Chicago—the Fatal Explosion of the Bomb (1886)

The continuing explosive growth of Chicago’s population and economy during the last decades of the nineteenth century put it at the center of national conflicts between labor and capital. Perhaps no event shaped Chicago’s image in a more sensational way than the Haymarket affair. On May 4, 1886, a bomb hurled by an unknown assailant into ranks of police breaking up a peaceable labor protest rally near the site of a former haymarket just west of the downtown. The bomb spurred a chaotic altercation between workers and officers, resulting in the deaths of several policemen and the wounding of many others, including some of those attending the rally. Many people, including Chicago’s commercial leaders, interpreted the event as evidence of the danger and instability caused by dangerous radicals, whom they identified with immigrants generally. Most depictions of the event emphasized the dangers posed by labor agitators.

As historian Carl Smith notes, the most widely known image of the event is Thure de Thulstrup’s “The Anarchist Riot in Chicago: A Bomb Exploding Among the Police,” a woodcut that appeared in Harper’s Weekly.  Artists trying to convey what happened were required by the nature of their assignments to compress a complex sequence of events—the rally, the bombing, and the riot that followed-- into a single scene. The Harper’s image emphasizes the fearfulness of the cataclysmic moment; flailing limbs are silhouetted against the bomb’s bright flash, which fills a significant portion of the frame. Thulstrup ignored the impossibility that the speech, the bomb, the police altercation, and the fleeing could have occurred simultaneously in order to present a condensed and instantly comprehensible narrative for the newspaper’s readership.

In contrast, this image of the Haymarket affair, from Illustrated Graphic News,  places the explosion itself in the distant foreground. It does not represent the ideological tensions between police and protesters; all of the figures are unified by the action of fleeing the bomb. The various images of Haymarket, taken together, reveal the questions Haymarket raised: what was the nature of Chicago and the industrial city? what would the future hold for urban modernity?



Avrich, Paul The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Green, James. Death in the Haymarket. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.

Roediger, David and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook: 125th Anniversary Edition. Oakland: AK Press, 2012.

Smith, Carl. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.



The Dramas of Haymarket. Chicago Historical Society (Chicago History Museum),

The Haymarket Digital Collection. Chicago Historical Society (Chicago History Museum),

“Chicago—the Fatal Explosion of the Bomb,” from Illustrated Graphic News (Chicago: Graphic Press, 1886), p. 165. The Newberry Library, A 6 .16098 vol. 1