May Day and the Haymarket Martyrs

by W.T. Whitney, Jr.


The following account was written for and distributed at a May Day event this year in Maine. The translations from the Spanish are by W.T. Whitney, Jr.

On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons, head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, led 80,000 people through the city’s streets in support of the eight-hour day. In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories, including 70,000 in Chicago.

On May 3, August Spies, editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers Newspaper), spoke at a meeting of 6,000 workers, and afterwards many of them moved down the street to harass scabs at the McCormick plant. The police arrived, opened fire, and killed four people, wounding many more.

On May 4, Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden were speaking at a rally of 2,500 people held to protest the police massacre when 180 police officers arrived, led by the Chicago police chief. While he was calling for the meeting to disperse a bomb exploded, killing one policeman. The police retaliated, killing seven of their own in the crossfire, plus four others; almost two hundred were wounded. The identity of the bomb thrower remains unknown.

On June 21, 1886, eight labor leaders, including Spies, Fielden, and Parsons went on trial, charged with responsibility for the bombing. The trial was rife with lies and contradictions, and the state prosecutor appealed to the jury: “convict these men, make an example of them, hang them, and you save our institutions.”

Even though only two were present at the time of the bombing (Parsons had gone to a nearby tavern), seven were sentenced to die, one to fifteen years imprisonment. The Chicago bar condemned the trial, and several years later Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned all eight, releasing the three survivors (two of them had had their sentences reduced from hanging to life imprisonment).

On November 11, 1886, four anarchist leaders were hanged; Louis Lingg had committed suicide hours before. Two hundred thousand people took part in the funeral procession, either lining the streets or marching behind the hearses.

Unfortunately, the events surrounding the execution of the Haymarket martyrs fueled the stereotype of radical activists as alien and violent, thereby contributing to ongoing repression.

Over the years the remains of many deceased or martyred radicals, among them Emma Goldman, Bill Hayward, and Joe Hill, were deposited at the Haymarket Monument in Chicago, where seven of the eight men on trial lie buried. Ever since that time, in almost every country except one (guess which?) May 1 has been honored as International Workers Day.

The internationalization (if not “globalization”) of the Haymarket legacy was apparent two days after the hangings when José Martí, leader of Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, who was then living in exile in New York, wrote a detailed, emotion-filled report of the events leading up to the executions. Full of analysis, his article entitled “A Terrible Drama” appeared on January 1, 1888, in the Argentine paper La Nación, published in Buenos Aires. Early on in his piece he notes:

“Frightened by the growing power of the plain people, by the sudden coming together of the working masses (previously held back by the rivalries of their leaders), by the demarcation of two classes within the population — the privileged and the discontented (the latter a thorn in the side of European high society) — the republic determined to defend itself with a tacit covenant, a complicity whereby criminal action is triggered by the authorities’ misdeeds as much as by the fanaticism of the accused, in order to use their example to terrify — not by means of pain directly visited upon the rabble, but by the fearsome revival of the hangman’s hood.”

At the end of his long article José Martí quoted from the Arbeiter-Zeitung issued on the day of the executions:

“We have lost a battle, unhappy friends, but we will see in the end an ordered world that conforms to justice: we will be wise like the serpent and quiet like the dove.”

In our own time the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has commented on “A Terrible Drama” (in his Memories of Fire, vol. II):

“The scaffold awaited them. They were five, but Lingg got up early for death, exploding a dynamite cap between his teeth. Fischer was seen unhurriedly humming the ‘Marseillaise.’ Parsons, the agitator who used the word like a whip or a knife, grasps the hands of his comrades before the guards tie his own behind his back. Engel, famous for his sharp wit, asks for port wine and then makes them all laugh with a joke. Spies, who so often wrote about anarchism as the entrance into life, prepares himself in silence to enter into death.

“The spectators in the orchestra of the theater fix their view on the scaffold — a sign, a noise, the trap door gives way, now they die, in a horrible dance, twisting in the air. [Here he quotes Martí.]

“José Martí wrote the story of the execution of the anarchists in Chicago. The working class of the world will bring them back to life every first of May. That was still unknown, but Martí always writes as if he is listening for the cry of a newborn where it is least expected.”