4 minute read

Haymarket Trial: 1886

Police Arrest Eight Anarchists

Both the police and labor had been responsible for loss of life since the May Day rallies. After the Haymarket bomb explosion, however, public reaction was overwhelmingly against the unions. A major Chicago newspaper ran the headline, "NOW IT IS BLOOD!" and yellow journalism fanned public fears of anarchist-, socialist-, and communist-inspired union violence. Despite widespread searches and raids of working-class neighborhoods, however, the police never found the bomber.

Prosecutor Julius S. Grinnell, the Illinois state's attorney charged with finding Haymarket culprits, needed people to prosecute. When the police started to arrest known anarchists in the labor movement, beginning with Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, and August Spies the day after the riot, Grinnell supported the arrests. Encouraged by Grinnell, the police arrested five more labor anarchists: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Albert Parsons. On May 27, 1886, all eight men were charged with murder.

Because of the public outcry, at first the defendants had trouble finding attorneys to represent them. Although Chicago's Central Labor Union arranged for their attorneys, Moses Salomon, and Sigismund Zeisler, to represent the defendants, neither man was an experienced criminal lawyer. Eventually, however, the experienced lawyers William P. Black and William A. Foster joined the defense team. Judge Joseph E. Gary was assigned to preside over the case, which opened June 21, 1886.

Jury selection occupied the first three weeks of the trial. A total of 981 potential jurors were questioned until 12 were finally selected. There have been accusations that Judge Gary used his influence to ensure the jury favored the prosecution. Since none of the jurors worked in a factory, they were not expected to be sympathetic to the union cause, which was really on trial.

Prosecutor Grinnell's tactic was to try to prove that the defendants had conspired not only to attack the police during the Haymarket rally, but also had conspired to create anarchy by overthrowing all government authority. Grinnell's courtroom rhetoric was as expansive as his accusations:

For the first time in the history of our country are people on trial for endeavoring to make anarchy the rule, and in that attempt for ruthlessly and awfully destroying human life. I hope that while the youngest of us lives this in memory will be the last and only time in our country when such a trial will take place.

Grinnell brought forward several witnesses, all of whom gave poor testimony. They could only testify that the defendants at various times had made inflammatory, pro-anarchist, pro-union statements. Damning as this testimony was to some sectors of the public, it did not prove conspiracy, much less murder. Zeisler for the defense attempted to expose the weakness of the prosecution's evidence:

It is not only necessary to establish that the defendants were parties to a conspiracy, but it is also necessary to show that somebody who was a party to that conspiracy had committed an act in pursuance of that conspiracy. Besides, it is essential that the State should identify the principal.… If the principal is not identified, then no one could be held as accessory.

Judge Gary ruled, however, that if the jury believed the defendants were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of conspiracy to attack the police or overthrow the government, then the jury could also find the defendants guilty of murder. Also, the jury merely had to find beyond a reasonable doubtthat the defendants arranged for someone to throw the bomb. According to Judge Gary's instructions to the jury, it did not matter that no one had found the bomb thrower.

Judge Gary's interpretation of the law was the final blow. On August 20, 1886, the jury pronounced its verdict. The jury found all eight defendants guilty and gave each the death penalty, except for Neebe, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail. The public and press applauded, and most papers carried glowing accounts of Grinnell's successful prosecution. Despite the efforts of amnesty groups, assisted by a young but soon-to-be-famous lawyer named Clarence Darrow, on September 14, 1887, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the death sentence. A final appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court was also unsuccessful: on November 2, 1887, the Supreme Court held that because no principle of federal law was involved, it could not rule on the case.

The convicted men had thus exhausted all their conventional legal avenues of appeal. Lingg committed suicide before his scheduled execution. On November 11, 1887, Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies were hung. Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab sat in jail, Neebe serving out his sentence and the others awaiting execution. Luckily for the condemned men, their stay in prison lasted for years. In the interim, the liberal politician John Peter Altgeld was elected governor of Illinois. On June 26, 1893, Altgeld pardoned Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab. The three left prison as free men.

The Haymarket Riot began with a political confrontation and ended with another political confrontation. Altgeld's pardon made him a political pariah, and in the next gubernatorial election he was soundly defeated. Nevertheless, Altgeld's pardon helped to legitimize labor's claim that the trial had been unfair from start to finish and that Judge Gary had been biased.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

David, Henry. The History of the Haymarket Affair. NewYork: Russell & Russell, 1958.

Foner, Philip S. The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs. New York: Anchor Foundation, 1978.

Ginger, Ray. Altgeld's America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1958.

Haymarket Remembered Project Staff. Mob Action Against the State: The Haymarket Remembered… an Anarchist Convention. Seattle: Left Bank Books, 1987.

Nelson, Bruce C. Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, 1870-1900. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers tJniversity Press, 1988.

Roediger, David and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook: A Centennial Anthology. Chicago: C.H. Kerr, 1986.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Haymarket Trial: 1886 - Chicago: Hotbed Of Radicalism, Police Arrest Eight Anarchists, Suggestions For Further Reading