers faced undesirable working conditions, long hours, and low wages. Following these years, the national economy began to improve but working conditions in industrial factories did not change. In fact, many would argue, that factory workers faced more obstacles. The obstacles they faced mainly consisted of difficulty in unionizing. Workers were also exploited through the introduction of piece-rates, in which they would have to repeat the same task all day and got paid for how much they produced by the end of the day. They had to keep up with the production pace or they risked the chance of getting replaced. One of the main turning points in the U.S. working class history was the Haymarket Affair. This paper will examine the events leading up to and following the Haymarket Affair and the historical impact that it had in the United States.
Chicago was a major industrial center of the United States in the late 19th century, and many workers fled to this area to find jobs. A large number of them were immigrants, mainly German and Bohemians from Northern and Western Europe. The wages of workers in factories ranged from $1.00 to $2.00 per day and working days were approximately 9 to 14 hours, six days a week. There were no maximum regulations set for the work week during the late 19th century. These regulations would come along later with the New Deal in the 1930s. Due to these unforgiving circumstances, many workers tried to form unions. During this time it was very popular to join socialist or anarchist labor.1 Employers would often respond by repressing these unions by refusing to negotiate with the workers and sometimes even worsening the conditions of the workers who joined unions.
The idea of an eight-hour work day was very appealing to workers nationwide. A convention led by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions on October 1884 unanimously set the date of May 1, 1886 as the day that workers would take charge and institute the eight-hour work day. As the day approached, labor unions nationwide began to prepare to strike in support of the eight-hour work day. On May 1, approximately 30,000 to 40,000 workers walked out of their jobs and participated in Chicago’s first “May Day” parade, in which marchers chanted the eight-hour-day song: “Whether you work by piece or work by the day, Decreasing the hours increases the pay.”2
It was not until two days later, May 3, 1886 that havoc was wreaked at Chicago’s International Harvester plant, called the McCormick Reaper Plant. Approximately 1,400 workers – most of them of German origin – were on strike for the eight-hour day and $2.00 wage. They also wanted to end wage-cuts and the piece-work system which paid them only according to how much pieces they made by the end of the day. Three hundred policemen guarded the plant’s entrance in order to protect the safety of the “scabs” who had replaced the striking workers. At the end of the day, strikers stoned the factory windows and bothered the “scabs.” Soon enough, fighting erupted and a conflict arose between the policemen and the strikers. Four strikers were killed, and others were injured. None of the “scabs” or policemen were seriously injured or killed.
As news spread of this unfortunate event, different people had different opinions about what should be done. The German-language working-men anarchist newspaper, Arbeiter Zeitung, called for workers to unite and protest the police brutality the next day in Haymarket Square, a widened portion of Randolph Street in the city of Chicago. Meanwhile, the event was belittled by the New York Times, which reported, “It was just ‘a collision’ between policemen and a ‘mob’ of 7,000 or 8,000 anarchist workmen and tramps – ‘maddened with free beer and free speech’”.3
The protest did happen, with a crowd of about 3,000 people gathering at Haymarket Square to listen to speeches of socialism and anarchism by such men as August Spies, the editor of Arbeiter Zeitung, Albert Parsons, the editor of Alarm, a Working People’s Association English-language newspaper, and Samuel Fielden. The speakers emphasized the importance of continuing the eight-hour strike and not backing out and warned the crowd about police violence. Fielden, a recognized anarchist, was reportedly on stage at the time, speaking passionately and creating an uproar in the crowd when a group of policemen arrived. Someone then threw a bomb at the police platoon. One policeman, Matthias Degan, was killed along with an undetermined number of protestors. The police responded to the bomb by firing at the crowd, killing four protestors and six other policemen.
Chicago authorities rounded up eight anarchists whom they put on trial. The prosecution argued that “although there might be no proof that any one of these eight had thrown the bomb, they were responsible for it having been thrown.”4 Of the eight accused, two were not even present at Haymarket Square when the bomb was thrown. The eight men were found guilty on October 9, 1886. It was never proven that any of the men had thrown the bomb. In fact, it was never proven who threw the bomb in the first place.
There were allegations made against the accused men but there was no solid proof against them. For example, Police Lieutenant Quinn, a commander of policemen present in Haymarket that day, reportedly stated in court that as the policemen arrived, Fielden said “Here come the blood-hounds – you do your duty and I’ll do mine.”5 Quinn also accused Fielden of pulling a revolver from his hip and pointing it at Captain Ward and officers behind him, just as the bomb exploded.
After many unsuccessful attempts at an appeal, Louis Lingg committed suicide in his cell (which would add to people’s suspicion) while Engel overdosed on drugs but did not die. Alfred Parsons, Adolf Fischer, George Engel, and August Spies were hanged on November 11, 1887. The other three were sentenced to a life-time of prison. It wasn’t until June of 1893 that the survivors were pardoned by Governor Louis Altgeld due to insufficient evidence.
Americans throughout the nation thought it their duty to blame these men during the time of the trial and execution. They believed that even though the men might not have been directly guilty, they were definitely guilty by association to their political philosophy. James Russell Lowell, an American poet and diplomat, famously announced, “the rascals are well hanged.”6 This shows that the trials were heavily influenced by public opinion.
Supporters of the eight accused men, such as actor-manager-playwright Steele MacKaye, were convinced that the trial was a prime example of police brutality. Another supporter, writer William Dean Howells, felt so strongly about the wrongness of the verdict that he wrote a series of novels about the issue; the most important being A Hazard of New Fortunes (1888).
Why did the wealthy businessmen oppose the idea of shorter workday, even though so many workers were willing to put themselves in physical danger to get it? “One reason businessmen opposed the idea of a shorter work day was that they did not want to see working-class men with the leisure to read the inflammatory newspapers and books by Reds—Socialists, Marxists, anarchists, and other radical and revolutionary theorists and leaders—or with the time to attend agitating lectures and meetings.”7 During the late 19th century, employers and law enforcements feared radical anarchist and socialist thought and wanted to put an end to it through the use of their power. Unfortunately, this usually resulted in violence between workers and employers and police officers. This is exactly what happened at the Haymarket Affair on May 4, 1886.
The Haymarket affair was a historical moment in the history of the working class in the United States. Many people died either at the hands of police, because of the bomb, or because of the court trial hangings. In a way, these killings had to happen to prove to employers that an improvement in working conditions is what the factory workers not only wanted, but also needed.
1 Edward de Grazia, “The Haymarket Bomb,” Law and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2006): 284.
2 Edward de Grazia, “The Haymarket Bomb,” Law and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2006): 286.
3 Edward de Grazia, “The Haymarket Bomb,” Law and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2006): 284.
4 Anna George deMille, “Henry George: Haymarket and Tariff Reform,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 5, No. 4 (1946): 546
5 “Tracing the Conspiracy: Second Day of the Trial of the Anarchists. An Informer Who Duped the Prosecution – Important Testimony by Lieut. Quinn.” New York Times, July 1886. http://search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/94330183/13D1877D5C84E8A4A24/14?accountid=14172
6 Everett Carter, “The Haymarket Affair in Literature,” The American Quarterly, Vol. 2 Issue 3 (1950): 271
7 Edward de Grazia, “The Haymarket Bomb,” Law and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2006): 285.