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Chapter 7: Labor’s Love Lost

There was no mistaking their gaze. It was the look of betrayal. Little did I know that by the end of the evening that followed, we would earn it.


Sunday, May 2nd, 1886: The second day of public demonstrations after labor organizers rallied workers of various local industries to take to the streets demanding an eight hour work day, higher wages, and an end to the practice of child labor. Chants of “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” echoed throughout the city. Some eighty thousand people were marching on May the first and thirty five thousand on the second. The rumblings of change were filling the air and that was making the wrong people nervous.

The department downtown was in total frenzy. Mayor Carter Harrison, who was known to be a friend of the unions and notably pro-labor, encouraged the Chicago PD to ensure that the demonstrations would run smoothly. However, what the mayor didn’t know was that many of the business owners were pressuring the department to put a stop to the marches and quickly. In a monied city like Chicago, authority doesn’t always come by mandate of the electoral will.

By May 3rd the true strength of influence within the business class won out. We were handed down the order to end these demonstrations, once and for all, by using any means necessary. Many of us sympathized with the demonstrators and, but for fear of the loss of essential employment, would have gladly walked beside them in solidarity. Others were not so sympathetic.

Tensions finally boiled over outside the McCormick Reaper Works where picketing workers were shouting down and attacking the scabs leaving the building and were met with the full might of the city’s police force led by Captain ‘Black Jack’ Bonfield. My squad moved down Blue Island while a second squad closed off Western Avenue boxing in the picketers. They had nowhere to go and that was just the way Bonfield wanted it. He ordered the men to attack the workers, some with our sticks while others began to fire into the crowd. Several men were injured and 2 were killed. This infuriated the workers and inspired the dreadful business at Haymarket the following night.

To this day, I’ll never forget their faces. Each of them with a look in their eyes that I just couldn’t shake. Kept me up all night trying to place it before it finally hit me. It wasn’t anger or hatred. There was no mistaking their gaze. It was the look of betrayal. Little did I know that by the end of the evening that followed, we would earn it.

May the fourth arrived hastily with both labor and industry moving their respective pieces on the board of the day. In a rage, the organizers petitioned the mayor for a meeting at 7:30 that evening in the Haymarket square which he promptly granted. Meanwhile, representatives of various business leaders within the community came by the PD to meet with department heads and hammer out a strategy to put an end to this ugly business. It was decided that Bonfield would take 176 policemen, armed with Winchester repeater rifles, down to the haymarket and force the crowd to disperse. A request that Bonfield was more than willing to oblige.

The meeting got off to a late start due to cancellations and a few last minute substitutions to the line up of speakers. The fellow Albert Parsons, known by reputation among law enforcement and working men alike to be an active agitator in the labor movement, was a last minute addition as was a Methodist preacher by the name of Samuel Fielden.   Instead of the twenty thousand that were expected, less than twenty five hundred arrived, which was a relief to those of us tasked with shutting it down. Twenty five hundred against a hundred seventy six was still nothing to laugh about. We would have to bide our time and wait for the right moment.

When Parsons and his wife left, the room seemed to leave with them. The crowd of 2500 trickled down to about 200 by the time the preacher Fielden began to speak. Bonfield, being sufficiently confident in the odds, gave the signal and we rushed in, surrounding the remaining demonstrators, our weapons raised and directed at a confused and now agitated crowd. Bonfield was preparing to give orders when the force of something hit me and I was thrown backward into a wall with such jolt that I briefly lost my vision. My ears were a deafening ring and my eyes began to fill with warm blood, presumably from a gash atop my head. Someone had thrown a bomb. I could barely make out the flash of the muzzles as fellow officers fired blindly into the dark chaotic mess. Soon I could hear the screams.

I felt a hand clutch my arm, pull me to my feet and offer a rag to wipe my face. It was one of our boys who had been injured in the gunfire. Dazed but determined, we stumbled away from the square and down the street. I never did get his name but I’ll not forget him. In total, 7 police officers died as a result of the Haymarket raid, only one attributed to the explosion, the rest falling victim to the chaotic post-blast gunfire. But what followed soon after would be far worse. My God, what had we done?

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