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What Was the Haymarket Riot?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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The Haymarket Riot — sometimes also called the Haymarket Tragedy, depending on who is telling the story — was a labor demonstration which took place in Chicago on 4 May 1886. While the demonstration started out peacefully, a bomb was thrown when police ordered the marchers to disperse. A policeman was killed by the bomb, and the police reacted by advancing their line and firing on the demonstrators. An unknown number of demonstrators were injured and killed, and several police were injured as well. The aftermath of the Haymarket incident is often pointed to by people who wish to illustrate problems with the justice system in the United States in the 1800s.

The impetus for the Haymarket demonstrations was the push for an eight hour workday. Many businesses were already beginning to institute eight hour workdays by the 1880s, in response to growing pressure. Labor unions wanted to see all workers given an eight hour day, so they urged workers to begin striking on 1 May. Strikes, rallies, and walkouts were held around the country. On 3 May, four strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company were killed during a scuffle with strike breakers and police. In response, the labor community distributed posters calling for a rally at Haymarket Square the next day.

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Initially, the rally went well. A number of speakers including notable anarchist August Spies spoke at the event, and the crowd remained calm. As the day proceeded, the police started to order the demonstrators to disperse. The origin of this order is unknown. A bomb was thrown into a line of advancing police, killing policeman Mathis J. Degan. The angry police opened fire on the crowd, which responded in kind. The incident illustrated the social and class issues of the period.

Almost immediately after the Haymarket incident, eight people connected with the rally were charged, tried, and convicted with involvement in the bomb plot. Of the eight, seven were condemned to death: August Spies, Albert Parson, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, and Samuel Fielden. Oscar Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison. After appeals, the governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life. The other five were sentenced to hang on 11 November, 1887. Lingg committed suicide the night before, but the other four were publicly hung and buried in the German Waldheim Cemetery. In 1893, the governor pardoned Neebe, Fielden, and Schwab.

Many members of the anarchist community felt that there was strong evidence linking the Pinkerton Detective Agency with the Haymarket bomb, and that the bomb had been used to give the state reason to go after leading members of the anarchist community. The identity of the bomb thrower has never been determined. The rapid pace of the trial and irregularities in the way the investigation was carried out led many contemporaries to criticize the legal system. Leaders of the labor movement used the Haymarket incident as a rallying point, and many adopted 1 May as May Day, a day to celebrate global labor.

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anon114210
Post 4

What was the owner of the McCormick Reaper Works reaction to the workers plea?

anon111975
Post 3

Riot? Is that what the Industrialist/Republican/teabaggers call it? Tragedy is more like it.

anon19334
Post 1

What was the owners' reply to the strike?

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