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Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

Filtering by Tag: haymarket

The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument as a Labor Icon

Webtrax Admin

by Robin Bachin, Assistant Director of The Scholl Center, Newberry Library, Chicago

The National Park Service (NPS) Theme Study in American Labor History offered the Newberry Library a unique opportunity to negotiate the terrain between preservation, memory, and labor history. The process of determining national significance and finding extant sites for labor history has raised important questions about the relationship and compatibility of preservation and labor history.

Challenging the Labor History Theme Study is the need to merge the NPS criteria for preservation with recent scholarship on labor history, and make labor history visible through landmark preservation. The attempt to find a suitable site for recognizing the national significance of the 1886 Haymarket incident in Chicago offers an interesting example of the difficulties in achieving this goal, but also in how doing so might help us broaden our understanding of memory, history, and authenticity.

Historians consider Haymarket one of the seminal events in the history of American labor. On May 1, 1886, close to 300,000 strikers nationwide and 40,000 in Chicago took part in demonstrations for the eight-hour day. This movement was part of an international struggle for workers' rights, and the heart of the movement was in Chicago, where the anarchist International Working Peoples' Association (IWPA) played a central role in organizing the May Day strikes. On May 4, members of the IWPA organized a rally at Haymarket Square to protest police brutality against striking workers on the South Side. As the last speaker finished his remarks, police marched in and demanded an end to the gathering. Then an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd, killing and wounding several police officers and protesters. Police apprehended eight anarchists on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. The trial and subsequent execution of four of the men--Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer, and George Engel--has served as enduring symbol of labor's struggles for justice.

The importance of recognizing Haymarket's national significance for labor history forced us to select a suitable site to preserve as a National Landmark. The site of the Haymarket meeting and bombing, in Haymarket Square on the corner of Des Plaines Avenue and Randolph Street, lacks physical integrity, as a result of the construction of the Kennedy Expressway in the 1950s. We selected the Haymarket Martyrs monument and surrounding grave sites at Forest Home Cemetery (originally part of German Waldheim Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois, to serve as the physical reminder of the importance of Haymarket. Yet, it is not only because the monument is extant and Haymarket Square is not that we chose to nominate the monument. Rather, the monument itself has become an icon of the labor movement that has taken on international historical significance beyond its role in commemorating the events of 1886.

The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument was dedicated on June 23, 1893 by the Pioneer Aid and Support Association, a group organized to support the families of the accused. The monument consists of a sixteen-foot-high granite shaft atop a two-stepped base, on which stand two bronze figures. The predominant figure is a woman who is standing over the other figure, a bearded male worker. The sculpture represents Justice placing a wreath on the head of a fallen worker. As Emma Goldman later explained, "The monument served as an embodiment of the ideals for which the men had died, a visible symbol of their works and their deeds."

The dedication ceremony was accompanied by huge festivities. Over 3,000 people marched from downtown Chicago to Waldheim Cemetery. Included in the parade were trade unionists, members of German Turns, musical groups, and others who were in Chicago for the World's Colombian Exposition and were curious about the spectacle. Organizers of the dedication presented speeches in English, German, Bohemian, and Polish, and the monument was garnished with flowers and banners sent from throughout the world. [Robin Bachin is correct, except that the folks took a series of special trains from the Polk Street Station in downtown Chicago to the cemetery in suburban Forest Park. - L Orear]

Chicago's labor community has held annual meetings at the monument since the time of its dedication. Tributes to the martyrs have taken the form of rallies, parades, speeches, and wreath laying. Labor leaders visiting the monument and speaking of its symbolism have included Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Irving S. Abram. Prominent writers and poets, including Carl Sandburg, Vachell Lindsay, Ralph Chaplin, and Edgar Lee Masters commemorated the monument in their writings.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring legacy of the Haymarket incident is the continued desire of those associated with the labor movement to be buried alongside the Haymarket martyrs. Among those buried here are Joe Hill (1882-1915), William Haywood (1869-1928), Lucy Parsons (1859-1942), Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), William Z. Foster (1881-1966), Emma Goldman (1869-1940), and Ralph Helstein (1908-1985).

The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument has provided a symbol through which various groups have been able to create a usable past and share pride in radical heritage. While the site where the Haymarket incident took place may be more "authentic" in its relationship to the event itself, the monument and cemetery symbolize the process of creating cultural heritage through a poignant, enduring legacy of collective identity. The Haymarket Monument's historical significance lies in its ability to promote Haymarket's legacy, to structure social memory, and to link present-day struggles to the past.

May Day Remembered

Webtrax Admin

"There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!"

August Spies, Haymarket Martyr

Five score years so soon are gone
That crown that fateful hanging day,
Yet still the years live on and on
And never will they go away!

Eight doomed martyrs spoke their dreams:
An eight-hour day, their modest hope;
For such effrontery it seems
Four lives were snatched by hangman's rope!

But by a miracle of fate
The voices still ring loud and clear;
The voices stilled by cruel hate
Are heard today, this hundreth year!

So many years have passed them by,
Yet louder still the timeless call
Rings 'round the world, a battle cry
For workers' rights, for peace for all!

Raise high the flag, you workers brave,
March strong and steady, side by side,
On First of May this hundredth year,
So not in vain those martyrs died!

by Susan King
May, 1990

Haymarket and its Memorial

Webtrax Admin

The Martyrs' Monument by sculptor, Albert Weinert, takes its inspiration from "La Marseillaise", the national anthem of France. It was a favorite of Albert Parsons and he sang it in his cell just prior to his trip to the gallows. A laurel wreath is placed on the brow of the fallen hero, as the figure of Justice advances, resolutely toward the future.

The story of the Haymarket Martyrs, and their monument in Forest Home Cemetery, begins at a convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1884. The Federation (the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor) called for a great movement to win the 8-hour workday, which would climax on May 1, 1886.

The plan was to spend two years urging all American employers to adopt a standard 8-hour day, instead of the 10 to 12, even up to 16-hour days that were prevalent. After May 1 of 1886, all workers not yet on an 8-hour schedule, were to cease work in a nation-wide strike until their employer would meet the demand.

80,000 Marched

Although some employers did meet the deadline, many did not. Accordingly, great demonstrations took place on May 1 all across the country. Chicago's was the biggest with an estimated 80,000 marching on Michigan Avenue, much to the alarm of Chicago's business leaders and newspapers who saw it as foreshadowing "revolution," and demanded a police crackdown.

In fact, the Anarchists and other political radicals in Chicago were reluctant to have anything to do with the 8-hour day strike, which they saw as "reformist;" but they were prevailed upon by the unionists to participate because Albert Parsons and others were such powerful orators and had a substantial following.

A mass meeting was called for the night of May 4, 1886 in the city haymarket at Randolph St. and DesPlaines Ave. Its purpose was to protest a police action from the previous day in which strikers and their supporters at the McCormick Reaper plant on Blue Island Ave. had been killed and injured by police.

The mass meeting in the haymarket was so poorly planned that the organizers had to round up speakers, including Parsons, at the spur of the moment. A rain began to fall, and as the last speaker was concluding, a large force of 200 police arrived with a demand that the meeting disperse.

Bomb Thrown

Someone, unknown to this day, then threw a bomb at the massed police. In their confusion, the police began firing their weapons in the dark, killing at least four in the crowd and wounding many more. Several police were killed (only one by the bomb), the rest probably by police fire. The myth of the Haymarket Riot was born.

In the aftermath of the event, unions were raided all across the country. The Eight-Hour Movement was derailed and it was not until passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1935, that the 8-hour workday became the national standard, a part of the Fair Labor Standards Act passed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal."

Albert Parsons and seven others associated with radical organizations were prosecuted in a show trial. None were linked to the unknown bomb thrower, and some were not even present at the time. They were held to be responsible for the bomb thrower's act, because their public criticism of corporate America, the political structure, and the use of police power against the working people, was alleged to have inspired the bomber.

Governor's Pardon

They were found guilty in a trial which Governor John Peter Altgeld subsequently held to be grossly unfair. On June 26, 1894, Altgeld pardoned those defendants still alive and in prison; but Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel had been hanged, and Lingg was an apparent suicide.

The Haymarket case became a world-wide scandal. Governor Oglesby was petitioned by hundreds of thousands, including AFL President Samuel Gompers, to grant clemency, and thus prevent a miscarriage of justice by stopping the executions. It was to no avail. They were hanged on November 11, 1887.

In July of 1889, a delegate from the AFL attending an international labor conference in Paris, urged that May 1 of each year be celebrated as a day of labor solidarity. It was adopted. Accordingly, with the exception of the United States, workers throughout the world consider May First to be their "Labor Day."

The Monument

The Martyrs' Monument in Forest Home Cemetery is now held in trust by the Illinois Labor History Society, the gift of Irving S. Abrams, the sole surviving member of the Pioneer Aid and Support Society which had erected the monument, and dedicated it on June 25, 1893.

Today, the monument can be looked upon as a shrine to the Bill of Rights, specifically to the right to free speech, and the right to assemble and present grievances as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The men to whose agony the monument is sacred, were victimized by a public opinion and a state power which stifled truth, and trampled upon the peoples' right to assemble and state their grievances, as they had tried to do in the haymarket.

A Reminder to Us All

The monument can be seen as a reminder that a great movement for a more humane workplace was also strangled with the Martyrs. When we gather in its presence, we also recall the untold millions of working men and women whose unremitting toil and suffering was prolonged for more than forty years by the Tragedy of the Haymarket. The Haymarket Monument was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997. Please visit the bookstore for a number of books and videos which address the Haymarket Tragedy.

Forest Home Cemetery is just south of the Eisenhower Expressway on Desplaines St, in Forest Park, IL. Eastbound traffic should exit at Desplaines. Westbound should exit at 1st Ave., Maywood. Re-enter Expressway eastbound. Take next exit and turn right (south). Proceed to cemetery entrance, then take left fork to the Monument.

Governor John Peter Altgeld Pardons the Haymarket Prisoners

Webtrax Admin

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.

Eulogy at Waldheim Cemetery

Webtrax Admin

November 13, 1887

(Delivered by Captain William P. Black, Attorney for the Haymarket defendants, who had been executed on November 11, 1887.)

"I must not keep you long, and yet there is one thing that I specially want to say, because doubtless in this great throng there stand many who misapprehended their position and their views.

"They were called Anarchists. They were painted and presented to the world as men loving violence, riot, and bloodshed for their own sake; as men full of an unextinguishable and causeless hatred against existing order. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"They were men who loved peace, men of gentle instincts, men of gracious tenderness of heart, loved by those who knew them, trusted by those who came to understand the loyalty and purety of their lives.

"And the Anarchy of which they spoke and taught--what was it, but an attempt to answer the question, 'After the revolution what?' They believed--ah! I would that there were no grounds for this belief--that there was that of wrong and hardship in the existing order which pointed to conflict, because they believed that greed and selfishness would not surrender, of their own volition, unto righteousness.

"But their creed had to do with the tomorrow of the possible revolution, and the whole of their thought and their philosophy, as Anarchists, was the establishment of an order of society that should be symbolized in the words, 'Order without force.'

"Is it practicable? I know not. I know it is not practical now; but I know also that through the ages poets, philosophers, and Christians, under the inspiration of love and beneficence, have thought of the day to come when righteousness shall reign in the earth, and when sin and selfishness should come to an end.

"We look forward to that day, we hope for it, and with such a hope in our hearts can we not bring the judgement of charity to bear upon any mistakes of policy for action that may have been made by any of those who, acknowledging the sublime and glorious hope in their hearts, have rushed forward to meet it?

"We are not here this afternoon to weep, we are not here to mourn over our dead. We are here to pay, by our presence and our words, the tribute of our appreciation and the witness of our love. For I love these men. I knew them not until I came to know them in the time of their sore travail and anguish. As months went by, and I found in the lives of these with whom I talked the witness of their love for the people, of their patience, gentleness, and courage, my heart was taken captive in their cause."

Captain William P. Black

Note: An estimated 500,000 Chicago workers lined Milwaukee Ave. on November 13, 1887, as the funeral of the Haymarket Martyrs wound its way along Milwaukee Ave. and on to what was then the Grand Central Railway Station for the trip to German Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home Cemetery) in suburban Forest Park. For a most compelling experience, you should visit the Martyrs Monument. The cemetery is on Des Plaines Ave. in Forest Park. (Approximately ten miles west of State St), and just south of I-290, the Eisenhower Expressway. Despite the vandals who have torn off the bronze floral piece from the base, one cannot but be moved by the powerful monument which marks the grave site. Take the left hand fork at the entrance to the cemetery. Look for the magnificent female figure with the fallen hero. The ILHS has guide books and other historical materials which may be ordered by mail. In fact, the ILHS holds the deed to the monument and the burial site, having been presented with the document by Irving S. Abrams, then the sole surviving member of the Pioneer Aid & Support Society, which erected the monument in 1894.