Labor Day & The Chicago Haymarket Affair

Q: What do seven German and English anarchist immigrants, an anarchist Civil War veteran from Texas and his mixed-race wife/anarchist/“rabble-rouser” have in common with a U.S. President from the Democratic Party?

A: Labor Day

Suffice it to say, the foundation, in 1894, of a nationwide workers’ holiday on the first Monday of September smacks of knee-jerk politics…Such things have been known to happen. When President Grover Cleveland approved the sanctioning of this floating observance the Pullman Porter Strike had just come to an end – the violence and ill will springing from that labor action and the government’s reaction to it was reminiscent of the 1886 Haymarket bombing and the crippling of the American labor movement. The calling for a labor protest meeting during the early days of the first nationwide strike for an eight-hour workday (begun on May 1st of 1886) rallied hundreds of thousands of workers across the country.

Keepers of the Social Order by their nature are vigilant. The 19th and early 20th Centuries were tense times for any who sought to govern in peace and tranquility in the United States. From the War Between the States through the Great Upheaval of 1877 and the major labor unrest over the ensuing half-century-plus-a-few-decades, the Guardians of the People were entrenched in suspicions of some of those very same people they were ordained to protect.

The bombing on the 4th of May 1886 on Chicago’s west side (today’s West Loop neighborhood) set in motion a legal battle touching on important issues (then as now) of law and order, free speech, freedom of assembly, police brutality, and the right of workers to organize. Eight men were brought to trial and found guilty of conspiracy to riot and commit murder: one was given a fifteen-year sentence of hard labor while the other seven were given the death penalty. Of the seven to be hanged, two requested clemency from the governor and received it: their sentences were commuted to life in prison. Of the remaining five condemned, one committed suicide the day before the execution. The last four were hanged on November 11, 1887.

When one studies the Haymarket Affair in as objective a way as possible, with actual primary source material as is available (the entire trial transcript has been digitized and is easily accessible online), then a clearer understanding can begin to be revealed. Looking at the raw evidence, the jury selection, the behavior of both the defense and prosecution counsels, the judge, and the defendants themselves one can see the chain of events, their causes and effects clearer and better evaluate them afresh.

If one historical event can be re-analyzed in an objective manner, this can give a people of any given period of time the tools to re-analyze their contemporary situations – their challenges and problems and crises – more constructively. Seeing an issue in terms of the total “us” instead of “us versus them” is one of the few hopes Society has for working towards a real peaceful existence. 

Guest post by Joseph Rulli, author of The Chicago Haymarket Affair

Joseph Anthony Rulli is a transplanted Hoosier, living in Chicago since the fall of 2006. A 1987 graduate of the University of Notre Dame (BA, History) and a 1992 graduate of St. Meinrad School of Theology (MDiv) he taught Social Studies, Religion, Philosophy and History at the high school level. He began writing as a career upon his arrival to his second city and has had two short stories published, a stage play performed, an electronic tour book published online and The Chicago Haymarket Affair (History Press/Arcadia Publishing, 2016) his first print book.