This Day in History — 1886 Haymarket Affair

On this day in 1886 a Civil War veteran from Texas, Albert Richard Parsons, was accused along with several others of a conspiracy to murder in Chicago, Illinois.

Albert volunteered as a 13 year old to serve in the Civil War under units in Texas led by his brothers. First he was infantry for his Confederate captain brother, next a cannoneer and finally cavalry for the Confederate colonel William Henry Parsons.

After the American “slave-holders’ rebellion” was defeated, Albert studied in college and became a member of the “Radical Republicans” working in Central Texas on suffrage for Freedmen; he helped register blacks to vote despite threats of violence and exploitation by white supremacists. After marrying Lucy Parsons he traveled through the Midwest and settled in Chicago in 1873. In his “auto-biography” published by his wife he wrote…

I incurred thereby the hate and contumely of many of my former army comrades, neighbors, and the Ku Klux Klan. My political career was full of excitement and danger. I took the stump to vindicate my convictions.

In April 1886 Chicago saw dozens of protests where people were calling for an eight-hour workday. Similar to his suffrage work to help the Freedmen, Albert spoke and wrote about industrial labor conditions as a cause of voter disenfranchisement.

On the 1st of May tens of thousands walked off their job for better working conditions. After more protests on May 3rd the police responded to a large group by shooting wildly at protesters they called violent, killing at least one and injuring many others.

The following day on May 4th Albert spoke at a meeting in Haymarket Square and left. Although Mayor Harrison had instructed the police to stay away by the end of the day hundreds of armed officers marched in and demanded protesters disperse. A bomb exploded and police again opened fire wildly into crowds. Many were killed (seven police, a few protesters) and injured (sixty police, unknown protesters).

Prominent speakers and writers such as Albert then were charged with murder because protests could be violent, despite not being there. After an unfair trial most of the accused were sentenced to death. One died violently in prison, judged a suicide. Then Albert and three others were hanged in 1887. He stood on the gallows and asked “Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak…” as the Sheriff opened trap doors to kill him.

Two other men had asked and received commuted sentences. Six years later, in 1893, the Illinois’ Governor Altgeld known for his “patriotic love of liberty” pardoned those convicted in the Haymarket Affair and called the unfair trial methods used a “menace to the Republic“.

Altgeld feared that when the law was bent to deprive immigrants of their civil liberties, it would later be bent to deprive native sons and daughters of theirs as well.

The City of Chicago Haymarket Memorial describes these events as “A Tragedy of International Significance“:

…those who organized and spoke at the meeting—and others who held unpopular political viewpoints—were arrested, unfairly tried and, in some cases, sentenced to death even though none could be tied to the bombing itself.

Police targeted and killed the leaders of a group who advocated for better quality of life and voting rights in poor and immigrant homes. Although Albert had survived having unpopular views in Texas opposing the Klu Klux Klan after the Civil War, in Chicago he couldn’t escape being falsely accused of violence and sentenced to death for becoming popular.

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