What went down and why at the Haymarket riots in Chicago?
If you think your job is rough today, then just imagine what it must have been like before the days of modern labor rights. Back in the 1880s, it was a really crappy time to be an industrial laborer in America. Not only were the wages low, but the hours were long and the conditions were far from cheery. Unsurprisingly, more and more protests started to crop up across America as labor unions rallied for more humane rights. One such rally, which came to be known as the Haymarket Riot or the Haymarket Affair, started as a peaceful protest but ended up going horribly wrong.
Too much to ask?
As history has proven, every movement has its radicals who insist on taking things way too far. It was no different for the American labor movement, which had its own sub-sections of socialists, communists, and even flat-out anarchists. Many radicals in that camp were immigrants who thought we should just throw capitalism to the wind because it wasn’t working out very well for the workers at the bottom of the system. Many other members, however, just wanted things like fair pay or a workday that would be capped at 8 hours.
Anyway, on May 3, 1886, things got out of hand at a strike at McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago when the cops ended up killing or wounding several workers. So the next day, on May 4th, a group of local radicals organized a protest rally in Haymarket Square. For a while, the rally was pretty much a legit, peaceful protest. Even the Chicago Mayor, Carter Harrison, showed up to watch. After the mayor and most of the protesters had left though, the cops decided it was time to tell everyone who remained to pack it up and go home.
Things escalate quickly
Apparently, someone in the crowd did not appreciate the instructions because it was then that an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. As you may have guessed, it didn’t take long for panic to ensue. The cops responded with random gunfire and by the time it was all said and done, seven police officers and at least one civilian were killed. Sixty other officers and between 30-40 civilians were also wounded or otherwise maimed.
Afterward, a vast array of finger-pointing ensued, though the bomb thrower was never positively identified. Xenophobia, which is a fancy word for prejudice against people from other countries, swept the nation. As a result, slews of foreign radicals and laborer organizers were arrest across the U.S. By August 1886, the Chicago authorities had selected eight unlucky men who they labeled as anarchists and basically turned into scapegoats for the Haymarket Riot. Though there was no solid evidence actually linking the men to the bombing and several of them weren’t even at the riot, the authorities insisted that they’d been behind the plot to instigate it.
The Chicago Eight
The Judge who presided over the trial sentenced seven of the men to death and the other to 15 years in prison. On November 11th of the next year, four of the “Chigaco Eight” were hanged and a fifth went on to commit suicide the night before his execution. The other two who had been sentenced to death eventually managed to get their sentences knocked down to life in prison.
As time went on, things began to look more and more fishy to the public when it came to whether the right men had been pegged for the crime. Public skepticism escalated until 1893 when the three remaining members of the Chicago Eight were pardoned due to the blatant lack of evidence that they’d had anything to do with the incident. While some radical labor organizers saw the Chicago Eight as martyrs for the cause, many other people saw the whole ordeal as a huge setback for the labor movement.