On this day in 1886 there was a bit of a fracas in a square in Chicago and frankly things got very, very out of hand. What happened on that day and its grim aftermath had a profound impact on international workers’ movement.
At the time of the riot/massacre/uprising/bombing/shooting, America was experiencing a high number of strikes (somewhere between 300,000 to 500,000 workers were on strike). These revolved around the “eight our day movement”, which is pretty self-explanatory: they were trying to get legislation passed to ensure that workers only had to work for eight hours a day. This hardly seems like asking for a lot from our perspective, but back then it was. And back then it was why unions were so vitally important. Without them many of the rights we now take for advantage wouldn’t be enshrined in law. Anyway, political lecture over! In Chicago there was a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co, which had been going on for some months; workers had been locked out since February. Scab labour had been brought in, but even so many of those “scabs” had defected to the strike. Throughout the strike there was a certain amount of trouble, but by and large it was non-violent. There were, however, problems, which is hardly surprising. For a start, and maybe for a middle and end as well, the owners of the factory had employed Pinkerton agents to keep an eye on the strikers and ensure that there was no violence. Police officers, up to four hundred at a time, escorted the scab labour into the factory. The strikers weren’t angels; they did harass scabs who went through the factory gates, but they in turn were harassed and subjected to violence by the Pinkerton agents.
Fast forward to May 3rd and a rally outside the gates of the factory. The rally was addressed by a leader of the eight-hour day movement called August Spies. He urged the striking workers to hold it together and to stand together with their union if they wanted to succeed. All was well until the end of day bell rang. Some of the strikers surged forward to confront the scab workforce and at that moment police and/or Pinkerton agents fired into the crowd, killing at least two strikers. Some contemporary accounts state six, but there are no definitive records. This incident was incendiary and led to the immediate call for a meeting the next day in Haymarket Square. Flyers were made up by a local anarchist group and initially stated “Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!” but August Spies said he would refuse to speak at the meeting unless that wording was removed. It was and all but a couple of hundred of the original flyers were destroyed. In short, the meeting was to be peaceful. The workers and their representatives were not planning trouble.
The next evening, the meeting convened. A large number of policemen observed the rally from the sidelines. August Spies was the first speaker and his opening words were recorded thus:
“There seems to prevail the opinion in some quarters that this meeting has been called for the purpose of inaugurating a riot, hence these warlike preparations on the part of so-called ‘law and order.’ However, let me tell you at the beginning that this meeting has not been called for any such purpose. The object of this meeting is to explain the general situation of the eight-hour movement and to throw light upon various incidents in connection with it.”
And the evening pretty much went on like that. The Mayor had popped by to see if it was kicking off and it wasn’t so he went home
early. Samuel Fielding was the last speaker of the night and he finished at 10.30pm, at which point the police lined up to disperse the crowd and make them go home. And then it happened. A pipe bomb was thrown at the police, killing one officer immediately and it all went mental. The police started firing into the crowd. There are reports that some of the crowd were armed and fired back, but these are very fragmentary and there are no numbers for how many may have been shooting. Similarly, numbers of dead and injured are hard to establish. We do know that eight policemen died that night and that most of them died under friendly fire. That is, that it was dark, the police were all gun happy and ended up shooting each other in the panic. At least four workers were killed and many more injured. A couple of police spokesmen, talking off the record, stated that they knew that far more workers than police had been hurt or killed, but that due to fear of arrest, many had not sought medical treatment. The whole incident lasted no more than about five minutes, but the carnage was appalling.
Who threw the bomb? Nobody knows. It was claimed by the police and the media that it was an anarchist and it may have been. It may also have been a Pinkerton agent trying to stir up trouble. Many believed this to be the case. It is clear that the meeting was peaceful until the throwing of the bomb and the reaction to it. With no suspect the police decided to arrest the men who had addressed the crowd. The prosecution did not even pretend that they were actively involved in the bombing, but focused instead on the fact that they had not discouraged the anonymous bomber and as such they were co-conspirators. It sounds like nonsense, mostly because it is, but they were all found guilty. Of the eight men convicted, seven were sentenced to death and one to fifteen years in prison.
The press around the country lined up to condemn the men calling them monsters, cowards and brutes among many other things. But the world heard the story too and many were disgusted with the treatment of the eight men who all agreed had played no part in the bombing or murder. The very fact of their radicalism and their insistence on standing up for workers’ rights against business interests had landed them where they were. All the name calling and fear-mongering the US press could come up with was no barrier to the pure and simple truth. There was an appeal the following year and two of the men, including Fielding, had their sentences commuted, but the rest were still to be executed. One of their number, Louis Lingg, committed suicide (he used a dynamite cap, it was horrific and he took six agonising hours to die) and all of the rest, including August Spies, who had specifically called for peace and non-violence, were executed.
The outcome of the trial and the subsequent executions has been seen as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the US. Within six years the governor of Chicago had issued pardons for all of the men and acknowledged that the tragedy had happened because the police had let the Pinkerton agents away with too much. It singled him out as a man who understood what justice should be, but also ended his political career. There is a memorial to the martyrs in Chicago and the May 1st workers’ day celebrations are in part in memory of the men who died on that day in May and later on the gallows. We go back again to the point of unions. However much people may now see them as redundant – a view you won’t be surprised to hear I disagree with – we should never forget that over the years they have been made up of men and women who have sometimes gone so far as to lay down their lives for greater rights for all of us. These men and other men and women like them deserve a moment of our time and that, dear readers, is what I hope I’ve just given them.
Today is the birthday of a German footballer.
He’s not very well known internationally. He’s only 21 and not in the national team, although maybe his day will come. He plays for a team called Karlsruher F.C., which I happily admit I’ve never heard of. He’s only played four games for the first team and has yet to
score a goal.
All in all, he’s a pretty ordinary bloke, probably not that good at football or anything and someone no one’s really heard of outside of German football fans or maybe even only fans of Karlsruher F.C., so why do we get to wish him a happy birthday?
His name is Matthias Cuntz. That is all it takes really and yes I am that juvenile. Did you ever doubt it?
Happy birthday, Matthias Cuntz.