At noon on that day four of labor's most courageous warriors: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel were hanged for a crime they did not commit. A fifth man, Louis Lingg, was slated to share the fate of his comrades but he cheated the hangman and the state of his innocent blood when he exploded a dynamite cap in his mouth from his jail cell just hours before the execution. The explosive had been smuggled in to him by an anarchist comrade. Another anarchist, Oscar Neebe, has sentenced to fifteen years of prison and hard labor. Three others had their death sentences commuted to life sentences.
In the U.S. only a relative few working class people know that Labor Day, originally May Day (May 1) originated with the hanging of these men. The rest of the world celebrates their heroism on May 1; however, the U.S. does not officially recognize their sacrifice by honoring them with a national holiday. Virtually every worker worldwide owes a tremendous debt to the Haymarket Martyrs, who provided the impetus and paid the ultimate price for many of the benefits that all workers, including the rank and file and upper management, now enjoy.
Those were tumultuous times not only in Chicago but all across America, when revolution was in the air and nationwide strikes crippled the burgeoning economy. In Chicago alone 400,000 were out on strike protesting not only reductions in wages but also demonstrating for the eight hour work day one of the central organizing principles of the anarchist's political philosophy. The Chicago anarchist movement that took root in 1884 was both strong and effective. Its leaders were skilled organizers and eloquent orators.
On May 4, 1886, several unarmed strikers were shot dead by the Chicago police and hundreds were brutally beaten, including innocent bystanders at the McCormick Reapers Works. August Spies witnessed the affair with horror and righteous indignation. His comrades were being murdered in the streets and the killers did so with impunity. It seemed that all the forces of Chicago were arrayed against the working people.
An outraged August Spies organized a peaceful rally the following evening at the Haymarket Square. After beginning in clear moonlight, the weather suddenly turned cool and threatened rain, after a crowd of 3,000 gathered to hear the orators in the gathering gloom of the chilled night air. Standing upon a hay wagon near a lone street lamp the speakers berated the Chicago police for their indiscriminate killing of unarmed workers. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, a just and honest man, was in attendance. Satisfied that the gathering was peaceful and nearing conclusion, Mayor Harrison informed the chief of police,
John Bonfield, who had sanctioned the shootings and mass beatings of the previous day, not to march on the group or disrupt their meeting.
It was getting late and the cold was penetrating when Albert Parsons and most of the speakers left the rally to warm themselves at Zephf's Hall. Acting without legal authority, John Bonfield gathered a troop of 180 armed policemen and ordered them to disperse the dwindling crowd. After a mild verbal confrontation, Samuel Fieldon, who was speaking to the crowd when the police arrived, agreed to peacefully disperse. As Fieldon leaped down from the hay wagon, an unknown assailant hurled a stick of sizzling dynamite into the crowd of policemen. One officer was killed and six others died in the ensuing mayhem as the result of the panic stricken police firing indiscriminately into the fleeing crowd.
A reign of terror soon swept over Chicago in the aftermath of the Haymarket bombing. The press and the city's business men, always hostile to the strikers, blamed the anarchists and the socialists and cried for their blood. The principal anarchists were quickly rounded up and put into jail, except for Parsons who, though far from the site of the incident, knew that Chicago's business men demanded his head and skipped town.
Demonized in the press and the business community, the anarchists were immediately tried, convicted and executed in the Chicago Tribune and other daily newspapers even before any evidence was gathered. The judge presiding over the trial did nothing to conceal his prejudice and hostility toward the accused. Twelve impartial jurors could not be found, so those who openly proclaimed the guilt of the accused were paid to judge the case. During the early stages of the trial Albert Parsons dramatically walked into the courtroom and took his place at the side of his comrades to face his fate with them.
With the impossibility of a fair trial, and the irrational fear that Chicago's ruling elite felt toward immigrant social agitators, the men were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Predictably, the trial was a farce, a media circus and a travesty of justice. The jury consisted of businessmen, their clerks and a relative of one of the dead policemen. Not a single working man or woman was selected for the jury.
No evidence was produced to link any of the accused with the bombing during the trial. None of them were at or near the scene of the crime. No evidence was brought forth to demonstrate that the anarchists had conspired to incite violence that evening. But they were anarchists and socialists, a threat to capital, and they were bound to hang for their political views.
State attorney Julius Grinnell openly declared that anarchism was on trial. By hanging the anarchists, Grinnell reasoned, the sacred institutions of society would be saved. In essence, free speech and the right of peaceful assembly were also on trial. Laws to protect the rights of suspects were suspended and new precedents established to hasten their conviction. The real agenda of Chicago's business community, however, was to put an end to the successful drive for the eight hour work day and to permanently demonize organized labor. It would require another fifty-one years for the eight hour work day to become law as part of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Just a few hours prior to the execution Albert Parsons wrote a friend that "The guard has just awakened me. I have washed my face and drank a cup of coffee. The doctor asked me if I wanted stimulants. I said no. The dear boys, Engel, Fischer and Spies, saluted me with firm voices. Well, my dear old comrade, the hour draws near. Caesar kept me awake last night with the noise, the music of the hammer and saw erecting his throne my scaffold." Parsons remained awake most of the night singing one of his favorite songs, "Annie Laurie" in a soft, melancholy voice filled with emotion.
More than 200 reporters gathered to witness the execution, as did the citizenry. None of the friends or relatives of the anarchists were permitted to attend. Albert Parson's wife, Lucy, and their children were not permitted to bid their beloved husband and father a final farewell. Lucy Parsons was arrested in the attempt and taken to jail in another part of the city.
A few minutes before noon the four men were paraded onto the gallows scaffold. A reporter described the scene, "With a steady, unfaltering step a white robed figure stepped out"and stood upon the drop. It was August Spies. It was evident that his hands were firmly bound behind him beneath his snowy shroud." Another reporter wrote, "His face was very pale, his looks solemn, his expression melancholy, yet at the same time dignified." Fischer, Engel and Parsons followed in orderly procession. Another reporter noted that Parsons "Turned his big gray eyes upon the crowd below with such a look of awful reproach and sadness as it would not fail to strike the innermost chord of the hardest-heart there. It was a look never to be forgotten."
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