Somewhat paradoxically, the Haymarket bombing attracted so much attention and evoked such an angry, frightened, and vindictive response because it struck people as both shockingly unprecedented and fearfully familiar. Haymarket was, on one hand, the first major use in America of dynamite (which had been invented in 1868) for terrorist purposes. That it caused the death of seven policemen acting in the line of duty added to its terror. On the other hand, the bombing was part of a pattern of violent assaults on authority that was all too common in Europe and America.

A series of assassination attempts by political dissidents against the crowned heads of Europe occurred during the late 1870s and early 1880s. Several were directed at Czar Alexander II of Russia, who fell victim to a dynamite bomb on March 13, 1881. In the engraving here, the assassin, who blew up himself as well as the czar, is on the left, holding the bomb in both hands above his head. Five conspirators belonging to the "nihilist" organization People's Will, including a noblewoman, were found guilty of the crime and hanged a month later. Radicals in Europe and America applauded the murder of the czar, and they mourned the beheadings of anarchists August Reinsdorf and Julius Lieske in 1885, the first for planning to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I, the second for killing the police chief of Frankfurt-am-Main.

Closer to Chicago, President James A. Garfield was shot in early July 1881 at a railroad station in Washington, albeit not by an anarchist but by the proverbial disappointed office-seeker (twenty years later, William McKinley was killed by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo). Given this tide of politically-motivated violence in a time of social unrest, it is little wonder that many Americans almost cringed in expectation of the next assault and were all too prepared to react vengefully when it occurred.