The bomb found in the apartment of Louis Lingg. From Messer-Kruse et al., cited below, p. 49.

On this day in 1886, tens of thousands of workingmen all over the country put down their tools and went out on strike in the radical cause of the eight-hour working day or, as some snide folks called it, the campaign to work eight hours for ten hours pay. The eight-hour campaign had begun around two decades before, and swept in supporters from the political center all the way over to the anarchists.

The New York Times, that reliable font of middle-class wisdom, knew that “workingmen ought to learn better than to throw up their employment because there is an alleged wrong somewhere with which they and their employers have no direct concern.”1 Those grime-encrusted, cloth-cap–wearing fellows ought to stick to their trade unless something bad happens specifically to them, and even then they ought to work it out with their employers—so editorialized the Times in a column called “lessons for laboring men.”

(Cue grateful laboring men, tugging their forelocks and ducking their heads: “Thank you, New York Times, thank you ever so much for the lesson in deportment. Sure and we hadn’t any manners—it never occurred to us that a strike might inconvenience you and your readers. We’ll try to work it out with The Man. You just go about your business.”)

Threatening to strike—even peaceably, even just for a show of strength—why, that was just “making trouble,” the Times said.2

It doesn’t take Subtext Genius to pick up on the respectable papers’ disappointment when no trouble actually occurred. The LA Times noted 12,000 people in New York’s Union Square “lifted up their voices in no gentle manner in behalf of the eight-hour movement.” No gentle manner! The ruffians! The LAT had to admit, further down in the column, “It was a good-natured crowd, the 600 policemen having little to do. The men hurrahed a good deal‚ in fact shouted themselves hoarse applauding the sentiments expressed by the speakers, and that was all.”3 The NYT reported likewise, “no violence attempted.” All they could offer was snark, and pretty low-grade stuff at that: “No blood has been spilled, and the 1st of May has been more of a holiday than it usually is in a land where people get up and move upon that date.”4

The respectables were itching for a fight. They weren’t the only ones. A few months before, the anarchist and apparent jackass August Spies gave an empty bomb casing to a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and said, “Take it to your boss and tell him we have nine thousand more like it—only loaded.” Spies and his friends were, as Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison said, a lot of “damn fools.” They talked plenty tough, but didn’t mean anything by it, he thought.5

Somebody did, though. A few days after the letdown of a peaceful May Day, a fracas at the McCormick Works led to three strikers getting shot. Anarchists convened a protest on May 4, in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Mayor Harrison went, listened, heard what he regarded as the usual nonsense, remarked to the police that he thought it was going to be a harmless, if somewhat dull and talky, evening, and went to bed. Sometime after that, somebody threw a loaded bomb casing that exploded among the police. Shooting followed. Seven policemen and some number of civilians ended up dead.

The police rounded up eight anarchists, seven of whom were sentenced to death (one got fifteen years). Two of the condemned got commutations; one (Louis Lingg) committed suicide in prison. Four (including Spies) went to the scaffold.

Were they guilty? For about 100 years, pretty much everyone has said, no. They were railroaded. Much of the evidence against them was circumstantial, and the evidence that was forensic was scorned. But in 2003, some chemists tried to determine whether this scorn was earned.

The forensic evidence against the accused consisted of metal fragments removed from the body of Officer Mathias Degan, with whose murder they were charged, and metal bomb casings recovered from various places—the one Spies gave a reporter, one found in Lingg’s house, nine found under a sidewalk at the corner of Clyde and Clybourne, and one found at Siegel Street, nearby. Apart from the Spies bomb, the others were linked to Lingg—witnesses testified Lingg had given them the bombs to hide at Clyde and Clybourne, and a witness said he had seen Lingg leave the bomb at Siegel Street.

A chemist in 1886 found that the lead alloy in the shrapnel in Degan’s body contained a percentage of tin similar to some of the bomb casings linked to Lingg and Spies, and sufficiently unlike other lead alloys to be suspicious. The chemists in 2003 did not have all the evidence, but they did have some shrapnel from Degan, some from another police officer (who survived) and one of the bomb casings. The modern chemists found first of all that they could not doubt the honesty or competence of the 1886 chemist—their results were substantially similar to his. Second, they found that the shrapnel from Degan differed in composition from the shrapnel removed from the surviving officer—the surviving officer was probably hit by bullets, while Degan was probably hit by a bomb. Third, examining photographs, they concluded the surviving bomb casing they had was not Spies’s, nor the one found in Lingg’s house, but was probably one of the ones found on the street. The link between it and Lingg depends on eyewitness testimony, which is not in this case—or any other—entirely reliable.

The modern chemists believe both halves of the bomb they have differ significantly from the metal that killed Degan, but that inasmuch as they also think the 1886 analysis was honest, the Degan fragments probably did match the other, Lingg-linked bomb casings analyzed, as reported back then. The modern analysts also say in closing:

the composition of the [surviving] bomb shells is like that of certain varieties of type metal commonly used in printing in 1886…. That the Haymarket defendants were closely connected to the printing trades is well known. August Spies was editor and Michael Schwab was coeditor of the Arbeiter Zeitung newspaper, and George Engel and Adolph Fischer edited and published another sheet, Der Anarchist; Albert Parsons and Fischer were both journeyman typographers, which meant that both men were familiar with the casting of type metal. If the … bomb shells were cast either wholly or partially from type metal, this would represent a new circumstantial piece of evidence linking the defendants to at least one of the bombs found in Chicago in the wake of the Haymarket bombing. If these men did conspire together in the bombing as the prosecution alleged, then the bomb may have had a symbolic meaning in addition to its military purpose—it would have been the literal transformation of their words into deeds.6

But this extends into speculation.

The thing about Haymarket was, the bombing and the reaction to it threw the whole labor movement into disrepute, tying it to the violent anarchists. Remember, it all started with the eight-hour day. By the end of it you couldn’t join a union without seeming a bit terrorist.

1“Lessons for Laboring Men,” NYT 5/1/1886, p. 4.
2“The Eight-Hour Question,” NYT 5/1/1886, p. 1.
3“Signs of Trouble,” LAT 5/2/1886, p. 1.
4“The Short Day Strike,” NYT 5/3/1886, p. 1.
5Cited in Jon C. Teaford, “Good Read, Old Story,” Reviews in American History 34.3 (2006): 350-354.
6Timothy Messer-Kruse, James O. Eckert, Jr., Pannee Burckel, and Jeffrey Dunn, “The Haymarket Bomb: Reassessing the Evidence,” Labor 2:2 (2005): 39-51.