Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Haymarket: The Legacy of Injustice

The trial of the Haymarket martyrs was one of the most shameful events in US legal history. From the beginning – selection of jury members who openly admitted their prejudice – there was little doubt that the defendants would be convicted. Throughout the proceedings Judge Joseph Gary was consistently hostile to the accused. In his instructions to the jury he sealed their fate by saying that, if the defendants had ever suggested violence, they were guilty of murder – even if the perpetrator couldn’t be found.

After the verdict – death by hanging for all but one of the eight – the defendants spoke to the court. Most of them noted that the state was betraying the ideals on which the US was based. August Spies said that they were condemned “because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty and justice.” Albert Parsons pointed to the use of violence, including dynamite, recommended by newspapers as a solution to labor troubles. And Louis Lingg, ever defiant, told the court, “I despise your order; your laws, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it!”

Despite their defiance, a strong campaign for clemency was launched. Many people who didn’t share the ideology of the anarchists nevertheless knew that the verdict and death sentences were unjust. Although an appeal to the US Supreme Court failed, public opinion began to shift. Labor groups, at first hesitant to support the men, joined the petitioners asking Governor Oglesby to intervene. People like author William Dean Howells and journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd joined with Europeans in pleas for mercy and justice. The Governor considered clemency, but powerful businessmen pressured against it.

Meanwhile, the martyrs reconciled themselves to their fate. Parsons, who had surrendered himself for trial after evading capture for six weeks, continued to write from his prison cell. He rejected the chance to obtain clemency by sending a letter of repentance to the governor. Like most of the others he defended his innocence and refused to beg.

Spies was married while imprisoned to a young woman who had fallen in love with him during the trial. Oscar Neebe’s wife died, even though he was to be spared. Eventually, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Spies agreed to sign a letter asking for mercy. But Spies later reversed himself again, instead urging the governor to hang him and spare the rest.

On November 10, 1887, just one day before the scheduled executions, the governor was finally persuaded to act. He commuted the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life imprisonment. The others would be hung the next day.

All but Louis Lingg. On that same day, he committed suicide in his cell, using dynamite smuggled in by a friend.


Click to hear a scene from Inquisitions (and Other-Un-American Activities), my play on Haymarket, civil liberties, and the life of Lucy Parsons. To stage a community production or see the script, e-mail MavMedia@aol.com. For radio broadcast, contact Squeaky Wheel Productions via the "Inquisitions" link on this site.


On November 11, Parsons, Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer faced the gallows. With nooses around their necks they spoke to the world. “Hurray for Anarchy!” said Fischer. “This is the happiest moment of my life.” From inside his hood, Spies added, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

And finally Parsons. “Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak, Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the people be heard! O – “ He never completed the sentence.

It wasn’t until six years later than the truth began to emerge. Another governor, John Peter Altgeld, reviewed the evidence and trial transcripts for months before concluding that a tragic injustice had been committed. In an angry report, he condemned the authorities and vindicated the martyrs. The surviving three were freed. That act all but ended Altgeld’s brilliant political career.

The impact of the Haymarket tragedy was broad and profound. For decades afterward, the Chicago martyrs were a symbol for workers and radicals around the world. Their heroism and dignity inspired countless others to stand firm for their ideals. The trial and the hangings also made clear the fragility of US democracy. In 1886, government and corporate interests had joined forces to crush ideas they considered threatening. The bomb merely provided the excuse, and the story remains relevant to this day.

Haymarket was a crucial moment not only in labor history, but in the story of humanity’s hopes and errors. The martyrs may have erred in their bold talk of arms and dynamite. But society betrayed itself by condemning, out of fear, people who represented the frustrated aspirations of the poor for justice.

Fortunately, this sad attempt to smother dissent didn’t succeed. In the end, August Spies was right when he said at the trial, “Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”

Part five of “May Day, Labor, and the First Red Scare”

Next: Labor’s Long March Continues

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