Corruption and Scandals during the Gilded Age

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Updated: Jun 21, 2022
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During the 1870s to the 1900s there was a period of United States history known as the Gilded Age. As Mark Twain described, “glittering on the surface, but corrupt underneath.” The Gilded Age is known for the great amount of corruption and scandals that happened throughout these years. Among these countless scandals, the Haymarket Affair was a very prominent and horrid atrocity. The Haymarket Affair, also known as the Haymarket Riot, was regarded as a setback for organized labor movements that were passionately fighting for workers rights.

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The Gilded Age included the speedy increase of industrial corporations in the United States. This increase also indicated the need for many more workers, including immigrants. The rapid expansion of corporations, the increase of jobs, and the increase of immigrants led to the mistreatment of workers. This mistreatment led to the development of labor unions. Labor unions were needed to help regulate how many hours employees could work in a day, the age children could start working, and other vital workers rights. Thus, began the fight for workers rights.

The Federation of Trade and Labor Unions held a convention in 1884 that decided that on May 1, 1886, they would hold a strike for the eight hour work day. On May 1, 1886, at least 300,00 workers across the United States went on strike. A couple days later, on May 3, workers of McCormick Harvesting Machine Company went to their plant to confront the people who were not striking with them, but there were also police officers protecting the people at the plant. The striking workers wanted to confront the strikebreakers by surging at them at the end of their workday. By acting on this aggression, the workers on strike were fired at by the police and two were killed.(2) Because of this police violence to end the eight hour work day movement, strikers printed fliers to set up a rally the very next day. So, on May 4th there would be a rally held in Haymarket Square which was a very busy and bustling area of the time.

The rally began on May 4th, located in Haymarket Square with August Spies, Albert Parsons, and Samuel Fielden delivering speeches for the audience. According to historian Paul Avrich, Spies stated, “The object of this meeting is to explain the general situation of the eight-hour movement and to throw light upon various incidents in connection with it.” The rally continues with Albert Parsons and then moves on to Samuel Fieldens speech which was much more aggressive. As Parsons speech ended police disrupted the meeting commanding the strikers to disband and end the rally. As this was happening a bomb was thrown into the path of the policemen. Witnesses stated that immediately after the bomb went off, gunshots were heard and the police started firing at the crowd. It is not known whether the police or the gathered shot first. Historian Paul Avrich states that “ the police fired on the fleeing demonstrators, reloaded, and then fired again, killing four and wounding as many as 70 people.” This number of casualties should not have happened over a rally. A rally that was for people expressing and explaining what they believed in and what they were fighting for. Inspector Bonfield , who had to file a report on the incident, wrote that he ‘gave the order to cease firing, fearing that some of our men, in the darkness might fire into each other.’ And according to an anonymous police official, it was “every man for himself” that night. Because of this awful event, the labor unions were setback and frowned upon. Over the next year or so they lost over 50% of their members. After this incident there was major anti-union sentiment. Communities and businesses were mostly in support of the police and large amounts of money was donated to help with medical assistance for the efforts the police made that day. Newspapers started spreading the occurrences of what happened that day and who may have been involved in the act, saying that a group of anarchist created bombs that looked exactly like the one used in the Haymarket Bombing and newspapers started reporting that the anarchists were to blame and so the investigation of this horrific event began. (3)

The investigation begins with the police assuming an anarchist had thrown the bomb, and all the police needed to do was to prove that it was true. On May 5th, police arrested August Spies and others he worked alongside. At the Arbeiter-Zeitung, police found a “Revenge Poster” and other evidence that was very incriminating. A few days later on May 7th, police searched the living space of Louis Lingg where they found a number of bombs and bomb-making materials. Lingg’s landlord William Seliger was also arrested but because he cooperated with police and identified Lingg as a bomb maker he was not charged.. An associate of Spies, Balthazar Rau, suspected as the bomber, was located in Omaha and brought back to Chicago for the investigation. After interrogation, Rau offered to cooperate with police. Rau stated that speakers from the rally and the fliers published within their papers what he said was a code word, “Ruhe”(peace), as a call to arms to Haymarket square for the rally. The trial soon began, but there was a lot of bias among the jurors so, there was a continuous cycle of dismissing them so that there was not prejudice within the court and the trial. In the end, the eight people that were associated with this bombing were all convicted guilty for the bombing by the jurors. (5)Because of this whole event, amongst the people there was widespread revulsion at strikers and labor unions, basically inciting how much public opinion matters.

This event had many effects on the labor movement and the future. Historian Nathan Fine points out the positive of what happens in that next year by stating, “The fact is that despite police repression, newspaper incitement to hysteria, and organization of the possessing classes, which followed the throwing of the bomb on May 4, the Chicago wage earners only united their forces and stiffened their resistance. The conservative and radical central bodies – there were two each of the trade unions and two also of the Knights of Labor — the socialists and the anarchists, the single taxers and the reformers, the native born…and the foreign born Germans, Bohemians, and Scandinavians, all got together for the first time on the political field in the summer following the Haymarket affair…. The Knights of Labor doubled its membership, reaching 40,000 in the fall of 1886. On Labor Day the number of Chicago workers in parade led the country.” Fine points out the good aspect and what ended up mattering in the long run. The labor unions were still fighting for the eight hour workday but they were doing it together and a more civilized way than the anarchists had before. On May 1, 1890 the eight hour work day was finally adopted because of the demand by workers everywhere, it is said that the eight hour workday was also adopted in recognition and honor of those who died or were injured during the Haymarket Riot.

The Haymarket Riot is an event that was crucial to labor unions and workers from the past and the present. It established what is now the eight hour workday and other benefits companies and organizations are required to have. This was one of the many events that shaped the United States into what it is today. The United States still needs some improvements in policy, but because of those who advocated for workers rights, and other significant rights within this nation, the people of today are able to work, including women. Not only are people able to work, but there is an age restriction and benefit policies that would have ceased to exist if not for those who passionately fought for what was right and necessary.

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Corruption And Scandals During The Gilded Age. (2022, Jun 21). Retrieved from