RCC Honors History Project

Reasons for Pardoning the Haymarket Rioters

Posted by nrohr on April 27, 2009

Reasons for Pardoning the Haymarket Rioters
by John Peter Altgeld, 1893

On the night of May 4, 1886, a public meeting was held on Haymarket Square in Chicago; there were from 800 to 1,000 people present, nearly all being laboring men. There had been trouble, growing out of the effort to introduce an eight-hour day, resulting in some collisions with the police, in one of which several laboring people were killed, and this meeting was called as a protest against alleged police brutality.

The meeting was orderly and was attended by the mayor, who remained until the crowd began to disperse and then went away. As soon as Capt. John Bonfield of the Police Department learned that the mayor had gone, he took a detachment of police and hurried to the meeting for the purpose of dispersing the few that remained, and, as the police approached the place of meeting, a bomb was thrown by some unknown person, which exploded and wounded many and killed several policemen, among the latter being one Mathias Degan.

A number of people were arrested, and, after a time, August Spies, Albert R. Parsons, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, and Oscar Neebe were indicted for the murder of Mathias Degan. The prosecution could not discover who had thrown the bomb and could not bring the really guilty man to justice; and, as some of the men indicted were not at the Haymarket meeting and had nothing to do with it, the prosecution was forced to proceed on the theory that the men indicted were guilty of murder because it was claimed they had at various times in the past uttered and printed incendiary and seditious language, practically advising the killing of policemen, of Pinkerton men, and others acting in that capacity, and that they were therefore responsible for the murder of Mathias Degan.

The public was greatly excited, and after a prolonged trial all the defendants were found guilty; Oscar Neebe was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment and all of the other defendants were sentenced to be hanged. The case was carried to the Supreme Court and was there affirmed in the fall of 1887. Soon thereafter Lingg committed suicide. The sentence of Fielden and Schwab was commuted to imprisonment for life, and Parsons, Fischer, Engel, and Spies were hanged, and the petitioners now ask to have Neebe, Fielden, and Schwab set at liberty.

The several thousand merchants, bankers, judges, lawyers, and other prominent citizens of Chicago who have by petition, by letter, and in other ways urged executive clemency mostly base their appeal on the ground that, assuming the prisoners to be guilty, they have been punished enough; but a number of them who have examined the case more carefully and are more familiar with the record and with the facts disclosed by the papers on file base their appeal on entirely different grounds. They assert:

First, that the jury which tried the case was a packed jury selected to convict.

Second, that according to the law as laid down by the Supreme Court, both prior to and again since the trial of this case, the jurors, according to their own answer, were not competent jurors, and the trial was, therefore, not a legal trial.

Third, that the defendants were not proven to be guilty of the crime charged in the indictment.

Fourth, that, as to the defendant Neebe, the state’s attorney had declared at the close of the evidence that there was no case against him, and yet he has been kept in prison all these years.

Fifth, that the trial judge was either so prejudiced against the defendants or else so determined to win the applause of a certain class in the community that he could not and did not grant a fair trial.

Upon the question of having been punished enough, I will simply say that if the defendants had a fair trial, and nothing has developed since to show that they were not guilty of the crime charged in the indictment, then there ought to be no executive interference, for no punishment under our laws could then be too severe. Government must defend itself; life and property must be protected, and law and order must be maintained; murder must be punished, and if the defendants are guilty of murder, either committed by their own hands or by someone else acting on their advice, then, if they have had a fair trial, there should be in this case no executive interference. The soil of America is not adapted to the growth of anarchy. While our institutions are not free from injustice, they are still the best that have yet been devised, and therefore must be maintained.

The record of the trial shows that the jury in this case was not drawn in the manner that juries usually are drawn; that is, instead of having a number of names drawn out of a box that contained many hundred names, as the law contemplates shall be done in order to insure a fair jury and give neither side the advantage, the trial judge appointed one Henry L. Ryce as a special bailiff to go out and summon such men as he (Ryce) might select to act as jurors. While this practice has been sustained in cases in which it did not appear that either side had been prejudiced thereby, it is always a dangerous practice, for it gives the bailiff absolute power to select a jury that will be favorable to one side or the other.

Counsel for the state, in their printed brief, say that Ryce was appointed on motion of defendants. While it appears that counsel for the defendants were in favor of having someone appointed, the record has this entry: “Mr. Grinnell (the state’s attorney) suggested Mr. Ryce as special bailiff, and he was accepted and appointed.” But it makes no difference on whose motion he was appointed if he did not select a fair jury. It is shown that he boasted while selecting jurors that he was managing this case; that these fellows would hang as certain as death; that he was calling such men as the defendants would have to challenge peremptorily and waste their challenges on, and that when their challenges were exhausted they would have to take such men as the prosecution wanted.

It appears from the record of the trial that the defendants were obliged to exhaust all of their peremptory challenges, and they had to take a jury, almost every member of which stated frankly that he was prejudiced against them. On page 133 of Volume I of the record, it appears that when the panel was about two-thirds full, counsel for defendants called attention of the court to the fact that Ryce was summoning only prejudiced men, as shown by their examinations. Further, that he was confining himself to particular classes, i.e., clerks, merchants, manufacturers, etc. Counsel for defendants then moved the court to stop this and direct Ryce to summon the jurors from the body of the people; that is, from the community at large and not from particular classes; but the court refused to take any notice of the matter.

For the purpose of still further showing the misconduct of Bailiff Ryce, reference is made to the affidavit of Otis S. Favor. Mr. Favor is one of the most reputable and honorable businessmen in Chicago; he was himself summoned by Ryce as a juror but was so prejudiced against the defendants that he had to be excused, and he abstained from making any affidavit before sentence because the state’s attorney had requested him not to make it, although he stood ready to go into court and tell what he knew if the court wished him to do so, and he naturally supposed he would be sent for. But after the Supreme Court had passed on the case and some of the defendants were about to be hanged, he felt that an injustice was being done, and he made the following affidavit.

Otis S. Favor, being duly sworn, on oath says that he is a citizen of the United States and of the State of Illinois, residing in Chicago, and a merchant doing business at Numbers 6 and 8 Wabash Avenue, in the city of Chicago, in said county. That he is very well acquainted with Henry L. Ryce, of Cook County, Illinois, who acted as special bailiff in summoning jurors in the case of The People, etc. v. Spies et al., indictment for murder, tried in the Criminal Court of Cook County, in the summer of 1886. That affiant was himself summoned by said Ryce for a juror in said cause but was challenged and excused therein because of his prejudice. That on several occasions in conversation between affiant and said Ryce touching the summoning of the jurors by said Ryce, and while said Ryce was so acting as special bailiff as aforesaid, said Ryce said to this affiant and to other persons in affiant’s presence, in substance and effect as follows, to wit:
“I (meaning said Ryce) am managing this case (meaning this case against Spies et al.) and know what I am about. Those fellows (meaning the defendants, Spies et al.) are going to be hanged as certain as death. I am calling such men as the defendants will have to challenge peremptorily and waste their time and challenges. Then they will have to take such men as the prosecution wants.”
That affiant has been very reluctant to make any affidavit in this case, having no sympathy with anarchy nor relationship to or personal interest in the defendants or any of them, and not being a Socialist, Communist, or anarchist; but affiant has an interest as a citizen in the due administration of the law, and that no injustice should be done under judicial procedure, and believes that jurors should not be selected with reference to their known views or prejudices. Affiant further says that his personal relations with said Ryce were at said time and for many years theretofore had been most friendly and even intimate, and that affiant is not prompted by any ill will toward anyone in making this affidavit, but solely by a sense of duty and a conviction of what is due to justice.
Affiant further says that about the beginning of October 1886, when the motion for a new trial was being argued in said cases before Judge Gary, and when, as he was informed, application was made before Judge Gary for leave to examine affiant in open court touching the matters above stated, this affiant went, upon request of State’s Attorney Grinnell, to his office during the noon recess of the court and there held an interview with said Grinnell, Mr. Ingham, and said Ryce, in the presence of several other persons, including some police officers, where affiant repeated substantially the matters above stated, and the said Ryce did not deny affiant’s statements, and affiant said he would have to testify thereto if summoned as a witness but had refused to make an affidavit thereto, and affiant was then and there asked and urged to persist in his refusal and to make no affidavit. And affiant further saith not. …

So far as shown, no one connected with the state’s attorney’s office has ever denied the statements of Mr. Favor as to what took place in that office, although his affidavit was made in November 1887.

As to Bailiff Ryce, it appears that he has made an affidavit in which he denies that he made the statements sworn to by Mr. Favor, but, unfortunately for him, the record of the trial is against him, for it shows conclusively that he summoned only the class of men mentioned in Mr. Favor’s affidavit. According to the record, 981 men were examined as to their qualifications as jurors, and most of them were either employers or men who had been pointed out to the bailiff by their employer. …

Again, it is shown that various attempts were made to bring to justice the men who wore the uniform of the law while violating it, but all to no avail; that the laboring people found the prisons always open to receive them but the courts of justice were practically closed to them; that the prosecuting officers vied with each other in hunting them down but were deaf to their appeals; that in the spring of 1886 there were more labor disturbances in the city, and particularly at the McCormick factory; that under the leadership of Captain Bonfield the brutalities of the previous year were even exceeded. Some affidavit and other evidence is offered on this point which I cannot give for want of space.

It appears that this was the year of the eight-hour agitation, and efforts were made to secure an eight-hour day about May 1, and that a number of laboring men, standing not on the street but on a vacant lot, were quietly discussing the situation in regard to the movement, when suddenly a large body of police, under orders from Bonfield, charged on them and began to club them; that some of the men, angered at the unprovoked assault, at first resisted but were soon dispersed; that some of the police fired on the men while they were running and wounded a large number who were already 100 feet or more away and were running as fast as they could; that at least four of the number so shot down died; that this was wanton and unprovoked murder, but there was not even so much as an investigation.

While some men may tamely submit to being clubbed and seeing their brothers shot down, there are some who will resent it and will nurture a spirit of hatred and seek revenge for themselves, and the occurrences that preceded the Haymarket tragedy indicate that the bomb was thrown by someone who, instead of acting on the advice of anybody, was simply seeking personal revenge for having been clubbed, and that Captain Bonfield is the man who is really responsible for the death of the police officers. …

It is further shown here that much of the evidence given at the trial was a pure fabrication; that some of the prominent police officials, in their zeal, not only terrorized ignorant men by throwing them into prison and threatening them with torture if they refused to swear to anything desired but that they offered money and employment to those who would consent to do this. Further, that they deliberately planned to have fictitious conspiracies formed in order that they might get the glory of discovering them. In addition to the evidence in the record of some witnesses who swore that they had been paid small sums of money, etc., several documents are here referred to.

First, an interview with Captain Ebersold, published in the Chicago Daily News, May 10, 1889. Ebersold was chief of the police of Chicago at the time of the Haymarket trouble, and for a long time before and thereafter, so that he was in a position to know what was going on, and his utterances upon this point are therefore important. Among other things he says:

It was my policy to quiet matters down as soon as possible after the 4th of May. The general unsettled state of things was an injury to Chicago. On the other hand, Captain Schaack wanted to keep things stirring. He wanted bombs to be found here, there, all around, everywhere. I thought people would lie down and sleep better if they were not afraid that their homes would be blown to pieces any minute. But this man Schaack, this little boy who must have glory or his heart would be broken, wanted none of that policy.
Now, here is something the public does not know. After we got the anarchist societies broken up, Schaack wanted to send out men to again organize new societies right away. You see what this would do. He wanted to keep the thing boiling — keep himself prominent before the public. Well, I sat down on that; I didn’t believe in such work, and of course Schaack didn’t like it.
After I heard all that, I began to think there was, perhaps, not so much to all this anarchist business as they claimed, and I believe I was right, Schaack thinks he knew all about those anarchists. Why, I knew more at that time than he knows today about them. I was following them closely. As soon as Schaack began to get some notoriety, however, he was spoiled.

This is a most important statement, when a chief of police, who has been watching the anarchists closely, says that he was convinced that there was not so much in all their anarchist business as was claimed, and that a police captain wanted to send out men to have other conspiracies formed in order to get the credit of discovering them and keep the public excited; it throws a flood of light on the whole situation and destroys the force of much of the testimony introduced at the trial; for, if there has been any such extensive conspiracy as the prosecution claims, the police would have soon discovered it.

No chief of police could discover a determination on the part of an individual, or even a number of separate individuals, to have personal revenge for having been maltreated, nor could any chief discover a determination by any such individual to kill the next policeman who might assault him. Consequently, the fact the the police did not discover any conspiracy before the Haymarket affair shows almost conclusively that no such extensive combination could have existed. …

At the conclusion of the evidence for the state, the Hon. Carter H. Harrison, then mayor of Chicago, and F. S. Winston, then corporation counsel for Chicago, were in the courtroom and had a conversation with Mr. Grinnell, the state’s attorney, in regard to the evidence against Neebe, in which conversation, according to Mr. Harrison and Mr. Winston, the state’s attorney said that he did not think he had a case against Neebe and that he wanted to dismiss him but was dissuaded from doing so by his associate attorneys, who feared that such a step might influence the jury in favor of the other defendants.

Mr. Harrison, in a letter, among other things said:

I was present in the courtroom when the state closed its case. The attorney for Neebe moved his discharge on the ground that there was no evidence to hold him on. The state’s attorney, Mr. Julius S. Grinnell, and Mr. Fred S. Winston, corporation counsel for the city, and myself, were in earnest conversation when the motion was made. Mr. Grinnell stated to us that he did not think there was sufficient testimony to convict Neebe. I thereupon earnestly advised him, as the representative of the state, to dismiss the case as to Neebe, and, if I remember rightly, he was seriously thinking of doing so, but, on consultation with his assistants, and on their advice, he determined not to do so lest it would have an injurious effect on the case as against the other prisoners. … I took the position that such discharge, being clearly justified by the testimony, would not prejudice the case as to the others.

Mr. Winston adds the following to Mr. Harrison’s letter:

March 21, 1889

I concur in the statement of Mr. Harrison; I never believed there was sufficient evidence to convict Mr. Neebe, and so stated during the trial.
F. S. Winston

In January 1890, Mr. Grinnell wrote a letter to Governor Fifer, denying that he had ever made any such statement as that mentioned by Mr. Harrison and Mr. Winston; also that he did believe Neebe guilty; that Mr. Harrison suggested the dismissal of the case as to Neebe; and, further, that he would not have been surprised if Mr. Harrison had made a similar suggestion as to others. And then he says: “I said to Mr. Harrison at that time, substantially, that I was afraid that the jury might not think the testimony presented in the case sufficient to convict Neebe, but that it was in their province to pass upon it.”

Now, if the statement of Messrs. Harrison and Winston is true, then Grinnell should not have allowed Neebe to be sent to the penitentiary, and even if we assume that both Mr. Harrison and Mr. Winston are mistaken, and that Mr. Grinnell simply used the language he now says he used, then the case must have seemed very weak to him. If, with a jury prejudiced to start with, a judge pressing for conviction, and amid the almost irresistible fury with which the trial was conducted, he still was afraid the jury might not think the testimony in the case was sufficient to convict Neebe, then the testimony must have seemed very weak to him, no matter what he may now protest about it.

When the motion to dismiss the case as to Neebe was made, defendants’ counsel asked that the jury might be permitted to retire while the motion was being argued, but the court refused to permit this and kept the jury present where it could hear all that the court had to say; then, when the argument on the motion was begun by defendants’ counsel, the court did not wait to hear from the attorneys for the state but at once proceeded to argue the points itself with the attorneys for the defendants, so that while the attorneys for the state made no argument on the motion, twenty-five pages of the record are filled with the colloquy or sparring that took place between the court and the counsel for the defendants, the court in the presence of the jury making insinuations as to what inference might be drawn by the jury from the fact that Neebe owned a little stock in a paper called the Arbeiter-Zeitung and had been seen there, although he took no part in the management until after the Haymarket troubles, it appearing that the Arbeiter-Zeitung had published some very seditious articles, with which, however, Neebe had nothing to do.

Finally, one of the counsel for the defendants said: “I expected that the representatives of the state might say something, but as Your Honor saves them that trouble, you will excuse me if I reply briefly to the suggestions you have made.” Some other remarks were made by the court, seriously affecting the whole case and prejudicial to the defendants, and then, referring to Neebe, the court said: “Whether he had anything to do with the dissemination of advice to commit murder is, I think, a debatable question which the jury ought to pass on.” Finally the motion was overruled.

Now, with all the eagerness shown by the court to convict Neebe, it must have regarded the evidence against him as very weak, otherwise it would not have made this admission, for if it was a debatable question whether the evidence tended to show guilt, then that evidence must have been far from being conclusive upon the question as to whether he was actually guilty; this being so, the verdict should not have been allowed to stand, because the law requires that a man shall be proven to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before he can be convicted of criminal offense. I have examined all of the evidence against Neebe with care, and it utterly fails to prove even the shadow of a case against him. Some of the other defendants were guilty of using seditious language, but even this cannot be said of Neebe.

It is further charged, with much bitterness, by those who speak for the prisoners, that the record of this case shows that the judge conducted the trial with malicious ferocity and forced eight men to be tried together; that in cross-examining the state’s witnesses, he confined counsel to the specific points touched on by the state, while in the cross-examination of the defendants’ witnesses, he permitted the state’s attorney to go into all manner of subjects entirely foreign to the matters on which the witnesses were examined in chief; also, that every ruling throughout the long trial on any contested point was in favor of the state; and, further, that page after page of the record contains insinuating remarks of the judge, made in the hearing of the jury, and with the evident intent of bringing the jury to his way of thinking; that these speeches, coming from the court, were much more damaging than any speeches from the state’s attorney could possibly have been; that the state’s attorney often took his cue from the judge’s remarks; that the judge’s magazine article recently published, although written nearly six years after the trial, is yet full of venom; that, pretending to simply review the case, he had to drag into his article a letter written by an excited woman to a newspaper after the trial was over, and which therefore had nothing to do with the case, and was put into the article simply to create a prejudice against the woman, as well as against the dead and the living; and that, not content with this, he, in the same article, makes an insinuating attack on one of the lawyers for the defense, not for anything done at the trial but because more than a year after the trial, when some of the defendants had been hung, he ventured to express a few kind, if erroneous, sentiments over the graves of his dead clients, whom he at least believed to be innocent. It is urged that such ferocity of subserviency is without a parallel in all history; that even Jeffreys in England contented himself with hanging his victims and did not stoop to berate them after death.

These charges are of a personal character, and, while they seem to be sustained by the record of the trial and the papers before me and tend to show the trial was not fair, I do not care to discuss this feature of the case any further because it is not necessary. I am convinced that it is clearly my duty to act in this case for the reasons already given; and I, therefore, grant an absolute pardon to Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab, this 26th day of June, 1893.

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