Haymarket Remembered

Visiting and revisiting an explosive moment in the history of the labor movement

Old Haymarket Square. May 4, 1886. Illustration by Niday Picture Library/Alamy.

Cities organize the past topographically. If you want to understand how a place like Chicago constructs its history, you have to look not just at what’s there but where it is. It’s been over 100 years since the events in Chicago that came to be known as the Haymarket Affair, and in that time the city has waged a slow, silent war—its combatants made of bronze and granite—over how to commemorate one of America’s great unsolved mysteries and where those commemorations are best displayed. If the past few years have seen a reinvigorated conversation about monuments, what they mean and where they belong, here in Chicago that conversation has been going on since the late nineteenth century.

The night of May 4, 1886, saw the city on edge; the day before, a strike at the McCormick Reaper Works had turned violent. As scab workers and their police protection had emerged from the plant at the end of the day, a melee had broken out—by the time it had ended, according to reports, at least one and as many as six striking workers had been killed. Chicago labor leader August Spies (editor of the radical labor newspaper the Arbeiter-Zeitung) and activist Albert Parsons, horrified at the day’s events, organized a hasty rally at the Haymarket Square, a busy food market on the city’s West Side. Using an open cart as a speaker’s platform, Spies, Parsons and a third man, Samuel Fielden, spoke to somewhere between 600 and 3,000 workers in a light rain about the need to stay resolute in the face of corporate greed.

The event proceeded without incident until the very end; Fielden had just finished speaking when a throng of 176 police officers arrived, demanding the crowd disperse. Fielden attempted to resist, telling police captain William Ward, “But we are peaceable,” but he immediately backed down and added, “All right, we will go.” At that moment, a lit object was lobbed at the police—from exactly where, no one could later fully determine. One of the cops shouted, “Look out Boys, for God’s sake, there is a shell,” just as the bomb landed and exploded. The explosion turned the Haymarket into bedlam; cops opened fire indiscriminately, firing blindly in every direction. In the aftermath, it would be unclear how many bystanders had been killed and how many cops themselves had been hit by friendly fire. But by the time it was over, one cop was dead and six more were mortally wounded.

Few events with such historical importance lay shrouded in so much uncertainty. To this day, no one has been able to prove who threw the bomb that set off the violence—theories range from an anarchist protester to the Chicago PD themselves to a Pinkerton agent in disguise. And while we’ll never know for sure who it was, what is certain is that the Haymarket Affair would prove disastrous for the American labor movement. One of the main goals of the McCormick strike had been to establish an eight-hour workday, which seemed within sight until the Haymarket Affair came to symbolize the lawless violence of the labor movement. (The eight-hour workday wouldn’t become law until 1940.)

Spies, Parsons and Fielden, along with five other men, were tried for the Haymarket bombing. None were formally accused of either throwing the bomb or being an accessory to the attack itself; they were instead tried as conspirators. All were convicted, and seven sentenced to death; Spies and Parson, along with two other men, were hanged (a fifth, Louis Lling, committed suicide in his cell). The other three languished in prison until 1893, when they were pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld, who issued a statement suggesting the actual bomber might have had nothing to do with socialism at all and could have instead been a lone actor with a grudge against the Chicago Police.

By that point, the city had erected the first of three monuments designed to memorialize the Haymarket Affair. Each of these would seek to tell its own story and frame the tragedy in its own way. Shortly after the event, a fund was established to build a statue commemorating the police who died that night. Erected in 1889 on the site of the disaster, the statue, designed by sculptor, Johannes Gelert, depicts a smiling, benevolent police officer, his arm raised as in a greeting: a protector of the city of Chicago from violent forces. The memorial made no mention of the anarchists killed or of the subsequent judicial actions. Its message was clear: the only victims here were the kind and dedicated police officers.

A few years later, another subscription fund raised money for another monument, this one at the German Waldheim Cemetery on the outskirts of the city (now part of Forest Home Cemetery). The Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, designed by Albert Weinert and dedicated a day before Altgeld’s pardons, memorializes the eight defendants, depicting a highly allegorical female figure of justice who simultaneously shields a fallen worker from harm while also placing a wreath of laurels on his head.

For almost a century, this was how the city of Chicago chose to memorialize this event: on the outskirts, those imprisoned and executed were venerated as martyrs to the labor movement, while in the heart of the city itself, their deaths went unmentioned, and the only victims worth recognizing were those in law enforcement. One cannot mistake the way that topography shapes narrative, and the spatial relationship of these two statues to the everyday lives of Chicagoans shouldn’t be underestimated.

But then in 1969, the statue of the police officer at the Haymarket was destroyed—blown up with dynamite by members of the Weather Underground. A radical group seeking to “bring the war home,” the Weather Underground waged a campaign of bombings and other acts during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. On the night of October 6, as part of its “Days of Rage” campaign, the Weatherman placed a bomb between the statue’s legs, shattering it and scattering debris everywhere. The city rebuilt it and unveiled the restored statue less than one year later, on May 4, 1970, but it lasted only a few months before the Weather Underground blew it up once again. Rebuilt a second time, it was reinstalled, and this time Mayor Richard J. Daley posted a 24-hour armed police presence around the statue to ensure its safety. This security detail cost the city $67,400 a year, and it wasn’t long before it became a symbol of excessive and useless government expenditure. In 1972, Gelert’s rebuilt statue was removed from public view and reinstalled in the interior courtyard of the Chicago Police Academy.

Haymarket Monument. Former site of Haymarket Square. 2019. Photograph by Tim Bounds/Flickr.

In 2004, the city installed a third memorial to the Haymarket. This one sits on the site of the disaster itself, though there is no longer any kind of market square. What was once the Haymarket is now just a sidewalk on North Desplaines Street, and in front of a new condo development is Mary Brogger’s sculpture commemorating the tragedy. Rather than the straightforward simplicity of Gelert’s statue or the neoclassical symbolism of Weinert’s Martyrs’ Monument, Brogger’s bronze sculpture features the speaker’s wagon amidst a jumble of bodies, crates and other ephemera, capturing the chaos of the moment as the wagon and its occupants seem to be sinking into the monument’s stone base. It suggests neither the clear-eyed allegory of the Martyrs’ Monument nor the beneficent symbolism of the waving cop; instead, it offers confusion and disorder, dialogue and openness.

Haymarket martyrs monument. Forest Home Cemetery. 2014. Photograph by Ann Fisher/Flickr.

Sometimes it’s not enough to just read about memorials; you have to visit them yourself to see how they fit in with their landscapes. So I took my friend Elizabeth with me on a tour of Chicago’s Haymarket memorials on a hot July day in 2021. Our first destination was Forest Home Cemetery, the last stop on the Blue Line. It is truly at the edge of the city, an endless train ride that takes nearly an hour on a rumbling, slow L train. Like Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Mount Auburn near Boston, Forest Home was part of the Garden Cemetery movement, in which burial grounds were established away from crowded urban areas in bucolic settings, where people could visit the graves of their loved ones in park-like surroundings, encouraging all day excursions, picnics and quiet contemplation. It’s a fine place for some stately graves, but it seems far too remote for anything like an active memorial of a tragedy.

And yet. In front of the memorial itself was a small stone marker, explaining the history and significance of the memorial. Behind this, I found a pile of small mementos to the labor movement: buttons for the American Association of University Professors, weathered and disintegrating but still legible, and a small stone on which someone had painted SOLIDARITY FROM SEATTLE. Other buttons supported unions whose names I could not make out, and there were plenty of small unmarked stones, simple gestures of solidarity and remembrance, an indication of the number of pilgrims who come here to pay respects.

Back in the city, we made our way to the site of the disaster itself and Brogger’s sculpture. On a busy street, the sculpture was nonetheless still physically imposing enough that it seemed impossible to ignore—it demanded engagement in a way a more traditionally designed memorial would not. But on a busy thoroughfare, it was only so much background scenery to bustling people passing by, none of whom gave it a second thought.

What I noticed most, however, was something not mentioned in the online descriptions I’d read: around the base were a series of plaques donated by labor unions around the world. “In memory of the many Iraqi Trade Unionists killed by the enemies of organized labor,” read one from the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions and the Electrical Utility Workers in Basra, General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions. Next to it another plaque contained the Trade Union Vow, donated by the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo had a plaque, as did the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund and Japan’s Trade Union Confederation. In all, over a dozen unions and federations were represented, revealing an international movement that continues to thrive despite concerted opposition.

Right: The first Haymarket memorial. Chicago Police Academy courtyard. 2021. Photograph by Colin Dickey.

Finally, it was on to Police Headquarters, southeast from downtown, where the Gelert monument now resides. Elizabeth and I approached the parking lot, where the statue was visible from just outside the entrance to the building, but before we could get close, a guard barked at us, ordering us to stand back. His attitude was brusque and hostile, and he was clear that we would not be allowed inside the gates, not even to get a photograph. He ordered us off the driveway and told us the best we could do would be to take photos of the memorial from the street, a good 200 feet away. We stood there in front of an imposing metal gate taking photographs, the smiling bronze cop at a far distance, and then headed back to downtown.

Of the three memorials to the Haymarket, two of them are very much active, alive spaces. Despite all the setbacks the labor movement has endured, pilgrims the world over come to these two spaces to honors Spies, Parsons and the others who died.

Meanwhile, on our way back, Elizabeth remarked how odd it was that the statue of a smiling police officer—an image meant to convey the friendly, benevolent nature of the Chicago Police Department—is entirely off-limits, jealously protected by a group of heavily armed, mean-spirited cops.


Colin Dickey

Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places and The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained. His next book, on secret societies and conspiracy theories, is forthcoming in 2022.

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