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Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

Governor John Peter Altgeld Pardons the Haymarket Prisoners

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By Robert D. Sampson, Ph.D. This piece originally appeared in the Illinois Times, July 22-28, 1993.

Exiled 40 years in the political wilderness, a major party triumphs, led by a self-made real estate tycoon who captures the governor's office. Within six months, ignoring threats to his own and his party's future, this leader moves to redress one of the most shameful injustices in the state's history.

A good scenario for a movie, perhaps with Frank Capra directing, Jimmy Stewart playing the governor and Lionel Barrymore as a bigoted, reactionary newspaper editor out to ruin the governor. However, this is not a script treatment but reality--events that occurred a century ago in Springfield, Illinois when Governor John Peter Altgeld dared to defy the combined financial, political, and journalistic powers of the state simply to do the right thing.

Today, the notion of freeing three innocent men from the jail cells where they had languished for seven years seems not only logical but popular. But when Altgeld boldly scrawled his name across the pardons for Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab on June 26, 1893, he unleashed upon himself a torrent of political and personal abuse from such "respectable" organs as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times that has rarely been matched.

As surely as the term "communist" during the McCarthy era was enough to brand an individual undeserving of simple justice and constitutional rights, affixing the description "anarchist" to one in late 19th-Century America made them fair game for an uneasy and vindictive ruling class that in Chicago and other places controlled the courts and the press.

Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab were the survivors of the Haymarket martyrs--originally a group of eight men who were charged with murder following the explosion of a bomb at a Chicago labor rally on May 4, 1886 that killed several policemen. None of the eight was ever tied to the bomb, some were not even at the rally when the explosion occurred and the bombthrower was never found. But the Chicago establishment, led by Joseph Medill's Tribune, saw the incident as a chance to wipe out the leadership of the city's radical labor movement and send a message to all who would seek just wages, decent working conditions, and reduced hours for working men and women.

In a trial that Altgeld would later expose as riddled by abuses from jury-packing to blatantly biased rulings from the judge, the eight were convicted on evidence consisting of nothing more than popular passion and prejudice. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer died on the gallows. Louis Lingg committed suicide in his jail cell. Weak- willed Gov. Richard Ogelsby, who privately admitted the innocence of the men, worked up enough spine to reduce the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life in prison. Neebe, who even the state's prosecutor confided was innocent, received a sentence of 15 years.

Those enjoying increasingly concentrated wealth in Chicago had little patience with working people, especially those of foreign birth, who had the gall to stand up for their rights. Such activities were seen as a threat to the free market, the individual's right to work 10 to 12 hours a day for a pittance.

Among the men on the make in Chicago, however, was a German immigrant and attorney who had a talent for real estate speculation. A wandering youth that included stints as a schoolteacher, a Union soldier in the Civil War, and a prosecuting attorney in Missouri eventually led John Peter Altgeld to America's great market arena. His speculations paid off and his wealth steadily mounted, leaving him more time to pursue his political ambitions.

Clues to Altgeld's emergence from the scramble for riches with his sense of humanity intact can be found in his rugged background and foreign birth. He was an outsider and never forgot that there were those who would bar his way simply because of place of birth.

Though defying objective documentation, there is another clue to Altgeld's later actions in his official portrait. It reveals a bearded, medium-sized man with short hair combed forward. Nothing particularly stands out save the eyes, just as they do in surviving photographs. Altgeld's eyes shine with a softness, conveying a sympathy and compassion that animates the soul.

Yet, Altgeld was also a calculating, ambitious politician. Failing to gain election to the U.S. Senate by the Democratic-controlled state legislature in 1890, he set his sights on the governor's mansion. Two years later, putting $100,000 of his own fortune into the race, he led Illinois Democrats back into the governor's office they had not won in 40 years. It was a sweep of state offices, the Presidency, and many congressional seats that promised bright things for the state's beleaguered Democracy.

Almost from the time the four Haymarket martyrs died, some in the Chicago business community began having second thoughts about the trial. Labor organizations, too, were pressing for justice for the survivors. Many eminent and respectable citizens were hoping the new governor would do the right thing, though more than a few were like former U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull, whose fear of losing corporate legal business may have been the reason he refused to go public with his support for pardons.

Altgeld's inauguration brought expectations from labor and reformers in general that, finally, justice would be done. On the other hand, there were those in powerful positions who would accept no acknowledgment of error, who stood ready to defame anyone who tried.

Aware of the dangers, Altgeld confided to Clarence Darrow, who was among those pressing him for the pardons, "If I conclude to pardon those men it will not meet with the approval that you expect; let me tell you that from that day I will be a dead man politically."

Slightly more than a month before he signed the pardons, Altgeld addressed the graduating seniors at the University of Illinois, seeking to reassure himself, perhaps, as much as convince the young men and women before him.

"Let sunlight into dark places and the poisons collected there disappear," he told them. "So with the dark places in the government and civil affairs that are now festering with wrong; let the sunlight of eternal truth and justice shine on them and they will disappear.

"Wherever there is wrong; point it out to all the world, and you can trust the people to right it; wrongs thrive in secrecy and darkness."

Early on the morning of June 26, Altgeld determined to let that light in and summoned an assistant secretary of state, Brand Whitlock, later a reform mayor of Toledo, Ohio and novelist, to his office. Before others had arrived to begin work at the state capitol, Altgeld directed Whitlock to prepare the pardons and affix the state seal.

Informed of the pardons, the Democratic Secretary of State complained of the possible effect on the party's fortunes. "No man," Altgeld replied, "has the right to allow his ambition to stand in the way of the performance of a simple act of justice."

Making the pardons more powerful was the fact that rather than simple acts of executive clemency, they were accompanied by detailed and damning evidence showing the indictments, trial, executions, and prison terms to be a gross miscarriage of justice.

Backed by depositions from witnesses and with unforgiving legal logic, Altgeld clearly laid out the chain of actions that rigged the process. The state's star witness, who allegedly saw the whole incident, was actually--according to the testimony of 10 prominent Chicagoans who knew him--an "inveterate liar." The bailiff in charge of the jury pool purposely selected men he knew would convict. The judge allowed friends of the slain policemen on the jury and denied defense challenges to obviously biased jurors.

Exposed for the world to see was the blatant falsehood of the state's case and the manner in which justice had been perverted by those with wealth and power. It was bitter medicine, too bitter to swallow.

"Fielden's simple creed of 'Kill the law; stab the law; throttle the law' is expanded by the Governor," declared the Chicago Tribune. What could one expect from a man like Altgeld, observed the Washington Post, who was, of course, "an alien himself." The New York Times questioned Altgeld's motivations, charging he "would have developed into an out-and-out Anarchist if his lucky real estate speculations had not turned the course of his natural tendencies." And the Tribune concluded that the governor had not "a drop of true American blood in his veins. He does not reason like an American, does not feel like one, and consequently does not behave like one."

Similar attacks poured in from around the country. Close to home, Altgeld found some relief in the pages of Springfield's Illinois State Register and the Decatur Daily Review which supported his stand, the Review noting that had Altgeld not issued the pardons based on the evidence he would have been "a coward, unfit for the position which he occupied."

Three and a half years remained in Altgeld's term and he continued to expose the "dark places" to the "sunlight of eternal truth and justice." Playing a leading role in overthrowing the callous and conservative leadership of President Grover Cleveland in the Democratic Party, Altgeld thrust William Jennings Bryan to the forefront and helped lay the groundwork for his party's reformist ideology in the 20th Century.

He never escaped the attacks of the defenders of privilege and the status quo, whose editorial writers flayed him and whose cartoonists mercilessly portrayed him as a torch-bearing, wild-eyed radical. With the rest of the Democratic ticket, he went down to defeat in 1896.

No doubt, he would be disturbed by the uniqueness of his act of political courage. "This was the deed of a brave heart, and it will live as such in history," one of the men he pardoned wrote him. Altgeld likely would have preferred it to become the norm, forgotten amid countless similar examples of political courage.

Even his last day in office offered no escape from bitterness. Triumphant Republicans denied him the normal courtesy of a farewell address so his went undelivered. "In my judgment no epitaph can be written upon the tomb of a public man that will so surely win the contempt of the ages than to say of him that he held office all of his life and never did anything for humanity," he was prepared to say that day.

A century later, Altgeld's action looms even larger in a day of poll-driven politicians too often dancing to the tune of lobbyists and campaign donors. Altgeld was no saint. He could maneuver and demagogue and pass out jobs and contracts with the toughest pros of his day. Behind those eyes, though, beat a heart in tune with the aspirations of those on the outside, a heart that hated injustice, a heart with the courage to act.

Lucy Parsons, widow of the martyred Albert, said it best. "He was a man before he was a politician."


There are several books that deal with the Haymarket Tragedy and Governor John P. Altgeld's pardons. Although more than 60 years old, Harry Barnard's classic Altgeld biography, Eagle Forgotten, is still the best. A more recent study of the events surrounding Haymarket and its aftermath (including Altgeld's role and the Pardon) is Paul Avrich's The Haymarket Tragedy. Ray Ginger's Altgeld's America is highly readable and informative.

Available from the Illinois Labor History Society is the Barnard book, and several other items related to the Haymarket event, including Haymarket Revisited, a tour guide by William Adelman. A guide to the Martyrs Monument, and the many surrounding burials in Forest Home (Waldheim) Cemetery, Forest Park, Ill., is The Day Will Come.