This Day in History

May 4, 1886: Haymarket Tragedy

Time Periods: 1877
Themes: Labor, Social Class

Portrait of 7 of the 8 Haymarket Martyrs from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

On May 4, 1886, a peaceful demonstration in Chicago for the eight-hour day ended in tragedy when the police barged in, and a bomb exploded.

Although no one knew who threw the bomb, eight labor organizers, all known anarchists, were blamed and tried for conspiracy.

Despite there being no evidence tying the eight men to the bombing and the fact that several men were not even present at the demonstration that day, these men were singled-out for their political beliefs. Seven — Samuel Fielden, Albert Parsons, Louis Lingg, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel — were sentenced to death and one — Oscar Neebe — to 15 years in prison.

Labor activist Lucy Parsons led the campaign to win a new trial, one Chicago official called her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” When her husband Albert Parsons and three other comrades were executed, and four others were sentenced to prison, the movement for industrial unions and the eight-hour day was beheaded. Parsons, far from discouraged, accelerated her actions. Though she had lost Albert — and two years later lost her young daughter to illness — Parsons continued her crusade against capitalism and war, and to exonerate “the Haymarket Martyrs.” [This paragraph from “Lucy Parsons” by William Katz.]

Read a description of the Haymarket Affair by Howard Zinn in Commemorating Emma Goldman: ‘Living My Life.’ Justseeds offers an informational poster about Haymarket by Adam Fanucci.

Below are resources for teaching outside the textbook about Haymarket and labor, including a middle school book of historical fiction (Missing from Haymarket Square) and a collection of lessons on labor history (Power in Our Hands.)