How I found May Day in Uruguay

Meg Robson Mahoney
8 min readMay 1, 2016
Inscription on the Memorial to the Chicago Martyrs on the Plaza Primero de Mayo, Montevideo, Uruguay

“And on your right, you’ll see our Memorial to the Chicago Martyrs of Haymarket Square on the Plaza Primero de Mayo. Our citizens gather here for celebrations and demonstrations…”

What?! What’s Chicago doing here? Confused, I crane my neck to see. I’m on a hop-on-hop-off bus in Montevideo, barely listening through ear buds to a recorded narration, when I’m startled out of my daze.

I’m from Chicago. It’s where my grandparents are buried. It’s where Santa Claus waited for me each Christmas at Marshall Field’s department store. For eighteen years, Chicago was the “urb” of my suburb, and for another twenty-five, I circled back for family. Chicago was my reference point for forty years.

But I didn’t know Chicago had martyrs. I’d never heard of Haymarket Square.

That night, driven by something more than confusion and curiosity, I searched out the story — along with why I had to go to Uruguay to hear it. I returned to the plaza the next day to see the monument up close: twelve tall poles skewed at various angles, in shades of black, white, and grey. In full view of Uruguay’s Legislative Palace, it honors eight men who became martyrs after an incident at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886. Hardly known at home, Haymarket Square is the seed of May Day celebrations around the world.

The Legislative Palace seen through the Memorial to the Chicago Martyrs on the Plaza Primero de Mayo, Montevideo, Uruguay

To understand the story, it helps to know that Chicago in the 1880s had exploded as a city. It was a hub of urbanization, the crossroads for more railroads than anyplace else in the world. It was the center for the latest technology in the handling of wheat, pork, and cattle. Immigration supplied labor for the growth: more than half a million immigrants, most of them German and Irish, arrived in the city between 1850 and 1890.

Classes clashed. Advances in technology had made some folks wealthy enough to speculate in futures, travel in luxury, and shop as a pastime. Laborers were paid $1.50 a day, averaging 60 hours in a 6-day week. Not surprisingly, there was unrest. Workers organized in many different groups, from labor unions advocating improved conditions to anarchists focused on revolution. Some advocated violence as a tool for change. Employers countered strikes with anti-union measures. They recruited strikebreakers and hired private security forces using brutal tactics to safeguard their property and progress. Mainstream media supported business interests, playing on ethnic tensions, depicting in cartoons a terrifying vision of immigrants as beasts.

By 1886, labor groups united in their fight for an 8-hour work day. On May 1st that year, when the day only marked the start of spring, a federation of labor organizations held a non-violent strike. 300,000 to half a million workers rallied across the country. The turnout in Chicago was huge, about 25% of the total. Two days later, at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago, after months of turmoil, striking workers confronted strikebreakers at the end of the work day. Protesters surged forward, and police fired into the crowd, killing two workers.

To protest the killings, local activists quickly scheduled a rally for May 4th at Haymarket Square on Desplanes Street. It was poorly organized and not well attended due to rain, but rumors were rampant and police were on site, watching for an outbreak of violence. The mayor of Chicago stopped by to ensure calm, leaving the demonstration as it began to dwindle, confident that the affair was peaceful. But as a final speech became inflammatory, police moved to disperse the crowd, and someone threw a bomb among them. In the ensuing melee, police fired into the crowd and across their own ranks. One policeman and at least four workers were killed outright, with many more injured. Eventually, eight policemen died of their wounds. No one counted civilian casualties.

Authorities cracked down hard against individuals and organizations who had advocated change, disregarding legal procedures such as search warrants. Scores of people were arrested. Prosecutors never named the bomb-thrower, but they tried eight men for conspiracy and a single count of murder. Only one of the defendants had been present at the scene; some of the conspirators had never even met. The judge was hostile to the defendants, allowed the selection of a biased jury, and consistently ruled in favor of the prosecution. Newspapers were in a frenzy, defending American values against foreign and anarchist ideas. In a highly dramatized trial that drew worldwide attention, eight men were tried for their speeches and writings. The jury found them guilty. The judge sentenced seven to death, one to 15 years of hard labor. Led by Marshall Field, the man who brought me Santa Claus, Chicago’s businessmen lobbied for harsh sentences. The media was their public voice.

The trial is one of the worst miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. In November 1887, after 18 months of trial and appeals, with cries for clemency from around the globe, one man committed suicide on the eve of execution. Two received clemency by confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. Four were hanged.

In 1893, the governor of Illinois pardoned the three incarcerated men due to errors in the trial. This pardon largely ended the governor’s political career because, despite blatant legal missteps, Chicagoans were still proud of their city’s harsh response.

May Day was first celebrated in other countries as early as 1889, in remembrance of those executed in Chicago. A national holiday in over sixty countries, May Day is a time for immigrants and workers to express their needs and for anarchists to come forth. Worldwide, the Haymarket incident remains a symbol for voices advocating change, amid forces protecting the status quo of inequality. In the U.S., however, it’s seen as an event that came from overseas, probably of Communist roots. In 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as Law Day.

For a century Chicago remained at odds with the world concerning Haymarket Square. In 1889, the city dedicated a monument: a 9’ tall statue of a single policeman. At its dedication, the mayor of Chicago declared it “a silent monitor to all who dare to come to this free land to disobey its laws, that we have a force and a body of citizens to back up that force, that will see that the law must be obeyed.” Over the years, the statue was vandalized repeatedly, knocked over by a street car, and blown up. It finally found a safe home in 1976 in a courtyard of the Chicago Police Training Center.

Meanwhile, labor unions united to commission a monument to the five men who died: a female figure of Justice placing a wreath on the head of a fallen laborer. It stands in German Waldheim Cemetery, in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, where the immigrants buried their dead. Dedicated in 1893, it bears a quote from August Spies just before his execution: The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voice you are throttling today.

People from around the world have visited the cemetery to pay respects to the men and ideals buried there, but Haymarket Square maintained its anonymity, unmarked until 2005. When the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galleano visited the square in the 1980s, he was dismayed to find it bare and shared his thoughts in The Book of Embraces:

Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

“It must be around here,” they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own histories, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

Haymarket Martyrs Monument at the German Waldheim Cemetery. Sculptor Albert Weinert, 1893.

I won’t belabor how this story could — and does — play out today and will again tomorrow. It’s all around us. Beyond my initial confusion and curiosity, the conjunction of Montevideo and Haymarket still trouble me. Now that I’ve pulled this one small pebble from the ocean of things I don’t know, I struggle with how I missed it and how much more is out there. I’m staring out to sea.

On April 13, 2015, the very day I brought my ignorance home from Montevideo, Eduardo Galleano died, leaving only the comfort of his life and words. He lived and wrote for change. Beyond his life he left his words —and a thirst to know more:

It’s important for Chicago and for the entire world to recover memory. Not to visit it, like when you visit a museum, but to get from it fresh water for your thirst for justice, for beauty. It’s a way of knowing that tomorrow is not just another name for today…

There’s so much more to this story. Please feel free to read on…

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