Library of Congress

Teachers

The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Chicago Anarchists on Trial

[Detail] The anarchist riot in Chicago

The Trial: State of Illinois v. August Spies, et al.

The explosion of the bomb near Haymarket Square reverberated throughout the nation. Along with foreign agitators, the Knights of Labor union was blamed for the bombing. Members of the executive board of the Knights of Labor in Milwaukee were arrested for conspiracy, as were members in Pittsburgh and New York.

In Chicago, police conducted searches and raids without warrants, arresting scores of labor organizers. A grand jury indicted nine of them — August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Rudolph Schnaubelt — for the murder of Officer Matthias J. Degan. The indictment named Schnaubelt as the bomb-thrower, but he evaded arrest and the police never actually proved who threw the bomb. Albert Parsons also escaped arrest but eventually turned himself in, unable to live at liberty while his associates were facing trial and probable conviction.

  • According to Act III: Toils of the Law of the Special Presentation, The Dramas of Haymarket, what role did Chicago's prominent businessmen play in the city's response to the riot?
  • Why do you think the public allowed the police to make such widespread arrests and to do so without any warrants?
  • What do the arrests made throughout the nation in response to the bombing at Haymarket Square suggest about labor strife?

Chicago labor radicals arranged for the anarchists' legal defense, led by William P. Black, an accomplished attorney and highly decorated Civil War veteran. Because of the publicity and passion surrounding the case, the defense and prosecution agreed upon the appointment of a special bailiff, Henry Ryce, to select a pool (or venires) of jurors. Search on jury for a number of materials including the court's discussion regarding Ryce's appointment.

Unfortunately, Ryce selected potential jurors based on recommendations of business managers and company supervisors, amounting to a conspiracy against the defense. Judge Joseph Gary refused to dismiss these obviously biased jurors, forcing the defense to exhaust all of its 160 peremptory challenges and still face a jury comprised largely of middle-class, native-born salesmen, small businessmen, and clerks. Read the oral arguments presented by defense attorney Black before the Illinois Supreme Court regarding this jury selection. Search on examination to read transcripts of the questioning of the potential jurors, called the voir dire, which consumed over twenty-one days of the fifty-four-day trial.

  • What was the nature of the questioning of jurors?
  • How many jurors were familiar with the case?
  • How many had formed opinions prior to being selected as jurors?
  • What attempts did defense attorneys make to remove jurors for cause?

The state's case and the defense's response are summarized in Act III: Toils of the Law of the Special Presentation, The Dramas of Haymarket. The defense thwarted the prosecution's attempts to link Spies and Schnaubelt to the bomb directly and State's Attorney Julius Grinnell proceeded to argue that the defendants were responsible for the explosion anyway. He presented the theory of an elaborate conspiracy through which the defendants, in the days, weeks, months, and even years leading up to the Haymarket riot, incited the bombing. A discussion by the court regarding the admission of certain evidence articulates the prosecution's claims of conspiracy as well as the defense's arguments against the charge. Judge Gary articulated the state's position that:

"If there was a general combination and agreement among a great number of individuals to kill policemen if they came in conflict with the parties who they were the friends of — meetings of workingmen and strikers — if there was a combination and agreement to kill the police if they were attempting to preserve the peace—if there was such a combination and agreement among a great number of men, the object of which was something beyond mere local disturbance, it don't make any difference whether their object was to create a new form of civil society or not — if there was this combination and agreement among a great number of people, and preperation for it, to assault and kill the police upon some occasion which might occur in the future, and whether the proper occasion had occurred was left to the parties who used the violence at that time, and then that violence was used and resulted in the death of the police, everybody who is a party to that combination and agreement is guilty of the results."

Illinois vs. August Spies et al. trial transcript. Volume I [Witnesses for the State, July 16-21, 1886]. Court discussion regarding the defense's objection to the admission of certain pieces of evidence, 1886 July 16 (page 93)

  • Upon what events and evidence did the prosecution draw to present its charge of conspiracy?
  • How convincing do you find the prosecution's argument of conspiracy and culpability?

Defense attorney Black and his team refuted the charges of murder and conspiracy based the state's inability to identify the bomb-thrower and thus connect the defendants directly with the bomb and the murder of Degan. He argued that the defendants' actions were inconsistent with the conspiracy charged against them and laid the blame for the riot on Inspector Bonfield. Black took his defense to its logical conclusion in a statement to the Supreme Court of Illinois:

"It is argued by the gentlemen upon the other side that the testimony in this record shows a universal conspiracy against the established order of society, The International. They are compelled logically, in supporting the position for which they contend, to go to the length which they have stated before your Honors (but I venture to say it is a proposition which never before found enunciation in a court) that every man throughout the world who is touched with this great discontent of labor, and has joined the International in its efforts to produce a change in existing social conditions, is guilty of this murder which was on trial last summer in Cook County. That is their position. That is the ground they have taken."

August Spies et. al., plaintiffs in error vs. the people of the state of Illinois, defendants in error. Error to the Criminal Court of Cook County : indictment for murder, oral argument of W. P. Black for plaintiffs in error (page 12).

Use the Transcripts and Exhibits Index to examine evidence and testimony used in the trial, such as an article in The Alarm providing instructions on the use and operations of dynamite, a photograph of a bomb, the testimony of William Seliger regarding bomb construction, and the defense's attempts to discredit this witness and question his motives for testifying . Search on Alarm for radical newspaper articles, commentaries, and advertisements that were entered as evidence against all defendants and especially Albert Parsons, who was editor of The Alarm, an English language anarchist paper.

  • Why was William Seliger called to testify?
  • How did the defense attempt to discredit the witness?
  • Why did Judge Gary rule against the defense?
  • What arguments did Fielden, Schwab, Spies, and Parsons present in their testimony?
  • What do you think was the purpose of this testimony?
  • What reasons might the prosecution have had for entering so many articles from the Arbeiter-Zeitung and The Alarm into evidence?

Use the Subject Index heading, Criminal courts - Illinois - Chicago to access Judge Gary's instructions to the jury in reaching a verdict, and the jury's verdict of guilty, condemning Neebe to 15 years of hard labor and the rest of the defendants to execution by hanging.

Top