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In the Haymarket Riot of May 4, 1886, the police clashed violently with militant anarchists and labor movement protesters in Chicago. Seven policemen and several protesters were killed, leading to murder convictions for seven radicals, four of whom were executed. The strong public and state reaction against the Haymarket protesters has been called the first Red Scare in U.S. history, and their trial has been widely critized for improper procedure and prosecutorial excess.
The Haymarket Riot grew out of labor unrest that had been brewing since the 1870s. Unhappy with difficult working conditions and feeling the pressure of economic depression, workers had engaged in periodic strikes. Strong, sometimes violent police opposition to these strikes led to greater labor militancy. Radicals became increasingly convinced that the struggle between labor and capital had come to a head and that the time for revolution was near. Many anarchists publicly advocated the use of explosives to bring down the capitalist system.
In 1886, a broad coalition of labor organizations joined to campaign for an eight-hour workday. On May 1, 1886, this coalition initiated a general strike throughout the United States, the effects of which were particularly strong in Chicago. On May 3, fighting broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, and at least two workers were killed by the police.
Outraged at these killings, anarchists, members of the labor movement, and other radicals met for a rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square on May 4. The rally was peaceable until the police attempted to disperse the crowd. Then a bomb was thrown into the police ranks, killing seven officers and wounding sixty more. The police fired in response, killing and wounding like numbers of participants.
In an ensuing crackdown against the labor movement, the police arrested hundreds of anarchists and other radicals. Two leading anarchist newspapers were put out of business, and their staffs were imprisoned. Finally, eight noted Chicago radicals and anarchists, including nationally known radical leaders August Spies and Albert Parsons, were indicted for the murder of one of the policemen at Haymarket Square. Public opinion turned swiftly against the protesters, in part because seven of the eight defendants in the case were foreign-born.
The trial in the criminal court of Cook County began on June 21, 1886. Despite a lack of evidence linking them directly to the bombing, seven of the eight were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and the eighth was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The defendants were held liable for the murder on the ground that they had incited the bombing through inflammatory public speech.
The defendants appealed their case to the Illinois Supreme Court which upheld the lower court's decision on September 14, 1887 (Spies v. People, 122 Ill. 1, 12 N.E. 865). Supporters of the defendants undertook a clemency campaign that gathered forty thousand petition signatures. Under pressure from all sides, Governor Richard Oglesby, of Illinois, pardoned two of the seven sentenced to death but sustained the sentences of the other five. One of the seven committed suicide shortly before the date of execution by detonating a small dynamite bomb smuggled to him by a friend. The other four, including Spies and Parsons, were hanged on November 11, 1887.
The three remaining Haymarket defendants were pardoned in 1893 by Governor John Peter Altgeld, of Illinois, who also issued a report condemning the trial as unfair. He noted that the presiding judge was clearly biased against the defendants, that the defendants were not proved to be guilty of the crime with which they were charged, and that the jury was "packed" by state prosecutors with members who were prejudiced against the defendants. Later legal scholars have supported Altgeld's conclusions.
The questionable jury selection practices in the Haymarket trial, which allowed the seating of jurors who were clearly prejudiced against the defendants, were struck down by a later decision of the Illinois Supreme Court (Coughlin v. People, 144 Ill. 140, 33 N.E. 1 ).
Landsman, Stephan. 1986. "When Justice Fails." Review of The Haymarket Tragedy, by Paul Avrich. Michigan Law Review 84 (February–April).
Wish, Harvey. 1976. "Haymarket Riot." In Dictionary of American History. Edited by Louise B. Ketz. New York: Scribner.