The following is a guest post from David Fernández-Barrial, foreign-language librarian at the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and a union steward for the Library of Congress Professional Guild, AFSCME Local 2910.
130 years ago this month, workers on the streets of Chicago may have seen one of two versions of a large, bilingual handbill announcing a meeting that evening in a popular city square. Few who saw the original handbills in English and German could have imagined the singular chain of events that they would set in motion and which would forever change the direction of American labor history.
Last month, two of the original handbills were located in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. (As a librarian, I feel uncomfortable with the word “rediscovered”; it was due to the work of countless technicians, catalogers, conservators and librarians who were our forebearers at the Library that incredible items like these exist in our collections to be “found”.)
The Haymarket handbills, as artifacts from a unique moment in American history, directly point to a controversial legacy of social unrest and political violence that we are still coming to grips with in our own day. In the two versions of the handbills, there is an important variance in the wording: one that would have dire consequences for those at the center of the story.
On the day the handbills were printed, May 4th, 1886, the atmosphere in the city of Chicago was tense. There had been talk of potential violence on May 1st, when demonstrations and strikes in support of the 8-hour workday were occurring across the country. In Chicago alone, 80,000 people marched peacefully in support of this humane demand. Yet the day before the handbills were printed, outside the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, a demonstration turned violent and workers were clubbed and shot at; two workers died.
The editor of Chicago’s German-language anarchist labor daily, the Arbeiter-Zeitung, a man by the name of August Spies (pronounced “speez”), a journalist, labor organizer and orator, was in the crowd and witnessed the indiscriminate violence. Spies was so horrified by what he saw that he arranged for the printing of the handbills and the organization of a public meeting in the Haymarket.
His young typographer at the newspaper, Adolph Fischer, started printing the handbills. But Fischer, an activist and organizer himself, outraged by the Reaper Works violence, had inserted the line “Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!”
Spies believed that such a line would only inflame passions and bring retaliation from the police, so he instructed Fischer to remove it from the handbills. And they were, in fact, removed from the copies of the handbill printed and distributed all over Chicago later that day. Nevertheless, the initial version of the handbill had been printed with the line, and remained in the wastebaskets of the newspaper offices.
That night, close to 3,000 people heeded the call to attend the meeting in the Haymarket Square.
The rest of the story became a defining moment in American labor history: the meeting was peaceful, until the very end, when more than 170 police officers entered the square ordering the crowd to disperse. In response, a bomb was thrown from the crowd, which exploded, killing one police officer. The police opened fire into the crowd and a riot ensued. The next day, eight labor activists were arrested, copies of the handbill retrieved, and after a sensationalist trial, four of the accused were eventually convicted and executed for murder – including August Spies and Adolph Fischer.
The consensus today among historians is that the men were in no way involved in the bombing; that they were convicted solely on the basis of their political beliefs and labor activism by an 1880s judicial system rife with abuse. The political theory of anarchism, which advocated for the elimination of government and the establishment of a cooperative commonwealth based on mutual aid, became equated with random violence. The rights of free speech, free assembly and due process (which we cherish today) were trampled upon wholesale. The trial of the Haymarket Anarchists made headlines globally and became the origin of May Day, the international day of labor commemorated around the world.
The Haymarket Handbills in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library are two originals printed that day. In addition, the handbill with the added “Workingmen Arm Yourselves” line was one used as evidence at the trial – and is only one of three copies in existence. They are priceless pieces of Americana and some of the most important pieces of paper in American labor history. The handbills show how printed pieces of paper, with the power to mobilize thousands of people and alter history, can be more potent than dynamite.
(If you are interested in the events surrounding the authorship of these handbills, take a look at this resource prepared by the Library’s Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/haymarket.html which contains fascinating links to facsimiles of articles printed in American newspapers reporting the events of the Haymarket Square as well as the subsequent trial and executions of the Chicago Anarchists).