The Haymarket Affair

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
RWB Robert Marshall

Editor's Note:  I had recently learned, from Emertius Contributor Brian Pettice, that the lawyer who defended Alan Parsons and the other defendants was William Perkins Black.  He and his brother were the first pair of brothers to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Black: "Single-handedly confronted the enemy, firing a rifle at them and thus checking their advance within 100 yards of the lines."  He and his brother were also Illinois Freemasons, both being members of Olive Branch No. 38 in Danville, Illinois.  Remembering the Robert had shared this post with me at Kansas Masonic-Con, I had asked him if I could use his write up for the blog.  With his permission, I present the below. 

"When the halter was placed about his neck he never faltered. He stood erect, looking earnestly yet reproachfully at the people before him. The nooses were quickly adjusted, the caps pulled down, and a hasty movement made for the traps. Then from beneath the hoods came these words:

"Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak, Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the people be heard! O —" But the signal had been given, and the officers of the State performed their mission by strangling both speakers and speech."

Once upon a time, a sheriff executed a member of my Masonic Lodge for speaking out against flaws in the American way of life. Stop me if you've heard this story before but it might not be the one you think. This man was white. While he hung from the gallows, his black wife and children sat in a cold jail cell, stripped of their clothing, like animals in a barn stall. This was so they would not have a chance to say goodbye...

In the decades following the Civil War, America became the environment for a new kind of racial and class-based tension. As former slaves explored their newfound freedoms amid the Industrial Revolution that made the old slave-dependent economy obsolete, they became employees of companies with very little regulation. Children and adults were worked endlessly and in unbearable conditions. Chattel slavery gave way to industrial feudalism and many could hardly tell the difference.

Into this environment, new ideas entered American discourse. Industrial employees cried out for help from the government to intervene and prevent millionaires from exploiting the rest of society. The Workingmen's Party took shape. Most of its leaders were German-speaking immigrants but one of them was a well-dressed white man from Waco who resettled in Chicago after his politics and his wife's mere existence made him an unpopular figure in Texas. He was Albert Parsons, a champion of the working class and a voice for the oppressed. It was that voice that got him hanged. How could a white man get executed for giving a speech in the land of the free? By marrying a black woman and campaigning for the rights of the working class. As a 13 year old boy, Albert was enlisted in his older brother's confederate brigade against his will. After the War, he embraced the goals of Reconstruction. He became a Freemason at Waco Lodge, condemned slavery, and: "...of course, had to go into politics and incurred thereby the hate and contumely of many of my former (Confederate) army comrades, neighbors, and the Ku Klux Klan."

The Workers' Rights movement declared May 1,1886 to be a day of protest, the very first May Day. Albert Parsons, with his wife and two children, marched up Michigan Avenue through Chicago with 80,000 people to demonstrate the will of a people no longer willing to live in a society based on the oppression of minorities and the poor. It was a day of triumph and a day of celebration for the rights of the people. Two days later, all Hell broke loose.

It started when union strikers at a factory clashed with strike-breakers. The police fired into the crowd and killed at least two people. Leaders of the labor movement were incensed that the officers had fired on unarmed protesters so they organized a follow-up rally at Haymarket Square the next day and invited their most popular speakers, August Spies and Albert Parsons.

Spies told the crowd, "There seems to prevail the opinion in some quarters that this meeting has been called for the purpose of inaugurating a riot, hence these warlike preparations on the part of so-called 'law and order.' However, let me tell you at the beginning that this meeting has not been called for any such purpose. 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."

Albert Parsons then followed with his usual rhetoric about the importance of a mandated 8-hour work day and the general cause of liberty. His motto: ""Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!" In addition to reasonable schedules, Albert called for fair wages, a shrinking of society's wealth gap, and equality for all. He lamented "the action of the police as an outrage." He condemned "capitalistic newspapers" for mischaracterizing the events that led up to the disaster and "turning the people against the working class." He encouraged the crowd to embrace their American rights as laid out in the Bill of Rights and spoke about the importance of every day people being able to stand against big corporations and even the government itself.

The mayor, who had come to see how bad things would get, became bored and went home. Albert finished his speech and went with some friends to a local pub. Only two hundred people were left at Haymarket Square when 176 police officers arrived to ensure law and order. It was dark and rainy. Someone threw a bomb. Chaos. Officers later explained that in the confusion, they fired into the cloudy darkness, fearing for their lives. When the dust settled, seven officers and four workers were dead.

"No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American history textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance" -William J. Adelman

Within 24 hours of the disaster, martial law was declared in cities across America. Parsons and several of his friends were arrested soon thereafter. Three months later, he was found guilty of murder, despite not even being present at the scene of the disaster when it occurred and the complete lack of evidence tying him to the bomb.

On the night of his execution, his wife Lucy came with their two children to visit their father one last time. They were stripped naked and thrown in a cell.

As the moment of execution drew near, Bailiff William Brainerd arrived to escort Parsons. He offered the revolutionary a glass of wine to relax his nerves but Parsons refused it, saying, "No, thanks. I would prefer a cup of coffee." A pot of coffee and a bowl of crackers were procured. He drank the coffee and ate a few of the crackers, afterwards thanking the deputy and exclaiming: "Now I feel all right. Let's finish the business."

Shortly afterward he said to Brainerd: "I am a Mason and have always tried to help my fellow-man all my life. I am going out of the world with a clear conscience. I die that others may live." He then gave Brainerd the Masonic grip and word to authenticate his statement.

At the gallows, Parsons is said to have bravely faced his death. His final words are those you've read at the beginning of this post, cut short by the executioner. One of his comrades, for his own last words, predicted,:

"There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!"

I believe we are living in that time.

Albert Parsons' legacy continues to unfold today. It is now inseparable from the legacy of George Floyd, in whose memory protesters marched down the same street where Parsons and his wife led the first May Day parade in 1886. In the immediate aftermath of the Haymarket Affair and Parsons' execution, newspapers across the country gave a wide range of opinions about his cause.

Issues of race, class, freedom of the press, the right to assembly, the use of force by police, freedom of speech, and more were all stitched together by the Haymarket Affair and the efforts of Albert Parsons. In Texas, the papers were not very fond of him or his wife and effectively assassinated their character as the last of the images below demonstrate. Albert's widow did get her clothes and dignity back. She continued leading the movement for which her husband was martyred. Lucy Parsons became a tremendous figure in the workers' rights movement and a pioneer in the cause of intersectional feminism. You can read her own account of what happened at Haymarket here:


Robert has been an officer of Waco Masonic Lodge since 2009, where he is currently the secretary. He's a 7th generation Texas Mason and a past DDGM of the Grand Lodge of Texas and serves on its History Committee. He's a member of the Austin Scottish Rite Valley and an avid traveler, having been to Lodges or SR Temples in all 50 United States as well as 15 countries and counting. Professionally, he wears several hats but as a historian trained at Baylor University, he has worked or consulted for many museums, agencies, and other institutions as a researcher, writer and curator. You can sometimes find him on Historical Light or other Masonic Podcasts and delivering lectures at Masonic Cons or other Masonic gatherings. Most importantly, he's a husband to Tatiena, and a father to their daughter who was named after Lucy Parsons, a famous Masonic widow.

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