The Shoeleather History Project

Stories from Hartford's Grassroots

“It is a Subterranean Fire”

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The police wagon, pulled by two large, galloping horses, thundered toward the rioting protesters. Its target was a group of socialists and anarchists– “red ruffians” who railed against big business and government-sanctioned violence. A number of them were dragged into the coach and taken to jail.

It was Wednesday, December 6, 1893. For twenty-five cents, Hartford residents could watch the whole spectacle on the stage of Proctor’s Opera House. “The Police Patrol” was actually a live action theater performance that purported to be a “realistic” recreation of

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On stage at Proctor’s Opera House, 937 Main Street

Chicago’s infamous Haymarket Square riot on May 4, 1886– a pivotal labor incident that riveted the nation’s attention for years to come. The two police horses featured in the Hartford production were even said to be the same ones on duty at the Haymarket Square on the night of May 4th.

The Haymarket Affair

Beginning May 1, 1886, striking workers at the McCormick Harvesting Company of Chicago faced an onslaught of violence from police and Pinkertons. The McCormick strikers were demanding the eight-hour day with no pay cut. Similar “eight-hour” strikes were taking place in manufacturing centers around the country.

Haymarket Square was chosen as the site for a mass protest against the assaults on the McCormick farm implement workers. On May 4th, the square filled with men, women, and children protesting the police violence

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The accused

A homemade bomb exploded toward the end of the rally, which up until then had been angry but peaceful. Many participants and police were killed or wounded by the blast and by random police gunfire.

Eight men were charged with conspiring to set off the bomb. After a sensational and highly prejudicial trial, four of them were sentenced to death by hanging. One committed suicide in jail; three others were given life imprisonment.

Albert and Lucy

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Albert Parsons

Albert Parsons was one of those who met the hangman’s noose on November 11,1887. His wife Lucy Parsons spent months traveling, speaking, and building public support to stop the judicial murders. Parsons was a feminist and labor organizer in her own right, who would later help found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) in 1905.

In New Haven, Parsons spoke to an enthusiastic working class crowd on October 30, 1886. Several hundred admirers came to see her; so did undercover police.To her detractors, Lucy Parsons declared: “You may have expected me to belch forth great flames of dynamite and stand before you with bombs in my hands. If you are disappointed, you have only the capitalist press to thank for it.”

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Lucy Parsons

On that same tour Parsons spoke to an even bigger crowd in Bridgeport. According to historian Carolyn Asbaugh’s biography, Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary, she was thrilled by the eagerness of the audience to learn about anarchism. “My trip is having its effect,” she wrote Albert. “The powers that be don’t know what to do with me. One New York paper suggests that Albert Parsons “be let out as a compromise to get Mrs. Parsons to stop talking.’”

During her speaking tour, Lucy Parsons sold literature to help defray her

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The August Spies book

living expenses. A few months after her New Haven appearance, Parsons was selling a pamphlet that contained the courtroom speech by August Spies, one of Albert Parsons’ co-defendants.

A copy of the August Spies publication surfaced– with “Lucy E. Parsons” stamped on the cover– at Wesleyan University some one hundred years after its publication.

Controlling the Narrative

Across the country, politicians, newspaper editors, and clergymen used Haymarket to condemn anarchists, socialists, unions, and striking workers by labeling all such adherents as terrorists. The word became a catch-all, applied to a wide range of undesirables. It was interchangeable with “scoundrels,” “red-flag gangs” and “un- Americanized outlaws.”

After the Haymarket incident, many newspapers called for swift retribution; the Boston Herald wrote that anarchists should be met with “hot lead and cold steel.” Others suggested “Gatling guns and the hangman’s noose.”

The Meriden Republican published an interview with a local anarchist who claimed a community of sixty others; they met in New Haven where the New England Anzeiger, a German-language weekly, was published. In fact, there were a number of self-identified anarchist communities in Hartford, New Britain and other Connecticut cities.

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Illustration by Ricardo Levins Morales  rlmartstudio.com

Professor Graham Taylor was pastor of the Fourth Congregational Church (later known as the Horace Bushnell Church and today as Liberty Congregational) and then as head of the Hartford Seminary. Taylor saw himself as a “pastoral sociologist,” more enlightened than many of his brethren.

Professor Taylor blamed the spread of radical influences on the large number of “Italians and Bohemians” who lived in the big cities.

While in Chicago on another matter, Taylor witnessed a planning meeting for the annual Haymarket memorial. He contrasted it to the “stanch common sense and conservation” of traditional trade unions.

Taylor urged assimilation and patriotism to cure the “dangerous” communities of immigrants. He also boosted the National Civic Federation, a big-business front for labor/management cooperation.

May Day

Pessimists pronounced Haymarket as a major setback for the labor movement. They proclaimed that the eight-hour movement was lost. Hartford workers didn’t see it that way.

For the next decade, May 1st was the day local carpenters, painters, sheet metal workers and carriage makers organized, struck, and frequently won their demand for eight hours.

One of the most persistent and creative groups who took May Day as their own were the Jewish bakers from Hartford’s east side. May 1st was their deadline for shorter hours and a wide range of other changes, including a demand to provide part-time work for their unemployed members.

During one of their many strikes, they purchased supplies in New Britain, baked bread on their own, and sold it from pushcarts on Front Street and Windsor Street. It was a popular item; they won their demands.

Although Hartford’s skilled building tradesmen were the most organized and often led the way with the eight-hour demand, other workers were inspired by May Day as well.

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Hartford newsies; newspaper bag at right shows the New York Evening Journal

Local cigar makers, hod carriers and vaudeville theater stagehands began or ended their strikes on May 1st. In 1909, over 200 newsboys with their own drum corps marched through Hartford streets carrying signs and waving flags. They were protesting the refusal of newspaper distributors to accept their unsold copies of two New York dailies. The boys urged customers to support their cause by only buying Hartford papers.

The “Terrific Struggle” on Stage

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Governor Altgeld

In June 1893, Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the three remaining Haymarket prisoners who had been given prison sentences. Altgeld was a Civil War veteran whose political career included passing laws against child labor and dangerous workplaces.

His justification for the pardons skillfully dismantled the legal travesty that had convicted the men: an incompetent jury, a biased judge, and a lack of credible evidence.

Just five months after Altgeld’s pardons, the police wagon took to the Hartford stage, reinforcing the myth of heroic law enforcement in a pitched battle with wild-eyed extremists. “Strong climaxes and sensational incidents mark the progress of the play,” local theater-goers were assured.

Proctor’s Opera House promised the play would be “positively the grandest production of the age.”

The Haymarket martyrs’ sacrifice became a militant and inspirational rallying cry for workers across the centuries and throughout the world. As August Spies declared before his execution:

“If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement … then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark… and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2018 by in Hartford.

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