With the onset of the Panic of 1873, the national economy collapsed, leading to hard times through much of the rest of the decade. Soon there were homeless sleeping on the stone floors of police stations as shelter against the winter, while the unemployed attended public meetings and rallies demanding relief. Not surprisingly, the panic spurred increased labor organization and radical political activity, including the 1876 formation of the Working-Men's Party of the United States, in which Haymarket defendant Albert Parsons was an active member.

In Chicago, several demonstrations by the unemployed in late December 1873 and early January 1874 denounced the press and the wealthy, insisting that the city begin a public works program to provide jobs. When the mayor pleaded poverty, laborers turned their attention to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, a private organization led by prominent businessmen entrusted with the distribution of funds sent to Chicago following the fire of 1871.

Rumors circulated that the society had one million dollars remaining (of the five million originally contributed to the cause), and that its directors were investing some of these funds in their own enterprises. Attorney Wirt Dexter, who had been chairman of the society's Executive Committee during the fire, told Mayor Harvey Colvin that society accounts held about $600,000, which was being distributed to what the organization called "the deserving poor." The society maintained that it could not fund a public works program for the able-bodied. At an angry demonstration outside the society's headquarters, the crowd shouted "Bread or death."

In the months and years ahead the Relief and Aid Society remained a target of protests. The illustration here depicts a large demonstration in the late winter 1875, as reported by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, the main competitor of Harper's Weekly as a national news source. The article accompanying this illustration compared the protesters to the members of the Paris Commune, who briefly took over the city during the spring of 1871 in what was open class warfare. The commune was put down by soldiers, but not before much of the city was set ablaze.

The language of the article is an ominous harbinger of journalistic attitudes toward the Haymarket defendants a decade later. "By the aid of demagogues, seekers after notoriety, and incendiary writers and speakers," Leslie's maintained, "these Communists have succeeded in creating excitement, and imbuing some of the unthinking with their pernicious doctrines." One of the interesting aspects of this illustration is that it provides a good view of the commercial architecture of postfire Chicago.

In his autobiography, Albert Parsons, who arrived in Chicago in November 1873, attributed his original interest in the labor question to the attempts by working people to make the Relief and Aid Society furnish an honest audit of its funds. His own examination of the facts led Parsons to conclude that "the complaints of the working people against the society were just and proper." Whether his assessment was accurate or not, it was an important part of his radicalization.

Parsons had been born in Alabama and raised largely in Texas, and as a teenager he had lied about his age to fight for the Confederacy. But after the war he became involved in pro-Reconstruction politics before moving North, where the condition of workers reminded him of that of former slaves.