Chicago in the 1880s was a deadly place. In an era before modern medicine or sanitation, the large immigrant populations sustained themselves by working the most dangerous jobs. Workplace accidents were exceedingly common, and death at work a regular possibility. People started work young; wages were pitifully low, and hours brutally long. In no small part because of these conditions, the nascent philosophies of socialism, communism, and anarchism had begun to explode in popularity. The unions had become more and more radicalized, dominated by leftists. Riots, lockouts and police murders were near-daily affairs. Strikes and protest marches often turned violent, and the violence often turned deadly. Among the communists and anarchists, in particular, there was a widespread sentiment that violent revolution was the best path forward. In Chicago, the talk among the unions was of imminent uprising: a workers’ militia, one thousand strong, practiced regularly with rifles in the union halls and the forests, and the knowledge and materials for bomb-making were widely shared.
The labor struggles of the era were at their most intense in Chicago, where the anarchists were very popular and held considerable sway. They organized all sorts of union activities, and led strikes and marches for various labor causes. On May 1, 1886, the day of a massive general strike, the anarchists of Chicago marched with a crowd of some 80,000 people through the streets, demanding the right to an eight-hour workday. This had been the foremost demand of the labor movement in the previous years: eight hours’ work, eight hours’ sleep, and eight hours’ recreation. The socialists, communists, anarchists and liberals of Chicago—as much rivals as they were allies —were generally in agreement on this point. When the Chicago police killed two striking workers on May 3, the anarchists called for a rally at Haymarket Square the following day. Some advocated a peaceful protest against police brutality, while others circulated fliers that read “Revenge! Workingmen, to Arms!” The Haymarket rally, needless to say, descended into bloodshed. The police, disobeying the mayor’s orders, ordered the crowd in the drizzling rain to peaceably disperse. Samuel Fielden, a bearded anarchist who had nearly finished his speech about the recent police killings, replied:
“Why, captain, we are peaceable.”
At which point someone threw the bomb. One policeman was killed instantly, six died later, and another sixty were wounded but survived, many by the bullets of their own fellow officers: firing blindly into the crowd, they killed and wounded an untold number of protestors, too. The workers who had heeded the call to arms returned fire. The square was soon slippery with rain and blood, and crowded with the dead and wounded.
There was a predictable backlash against the unions and the radicals. The leftist factions splintered and turned against each other, and the liberals disavowed all radical politics, including the campaign for the eight-hour day. There were mass arrests, police raids on union halls—and finally, the arrests of the Haymarket Eight; all but one were immigrants, and all were leading figures in the anarchist labor movement and the campaign for the eight-hour day. It did not seem to matter that no one had seen them throw the bomb, or that all eight had legitimate alibis. They were found guilty, incredibly, of murder. The public, whipped into a frenzy by the newspapers and politicians and starving for a scapegoat, found the verdict cause for great celebration.
While three of the anarchists were eventually pardoned, five died for their radicalism. A year after the bombing, four were executed by hanging, two of whom cried out from the gallows: “Hurrah for anarchy!” The fifth smuggled a dynamite cap into his cell, which he placed in his mouth and lit like a cigar. Upon hearing the explosion, the guards rushed in to find a dreadful spectacle: Louis Lingg had pulverized most of his face below the cheekbones. Though dying, he was still breathing. For want of paper, he’d written on the floor in his own blood the same words his comrades cried from the gallows, albeit in his native German: “Hoch die Anarchie!”
Using the forerunner of the modern method of arterial embalming, an alcoholic Canadian (and Union Civil War veteran) named Felix Aloysius Sullivan embalmed the five bodies at the request of their families and unions. Sullivan was an embalmer of national repute—he’d embalmed Presidents Garfield and Grant before the Haymarket anarchists—and by all accounts, he did his job exceedingly well. He was especially praised for his reconstructive work on the “mad bomber” Lingg. The bodies were laid out and viewed by their friends, their families, and an unexpectedly large number of radicals, laborers, union members, and neighbors. The wakes were so crowded that each person had only a few moments at the casket. The lines stretched out the doors and down the streets. Thousands passed through, gazing on the cleaned and preserved corpses. An estimated 10,000 people viewed Albert Parsons’ body alone. Lingg and George Engels, laid out together in the parlor above Engels’ toy shop, were viewed by at least 6,000 people.
Embalming was relatively new in 1887. The butchery of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train had greatly increased its popularity, but it was far from a foregone conclusion that the dead anarchists be embalmed and publicly displayed. It was entirely possible that they be boxed and buried without a fuss, and disappear from public view. Instead, for the working poor of Chicago, they were centered in the public view. Their funerals became highly public events in which entire communities beheld the carnage wrought by the state.
The great success of embalming is that it mitigates natural post-mortem processes like discoloration, bloating, odor and leakage from the orifices, and restores a more lively color to the complexion of the deceased. In Lingg’s case, it restored the very structure of his face. In this post-embalming state, the deceased appears more lifelike than they would otherwise seem to be in death. This is especially important in cases of traumatic, violent, or unexpected death, when the moment the bereaved see the deceased in the casket is more often than not the moment of both crisis and catharsis. It is the moment things change, if they haven’t already, for those who have lost someone unexpectedly.
It would be pure speculation to say that every family member, neighbor, or laborer experienced this cathartic upheaval in their few moments at the anarchists’ open caskets. But what is certain is that public opinion about the Eight and the cause they had championed changed after their deaths. Just as Emmet Till’s open casket served as a pivotal moment in the early Civil Rights era, the bodies of the Haymarket activists brought on a sea change of public opinion. Till’s mother opted against post-mortem reconstructive work in order to put the gruesome spectacle of her son’s body on display, provoking, as intended, an immediate reaction of disgust and condemnation for those who had mangled a young boy. The Haymarket Eight, on the other hand, had been much maligned as dangerous extremists, unhinged agitators, foamy-mouthed immigrants who’d bomb anything they didn’t like. Embalmed, washed, dressed, and laid out in some semblance of peace and dignity, they must have seemed just the opposite of what they’d been portrayed as by the authorities and the media. Indeed, contemporary accounts suggest as much. Sullivan, in a practice now discouraged in the professional embalming world, had even put a faint smile on Parsons’ lips.
Their coffins were led to the cemetery by a funeral procession estimated at 20,000 mourners; as many as a quarter million sympathizers lined the streets, more than had attended Lincoln’s funeral procession in 1865. Gone was the rhetoric of “Hang ‘em and try ‘em afterward.” Now, the public began asking why these men had been killed. The answer, simply put, was because they had fought for the eight-hour day.
There had been a rich, active and international campaign for clemency before their executions; now it became an international campaign to make them figureheads of the movement for the eight-hour day. Already at their funerals, their likenesses had decorated the union halls the procession had passed. Soon, union halls and labor marches across Europe and America bore their images with near-unanimity; within a few years, a range of powerful organizations that were anything but anarchist, such as the American Federation of Labor and the Second International, were calling for the Martyrs’ explicit association with May 1 and the eight-hour day. The images of those who have lost their lives to injustice are a powerful thing, as evidenced, for example, by the modern practice of uplifting images of the Black and Brown victims of police violence. This practice, gazing on the deceased as they were while simultaneously affirming the reality of their deaths, whether in a picture or in a casket, can give social justice movements the impetus they need to persevere and hopefully, one day, triumph. The struggle for economic justice is far from won, but the five Chicago activists who died in 1887 would doubtless be pleased to learn that, on paper at least, the principle of eight hours’ work, eight hours’ sleep, and eight hours’ recreation is now law for most professions, embalmers included.
David Campbell is a writer/translator, funeral director/embalmer, and former antifascist political prisoner.