Summary of the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886

Instructor: Jason McCollom
The violent encounter at Haymarket Square in Chicago marked a turning point in the labor movement of the 19th century and produced the most sensational trial of the times. Read about this riot and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Lead-up to Haymarket

The relationship between large crowds and the police can get unruly at times. What if you were in a crowd at a concert or a football game and a riot broke out? Should you be responsible for the conduct of the larger group? Would you be considered complicit by just being there? What if authorities determined they needed to use force to quell the disturbance?

This was the situation at one of the best known riots of the late 19th century. It began in the spring of 1886, when union workers at Chicago's McCormick Harvester Company factory, which produced farm equipment, went on strike. They demanded a reduction in work to 8 hours per day. Determined to break the union's strength, the factory owner hired scabs--nonunion replacement workers--to keep production running. When the strikers confronted the scabs, Chicago police were called in to keep order.

Tensions were high, and on May 3, 1886, striking workers clashed with Chicago police officers outside the factory. In the ensuing violence, four strikers died and dozens more were injured. Several police officers were beat up as well. Incensed, workers and other radicals called for supporters to 'arm yourselves and appear in full force' at a huge rally at Haymarket Square.

A pamphlet calling for a rally at Haymarket Square

The Riot at Haymarket

The next day, May 4, thousands of workers, anarchists (those who want to end all forms of government), and other radicals arrived at Haymarket Square. After several speeches denouncing police violence, a stone hauler named Samuel Fieldon climbed onto a hay wagon that was serving as a speakers' platform. Fieldon yelled to the crowd that 'war has been declared on us' and advised them 'to get hold of anything that will help you to resist the onslaught of the enemy and the usurper.'

Around this time, lines of policemen could be seen marching towards Haymarket Square. As the police confronted the crowd, an unknown person threw a bomb into the police ranks. The resulting explosion killed seven officers and injured many more. The police lieutenant, James Browler, directed his men to 'Fire and kill all you can.' The officers obeyed, killing four. In the ensuing melee, over 100 people were trampled.

A monument to the police killed during the Haymarket Square riot
haymarket monument

The rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago had become the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886.

The Aftermath of the Haymarket Riot

The bombing of the police at Haymarket at first scared most Americans, and then that fear turned to hatred toward those deemed responsible: anarchists, labor unions, strikers, immigrants, and the working class in general. The Albany Law Journal, for instance, blamed the violence on 'wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches.'

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