The Haymarket Trial

Anarchist Movement

Samuel Gompers quoted a manufacturer who said, "I regard my employees as I do a machine, to be used to my advantage and when they are old and of no further use I cast them in the street". These few words expressed the views of many employers, who only sought to make a profit at the expense of cheap labor, long hours and dangerous conditions.  This labor was mostly provided by immigrants, who were ill equipped to resist and make effective challenges to their practices. In 1882 Johann Most, a socialist from Germany, arrived in New York at the request of the Social Democratic Party. With his arrival he brought the ideology of social revolution by anarchy. In the eighteen-eighties, the socialist movement was relatively weak and unorganized. Most toured the country giving speeches. He also wrote a column in the Freiheit, a socialist newspaper, about the need for the working class to revolt and achieve true liberation from the hands of business and rich landowners. Chicago, along with New York, were perfect seeding grounds for the social revolutionary movement. Working conditions were extremely dangerous, the pay was ridiculously low (on average $1.50 a day) and the working hours were long. Some owners had steel and mill towns established. The workers would have to buy food and clothing from company owned stores at a higher rate than other stores in nearby cities or towns. Due to extreme working and living conditions the International Working Peoples Association (IWPA) was formed to help bring about a eight hour work day . The purpose of the organization was simply "propaganda by deed".

The Chicago Scene

The IWPA expounded violence by deed. This was done chiefly through the Alarm, a German publication led by Albert Parsons, August Spies and the Central Labor Union. One proposed method to achieve equality was with the use of dynamite as a means to uplift the working class from statutory law and permit the laws of nature to uplift them to a place of equality. On May 1st, 1886 a strike was held by workers throughout the United States to support a eight-hour work day. On May 4th, 1886 in Chicago a meeting was scheduled at Haymarket Square to protest police violence that had erupted the day before in response to picketing for an eight hour workday. Samuel Fielden was concluding a speech at Haymarket Square to a crowd of people (due to rain, smaller in size than when the protest began), when a contingent of police arrived to disperse the peaceful demonstration. A bomb was thrown into the police ranks and exploded. Seven police officers died and roughly seventy officers were wounded. It was later officially reported that the police killed one and injured twelve others--but it is now believed that the actual number of civilian deaths and injuries were five to six times those numbers. On May 5 1886, newspapers in Chicago and around the country began to give accounts of the previous day's activities. Many of these articles contained false information.  Anarchists, of course, were assumed to have thrown the bomb. Many Chicago citizens were sent into a frenzy of anger, fear and hatred. Prominent businessmen of Chicago took swift action against the socialist radicals and provided for $100,000 to hire witnesses and to initiate prosecutions against the anarchist and socialist movements. August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Albert R. Parsons, Rudolph Schnaubelt, William Seliger, and Oscar Neebe were arrested as co-conspirators in a plot to commit murder and riot.

The State's Evidence

On June 21st, 1886 the trial began for the eight suspects. They were defended by Captain William Perkins Black, William A. Foster, Moses Salomon and Sigismund Zeisler. Attorneys for the State were Julius S. Grinnell, Francis W. Walker and Edmund Furthman, assisted by George C. Ingham. The presiding judge was Joseph E. Gary. From the very beginning of the trial it was clear these eight defendants would have a difficult time getting a fair trial. Most prospective jurors said they had already formed a opinion about the case based on what they had read or heard. During the selection process, on more than one occasion, Judge Gary would overrule a defense challenge for cause when the person being questioned stated they did not believe they could reach a fair and impartial verdict on behalf of the defendants. Judge Gary instead would choose to voir dire the person to the point of exhaustion, when they finally would claim  that they could reach a fair result. At this point in the proceedings the actions by Judge Gary rulings showed his bias and prejudice against the defendants. The evidence produced by the State presented the defendants as murderers, conspirators and rioters. The State introduced newspaper articles which outlined the anarchists' strategy of overcoming harsh working conditions by instilling fear of violence in owners. August Spies was shown to have suggested that dynamite might level the playing field and help liberate the underclass. The state further alleged (among other things) a Monday Night Conspiracy, whereby the group met to plan the bombing at Griefs Hall in Chicago. They produced two witnesses who testified under oath that they were privy to the planned bombing. In actuality, only Engel and Fisher--among the eight defendants--had met at Griefs Hall to discuss the upcoming meeting at Haymarket Square. The prosecution put people on the stand who had been granted immunity for their testimony but who, by all historical accounts, were not qualified to give accurate and detailed testimony. The State's strongest case was against defendant Louis Lingg, who was shown to be a dynamite maker--and more prone to violence than his co-defendants. A expert witness testified for the State the bomb that exploded at Haymarket Square was similar in composition to those made by Lingg. The State still failed to show that Lingg and the other co-defendants threw the bomb or acted in a conspiracy to commit such an act.

The Defense Evidence Produced At Trial

The defense produced evidence to show that Engel was home at the time of the bombing and Fisher was not present at the Haymarket meeting. Evidence showed that Fielden and Parsons were unaware of the Griefs Hall meeting.

The defense raised serious questions about the credibility of  prosecution star witness, Harry L. Gilmer.  Gilmer testified that he knew the bomber by sight, but not by name. He described the bomber as five foot ten inches, broad chested, full-faced with deep set eyes, a light sandy beard and weight of approximately 180 pounds. From a photo he identified Rudolph Schnaubelt as the man he saw throwing the bomb. The defense was able to show inconsistencies in this statement by offering evidence that Gilmer had told the Chicago Times the man he saw was of medium height, perhaps whiskered, and wearing a soft slouch hat. The defense, during further cross examination, established that Gilmer was never called before a grand jury and that he had received small sums of money from one of the detectives involved in the case. The defense, through the examination of thirteen witnesses, presented evidence that August Spies was atop the wagon where he had given a speech when the police arrived and the bomb exploded. (Gilmer had testified that Spies had left the wagon and lit the fuse for the bomb thrower.) Gilmer testified Fisher was present when the bomb exploded, but the defense presented evidence to show Fisher was at Zepf's Hall when the bombing occurred.

Closing Remarks

In the State's closing argument, Grinnell hammered home the point that the United States must not stand idly by, but must punish those who commit murder for ideals which were opposed by a democratic society. The defense chose to pick away at the inconsistencies of the prosecution's witnesses. They argued that the State was playing on the prejudices of the jury by using irrelevant material which did not amount to the guilt of the accused.

The Verdict

The jury deliberated for only three hours and came back finding Spies, Schwab, Fielden, Parsons, Fisher, Engel and Lingg guilty of murder to be punished by death. Neebe was found guilty of murder and the penalty was fixed at fifteen years imprisonment. The verdict was swift and severe, despite the mountain of evidence produced at trial and the seriousness of the charges. The Chicago Times declared the next day that the defendants had been "fairly prosecuted and ably defended under the processes of the law which they would have throttled, and twelve good and true men have doomed them all save one to death." On October 1, 1886 the defense presented a motion for a new trial before Judge Gary. On the basis the jury was prejudiced and the men had not been proved guilty of murder and conspiracy. Judge Gary denied this motion and work was begun by the defense to appeal the decision of the trial court to the State Supreme Court of Illinois

The Appeal

The defendants appealed their case to the State Supreme Court of Illinois on November 25, 1886.  The key arguments were based on seven miscues by the trial court: (1) that some of the instructions of the court, both given and refused, were in error; (2) that some of the remarks of the court were sufficiently improper to be considered erroneous; (3) that errors obtained in connection with the impanelling of the jury; (4) that the improprieties of the closing argument of the State's Attorney were ground for a complaint of error; (5) that the State's theory of conspiracy, upon which the whole case rested was untenable in the light of the facts and the law; (6) that illegal evidence had been brought to bear against the defendants; and (7) that errors had obtained after the verdict when the petition for a new trial had been rejected.

The Court issued its decision on September 14, 1887.  The Court upheld the verdict rendered by the trial court.  It accepted the State's  arguments that the defendants acted in a conspiracy to make bombs and carry out violent acts in the name of anarchy.

The defendants next took their plea to the United States Supreme Court. The Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Waite on October 27, refused the writ of error submitted by the defense that they were denied "due process" under the fourth and sixth amendments. The Court ruled that their were no substantial federal questions presented in the case. The conviction of the trial Court would stand and the defendants' sentences would be carried out.

The Execution

On Friday, November 11, 1887 Parsons, Spies, Adolph Fischer and Engel were hanged. Lingg had committed suicide the day before by placing dynamite in his mouth and blowing half of his face off. Neebe, Schwab, Fielden were sent to prison for life. They only spent six years in prison before being pardoned in 1893 by John P. Altgeld governor of Illinois, who sacrificed a promising political career to right what he he viewed as a judicial wrong.

Jesse Rivers, Tamara Jameson and Vincent Bates
Trial Speeches
Trial Excerpts
Biographical Sketches