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Labor Day Troubled Beginnings and Haymarket Tragedy

Updated on April 15, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis believes it is so important to educate our children on Early American History, for it is what shaped our country.

Labor Day Parade, 1882 in New York

Lithograph: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882. Parade was organized by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor.
Lithograph: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882. Parade was organized by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor. | Source

Troubled Beginnings

The history of Labor Day is fraught with troubled beginnings, which lead to the Haymarket tragedy in Chicago, Illinois. The American Labor Movement and the Haymarket Affair are not well-known now to many people in America. It is old history, yet very significant to the holiday, organized labor and unions.

No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American history textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance.

— William J. Adelman, Labor Studies Professor

All Information is so Complex

All the history, organizations, federations, events, and movements that led to organized labor and the reason for establishing an official holiday is so complex and involved that it cannot be fully covered in this one article. This article will touch upon some brief information on legislature and a few events that will help shed some light on Labor Day and how it came to be a national holiday.

Labor Day is observed in the United States annually on the first day of September.

Labor Day Dates in the United States:

  • 2015 - September 7
  • 2016 - September 5
  • 2017 - September 4
  • 2018 - September 3

Debate on who First Proposed the Holiday

Records have shown that Labor Day was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire who was general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners at the time, as well as co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. McGuire and Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL). McGuire led the great strikes of 1886 and 1890 which resulted in the eight hour workday which was adopted on the nation's agenda.

However, it was believed by many that in 1882 it was first proposed by Matthew Maguire, a machinist who served as secretary of the Central Labor Union. More recent information from the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark shows that Matthew Maguire may have been the creator of Labor Day. Maguire, was also a leading union figure, led several strikes, and became the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York by 1882.

Who do you think invented the holiday and is the true "father of Labor Day"?

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Nationwide Holiday Celebration

In the first proposal of the Labor Day holiday it was recommended to make it a day to honor the spirit and strengths of trade and labor organizations of a community. A parade was to be held followed by a festival for workers and their families.

Eventually speeches were given by prominent citizens on the significance of the the holiday. At the 1909 American Federation of Labor convention the Sunday before Labor Day was designated Labor Sunday.

Labor Day was at one time a holiday that brought the whole nation together with one common thought and purpose. Communities gathered, cheered at the parade and enjoyed picnics in large groups. In current times most of the celebration has dwindled down to single family picnics and gatherings. Some smaller towns still have parades and festivals and it is one of the many holidays they celebrate that brings a community together.

Today, it seems as though the biggest thing about Labor Day is the fantastic sales at retail stores.

Labor Day Sales

Across America Labor Day sales will skyrocket and everything will go on sale -- every retail business will take advantage of the holiday timing for just about anything that people are looking for at a good price.

Many people will do a lot of Christmas and other holiday buying at this time. It is a great way to find the items needed for gift-giving, garden yard clean-ups, stocking up on foods for the pantry, clothes for the kids going back to school, school supplies, winter wardrobes, just about anything and everything.

Labor Day is not just about shopping and getting back to school. Let us look at a brief history of the troubled beginnings of the holiday and how it all started.


n 1885 and 1886 ordinances of municipalities were passed then a movement to secure state legislation developed. New York legislature received the first bill, but the state of Oregon was the first to pass the bill as law on February 21, 1887.

By 1894 the holiday was passed by legislative enactment in 27 other states. On June 28 the same year, the first Monday of September each year was legally designated as Labor Day in the District of Columbia and the territories when Congress passed the act.

Labor Day constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

— United States Department of Labor

May Day

May 1, 1886 was chosen by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions to establish the day when the eight-hour work day would become standard. On that first May Day strikes and rallies were held across the nation in support of the eight-hour day for workers - their motto was "Eight-hour day with no cut in pay."

The movement's center was based in Chicago where up to 40,000 (estimate) workers participated in the strike. Marches and demonstrations occurred throughout the streets.

On May 3 workers on strike from McCormick Harvesting Machine Company gathered in protest near the plant where strikebreakers (substitute workers) were crossing the picket line. Four-hundred police officers were on duty to protect the strikebreakers. August Spies (American upholsterer, radical labor activist, newspaper editor, and an anarchist leader), was speaking at a rally and advised the strikers to "hold together, to stand by their union, or they would not succeed." The organized strike had been non-violent.

When the work day was over, the strikers moved forward to confront the strikebreakers. As August Spies called out to maintain calmness the police force fired on the strikers, killing two of them - some reports stated six were killed.

The act of police brutality prompted local anarchists to call for a rally the next day at Haymarket Square. Fliers were quickly printed up and distributed, urging workers to seek justice. When August Spies saw the flyers he demanded a recall of them due to one line which called for workers to arm themselves. A second flyer was printed for immediate distribution, without the call to arms.

August Spies

Anarchist August Spies in 1887
Anarchist August Spies in 1887 | Source

Haymarket Flyer

This is the revised flyer, the first flier printed up had the words "Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!", which were removed from the revised flyer.
This is the revised flyer, the first flier printed up had the words "Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!", which were removed from the revised flyer. | Source

Haymarket Tragedy

On May 4, 1886 a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago. The gathering was to support workers striking for an eight-hour day and to address the tragic incident from the day before when the striking workers were killed by police.

Paul Avrich (1931 - 2006), historian specializing in the study of anarchism, had quoted August Spies as giving an introduction in his speech,. (Source: In the Supreme Court of Illinois, Northern Grand Division. March Term, 1887. August Spies, et al. v. The People of the State of Illinois. Abstract of Record. Chicago: Barnard & Gunthorpe. vol. II, p. 129. OCLC 36384114., quoted in Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, pp. 199 200.)

There seems to prevail the opinion in some quarters that this meeting has been called for the purpose of inaugurating a riot, hence these warlike preparations on the part of so-called 'law and order.' However, let me tell you at the beginning that this meeting has not been called for any such purpose. The object of this meeting is to explain the general situation of the eight-hour movement and to throw light upon various incidents in connection with it.

— August Spies

The Rally

The rally started in a peaceful manner and all was calm. Some spectators left the gathering early, including the mayor when he felt all would be well.

The three speakers, August Spies, Albert Parsons (American socialist, anarchist newspaper editor, orator, and labor activist), and Samuel Fielden ( Methodist pastor, socialist, anarchist and labor activist), stood in a buckboard type wagon to give their speeches. A large police force stood nearby watching the proceedings.

The last speaker was Fielden. As his 10 minute speech was nearing the end, police started to disperse the crowd . At that time someone threw a bomb aimed at the police. It was a homemade bomb loaded with dynamite and shrapnel.

The explosion killed one officer, Mathias J. Degan, and mortally wounded six others. Gunfire that followed left at least four civilians dead. Many others were wounded. Reports from eyewitnesses and the media varied on the number of dead, from eleven to fifty or more.

Haymarket Square:
175 North Desplaines Street, Chicago, IL 60661, USA

get directions

Haymarket Square where the tragedy took place.

Officer Mathias J. Degan

Engraving of police officer Mathias J. Degan, who was killed by the bomb blast.
Engraving of police officer Mathias J. Degan, who was killed by the bomb blast. | Source


When the explosion occurred chaos broke out - gun fire erupted from the police and some workers. The Chicago Tribune later received an anonymous message from an official of the police force that several police were wounded by other police who panicked and fired haphazardly.

The mayhem did not last long and the square was deserted shortly, but the damage was done. The Chicago Herald reported the "wild carnage" left fifty or more dead and wounded in the aftermath.

There are disputes as to who fired first. Historian Paul Avrich claimed the police fired on the demonstrators who were trying to flee the area, killing four and wounding up to 70. The New York Times reported that demonstrators first fired at the police.

Media was quick to report. A headline in the New York Times, with a May 4 date, told of the riot. They also stated Fielden's speech was twice as long, 20 minutes instead of 10, and he had grown "wilder and more violent as he proceeded". On May 6 the New York Times came out with another headline of "Anarchy's Red Hand".

Rioting and Bloodshed in the Streets of Chicago ... Twelve Policemen Dead or Dying

— New York Times, May 4, 1886


It was not known who threw the bomb, but suspicions lay heavy on the anarchists Louis Lingg (a bomb maker), Balthazar Rau and Rudolf Schnaubelt (the lead suspect). Schnaubelt was arrested twice, but released both times. Before he could be arrested and questioned a third time he fled the city. He was indicted, but fled the country before he could be brought to trial. Witnesses saw Schnaubelt at the Haymarket rally and one state witness identified Schnaubelt from a photo as the one who threw the bomb.

On May 5 and 6, 1886, several anarchists and labor activists were arrested. On May 27 the grand jury indicted thirty-one and charged them as accessories to the murder of police officer Mathias J. Degan. Eight of those indicted were selected to stand trial - they were Albert Parsons, August Spies, Oscar Neebe, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Louis Lingg (a bomb maker) and George Engel. Lingg and Engel were both radical militants.

An eight week period of raids and ransacking by police with no warrants ensued for the purpose of gathering evidence. Homes, offices, businesses and meeting halls of anarchists were entered and raided by police. It was not just anarchists that were under suspicion, but all of labor and the immigrant community.

The bombing had sent out waves of paranoia and instant public opinion against the anarchists and the radical left which resulted in a "Red Scare", the first in America. The paranoia, fear, and blame for the riot on the anarchists was strongly fueled by the press. No evidence was found to connect any of the defendants to the bombing, but those arrested were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

The Seven Anarchists

The seven anarchists convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Oscar Neebe, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Louis Lingg and George Engel.
The seven anarchists convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Oscar Neebe, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Louis Lingg and George Engel. | Source

The Trial

The very controversial trial that followed, Illinois vs. August Spies et al, was presided over by Judge Joseph E. Gary in the Circuit Court of Cook County. The jury selection lasted from June 21 to July 15. The selected jurors were all biased with preconceived opinions.

On August 19, 1886 the jury, after just three hours of deliberation, returned verdicts of guilty. Neebe was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The remaining defendants were sentenced to death by hanging.

The sentences of two defendants, Fielden and Schwab, were commuted to life in prison by Richard J. Oglesby, Illinois governor. Lingg took his own life in his cell the day before execution. On November 11, 1887, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer were executed.

Pardons and Monuments

Governor John Peter Altgeld, Oglesby's successor, pardoned Fielden, Schwab and Neebe in 1893, saying they were victims of "hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge". Altgeld bitterly denounced Judge Gary and the jury that convicted the anarchists. He also noted that the state never did find out who threw the bomb which killed the policemen. The evidence, Altgeld noted and stated "does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it."

A monument honoring Governor John Peter Altgeld, by Gutzon Borglum (Danish-American sculptor), was erected by the Illinois Legislature in Lincoln Park, Chicago in 1915.

The effects of the tragedy and trial were felt by the whole nation. People of Chicago and the general American public were deeply divided on the entire affair. The trial was seen by many as a devastating and shocking miscarriage of justice and the execution of the defendants was felt to be a brutal act to stop the labor movement. The executed anarchists came to be known as "The Martyrs of Chicago".

The graves of Spies, Fischer, Engel, Parsons and Lingg located at the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.

Haymarket Martyrs Monument

Haymarket Martyrs Monument by sculptor Albert Weinert  in Forest Home Cemetery
Haymarket Martyrs Monument by sculptor Albert Weinert in Forest Home Cemetery | Source

Haymarket Police Memorial

Haymarket Riot Monument, by John Gelert, 1889
Haymarket Riot Monument, by John Gelert, 1889 | Source

Haymarket Police Memorial

In May of 1889 the Haymarket Police Memorial, by Johannes Gelert, was erected in Haymarket Square and unveiled by Frank Degan, son of Officer Mathias Degan. The memorial has had a history of bad luck.

  • On May 4, 1927, the driver of a streetcar purposely crashed into the statue, destroying it.
  • In 1928 the restored statue was moved Union Park where it stood till the 1950s when the run-down area was taken out by construction of the Kennedy Expressway.
  • In 1956 a special platform overlooking the freeway was built for the statue.
  • On May 4, 1968 the statue was covered with black paint by vandals, protestors against the Vietnam War.
  • On October 6, 1969 the Weather Underground Organization (WUO,an American radical left-wing terrorist group) destroyed the statue with a bomb.
  • On May 4, 1970 the WUO blew up the restored statue with another bomb.
  • The rebuilt statue was assigned a 24-hour police guard by Mayor Richard J. Daley.
  • In 1972 the statue was moved to the lobby of Central Police Headquarters then to an enclosed courtyard at the Chicago police academy.

© 2015 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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