On November 11, 1887 four great men, all of them anarchists, were hanged from a gallows erected inside Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Their names were Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle, and Adolph Fischer. The martyrs did not immediately die of broken necks, as was supposed to happen. They were strangled to death over a period of seven agonizing minutes. Adolph Fischer was the last of them to die.
A fifth martyr, Louis Lingg, either took his own life while awaiting execution with his comrades, or he was murdered by the police. Lingg occupied a cell that was isolated from those of his comrades. According to newspaper reports at the time, Lingg deliberately detonated a small explosive device in his mouth, which blew off most of his face. It required several hours for him to die. No one has been able to explain how Lingg, an unrepentant defendant in the most famous prosecution in US history, and under tight security, was able to smuggle bombs into his tiny prison cell. Louis Lingg was almost certainly murdered by the police.
Alternatively, some historians have speculated that a sympathizer might have somehow managed to smuggle a small amount of explosives into the prison so that Lingg could deprive the state of the satisfaction of executing him. According to this theory, Lingg, not the state of Illinois, orchestrated his own death.
The Haymarket martyrs, as they were later called, were accused of inciting violence against the Chicago police force that, acting at the behest of prominent businessmen, frequently beat and murdered unarmed strikers with impunity. No police officer was ever tried, much less convicted, for their crimes against workers attempting to democratize the workplace. This theme should sound a familiar refrain to modern protestors.
No credible evidence was presented that tied any of the anarchists to the bomb that exploded among a mob of heavily armed policemen that had attacked a peaceful public rally in the Haymarket Square on the night of May 4, 1886. Sworn police testimony was contradicted by hundreds of eyewitnesses.
The Chicago anarchists were convicted of a crime they did not commit. Their trial, like later politically-motivated trials in the US, was a sham. The jurors, handpicked to convict by a specially appointed bailiff, were paid by local businessmen after getting the conviction and death sentence the business community desired. The prosecutors knew that Albert Parsons had already left the rally and was relaxing with his comrades at a nearby tavern when the incident occurred. It made no difference.
The Haymarket martyrs were fighting for the eight hour work day, the right to peaceful assembly and for freedom of speech. It was here that the idea of “one big union” originated. The men were tried and convicted for their anarchist beliefs rather than for the commission of any crime they committed.
America pays homage to statesmen like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams — its so called founding fathers. But working people have never known or have forgotten those who gave their lives in the struggle for social and economic justice in the workplace. Few contemporary American workers honor their fallen comrades. We owe these courageous men and women our eternal gratitude.
Class-conscious working people of today are fighting the same pitched battle as the Haymarket martyrs more than 124 years ago. As we witness the final death throes of capitalism, America is regressing. We are drifting back to Chicago of the 1880s. Those who have employment are producing more for their employers, working longer hours for less pay and receiving fewer benefits.
Corporate profits are soaring. Fewer employers are paying pensions. The disparity between rich and poor is increasing. The centralized state is imposing austerity upon working people. As class conflict intensifies, we are seeing tiny enclaves of opulence embedded within a global matrix of poverty and want.
Despite alternating cycles of boom and bust, little has changed between the rich and poor since 1887. Justice is still being denied by a system that is antithetical to social and economic democracy. We are living in a dystopia that provides justice to those who have the money to pay for it and denies those who do not.
But let us remember that regression inevitably spawns an equal and opposite reaction. The class-consciousness and resistance that August Spies spoke of during his sentencing in a Chicago Courthouse long ago are reawakening. We see his prophesies manifested in the Occupy Wall Street movement that is spreading across the nation and hurtling around the Earth with the speed of electrons. We see them particularly manifested in Oakland, California. US workers are finally organizing and resisting tyranny again. The strike is still our greatest weapon.
The Haymarket martyrs were men of principle and men of ideas who envisioned a more egalitarian world and sought to create it. This is the threat they posed to capitalism and Chicago’s business community. Their struggle is also our struggle. We must embrace it.
The spirit of Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle, Adolph Fischer, and Louis Lingg, and countless others, preside over the OWS movements around the nation. These men lived large. They deserve to be remembered and honored. The state, despite its best efforts, could not murder an idea whose time had come. That idea has come again. In fact, it never really died.
There will be other martyrs. The global struggle for justice continues. Revolutionaries always circulate among us. Sometimes their heat sets everything ablaze.
Long live the spirit of resistance! Long live the spirit of the Haymarket Martyrs! Long live anarchy!
Author’s note: A detailed account of the lives of the Chicago anarchists is presented in a compelling book written by labor historian James Green titled Death in the Haymarket, published by Anchor Books.