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[Detail] The anarchist riot in Chicago

The McCormick Riot

On Monday, May 3, 1886, the first workday after the national eight-hour strike, a riot broke out at a labor protest held outside of Chicago's McCormick Reaper Works, in which police shot and killed six workers. Act II: Let Your Tragedy Be Enacted Here in the Special Presentation, The Dramas of Haymarket, summarizes the riot.

It explains that while the striking workers of McCormick's factory had assembled outside the Reaper Works to heckle the non-union workers or "scabs" brought in to replace them, a second meeting of the Lumber Shovers' Union had assembled a few miles away on Black Road. The manager of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, August Spies, was addressing the lumber workers, when a portion of his audience broke away to join the striking McCormick workers. It was not long before Spies heard shots being fired in the vicinity of McCormick's factory and rallied some of his audience to join him in investigating the disturbance.

According to Spies' account of the riot, an article called "Blood," published the next day in the Arbeiter-Zeitung, soon after he heard the first shots, ". . . about 75 well fed, large and strong murderers, under the command of a fat police lieutenant, were marching towards the factory, and on their heels followed three patrol wagons besides, full of law an order beasts. 200 policemen were on the spot in less than 10 or 15 minutes, and the firing on fleeing workmen and women resembled a promiscuous bush-hunt." Spies continues, describing the arrival of the lumber workers:

"It was in the neighborhood of half past three o'clock when the little crowd of between two and three hundred men reached McCormick's factory. Policeman West tried to hold them back with his revolver. A shower of stones for an answer put him to flight. He was so roughly handled that he was afterwards found about one hundred paces from the place, half dead and groaning fearfully. The small crowd shouted: 'Get out you D-----d scab, you miserable traitors,' and bombarded the factory windows with stones. The little guard house was demolished. The 'Scabs' were in mortal terror, when at this moment the Hinman street patrol wagon, summoned by telephone, came rattling along with thirteen murderers, when they were about to make an immediate attack with their clubs, they were received with a shower of stones. 'Back, disperse,' cried the lieutenant, and the next minute there was a report.

The gang had fired on the strikers. They pretend subsequently that they shot over their heads. But be that as it may, a (few of the strikers had little snappers of revolvers, and with these returned the fire. In the meantime other detachments had arrived, and the whole band of murderers now opened fire on the little company - 20,000, as estimated by the police organ, The Herald, while the whole assembly scarcely numbered 8,000."

People's Exhibit 63, Arbeiter-Zeitung (Newspaper), "Blood," 1886 May 4 (page 5).

Search on McCormick for a variety of materials about the incident.

  • What, according to The Dramas of Haymarket, are the basic facts about the McCormick riot? What were the actions of the striking McCormick workers, Spies, and the police?
  • Compare Spies' report with Lieutenant West's testimony about the riot given during the Haymarket trial.
  • What are the major discrepancies between Spies' and West's accounts of the riot?
  • To whom did Spies and West each attribute the first shots that were fired?
  • Whom does each hold accountable for the riot?
  • What should a reader take into account in judging the truth of each of these reports?
  • What viewpoints are represented in the illustration of the riot?

According to Spies' report, Cyrus McCormick, owner of the Reaper Works commented, "August Spies made a speech to a few thousand anarchists It occurred to one of these 'brilliant heads' to frighten our men away. He put himself at the head of a crowd, which then made an attack upon our works. Our workmen fled, and in the meantime the police came and sent a lot of anarchists away with bleeding heads."

  • According to this statement, whom does Cyrus McCormick hold responsible for the violence at his factory?

After the riot, Spies went to the Arbeiter-Zeitung office and wrote a reaction to the day's events, which he entitled "Workingmen to Arms!" It was published in his report, "Blood," the next day, and distributed as a broadside with the additional title, "REVENGE!" added by the typesetter without Spies' knowledge. That same evening, several anarchist leaders meeting at Grief's Hall decided to protest the police's violence in a meeting the next evening near Haymarket Square on Randolph Street.

A search on McCormick or revenge circular provides many transcripts of testimony provided during the Haymarket trial. Use the "find" or "search" option in your browser's Edit menu to locate the portions of testimony dedicated to these topics. Analyze testimony by August Spies and some of the witnesses called on behalf of the prosecution.

  • What does this testimony indicate about how the prosecution used the McCormick riot and the "revenge circular" to make their argument against the defendants?
  • How did the defense attempt to counter these aspects of the prosecution's argument?
  • How did the prosecution use the anarchists' meeting at Grief's Hall to make their case against the defendants?