From the Trial to the Hangings

By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University

The trial occurred in a city thirsting for revenge. In retrospect the verdict was a foregone conclusion even though the anarchists retained a respected attorney, Captain William P. Black, who presented an able defense, which in other circumstances would have secured an acquittal.1 Judge Joseph E. Gary ruled in favor of the prosecution at every opportunity, affording it the greatest latitude in presenting material that might bias the jury. Gary's prejudice was also evident in allowing the prosecution to fill the jury with men who had verbally admitted they could not render a fair verdict. The final jury consisted entirely of businessmen and white-collar clerks and salesmen (the equivalent of today's lower level business management); none were wage-workers.

States Attorney Julius S. Grinnell attempted to prove through eyewitness testimony that Spies and Schwab had thrown the bomb. When that testimony was thoroughly refuted, Grinnell changed course. He argued that even though none of the defendants were present at the meeting at the time the bomb was thrown, the bomb had been thrown as a result of a conspiracy hatched at the Grief's Hall meeting on May 3rd,, which had been attended by Fischer, Engel, and Lingg. But Grinnell could not connect the conspiracy with the Haymarket meeting; nor could he show that any of the three knew a bomb would be hurled at the police. As Captain Black pointed out, without the identity of the bomb thrower being known, there was no way to prove a conspiracy.

At that point, Grinnell shifted to a third line of prosecution that had been suggested by Chicago Daily News editor Melville Stone. Simply by advocating revolutionary violence and making inflammatory statements the defendants were guilty of murder even without establishing that they knew of, or advocated, the throwing of the bomb at the Haymarket on May 4. The defense pointed out that for all anyone knew the bomb thrower might not have been an anarchist at all; it could have been a police agent or an individual seeking revenge against the police for some personal reason. But, Judge Gary ruled if the defendants had individually advised the commission of murder and if a murder similar to the kind they had advocated was committed, then they were guilty even if the person who committed the murder had not been identified. Under the influence of those instructions the jury after retiring at 2:50 p.m. on August 19, returned early the next morning with a verdict of guilty.

Almost immediately, public opinion began to shift against the palpable injustice committed. The tide turned first among organized workers. A Knights' local assembly passed a resolution that condemned Bonfield "for his uncalled for and un-American attack on a peaceable meeting in Haymarket Square." The local Knights of Labor newspaper under new editorship condemned the verdict as unjust. In New York, Samuel Gompers, president of the new American Federation of Labor, led a group of union leaders who declared that the convicted men were victims of "prejudice and class hatred."2

As the post-Haymarket courts issued a spate of injunctions against union boycotts, local labor leaders came to view the Haymarket verdict as part of a larger conspiracy against the labor movement. The Chicago Express, in a front-page editorial the day after the verdict, stated that "There is a vast army of laborers who are of the opinion that the bomb throwing was not the work of anarchists, but of some irresponsible party" to defeat the eight-hour movement. "This belief not only exists, but is rapidly spreading through all the ranks of labor."3 That belief was a major motivating force behind Chicago labor's establishment of the United Labor Party, which contested the November elections. Its initial meeting began with an extended standing ovation given to Hortensia Black, wife of the anarchists' attorney.

Even though the Illinois and US Supreme courts rejected appeals, a broadly-based Amnesty Association began to build public support for clemency by Illinois' Governor Richard J. Oglesby. It was led by Albert Parson's old friend, George Schilling, and assisted by Ethical Culture Society leader William Salter and famed reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd. America's leading man of letters, William Dean Howells, also joined the movement in eloquent public letters to the press. For their brave stance, Lloyd, Howells, and others were shunned by many of their peers in the circles of the well-to-do. But, eventually, 100,000 Americans signed a clemency petition. In 1887, the published autobiographies of the condemned men and a concise history of the trial appeared and acquainted the public with a different version of the case than had been available in the press.4

The convicted anarchists steadfastly maintained their innocence, and Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Lingg, and Engel refused to appeal to the governor for mercy. While they would have accepted a full pardon, they felt that their death as martyrs would do more good for the cause of anarchism than acceptance of clemency. There was considerable public sympathy for the American-born Parsons, but he refused to appeal to the governor. Instead, he wrote a bitter letter to Oglesby asking that his wife and children also be executed because they too were at the Haymarket meeting.

Recognizing that martyrdom would only make anarchy more appealing, a small but growing number of elite citizens lent their support to the clemency movement. When Governor Oglesby let it be known that he would commute the sentences of at least four defendants if the leading citizens of the city requested it, banker Lyman J. Gage convened a meeting of the city's top businessmen. Gage said that the law had already been vindicated and that the condemned men were more dangerous as martyrs. He also argued that clemency would tend to dissipate the class hatred then dividing the city. At the crucial moment, Marshall Field rose and spoke in favor of hanging. He then introduced State's Attorney Grinnell, whose powerful speech turned the tide of the meeting against clemency.

On November 10, following appeals for mercy by Fielden and Schwab, Governor Oglesby commuted their sentences to life imprisonment. (Neebe had been sentenced by the court to fifteen years in prison) That same day Louis Lingg committed suicide by biting down on a blasting cap that had been smuggled into his cell.

On November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer cheerfully, apparently at peace with themselves, prepared to meet their death. The city was an armed camp as 300 policemen guarded the jail to fend off an expected anarchist attempt to free the prisoners; two regiments of militia camped near City Hall with gatling guns. Lucy Parsons and her two children tried to see their husband and father for the last time, but were arrested and jailed.

At midnight the men were hanged; it took between six and eight minutes for the men to die by slow strangulation. Parsons' last words were "Let the voice of the people be heard!" Fischer said, "This is the happiest moment of my life." Engels' voice rang out with "Hurrah for anarchy"; Spies' clearly spoke his last line: "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."5

The funeral the next day was attended by 20,000 people, the largest funeral ever seen in the city. The successor to Carter Harrison, Mayor John P. Roche, had decreed that no revolutionary songs were to be sung and no revolutionary speeches were to be delivered. Approximately 200,000 people lined the streets in downtown Chicago as the silent procession passed through on the way to the railroad station taking the four bodies to rest at Waldheim cemetery. The anarchists called it "Black Friday."

1. A transcript of the trial is available online from the Library of Congress. 

2. Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 214-15; Green, Death in the Haymarket, 248. 

3. Quoted in Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 215.

4. Dyer D. Lum, A Concise History of the Great Trial of the Chicago Anarchists in 1886. Condensed from the Official Record (Chicago, 1886); the autobiographies of the Haymarket defendants were serialized in the Chicago Knights of Labor beginning in October 1886 and are published in a collection edited by Phillip S. Foner, Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs (New York: Humanities, 1969). 

5. The best description of the hangings is in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 381-98.