A historical summary of the Haymarket Square Riot which occurred on May 4, 1886.


Haymarket Square Chicago
Haymarket Square Chicago, IL (circa 1900)
Following the Civil War, particularly following the Depression of 1873–79, there was a rapid expansion of industrial production in the United States. Chicago was a major industrial center and tens of thousands of German and Bohemian immigrants were employed at about $1.50 a day. American workers worked on average slightly over 60 hours, during a six-day work week. The city became a center for many attempts to organize labor’s demands for better working conditions. Employers responded with anti-union measures, such as firing and blacklisting union members, locking out workers, recruiting strikebreakers; employing spies, thugs, and private security forces and exacerbating ethnic tensions in order to divide the workers. Mainstream newspapers supported business interests, and were opposed by the labor and immigrant press. During the economic slowdown between 1882 and 1886, socialist and anarchist organizations were active.
Membership of the Knights of Labor, which rejected socialism and radicalism, but supported the 8-hour work day, grew from 70,000 in 1884 to over 700,000 by 1886. In Chicago, the anarchist movement of several thousand, mostly immigrant, workers centered about the German-language newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung (“Workers’ Times”), edited by August Spies. Other anarchists operated a militant revolutionary force with an armed section that was equipped with guns and explosives. Its revolutionary strategy centered around the belief that successful operations against the police and the seizure of major industrial centers would result in massive public support by workers, revolution, destroy capitalism, and establish a socialist economy. A number of these labor radicals were immigrants, many of them from Germany.


The rally began peacefully under a light rain on the evening of May 4, 1886. The rally at was organized by labor radicals to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by the Chicago police during a strike the day before at the McCormick Reaper Works. Judge Joseph E. Gary imposed the death sentence on seven of the men, and the eighth was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On November 11, 1887, four of the men were hanged.

August Spies, Albert Parsons, and Samuel Fielden spoke to a crowd estimated variously between 600 and 3,000 while standing in an open wagon adjacent to the square on Des Plaines Street. A large number of on-duty police officers watched from nearby. Following Spies’ speech, the crowd was addressed by Parsons. The crowd was so calm that Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., who had stopped by to watch, walked home early. Parsons spoke for almost an hour before standing down in favor of the last speaker of the evening, The British socialist Samuel Fielden, delivered a brief 10 minute address. Many of the crowd had already left as the weather was deteriorating. Fielden spoke for 20 minutes, his words grew “wilder and more violent as he proceeded.”


Toward the end of the Haymarket Square rally, at aproximately 10:30pm, just as Fielden was finishing his speech, police arrived en masse, marching in formation towards the speakers’ wagon, and ordered the rally to disperse. Fielden insisted that the meeting was peaceful. Police Inspector John Bonfield, stated “I command you [addressing Fielden] in the name of the law to desist and you [addressing the crowd] to disperse.”

As the police advanced, an individual who was never identified threw a home-made bomb with a brittle metal casing filled with dynamite and ignited by a fuse, was thrown into the path of the advancing police. Its fuse briefly sputtered, then the bomb exploded. The police and possibly some members of the crowd opened fire and chaos ensued.

Haymarket Square Explosion
Artist Depiction of the Haymarket Square Riot Explosion (1886)
Haymarket Square Explosion
Artist Depiction of the Haymarket Square Riot Explosion (1886)
Witnesses maintained that immediately after the bomb blast there was an exchange of gunshots between police and demonstrators. Accounts vary widely as to who fired first and whether any of the crowd fired at the police. Historian Paul Avrich maintains that the police fired on the fleeing demonstrators, reloaded and then fired again, killing four and wounding as many as 70 people. What is not disputed is that in less than five minutes the square was empty except for the casualties. In his report on the incident, Inspector Bonfield wrote that he “gave the order to cease firing, fearing that some of our men, in the darkness might fire into each other”. An anonymous police official told the Chicago Tribune, “A very large number of the police were wounded by each other’s revolvers. It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.”

In all, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed. Another policeman died two years after the incident from complications related to injuries received on that day. About 60 policemen were wounded in the incident. They were carried, along with some wounded people, into a nearby police station. Police captain Michael Schaack later wrote that the number of wounded workers was “largely in excess of that on the side of the police”. It is unclear how many civilians were wounded since many were afraid to seek medical attention, fearing arrest.


A harsh anti-union clampdown followed the Haymarket riot. There was a massive outpouring of community and business support for the police and many thousands of dollars were donated to funds for their medical care and to assist their efforts. The entire labor and immigrant community, particularly Germans and Bohemians, came under suspicion. Police raids were carried out on homes and offices of suspected anarchists. Scores of suspects, many only remotely related to the Haymarket riot, were arrested. Casting legal requirements such as search warrants aside, Chicago police squads subjected the labor activists of Chicago to an eight-week shakedown, ransacking their meeting halls and places of business. The emphasis was on the speakers at the Haymarket rally and the newspaper, Arbeiter-Zeitung. A small group of anarchists were discovered to have been engaged in making bombs on the same day as the incident, including round ones like the one used in Haymarket Square.

In August 1886, eight men, labeled as anarchists, were convicted in a sensational and controversial trial in which the jury was considered to be biased and no solid evidence was presented linking the defendants to the bombing. Judge Joseph E. Gary imposed the death sentence on seven of the men, and the eighth was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On November 11, 1887, four of the men were hanged.

Haymarket Square Riot Officers Killed
Engraving of the Officers Killed During the Haymarket Riot. (1887)
Haymarket Square Riot Defendants
Engraving of the seven anarchists sentenced to die for Officer Degan’s murder. (1887)
Of the additional three who were sentenced to death, one committed suicide on the eve of his execution and the other two had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby. The governor was reacting to widespread public questioning of their guilt, which later led his successor, Governor John P. Altgeld, to pardon the three activists still living in 1893.

In the aftermath of the Haymarket Square Riot and subsequent trial and executions, public opinion was divided. For some people, the events led to a heightened anti-labor sentiment, while others (including labor organizers around the world) believed the men had been convicted unfairly and viewed them as martyrs.


In 1889, a commemorative nine-foot (2.7 meter) bronze statue of a Chicago policeman by sculptor Johannes Gelert was erected in the middle of Haymarket Square with private funds raised by the Union League Club of Chicago. The statue has since been moved several times and damaged/vandalized. CLICK HERE for a complete history of the statue.
Haymarket Memorial Statue
Engraving of the seven anarchists sentenced to die for Officer Degan’s murder. (1887)



Produced by: Sunqist, 2008


Produced by: PBS, 2004

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Reference Sources

  • History Channel. “Haymarket Square Riot.” Retrieved from History.com. Accessed 31 January 2014.
  • Wikipedia. “Haymarket Affair.” Retrieved from Wikipedia.com. Accessed 31 January 2014.