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“The Bad News From Chicago”: Labor Organizer Oscar Ameringer Describes the Effect of the Haymarket Bombing on the Knights of Labor

by Oscar Ameringer

The Haymarket bombing in 1886 marked a major turning point in the history of nineteenth-century labor. Used by capitalists as an excuse for a crackdown on labor organizations, the bombing also splintered what up had been until then the strongest labor organization in the United States—the Knights of Labor. The anti-labor reaction that followed in the wake of the bombing helped precipitate a rapid decline in membership in the Knights which was eventually supplanted by the American Federation of Labor. In this excerpt from his autobiography, Oscar Ameringer, a Knight himself in 1886, recalled receiving the news about the Haymarket bombing while on strike in Cincinnati.

In order to become a member of the Knights I was compelled to add two to my almost sixteen years. But whatever I lacked in age I more than made up in enthusiasm for the cause of less work and more pay. The organization I had joined was a branch of the Deutsche Holz Arbeiter Verein—German wood-workers‘ union—affiliated with the Knights of Labor. The wood-workers’ union was an industrial, or vertical, union. It embraced all wood-workers with the exception of basket weavers and wooden-shoe makers. The membership was almost exclusively German and seasoned with a good sprinkling of anarchists. Prior to the first of May, 1886, when the eight-hour-day strike was to be launched, there had been groups of older or more militant members manufacturing bombs out of gas pipes. All of us expected violence, I suppose.

Too young to be admitted to the inner circle, I had converted a wood rasp into a dagger, in anticipation of the revolution just around the corner. The prelude to the revolution was the May Day parade in which I marched, bloody upheaval in heart and dagger beneath my coat tail. Only red flags were carried in that first May Day parade, and the only song we sang was the “Arbeiters Marseillaise,” the battle cry of the rising proletariat. Even the May Day edition of the Arbeiter Zeitung was printed on red paper. Testifying further to the revolutionary intent of the occasion, a workers' battalion of four hundred Springfield rifles headed the procession. It was the Lehr und Wehr Verein, the educational and protective society of embattled toil.

Unfortunately for the pending revolution, the forces of law and order in the city made no attempt to interfere. Whether plutocracy had already abdicated or, considering that it takes two to make a fight, had taken the wiser course, I never discovered. And so we just marched and marched and sang and sang, until with burning feet and parched throats we distributed our forces among the saloons along the line of march where we celebrated the first victory of the eight-hour movement with beer, free lunch, and pinochle.

Next day the strike started. It was a jolly strike. Victory was dead certain, for did not almost everybody belong to the Knights of Labor? Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, doctors, preachers, grocerymen and boarding-house keepers. What could be easier? With everybody quitting work the surrender of plutocracy was a foregone conclusion. In addition, there was the union treasury. The first week “out” married men received six dollars in strike benefits, single men, three. The second week out was not so good. Married men received three dollars and single men nothing. And the third week out all were placed on a basis of American equality, everybody getting nothing. In the meantime, something happened which took much of the original starch out of strikers and sympathizers alike.

I was standing on the picket line when an express wagon drove up unloading bundles of papers. Soon newsboys were rending the air with the ominous cries: “Anarchist bomb-throwers kill one hundred policemen in Haymarket in Chicago Anarchist bomb-throwers kill one hundred policemen in Haymarket in Chicago—Anarchist—”

Things were getting serious. Many of us had called ourselves anarchists without, I am sure, being able to distinguish between arnica and anarchy.

The bad news from Chicago fell like an exceedingly cold blanket on us strikers. To our erstwhile friends and sympathizers the news was the clarion for speedy evaporation. Some of our weaker fellow Knights broke ranks. The army of the social revolution was visibly melting away. The police grew more numerous and ill-mannered. And so did the tempers of our diminishing irreconcilables.

I was standing opposite the main entrance of the furniture factory, warming half a brick under my coat tail, when one of the erring brothers came along. If he had been content with entering the building, I might still be a poor but deserving factory hand. However, before entering, he stuck out his tongue and made a long nose at me, whereupon I let fly my half brick.

Had the erring brother been an American versed in the art of baseball, he would have caught the brick and hurled it back at me, or would have sidestepped the missile. However, being a low Dutchman, he closed both eyes, stooped down and met the brick head on.

It was a lucky strike. I was proud of it and no doubt would have gloated over the body of the fallen foe had not two policemen appeared on the run, making it advisable for me to seek more congenial surroundings.

Owing to that and other overt acts, my name became emblazoned on the blacklists of Cincinnati’s employers, so much so that when the strike was finally broken I experienced no trouble living up to the obligation I had assumed when joining the Knights of Labor to the effect that I would not return to work in that or any other furniture factory until our just demand, the eight-hour day plus a twenty-per-cent increase in wages, was granted.

Source: Oscar Ameringer, If You Don’t Weaken: The Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer, (1940; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), 44–47.