Haymarket Watch

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Myth #3 The Great March of the 80,000

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The May 4 bombing at the Haymarket was the culmination of a series of events that began with the May 1 general strike for the eight-hour day. One of the frequently repeated claims about the first May Day in Chicago is that it was kicked off by a massive march of 80,000 workers up Michigan Avenue. Here are a few variations of this claim.

Bill Ayers, the former leader of the Weather Underground and one of the activists allegedly involved in the bombing of the Haymarket policeman’s statue in 1968, writes in a book review from 2006:

The facts are clear: On May 1, 1886, 80,000 Chicago workers paraded down Michigan Avenue demanding an eight-hour work day for all wage-laborers. It was the opening salvo of a general strike organized by unionists and anarchists, socialists and revolutionaries, and it was largely successful.

Ayers is in plenty of company. The Illinois Labor History Society describes the first May Day with similar details:

Accordingly, great demonstrations took place on May 1 all across the country. Chicago’s was the biggest with an estimated 80,000 marching on Michigan Avenue, much to the alarm of Chicago’s business leaders and newspapers who saw it as foreshadowing “revolution,” and demanded a police crackdown.

This claimed march is most fully described in Paul Avrich’s award-winning 1984 book, The Haymarket Tragedy:

The most imposing demonstration was mounted by the IWPA and the Central Labor Union. In what was one of the earliest May Day parades, Parsons and his wife, accompanied by their two children, led 80,000 workers up Michigan Avenue, singing and marching arm in arm. On rooftops along the route policemen, Pinkertons, and deputized civilians crouched behind Winchester rifles, while out of sight in the city’s armories the militia stood by with Gatling guns awaiting orders. [Avrich, p. 186.]

The curiously precise number of 80,000 marchers that Avrich employs in this passage may have come from a passage in Carolyn Ashbaugh’s biography of Lucy Parsons, where she describes May 1 this way:

May First dawned bright and sunny in Chicago. The eight-hour fever, spring fever, and a holiday spirit mingled in the air. The city had been shut down by the workers, and the factories were empty. On Michigan Avenue nearly 80,000 people gathered for the great parade. Leading members of the Citizens’ Association watched throughout the day, wondering how they were going to save the city from communism. . . . Lucy and Albert Parsons led the thousands of singing demonstrators up Michigan Avenue. Lulu held her father’s hand, and Albert held his mother’s hand as they skipped along, filled with excitement. [Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary (Chicago: Kerr, 1976), p. 73.]

Ashbaugh provides no indication of her sources for this statement and, indeed, could not because all available evidence suggests that they do not exist.


All of Chicago’s daily newspapers reported in great detail on events of that Saturday, and reported that three processions took place that day. One was a march of lumber workers who proceeded down Blue Island avenue on the southwest side of the city, but did not approach the downtown. The second was composed of freight handlers who moved from depot to depot calling on workers to strike but never had more than a few thousand participants at its largest point and never set foot on Michigan Avenue. The third was a procession of furniture makers, not organized by the Central Labor Union (CLU) leadership, who went to “serenade” the downtown office of a manufacturer who had agreed to give his men ten hours pay for an eight hour work day. Only one of the marches was led by the CLU, the lumber shovers march, and it moved from Center Ave and 22nd street southwest toward McCormick’s reaper works, away from Michigan Avenue. Moreover at the time Avrich has him parading arm-in-arm with his children in Chicago, Parsons was, by his own account, on his way by train to Cincinnati where he was to give a talk the next day. [Chicago Times, May 2, 1886, pp. 5-6; Chicago Journal, May 1, 1886, p. 6; Chicago Mail, May 1, 1886, pp. 1-2; Chicago Interocean, May 3, 1886, p. 1 (a.m. edition); Chicago Herald, May 2, 1886, p. 1; Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1886, p. 9.]

It does appear that Parsons and the Central Labor Union were planning a “monster street parade” for Saturday, May 1, but never got it off the ground. The Alarm announced the preceding Saturday that there would be a massive eight hour demonstration that would assemble on Haymarket square and culminate in a march up Michigan avenue to the lake front, but there is no evidence that their plans were ever realized. Though Avrich does not cite this article to support his narrative, he may have mistaken the plans its describes for a reality that never occurred. [The Alarm, April, 24, 1886, p. 1.]

Henry David, whose book The Haymarket Affair is the seminal academic study of the case, fails to notice this supposed grand march of the 80,000. He notes that on that day there were strikes by “no less than 30,000 men,” and “perhaps twice that number were out on the streets participating in or witnessing the various demonstrations…” David does estimate that by the second week of May a total of “80,000 participants and strikers” were mobilized in Chicago, a larger number than in any other city, and perhaps this is the source of later scholar’s use of the precise number of 80,000 who took part in the phantom Michigan avenue march. (David, pp. 177, 188.)

Written by tmesser

January 4th, 2009 at 12:25 am

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