May Day wreath | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Greek May Day wreath. Photo: Greek Reporter

May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more. In Greece, it is celebrated as a workers’ strike. So, naturally, everyone goes to the countryside and… erm… makes themselves a May wreath to hang on their doors.

It is just as confusing a holiday in the States, as Natalie Zarrelli of Atlas Obscura reminds us. For many, it celebrates the ancient Celtic day of flowers and rebirth, with laughing children dancing around the maypole. But May Day also has a revolutionary past. The International Workers’ Day of May Day, the holiday’s full name, originated in the United States in 1886 as a radical response to abusive employers, for something many people take for granted today: the eight-hour workday.

A Nineteenth-Century Affair

Nineteenth-century employment conditions were harsh: workers often performed dangerous tasks while under-fed and under-slept, working from 10-16 hours per day, seven days a week. Many died due to accidents. The working class, disenchanted by a capitalist system that only benefited their bosses, flirted with socialism. Socialist groups formed; anarchist groups followed in response to socialists’ bureaucracy, calling for the end of all hierarchal structures so workers could fully control their own conditions. Socialist and anarchist workers, with their intense involvement, swelled the worker’s unions.

In 1886, one anarchist paper printed:

Workingmen to Arms!
War to the Palace, Peace to the Cottage, and Death to LUXURIOUS IDLENESS.
The wage system is the only cause of the World’s misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or DIE.
One pound of DYNAMITE is better than a bushel of BALLOTS!
MAKE YOUR DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOURS with weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds, police, and militia in proper manner.

The Haymarket Affair

It is in this volatile political climate that workers planned to organize a strike; what wasn’t planned was how many people would join. In 1886 on the first May Day, 300,000 workers left their jobs across the country—and the demonstrations became violent. Around 40,000 people in Chicago gathered to make speeches. As the picketing continued, so did the tension. Families and children gathered at Haymarket Square for a smaller, 3,000-person talk on May 3rd, to address police brutality and the eight-hour-day. The crowd dwindled, according to Time, to only a few hundred—the Mayor even left and “went to bed”.

At about 10:30 pm, the British socialist Samuel Fielden, delivered a final ten-minute address. Just as he was finishing his speech, police arrived en masse, marching in formation towards the speakers’ wagon, and ordered the rally to disperse. Fielden insisted that the meeting was peaceful.

Suddenly, someone threw a bomb, killing policeman Mathias J. Degan with flying metal fragments and mortally wounding six other officers.

Haymarket Massacre | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Etching of the Haymarket Affair (Wikimedia, via Atlas Obscura)

Immediately after the bomb blast, gunshots were exchanged between police and demonstrators. Accounts vary widely as to who fired first and whether any of the crowd fired at the police. Historian Paul Avrich maintains that the police fired on the fleeing demonstrators, reloaded and then fired again, killing four and wounding as many as 70 people. An anonymous police official told the Chicago Tribune:

A very large number of the police were wounded by each other’s revolvers. … It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.

In all, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed. Another policeman died two years after the incident from complications related to injuries received on that day. About 60 policemen were wounded in the incident. They were carried, along with some other wounded people, into a nearby police station. Police captain Michael Schaack later admitted that the number of wounded workers was “largely in excess of that on the side of the police”. The Chicago Herald described a scene of “wild carnage” and estimated at least fifty dead or wounded civilians lay in the streets. It is unclear how many civilians were wounded since many were afraid to seek medical attention, fearing arrest.

A harsh anti-union clampdown followed the Haymarket incident. Anarchism became synonymous with bomb throwing and socialism became un-American. The entire labor and immigrant community, particularly Germans and Bohemians, came under suspicion. Casting legal requirements such as search warrants aside, Chicago police squads subjected the labor activists of Chicago to an eight-week shakedown, ransacking their meeting halls and places of business. Newspaper reports declared that anarchist agitators were to blame for the “riot”, a view adopted by an alarmed public. Many workers, on the other hand, believed that men of the Pinkerton agency were responsible because of the agency’s tactic of secretly infiltrating labor groups and its sometimes violent methods of strike breaking. However, this contradicts the statements of several activists who said the bomber was one of their own.

The Trial

Eight prominent anarchists were arrested. In the ensuing trial, the prosecution argued that one of the defendants may have built the bomb, even though none of those on trial had thrown it; indeed, only two were at Haymarket Square. The trial was conducted in an atmosphere of extreme prejudice by both public and media toward the defendants. It was presided over by Judge Joseph Gary, who displayed open hostility to the defendants, consistently ruled for the prosecution, and failed to maintain decorum. Selection of the jury was extraordinarily difficult, lasting three weeks, and nearly one thousand people called. All union members and anyone who expressed sympathy toward socialism were dismissed. In the end, a jury of 12 was seated, most of whom confessed prejudice towards the defendants.

So, no one was surprised when the jury returned guilty verdicts for all eight defendants. Seven were sentenced to death and one to a term of 15 years in prison. The sentencing provoked outrage from labor and workers’ movements and their supporters, resulting in protests around the world, and elevating the defendants to the status of martyrs, especially abroad. Portrayals of anarchists as bloodthirsty foreign fanatics in the press, on the other hand, inspired widespread public fear and revulsion against the strikers and general anti-immigrant feeling, polarizing public opinion. Notwithstanding the convictions for conspiracy, no actual bomber was ever brought to trial, and no lawyerly explanation could ever make a conspiracy trial without the main perpetrator in the conspiracy seem completely legitimate.

The death sentences of two of the defendants were commuted by Illinois governor Oglesby to life in prison, and another committed suicide in jail rather than face the gallows. The other four were hanged on November 11, 1887. In 1893, Illinois’ new governor Altgeld pardoned the remaining defendants and criticized the trial.

The site of the incident was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1992 and a public sculpture was dedicated there in 2004. In addition, the Haymarket Martyrs’ Memorial at the defendants’ burial site in nearby Forest Park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

The Aftermath

Despite the polarizing political climate, popular pressure continued for the establishment of the 8-hour day. At the convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1888, the union decided to campaign for the shorter workday again. May 1, 1890, was agreed upon as the date on which workers would strike for an eight-hour work day and the first international May Day was a spectacular success. The front page of the New York World on May 2, 1890, was devoted to coverage of the event. Demonstrations took place in two dozen European cities and rallies were held in Cuba, Peru, and Chile. Commemoration of May Day became an annual event the following year.

Despite all this, the States have ever since had a mixed reaction to May Day’s political meaning, with the left celebrating it as a rightful strive for workers’ rights. In response, as the Cold War was getting started, Eisenhower declared in 1958 May 1st as “Law and Order Day” to celebrate laws made to ensure freedom. Every year since then, American presidents have declared May 1st a holiday.