Haymarket Riot (1886)

The Haymarket Riot, the very name of which tends to mischaracterize what it was about, was one of the most significant events in American labor and Populist history in the nineteenth century. A peaceful meeting of anarchist activists that ended in violence and the execution of several anarchist activists, the Haymarket Riot marked a significant setback for the American labor movement. It also severely marginalized the anarchist movements of this period and set back the movement for an eight-hour work day by decades.

The movements and events that led up the Haymarket Riot originated in the post–Civil War labor movements. The rise of the Knights of Labor (KOL) began as a secret society in the 1870s but had “gone public” by the 1880s under the leadership

The police charge rioters in old Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois, on May 4, 1886. The riot occurred when a bomb exploded among a group of policemen as they attempted to disperse a giant labor rally in the city's Haymarket

The police charge rioters in old Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois, on May 4, 1886. The riot occurred when a bomb exploded among a group of policemen as they attempted to disperse a giant labor rally in the city's Haymarket Square. Eleven people died in the incident. (Library of Congress)

of Terrence V. Powderly. The KOL had a membership growing into the tens of thousands and was notable for its inclusive mode of unionization that welcomed unskilled and skilled workers, as well as, unprecedentedly, women and African Americans. The riot also grew out of the immigrant-dominated radical movements, whose activists, along with the KOL, pushed for an eight-hour work day at a time when the average work day was as long as 12 hours. The event that precipitated the meeting at Haymarket Square in Chicago's Near North Side was a massive strike at the McCormick Reaper Works on May 1, 1886. Violence there between the strikers and the strikebreakers brought in by the company resulted in police involvement and brutal treatment of the strikers by the Chicago police.

Observers later recognized the trial of the Haymarket activists as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history. It was very much influenced by the antianarchist hysteria stirred up and fanned among the public by the Chicago newspapers. By choosing to try the men as a group rather than as individuals, skewing the selection of the jury towards jurors with known prejudice against anarchism, and conducting the trial in a manner that gave the prosecution far more latitude than the defense, the court guaranteed that there would be no fair trial. Although the men on trial managed to assemble a highly competent defense team, headed by Captain William P. Black, the decision to try the men on conspiracy charges, essentially trying them for their anarchist views, further guaranteed the outcome. When Judge Joseph Gary ordered the jury to convict the men, the jury did not take long to oblige, sentencing seven of the men to hang, and one to 15 years in prison with hard labor.

In the weeks and months following the verdict, as antianarchist hysteria died down, there were concerted efforts to appeal the case, but to little avail. In March 1887, the Illinois State Supreme Court upheld the convictions, and the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently declined to hear the case. With efforts at appeal exhausted, a proclemency movement was mounted that eventually went international and included many staunch opponents of anarchism who nonetheless opposed the death penalty or were outraged by the way the trial had been conducted. Efforts to stay the execution included a last-minute appeal by American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers to then Illinois Governor John Ogelsby, who commuted two of the sentences to life imprisonment. Otherwise these efforts, which included a last-minute effort by defense lawyer Moses Salamon to get Parsons's execution stayed on a technicality, came to naught. Although one of the condemned activists, Louis Lingg, managed to commit suicide with an exploding cigar on the morning of the execution, the remaining five went to the gallows. In 1893, the new Illinois governor, John P. Altgeld, pardoned the surviving Haymarket activists at cost to his own political career.

Susan Roth Breitzer

See also: Altgeld, John P. (1847–1902) ; American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Anarchism ; Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company ; Eight-hour Day ; Gompers, Samuel (1850–1924) ; Knights of Labor ; New Deal ; Populism ; Powderly, Terence V. (1849–1924) ; Progressivism .


Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Green, James. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago: The First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.

Nelson, Bruce C. Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, 1870–1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.