In 1886 the struggle for the 8 hour day and labor rights were raging across the world. Striking workers were met by merciless repression by police and private miltias, backed by the state. Chicago were one of the worlds biggest industrial cities and had a radical working class population. The anarchists were very active and enjoyed an influence that surpassed their actual numbers.
On the May 4th, 1886 a joint meeting by Anarchists and Socialist was held protesting the police violence at a peaceful strike the day before at McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. At least one worked had been killed (reports varies from 1-6 workers). The anarchist were the last speakers and by the time they started many had left because it had started to rain. The Mayor stopped by to see what was going on, but left shortly satisfied with it being so calm and orderly.
Just as the last speaker finished his speech the police rushed in clubbing down the crowd, demanding the meeting to disperse. Suddenly a bomb was thrown into the air and exploded. In panic police shot blindly around themselves killing several of workers and also their own men. Seven police men were killed, most of them by their own guns, at least four workers got killed as well.
Newspapers began blaming the Anarchist right away, calling for them to be hanged. They feed into a anti-unionism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the anarchist movement was dominated by immigrant workers. Through out the United States and in Chicago in particularly, anarchist and revolutionary socialist are being rounded up and arrested en masse. The entire immigrant and labor community came under suspicion, especially Germans and Bohemians.
In the end eight anarchist were brought before trial. Some had been present at the time of bombing, but not all of them. The trial started on June 21 and ended on 11 of August 1886. The judge stated early on that it was Anarchy that was on trial. The main idea was that the bombing was part of an anarchist conspiracy.
Lacking evidence the prosecutor instead argued since none of the accused had actively tried to stop whoever the bomb-thrower was, the men were equally responsible and therefore guilty. In the end seven of the defendants was sentenced to death by hanging and one to 15 years in prison. Appeals to change the death sentences failed. But in the end two of the defendants got commuted and got sentenced to life in prison.
On the eve before the execution the youngest one of the accused anarchist, Louis Lingg, 22 years old committed suicide by detonating a small bomb in his mouth he had managed to smuggle in. Half of his face got blown up and he was in agonizing pain for six hours before he died. The next day, 11 November 1887 – Engel, Fischer, Parsons and Spies – were taken to the gallows in white robes and hoods. They sang the Marseillaise, the then anthem of the international revolutionary movement. Their family members who had come to say a last good bye were instead arrested and searched for bomb. None was found.
According to witnesses Spies shouted:
”The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today”
The men did not die directly as they dropped but were strangled slowly to death. This left the spectators visibly shaken.
The sentence sparked worldwide protest. The defendant s got hailed as revolutionary martyrs. At the same time the media portrayal of anarchist as bloodthirsty monsters polarized society, dividing people between those who sympathized with labour and union struggle and those who feared it. After all, only ten years earlier, the Paris Commune had shaken the capitalist world with fear.
In 1893 it became clear that whole trial had been a farce and it was a judicial murder. The Governor of Illinois at the time pardoned the remaining two defendants. The actual bomb-thrower was never caught. the number one suspect, a brother in law of one of the defendants, Rudolph Schnaubelt, managed to run away to South American and was never heard of again.
Historians still debates over his possible guilt. Some suggests he was an agent provocateur sent out by local businessmen in order to have an excuse to crush the growing anarchist movement of Chicago. But just like with the other men, the evidence presented against him were weak and should be questioned.
Aftermath and the birth of the Mayday
The martyrdom of the four anarchist sent a shockwave through out the workers and union movement. Especially in the United States. The line between the reformist and revolutionary unions and their members had until now been quite blurred, were now being polarized. The big established unions got scared and purged their unions from anarchist and revolutionaries. It also galvanized a new generation of anarchist, and anarchism got boost of new blood, gaining strength from those who went from being reformist to revolutionaries. The new revolutionist saw the Haymarket incident as a proof that no justice could be expected from the capitalist state or it’s institution.
In 1889 at an international workers congress in Paris, the delegates decided to make the 1 of May an international workers solidarity day to protest and commemorate the Chicago Anarchist.
The first May day demonstrations was celebrated the year after all over the world, and has continued to do so to this day.