On 3 May 1886 a striker protesting outside the McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago was killed by the police. On 4 May in the city’s Haymarket Square, a small crowd of socialist and anarchist demonstrators who had gathered to protest the killing was dispersing when a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one officer and wounding several others.
In the hysteria that followed, newspapers in Chicago and across the United States blamed anarchist groups for the bombing, wealthy businessmen in Chicago donated money to hire “sympathetic witnesses,” and eight men—August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Albert Parsons, and Oscar Neebe—were charged with conspiracy to commit murder and riot.
During the trial the state produced evidence for the existence of a “Monday Night Conspiracy,” alleging the defendants had met together at Griefs Hall in Chicago, as part of a larger gathering of local anarchist groups, to discuss the Haymarket meeting and lay plans for the bombing.
That a group made up of mainly foreign-born anarchists should find itself arraigned on conspiracy charges in Chicago in 1886 remains one of the more compelling metaphors for the age. The closing decades of the nineteenth century were among the most turbulent in modern U.S. history, and no city felt the transformations of the time more keenly than Chicago.
To some Americans the future of the republic itself seemed in question, as economic depression and a widening conflict between capital and labor laid bare the social divisions and political tensions of the post–Civil War era. In the years leading up to the Haymarket “conspiracy” industrial conflict intensified, with almost 700,000 workers on strike in 1886, the year of the Haymarket bombing. By the end of the decade nearly 10,000 lockouts and strikes had taken place.
The 1880s had also seen the rise of a new nativist response to shifting patterns in immigration to the United States, as groups of white “native-born” Americans in cities across the country preached the dangers of nonassimilation, and the cancerous presence of “alien” political ideologies. The aftermath of the Haymarket bombing was not a good time to be a known anarchist in Chicago. Neither was it a good time to be a foreign-born U.S. worker.
Negligible Evidence for Conspiracy Charges
Problems during jury selection for the trial of the Haymarket “bombers” indicated from an early stage that the “conspirators” might themselves be the victims of a conspiracy to convict innocent men. Confronted with potential jurors who said they would be unable to act impartially, having already formed an opinion on the case from what they had read or heard, Judge Joseph E. Gary repeatedly struck down objections from the defense about the unsuitability of jurors.
Gary interviewed many of those available for selection at such length that some are said to have simply given in and rediscovered their “impartiality” under duress. The case for the prosecution rested to a large degree on the testimony of an expert witness who claimed that the bomb thrown at Haymarket bore a resemblance to other bombs made by the defendant Louis Lingg.
But prosecutors were unable to prove that Lingg had either thrown the Haymarket bomb or conspired to do so. A key witness for the prosecution, Harry Gilmer, offered damning testimony in support of the conspiracy charges, and identified a Rudolph Schnaubelt as the man who had thrown the bomb.
But Schnaubelt had already been arrested and released without charge, Gilmer’s evidence in court conflicted with the description of the bomber he had given to the Chicago Times, and the defense alleged that he had been paid by the police to testify.
The defense also established that August Spies could not, contrary to Harry Gilmer’s evidence, have lit the fuse for the bomb. Indeed, the evidence against all but two of the “conspirators” was negligible. A number of the accused were shown to have been elsewhere at the time of the bombing, while others were unaware that the Haymarket meeting had even been planned.
Despite the gravity of the charges, and the huge volume of evidence presented during the trial, the jury took only three hours to convict all eight defendants, seven of whom, including Spies, Parsons, and Lingg, were sentenced to death. A number of appeals against the sentences were lodged in 1886 and 1887, including one made to the State Supreme Court of Illinois that contested both the legal and factual basis of the “conspiracy” convictions.
The appeals failed. Lingg committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out, but Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel were hanged on 11 November 1887. Neebe, Fielden, and Schwab were jailed for life, but were pardoned by the governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, in 1893.