Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair

About the Collection

This collection showcases more than 3,800 images of original manuscripts, broadsides, photographs, prints and artifacts relating to the Haymarket Affair owned by the Chicago Historical Society (now known as Chicago History Museum). Specifically, the digital collection includes primary source materials pertaining to the May 4, 1886, meeting and bombing; to the trial, conviction, and subsequent appeals of those accused of inciting the bombing; to the execution of four of the convicted, and to the later pardon of the remaining defendants. Of special interest and significance are the two dozen images of three-dimensional artifacts in the collection including contemporary Chicago Police Department paraphernalia, labor banners, and an unexploded bomb casing given to juror J.H. Brayton by State's Attorney Julius Grinnell. The cornerstone of the collection is the presentation of the transcript of the proceedings from the murder trial of State of Ilinois v. August Spies, et. al.

What was the Haymarket Affair?

What has come to be known as the Haymarket Affair began on May 3, 1886, when Chicago police fired into a crowd of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing and wounding several men. The following evening, anarchist and socialist labor leaders organized a meeting of workingmen near Chicago's Haymarket Square. Speakers at the meeting denounced the police attack of the previous afternoon and urged workers to intensify their struggle for an eight-hour workday and other improvements in labor conditions.

Just as the meeting was breaking up, the police, led by Captain William Ward and Inspector John Bonfield, arrived on the scene and attempted to disperse the crowd. During this effort, someone threw a dynamite bomb into the ranks of the police, killing one officer outright and injuring others. A melee ensued, the police, and probably others in the crowd, fired shots. Seven police officers were killed or mortally wounded, and one died of his wounds several years later. How many casualties the workers sustained that evening is not known, as those who fell were quickly dragged to safety or to medical attention by their comrades.

The unknown bomber's act resounded nationwide. Public opinion was instantly galvanized against the radical left, resulting in the first "Red Scare" in America. In a climate of political paranoia fueled by the popular press, the police arrested eight prominent Chicago anarchists and charged them with conspiracy to murder. The eight were tried before Judge Joseph E. Gary in the Circuit Court of Cook County. Although no evidence emerged to tie any of the men to the bombing, the jury returned a verdict of guilty after deliberating for less than three hours. The court sentenced Oscar Neebe to fifteen years in the penitentiary and the others to death by hanging.

The attorneys for the defense immediately appealed the verdict to the Illinois Supreme Court which upheld the verdict against the anarchists on September 14, 1887. The defense then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of error. After three days of testimony by counsel for the convicted, however, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition on November 2, 1887, leaving amnesty as the only remaining option for the defendants.

On November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer were hanged. Louis Lingg escaped the hangman's noose by committing suicide in his cell the day before he was scheduled to climb the scaffold. Illinois governor Richard Oglesby commuted the sentences of Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab to life in prison. In 1893, Oglesby's successor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the three surviving defendants, Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe, at the cost of his own political career.

The Haymarket Affair was a momentous and controversial event in Chicago's history and in the history of the American labor movement. In Chicago, a monument was erected in Haymarket Square to memorialize the police officers who lost their lives. Throughout the United States and Europe the executed anarchists became known as "the martyrs of Chicago."

The Haymarket Affair Chronology provides a time line of significant events.

Evidence from the Haymarket Affair

What evidence survives, particularly from history's traumatic and controversial moments, is often random and incomplete. Most of what remains from the Haymarket Affair are documents and artifacts that some citizens decided, either around the time of the Haymarket Affair or afterward, ought to be preserved as part of the enduring narrative of the event. The digital collection presented here includes material the Chicago Historical Society has preserved, and a few important documents from the Archives of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. (Documents and artifacts pertaining to the Haymarket Affair survive in other libraries, archives, and museums as well.)

By the time of the Haymarket Affair, the Chicago Historical Society was widely regarded as a repository for preserving the important documents and artifacts of Chicago's history. Many of the donors who gave Haymarket materials to the Chicago Historical Society were Chicagoans who had been involved in the event, or members of their families, such as Inspector John Bonfield and the grandson of Juror J. H. Brayton.

The Haymarket Affair was an event over which Chicagoans, indeed Americans in general, were deeply divided. Many condemned the trial as a grave miscarriage of justice and the execution of the defendants as a brutal act calculated to squelch the labor movement. Others viewed the defendants, and all anarchists, as terrorists and urged the execution of the defendants as a necessary measure to preserve civil order. Those who donated Haymarket materials to the Historical Society may have had in mind aspects of the Haymarket story, or even a particular version of the story, that they wanted to pass along to later generations through these objects and documents.

The Dramas of Haymarket provides an interpretation of these materials from over a hundred years after the event. This online presentation places the materials in historical context and draws on many other items from the Historical Society's extensive resources.

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