When John Peter Altgeld assumed the governorship of Illinois in 1893, advocates of clemency eagerly anticipated that he would take executive action favorable to the imprisoned anarchists. Altgeld, a lawyer and former Superior Court judge, had been notably silent during the tumultuous period between the bombing and the executions, though he had sent money and clothing to support the defendants' families.

Altgeld had, however, made several private and public statements advocating tolerance for radical ideas and criticizing the tactics of police raids on anarchists. These, along with his high-principled seriousness and his intense concern for individual rights, made it seem very likely that he would review the Haymarket case. One of the private statements came in a letter to Police Chief McLaughry after the raids of November 10 and 11, 1891 (see the last entry in the previous section, "The Appeal Continues"). Although refusing to be rushed, even when presented with a petition for clemency containing tens of thousands of signatures, Altgeld ordered that the complete records of the case be sent to him.

In many respects Altgeld's life was typical of many Chicagoans. Born in Germany in 1847, he grew up on a farm in Ohio, where his parents moved when he was a baby. Altgeld fought in the Union army, then held a number of different jobs in numerous places throughout the lower Middle West before studying for the law in a small town in Missouri. He moved to Chicago in 1875, where he built a good practice and became a successful investor in real estate.

Altgeld entered politics, winning election to the Superior Court as a Democrat in 1886. He had already established a reputation as a reformer with special sympathy for the poor when he published Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims in 1884. In this and other writings, Altgeld became identified as an advocate of reform rather than of repression as the solution to urban disorder. He contended that most crime stemmed from social conditions rather than from individual evil. Similarly, he believed that clubbing and other police violence would only inspire reprisals. Altgeld was friendly to labor unions and the eight-hour movement, opposed to anti-immigrant sentiment and to the abuse of executive power.

Altgeld resigned from the court in 1891 to devote himself to his business—he was especially proud of an ill-fated office building called the Unity Block, whose structural flaws and financial problems would almost ruin him. He was soon deeply involved in politics again, and he was elected governor in 1892.

Altgeld has a reputation of being one of the most honorable and idealistic statesmen in American history, and his pardon of the Haymarket defendants is the cornerstone of that deserved assessment. This view of Altgeld should not obscure the fact, however, that he was a complicated man. He would not have been as successful a politician if he were not practical as well as principled, nor as deeply human as he was if he did not have some small weaknesses as well as great strength of character. And, like many others involved in the dramas of Haymarket, if he took great risks, he was aware that he might win applause as well as jeers.