sequence of events that ignited the Haymarket bomb consisted of a tragic
combination of intention, accident, and surprise. What transformed fearful
possibility into appalling actuality was an almost palpable sense among
many that violence was inevitable, and, to some, perhaps even desirable.
The prosecution's flimsy legal arguments notwithstanding, this made
almost everyone even tangentially involved on all sides an unwitting
co-conspirator as the drama headed to an explosive climax.
On the afternoon
of Monday, May 3, the first working day after the national eight-hour
walkout, August Spies was invited to be the German-language speaker
at a gathering of the striking Lumber Shovers' Union. As it happened,
the meeting was held southwest of the center of the city, very near
the main factory of the McCormick Reaper Works, whose union employees
had been locked out since February and replaced by scab labor. While
Spies was talking, a portion of the crowd broke away to join McCormick
strikers in heckling their non-union replacements as they left the plant.
Spies advised his listeners to exercise restraint, but a melee broke
out. When the police arrived, they answered jeers and stones with clubs
and guns, killing two workers.
The sounds of
this battle drew many others from the Lumber Shovers' meeting, including
Spies, to the scene. What he saw appalled him. "Well, as a matter of
course," he recalled at the trial, "my blood was boiling, and I think
in that moment I could have done almost anything, seeing men, women
and children fired upon, people who were not armed fired upon by policemen."
Spies hastily returned to his office, where he poured his outrage into
a deliberately inflammatory bilingual broadside exhorting labor to stand
up like men to its murderous oppressors. Spies's own title was "Workingmen
to Arms!," but, without asking the author, the person who set the text
in type added the heading, in full capitals, "REVENGE."
Later that same
evening a group of a few dozen of the most radical anarchists, including
Engel and Fischer, met in Greif's Hall, which was located at 54 West
Lake Street, a short distance east of Zepf's Hall. This was one of a
series of gatherings, the prosecution would charge, where the anarchists
determined what kind of murderous attacks they would make on the police
should class violence break out, and how to communicate with each other.
Many of the key facts about why these gatherings took place, who was
there, and what actually happened would be disputed, but all concurred
that the news of the riot at the McCormick's factory led those who met
at Greif's to decide to hold a open-air public protest meeting. The
location they selected was the nearby Haymarket, on Randolph Street
just west of Desplaines Street, a few blocks west of the river [explain
its location if this is somehow not done earlier]. Fischer agreed to
arrange to print and distribute handbills advertising the meeting and
to find the "Good Speakers" these handbills promised. When he got to
the Arbeiter-Zeitung the next morning, the first person he invited to
speak was Spies, who had no knowledge of the meeting up to this point.
and put a notice of the meeting in the Arbeiter Zeitung for that day.
But when later that morning he saw the newly-printed posters with the
line, "Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force," he said
that he would not speak unless this sentence was removed. Fischer was
summoned down from his work on an upper floor, and he conceded to Spies's
demand. While virtually all the broadsides that were distributed (about
20,000 were printed) did not contain the offensive line, a few of the
unedited ones did find their way into circulation-- and became another
piece of the state's evidence.
While the rally
was called for 7:30, it did not begin until over an hour later. Thinking
he would not be the first person on the program, Spies arrived after
eight, only to find that no other speakers were present and that the
crowd of about two to three thousand, which was far smaller than hoped
for, was already starting to disperse. Hoping to salvage the evening,
he moved the rally a half block up Desplaines Street, where he found
a wagon that he turned into a makeshift podium. He also sent an associate
in the movement, Balthasar Rau, to the Arbeiter Zeitung Building, where
the American Group was meeting, to see if he could fetch other speakers.
Samuel Fielden and Albert Parsons agreed to come, and they and other
members of the American Group, including Lucy Parsons and the Parsons'
two young children, headed to the Haymarket on foot. When Spies saw
them appear, he finished up. Parsons and Fielden joined him on the wagon,
and they successively addressed the crowd.
At the trial the
accused cited the haphazard nature of the meeting as proof that there
had been no bomb plot. They pointed out that although Engel and Fischer
had been involved in the planning, the former was at home the entire
evening, while the latter left before the bomb was thrown. The three
speakers had no role in organizing the rally, and Parsons and Fielden
had scarcely heard about it until Rau appeared after it had already
begun with his urgent invitation. Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, and Louis
Lingg, who were nowhere near the Haymarket the entire evening, had no
connection at all. On top of this, while Spies, Parsons, Fielden, Schwab,
and Neebe had participated in many anarchist activities together, they
had serious differences with Fischer and Engel, whom some of them did
not know well, while Louis Lingg was virtually a stranger to them.
There is little
question, however, that the authorities were extremely concerned that
the Haymarket rally might produce serious trouble, planned or otherwise.
With the city so much on edge in the wake of May Day and the McCormick
violence, with other smaller but still troubling episodes occuring during
the day, and with the newspapers fanning public fears, Mayor Carter
Harrison decided to attend. As he listened to the speakers, he purposely
lit and relit his cigar several times in order to make sure that his
presence was known. For his part, Inspector John Bonfield summoned lieutenants
based in other areas of the city to assemble with small units of their
men in the Desplaines Street Police Station, a half block below Randolph
Street. Throughout the evening he kept tabs on the meeting through plainclothes
detectives who brought him reports. According to Harrison, who was called
to testify at the trial by the defense, Bonfield told him of rumors
that the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad freight houses would be blown
up since they were filled with scabs, and that the Haymarket rally was
just a ruse to distract the police away from a attack on the McCormick
But there seemed
to be no trouble in the offing. Harrison described the speeches at the
Haymarket as "tame" by current standards. The next day's Chicago Tribune,
whose reporting of the anarchist's activities was relentlessly hostile,
described Spies's rhetoric as "remarkably mild." Convinced that there
was no conspiracy, Harrison left the rally while Parsons was speaking
and, on the basis of reports that things were quiet in the McCormick's
neighborhood, ordered Bonfield to send the reserve police at the other
stations home. The mayor then mounted his horse and rode to his own
home. By this time Fielden had begun his speech, but a cold wind from
the north and the prospect of rain had done much to disperse the crowd.
There was some talk of reconvening in Zepf's Hall, and Parsons, Fischer,
and several others made the short walk there while Fielden was still
speaking, but the general sense was that the meeting was just about
It was about half-past
ten, with only a few hundred spectators remaining, as Fielden, who had
told them he would be brief, proclaimed in what was typical anarchist
rhetoric that they should "throttle" and "kill" legal authority or "it
will kill you." Whether or not this remark, presumably relayed to Bonfield
by one of his detectives, was the specific provocation that caused him
to act is unclear, but the Inspector hurriedly assembled his special
force of about 175 men on Waldo Place, just south of the station, and
then marched them in formation through the dwindling crowd to the speakers'
wagon. Once they halted, Bonfield's second-in-command, Captain William
Ward, declared, "In the name of the people of the state of Illinois,"
that the meeting disperse "immediately and peaceably." Fielden, who
claimed in his trial testimony that he had less than a minute remaining
in his speech, stated also that he responded "in a very conciliatory
tone of voice," "Why, Captain, this is a peaceable meeting." When, according
to Fielden, Ward angrily repeated his order, he agreed, saying "All
right, we will go," and got down from the wagon.
After the fact,
individuals at the scene were unclear in their own minds on what exactly
happened after Ward repeated his order, but many recalled seeing the
"hissing fiend"-a round metal object, not much larger than a baseball,
with a fiery fuse-as it coursed through the darkness just above the
heads of the crowd on sidewalk on the east side of Desplaines Street
and landed in the ranks of the police in front of the wagon. Carter
Harrison heard the explosion from inside his substantial house by Union
Park, more than half a mile west.
The shrapnel from
the bomb ripped through the body of Officer Mathias J. Degan, fatally
severing a major artery in his left leg. The state's witnesses maintained
that the bombing was instantly succeeded (some said preceded) by gunfire
from the crowd, and that the police valiantly held their position and
returned fire. But the weight of the testimony and evidence suggests
that, understandably terrified by the blast, they initiated the gunplay,
firing every which way, including into their own ranks. While several
of their number besides Degan appear to have been injured by the bomb,
most of the casualties seem to have been caused by bullets. About sixty
of the approximately 170 police were hurt in the riot, as well as an
unknown number of those attending the rally. Among these were Samuel
Fielden and August Spies's brother Henry, who were both hit by gunfire
but managed to get away.
Others in the
sparse crowd tried to escape as quickly as they could, scattering in
all directions as the police used their guns and clubs indiscriminately.
Thrown so closely together that it was hard to find space in which to
run, some huddled in fear against the buildings along Desplaines Street.
In a few moments it was all over. The police gathered their wounded
and carried them to an impromptu infirmary in the station house, where
they were attended by several physicians called to deal with the emergency
. In all seven policemen and at least four workers (there is no accurate
count of the latter) were killed in the riot, though several of the
officers lingered for several days before they passed away. The death
of an eighth officer two years later was attributed to wounds sustained
at Haymarket, which unquestionably altered the lives of many of those
who survived. Several suffered amputated limbs, while one lost a section
of his jaw.
that had suffused anarchist rhetoric had moved to bomb-throwing. In
her 1884 "Word to Tramps," Lucy Parsons, in urging the desperate not
to suffer and die alone but to visit dynamite in the midst their oppressors,
had told them, "Then let your tragedy be enacted here. Thus send forth
your petition and let them read it by the red blare of destruction."
The petition had been sent forth, but the tragedy had only just begun.
with Act III: Toils of the Law