Tragedy in Haymarket Square

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, The First Labor Movement, and The Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America by James Green.  New York: Pantheon, 2006.

On the evening of May 4, 1886, laborers gathered to attend a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to protest the city police force’s use of lethal force in suppressing a strike at the McCormick Reaper Works several days before. Speakers addressed the crowd in several languages, and as the  speeches drew to a close six police divisions arrived to break up the demonstration. At this moment, a sputtering red fuse became visible  as a small projectile arched its way through the night air and landed amid the police. When the bomb exploded panic ensued. A police riot followed as the cops emptied their revolvers into the crowd. The fallout of this bomb blast was a wave of hysteria in which police and prosecutors violated civil liberties, culminating in a sensational show trial of the eight workers accused of committing the crime of the century. The  accused were primarily immigrant labor activists, and although the bomb thrower was never identified, four of them went to the gallows in 1887. It is not surprising that this event has been a  site of  historical investigation for generations of scholars; the bomb that exploded in Haymarket Square is still a violent story from a violent age.

Social historians are not strangers to this violence. Paul Avrich investigated this event through biographies of the movement’s leaders who stood trial for this crime,  and Bruce Nelson extended our understanding of Haymarket by focusing on the rank and file of the Anarchist Movement (1).  Labor Historian James Green revisits this smoldering narrative of industrial unrest in the Gilded Age, paying particular attention to developments in Chicago.  Green lights the fuse of the Haymarket bomb back in 1865 with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War. Although Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Chicago, more of the city’s resident’s were on hand to watch the funeral procession of the executed Haymarket anarchists. While the end of the Civil War united Americans in tragedy and triumph, the bombing two decades later pointed to growing divisions within industrializing America.

Why did anarchist violence appear in Republican America; and what happened in Chicago that facilitated the growth Anarchist Movement? Rapid industrialization and a large immigrant population  were present in many cities, but Green looks to the particularities of Chicago.  From the perspective of this rising industrial city, Green merges the international with the local, balancing reaction to the Paris Commune and the Chicago Fire of 1871. He also pay close attention to national trends such as the movement for the 8-hour day and the economic turbulence that characterized the Gilded Age.  In this chaotic climate Socialists gained an increasing audience with the city’s workers, and during the early 1870s electoral politics seemed to many to be an adequate means of  addressing the growing industrial unrest in Chicago. Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons ran unsuccessfully for alderman, state assemblyman, sheriff, and county clerk, and in 1879 The Socialist Labor Party  even nominated him for President. however, in the Spring of 1880. Chicago election officials rigged election results  in order to unseat Socialist alderman. The fraud failed , but Parsons and others increasingly lost faith in representative democracy. By  1881, a congress of revolutionaries condemned voting as an invention of the bourgeoisie to fool the workers. As Green writes,  an alternative worldview  emerged “where the invention of dynamite had changed the calculus of power. Now the weakest, most wretched elements had a weapon which could inflict incalculable damage” (p.10). Then the “Upheaval of ’86” had brought unprecedented strikes and boycotts to industrial centers across the United States; at stake for many of those involved was  nothing less than the future of the “Good Society.”  Chicago’s working class did not stand idle, and within this changed climate the author gives us a sense of how marginal sectarian groups gained an increasing audience with the city’s workers. It was at this crucial moment that the chain of events leading up to the bombing in Haymarket Square ensued.

Green is best at narrating the differing reactions to Haymarket.  While half of Chicago mourned the judicial murder of the Haymarket anarchists, the other half celebrated the triumph of law and order over unruly workers. The Labor Movement itself increasingly viewed the anarchists as irresponsible rabble rousers.  Hostile employers and government officials used the bombing as a justification to dismiss labor activists as violent subversives and refuse all ideas of cooperation their workers.  Perhaps most ominously, the bombing awakened xenophobic sentiments among native-born citizens as they began to question the policy of unchecked immigration that had emerged after the Civil war.

Death in the Haymarket is an impressive tour of the past two decades of historical scholarship, updating our understanding of this event where previous scholars left off. Yet it is one of  Green’s greatest strengths that becomes his greatest flaw. While he gives us a more nuanced view of events that led up to the Haymarket bombing,  he supplies us with surprisingly little NEW information about the event and the era that it was a part of.  Nevertheless,  his commanding synthesis of recent scholarship allows hims to make a persuasive argument that the Haymarket bombing was a historic turning point. It raised difficult questions about the causes of violent conflict, the limits of free speech, the justice of conspiracy trials, the fairness of the death penalty, and about the treatment of immigrants, particularly foreign-born radicals. Most importantly, for Green,  “the Haymarket case challenged, like no other episode in the nineteenth century, the image of the United sates as a classless society with liberty and justice for all” (p.12).


1). Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Bruce C. Nelson, Beyond The Martyrs: A Social History Of Chicago’s Anarchists. 1870-1920 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

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