May Day. Decidedly strange ancestry, meshed in glorious spring along with explosions and death, state sponsored murders.
Certainly Pagan at the source–it’s exactly half a year removed from the festival of Samhain which falls on November 1st. That holiday marked the culmination of the harvest season, and May Day (or Beltane) reflected the assurance of spring, and the desire for a fertile growing season. The decidedly unbridled sexuality of the celebration created foes over the years; the holiday was banned by the largely puritan parliament during Cromwell’s years. But that was not enough to stomp out the holiday that keeps popping up like an unruly weed.
The transition from May Day to an international workers’ holiday occurred a bit over 100 years ago. Remarkably the country that spurred this conversion from springtime revelry to a more serious reflection and homage to workers of the past does not celebrate this day. Not in the formalized manner of so many other nations, that is. The United States was responsible for the mayhem and miscarriage of justice that caused the rest of the world to take notice and create May Day as a holiday for the workers.
In 1886, Chicago was a hotbed of what was perceived to be radical workers’ rights initiatives. Strikes and scabs were words floating around in abundance, and the Pinkertons were strong-arming those thought to be “unhelpful” to the aims of business. The close of the Civil War brought the onslaught of industrialization and the accompanying wrestle between business profitability and worker dignity. Many immigrants, often of German origin, made attempts to strengthen the position of workers during the turbulence of this era.
On May 4th of that year, a gathering was held in Haymarket Square to push for a standardized 8-hour workday. Speeches were given as people gathered, and as the meeting came to a close, something absolutely shocking occurred (or entirely expected………you decide). An explosive was cast into the area, causing the police present to fire into the crowd. Untold casualties fell during the mayhem, including friendly fire towards other policemen.
They never figured out who threw the device, but that didn’t stop the prosecution of several defendants, six of whom weren’t even present when the event occurred. Jury members were tossed out if they expressed anything less than disdain for the workers’ rights movement. And Judge Joseph Gary exhibited complete prejudice during the proceedings.
Not surprisingly, the media fed into the frenzy, producing highly skewed articles, full of bloody and violent adjectives to describe the strikers and dissidents involved in the movement. Words like “stalwart” were used to describe those who worked against the workers and their causes. Loaded vocabulary to press the right buttons.
The defendants never stood a chance. They were prosecuted and convicted for having non-mainstream beliefs and aspirations. As seen so many times, Middle America took the side of the oligarchs, letting themselves be manipulated against their own interests. The Supreme Court dismissed the request for a writ of error in regard to the flawed proceedings.
The media continued to add insult to injury in regard to the affair, and even years later, The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial, continuing to disparage labor activism saying that the wrongs of that movement were in much greater excess than any perceived evils of capitalism. They went on to criticize workers directly, saying that they needed to work more efficiently if they wanted more pay and less hours. (And we know how increased efficiency always translates into benefits for the workers). They needed to quit drinking so much booze, too, said the editorial.
At the time of the trial, there was indignation around the world as the guilty verdict came in, but relative quiet in the United States. On November 11, 1887, four of the defendants were placed on the gallows, and in a disgusting chapter close, they did not die rapidly from broken necks. The unfortunate men lingered brutally through strangulation. It left a crowd response similar to that described after a reported “blush” and possibility of awareness exhibited by Charlotte Corday’s head after it was cut off and then slapped during The Terror in France. The crowd who witnessed the sickening display left shaken and a little less bloodthirsty than before. In both cases.
Botched executions are nothing new as we so recently got to hear about from Oklahoma this week. Evidently new and special drug combos aren’t working very well. Clayton Lockett took 43 minutes to die, seizing and behaving in a manner so gross they lowered the blinds so those there to see a death wouldn’t see that. Possibly a blown vein didn’t send all the medications to reach their destination via the traditional death pathway, but a more slow absorption took over through tissues. Sort of the difference between a snapped neck and a strangle. What he was said to have done, that of killing, raping, shooting and burying alive a teen named Stephanie Neiman didn’t engender a huge amount of compassion for him, but there you have it. It’s the grease the conscience needs to tolerate state murders. You end up fine with one situation that lends itself to those hanging at Haymarket. Always amazing that those who clamor the loudest against government encroachment (think Bundy and the ilk) are generally fine with state murder. They trust them with that. Just more evidence that they have a toothless shallow hatred. Also probably why their shit-fits are largely more tolerated than the peaceful Occupy movement. One looks to bitch about exacting situations that disrupt greed and wealth accumulation, the other looks to unraveling the fabric that holds together all injustice. Which is more dangerous, overall, when you own the fabric?
But back to Haymarket:
The three other defendants did not see the gallows. Louis Lingg killed himself with an exploding cap placed in his mouth before he could be executed, but like the botched gallows’ deaths, he lingered for a horrifying time with much of his face gone. The two remaining men finally received some mercy when a governor of German descent, somewhat sympathetic to the workers, gave a stay of execution. That act was used against the governor in a political manner soon after, and he lost out on reelection, quite possibly due to that act of mercy.
Haymarket monuments are in place to commemorate all involved: one is in Forest Home Cemetery, Illinois, standing over the graves of the executed men. Emma Goldman’s grave is in that cemetery as well. There was also a monument to the police placed in the middle of Haymarket Square in 1889, but in a fit of what might be called “streetcar rage” a driver jumped the tracks and ran into the statue because “he was sick of seeing that policeman with his arm raised.”
May Day became a natural time to reflect on the terrible events of that early spring day in 1886.
And of course there’s the common authoritarian hatred suffered by May Day in regard to those joyless Puritans so many years ago. Their work ethic became the very core philosophy of all who would justify the actions of industrialization, and denigrate the fallen workers and their demands for dignity. Connections are there.
The holiday was formally recognized in France in 1891 and other countries followed suit. Though many wanted this to be a holiday in the United States, this was not to be. In fact, I suspect Americans would be more successful in getting “420” to be a national holiday than May 1st.
President Grover Cleveland wanted nothing to do with a remembrance of the fallen at Haymarket Square, so he pushed for the Labor Day that we now know in early September- pretty much just a hollow three-day weekend to mark the end of summer. In that most American manner, there was no need to ban the reflections on the labor movement, simply co-opt it and turn it into a day to barbecue a slab of something.
But Ralph Waldo Emerson said “What potent blood hath modest May.”
The truth of that is probably why our “Labor Day” was placed in the tired haze of late summer. Let’s take May Day back for what is should be. A symbol of rebirth, and the plight for dignity that makes us part of the natural world, not just an industrial cog. It really is all connected.
Kathleen Wallace writes about music and culture out of the US Midwest. She can be reached at email@example.com or (katlwallace.com)