Today in History: The Haymarket Square Riot Explodes in Chicago (1886)

Today in History: The Haymarket Square Riot Explodes in Chicago (1886)

Matthew Weber - May 4, 2017

Friction between laborers and their employers was a very common occurrence after the Industrial Revolution. Business owners wanted to keep costs down and profits high, while workers had to deal with the dangerous conditions and low pay that usually came with those goals.

Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, labor protests were very common. These protests were often put down very hard by employers, police, and sometimes the U.S. government.

On May 4, 1886, one such labor rally turned violent when a bomb was thrown at a group of policemen who were trying to disperse a crowd.

Today in History: The Haymarket Square Riot Explodes in Chicago (1886)
Haymarket Affair 1886. Chicago Tribune

The event took place at Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois. Nearly 1,500 people gathered to protest the killing of a labor striker by Chicago police. Due to rain, the crowed had already started to disperse, but nearly 300 people remained by the time Chicago police arrived to break up the crowd.

At some point, an unidentified protester threw a bomb at the police officers. The bomb killed at least a dozen people (police and protesters alike) and injured more than 100 people. The cops responded by firing into the crowed, killing several more.

Because the rally had been organized by a foreign-born labor leader, a wave of xenophobia swept through the U.S. following the deadly bombing. Foreign-born radicals and labor leaders were rounded up in Chicago, and 31 of them would eventually be indicted, all suspected of having a connection to the bombing on May 4.

Seven of those men were convicted and sentenced to death, and another was sentenced to 15 years in prison. There has been a lot of controversy about the justice that was served in this case, many questioning whether or not the men who were found guilty had anything to do with the bombing at all. Eventually three of the men would see their sentences commuted by the Illinois governor, and several of the other defendants would be pardoned.

The outcome is still being felt today. It is said that the Haymarket Affair is the origin of International Workers Day (also called May Day), and it is seen as true start of the worker’s movement that would take place over the next three or four decades.

The Haymarket Riot is but one of dozens of protests, rallies, and strikes that would take place throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as workers fought for better pay, 8-hour working days, and better conditions. It would be a fight that would take decades, and would not always be peaceful.