The Origin of International Workers’ Day
May first is often called May Day for various reasons, but it is also International Workers’ Day. The date chosen is in commemoration of the Chicago Haymarket Massacre, an incident which began with a labor demonstration on May 1, 1886 in which 35,000 workers walked off their jobs to demand an eight-hour workday. Escalating tensions led to clashes with police, and on May fourth, someone threw a firebomb that led to a gunfight. Eight police officers and an undetermined number of civilians were killed.
Police arrested hundreds of people, but never determined the identity of the bomb thrower. Amidst public clamor for revenge, however, eight anarchists, including prominent speakers and writers, were tried for murder. The partisan Judge Joseph E. Gary conducted the trial, and all 12 jurors acknowledged prejudice against the defendants. Lacking credible evidence that the defendants threw the bomb or organized the bomb throwing, prosecutors focused on their writings and speeches. The jury, instructed to adopt a conspiracy theory without legal precedent, convicted all eight. Seven were sentenced to death. The trial is now considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history.
Many Americans were outraged at the verdicts, but legal appeals failed. Two death sentences were commuted, but on November 11, 1887, four defendants were hanged in the Cook County jail; one committed suicide. Hundreds of thousands turned out for the funeral procession of the five dead men. In 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld granted the three imprisoned defendants absolute pardon, citing the lack of evidence against them and the unfairness of the trial.