The Bomb

By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University

The fatal meeting on the evening of May 4 attracted only 3,000 workers. Spies spoke first and while recounting the events at McCormick's, emphasized that the Haymarket meeting was one of peaceful protest. Albert Parsons, who spoke second, was accompanied by Lucy and their two children. Mayor Harrison also attended the meeting, conspicuous in trademark slouch hat, and told Bonfield that the meeting was "tame" and both agreed that police reserves could go home. Yet, not soon after, two police detectives reported to Bonfield that the language of the meeting was inflammatory. Though the meeting had dwindled to about 300 -- with rain approaching Parsons suggested the meeting should adjourn to a nearby popular meeting hall -- Bonfield had his remaining policemen form into ranks and march quick-time to the Haymarket. Captain Ward arrived at the head of the phalanx of approximately 180 men and issued a command to disperse. The third anarchist speaker, Samuel Fielden, replied, "But, we are peaceable." After Ward repeated his command, Fielden said, "Alright, we will go."

At that moment observers noticed a flash of light. A dynamite bomb had been thrown into the midst of the police and exploded. In a scene of "wild carnage" the panicked police pulled out their revolvers and fired into the crowd for nearly three minutes. The Haymarket was littered with bodies and the street pavement was turned red with blood. It is estimated that the police killed seven or eight civilians in the crowd and wounded between thirty and forty others. There was little mention and no troubling by the press over these civilian casualties.

One officer, Mathias Degan, lay fatally wounded by the bomb and sixty-six other policemen were injured. Eventually, six additional officers succumbed to their wounds. What police did not reveal to the public was that half of all the police wounded were wounded by police bullets as well as by bomb fragments; further, three of the police dead were killed by police bullets alone, while the other three had died from a combination of bullets and bomb fragments. A telephone pole removed from the scene, probably at the behest of the police, was filled with bullets all coming from the direction of the police.

Fear, panic, and a blind rage filled the respectable classes in the city, a culmination of the class feelings that had gripped the city since the 1870s.1 It was widely believed that an anarchist had thrown the bomb as part of a revolutionary conspiracy and that the Haymarket crowd had fired volleys of bullets into the police, who had returned fire in self-defense. The prevailing feeling was that of merciless revenge for this "hellish deed" and that the "niceties" of constitutional freedoms should be set aside. One respected attorney believed that the bomb constituted "a waiver of trial and a plea of guilty."2 The Chicago Knights of Labor newspaper opined that the anarchists and their sympathizers were "entitled to no more consideration than wild beasts."3 Society, it was believed, had the right to protect itself.

Granted carte blanche by public opinion, the police arrested hundreds of anarchists, socialists, and labor leaders and subjected them to threats and beatings to gain information and confessions. The police shut down the anarchist press and inaugurated an eight-week period of "police terrorism" -- in the words of the economist Richard T. Ely -- against labor meetings and striker picketing.4 Many employers used the nation's first "red scare" as a pretext to renege on their agreements with their employees to shorten hours. The great majority of strikes failed, though many others held on to win a shorter workday.5 Meanwhile, leading Chicago businessmen raised more than $100,000 for the police to combat anarchism and sedition.

On June 5, a grand jury indicted thirty-one anarchists. Eventually eight stood trial: August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab. They were the cream of the city's anarchist leadership. The bombing was seen to be an opportunity to remove these men -- thought to be dire threats to the social order -- from the public stage, and the city's establishment seized it.

1. Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket, Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 103-111. 

2. The Chicago Tribune headlined "hellish deed" on May 5, 1886; Attorney Charles C. Bonney quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 218. 

3. Chicago Knights of Labor, May 8, 1886.

4. Quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 222.

5.For an appraisal of the results of the eight-hour movement see Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 199-205, 248-55.