August Spies was born in Landeck, Germany in 1855. Spies emigrated to the United States in 1872 and settled in Chicago where he became a upholsterer. He became involved in trade union activities and joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1877. Three years later he began contributing to the anarchist journal, Arbeiter Zeitung, and became editor in 1880.
Spies developed a reputation for his violent speeches. In October 1885 he told a meeting of the Central Labor Union that: "We urgently call upon the wage-class to arm itself in order to be able to put forth against the exploiters such an argument which alone can be effective - violence."
On 1st May, 1886 a strike was began throughout the United States in support a eight-hour day. Over the next few days over 340,000 men and women withdrew their labor. Over a quarter of these strikers were from Chicago and the employers were so shocked by this show of unity that 45,000 workers in the city were immediately granted a shorter workday.
The campaign for the eight-hour day was organised by the International Working Men's Association (the First International). On 3rd May, the IWPA in Chicago held a rally outside the McCormick Harvester Works, where 1,400 workers were on strike. They were joined by 6,000 lumber-shovers, who had also withdrawn their labour. While Spies was making a speech, the police arrived and opened-fire on the crowd, killing four of the workers.
The following day Spies published a leaflet in English and German entitled: Revenge! Workingmen to Arms!. It included the passage: "They killed the poor wretches because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them to show you 'Free American Citizens' that you must be satisfied with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you, or you will get killed. If you are men, if you are the sons of your grand sires, who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms we call you, to arms." Spies also published a second leaflet calling for a mass protest at Haymarket Square that evening.
On 4th May, over 3,000 people turned up at the Haymarket meeting. Speeches were made by Spies, Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden. At 10 a.m. Captain John Bonfield and 180 policemen arrived on the scene. Bonfield was telling the crowd to "disperse immediately and peaceably" when someone threw a bomb into the police ranks from one of the alleys that led into the square. It exploded killing eight men and wounding sixty-seven others. The police then immediately attacked the crowd. A number of people were killed (the exact number was never disclosed) and over 200 were badly injured.
Several people identified Rudolph Schnaubelt as the man who threw the bomb. He was arrested but was later released without charge. It was later claimed that Schnaubelt was an agent provocateur in the pay of the authorities. After the release of Schnaubelt, the police arrested Spies, Samuel Fielden and five German immigrants, George Engel, August Spies, Adolph Fisher, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab. The police also sought Albert Parsons, the leader of the International Working Peoples Association in Chicago, but he went into hiding and was able to avoid capture. However, on the morning of the trial, Parsons arrived in court to standby his comrades.
There were plenty of witnesses who were able to prove that none of the eight men threw the bomb. The authorities therefore decided to charge them with conspiracy to commit murder. The prosecution case was that these men had made speeches and written articles that had encouraged the unnamed man at the Haymarket to throw the bomb at the police.
The jury was chosen by a special bailiff instead of being selected at random. One of those picked was a relative of one of the police victims. Julius Grinnell, the State's Attorney, told the jury: "Convict these men make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions."
At the trial it emerged that Andrew Johnson, a detective from the Pinkerton Agency, had infiltrated the group and had been collecting evidence about the men. Johnson claimed that at anarchist meetings these men had talked about using violence. Reporters who had also attended International Working Peoples Association meetings also testified that the defendants had talked about using force to "overthrow the system".
During the trial the judge allowed the jury to read speeches and articles by the defendants where they had argued in favour of using violence to obtain political change. The judge then told the jury that if they believed, from the evidence, that these speeches and articles contributed toward the throwing of the bomb, they were justified in finding the defendants guilty.
All the men were found guilty: Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fisher, Louis Lingg and George Engel were given the death penalty. Whereas Oscar Neebe, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab were sentenced to life imprisonment. On 10th November, 1887, Lingg committed suicide by exploding a dynamite cap in his mouth. The following day Parsons, Spies, Fisher and Engel mounted the gallows. As the noose was placed around his neck, Spies shouted out: "There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."
We urgently call upon the wage-class to arm itself in order to be able to put forth against the exploiters such an argument which alone can be effective - violence.
If we do not soon bestir ourselves for a bloody revolution, we cannot leave anything to our children but poverty and slavery. Therefore, prepare yourselves! In all quietness, prepare yourselves for the Revolution!
The contemplated murder of eight men, whose only crime is that they have dared to speak the truth, may open the eyes of these suffering millions; may wake them up. Indeed, I have noticed that our conviction has worked miracles in this direction already. The class that clamors for our lives, the good, devout Christians, have attempted in every way, through their newspapers and otherwise, to conceal the true and only issue in this case. By simply designating the defendants as anarchists and picturing them as a newly discovered tribe or species of cannibals, and by inventing shocking and horrifying stories of dark conspiracies said to be planned by them, these good Christians zealously sought to keep the naked fact from the working people and other righteous parties, namely: that on the evening on May 4, 200 armed men, under the command of a notorious ruffian, attacked a meeting of peaceable citizens! With what intention? With the intention of murdering them, or as many of them as they could.
Seven policeman have died, said Grinnell, suggestively winking at the jury. You want a life, and have convicted an equal number of men. If we are to be hanged on this principle, then let us know it, and let the world know what a civilized and Christian county it is in which the Goulds, the Vanderbilts, the Standfords, the Fields, Armours, and other local money hamsters have come to rescue of liberty and justice! Now, these are my ideas. They constitute a part of myself. I cannot divest myself of them, nor would I, if I could. And if you think that you can crush out these ideas that are gaining ground more and more every day; if you can crush them out sending us to gallows; if you would once more have people suffer the penalty of death because they have dared to tell the truth and I defy you to show us where we have told a lie I say, if death is the penalty for proclaiming the truth, then I will proudly and defiantly pay the costly price! Call your hangman! Truth crucified in Socrates, in Christ, in Giordano Bruno, in Huss, in Galileo, still lives - they and others whose number is legion have preceded us on this path. We are ready to follow!
During our trial the desire of the prosecutor to slaughter me, and to let my co-defendants off with milder punishment was quite apparent and manifest. It seemed to me then, and a great many of others, that the persecutors would be satisfied with one life - namely mine. Take this, then! Take my life! I offer it to you so that you may satisfy the fury of a semi-barbaric mob, and save that of my comrades. I know that every one of my comrades is as willing to die, and perhaps more so than I am. It is not for their sake that I make this offer, but in the name of humanity and progress, in the interest of a peaceable - if possible - development of the social forces that are destined to lift our race upon a higher and better plane of civilization. In the name of the traditions of our country I beg you to prevent a seven-fold murder upon men whose only crime is that they are idealists, that they long for a better future for all. If legal murder there must be, let one, let mine, suffice.
Seldom, if ever, have four men died more gamely and defiantly than the four who were strangled today. Every eye was bent upon the metallic angle around which the four wretched victims were expected to make their appearance. A moment later their curiosity was rewarded. With steady, unfaltering step a white-robed figure stepped out from behind the protecting metallic screen and stood upon the drop. It was August Spies. It was evident that his hands were firmly bound behind him underneath his snowy shroud.
He walked with a firm, almost stately tread across the platform and took his stand under the left-hand noose at the corner of the scaffold farthest from the side at which he had entered. Very pale was the expressive face, and a solemn, far-away light shone in his blue eyes. Nothing could be imagined more melancholy, and at the same time dignified, than the expression which sat upon the face of August Spies at that moment.