Samuel Fielden

Samuel Fielden

Samuel Fielden was born in Todmorden, Lancashire, England, in 1847. His father campaigned against child labour and was active in the Ten Hours Movement and Chartism. Fielden worked for thirteen years in a textile mill before becoming a Methodist minister.

In 1868 Fielden he emigrated to the United States. He worked in the textile industry in New York State before moving to Chicago where he became friends with Albert Parsons and August Spies. In July, 1884 Fielden joined the Socialist Labor Party and worked as an organizer for the International Working People's Association (IWPA).

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 (IWPA). 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 They were joined by 6,000 lumber-shovers, who had also withdrawn their labour.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 August Spies, one of the leaders of the IWPA was making a speech, the police arrived and opened-fire on the crowd, killing four of the workers.

The following day August Spies, who was editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, 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 Fielden, August 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 peacebly" 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 Fielden and six 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: George Engel, Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fisher and Louis Lingg were given the death penalty. Whereas Fielden, Oscar Neebe 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."

Many people believed that the men had not been given a fair trial and in 1893, John Peter Altgeld, the new governor of Illinois, pardoned Fielden, Oscar Neebe and Michael Schwab.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Fielden, Autobiography of Samuel Fielden (1887)

Todmorden lies in a beautiful valley, and on the hillsides are small farms; back about a mile are the moorlands, which could be made into fine farms, as the topography of the moors is more level generally than the enclosed land. But though thousands of starving Englishmen would be very glad to work them, they must be kept for the grouse and the gamekeeper and the gentry. Grouse sport for the privileged classes being esteemed of more importance than the happiness of thousands of human beings. The farms are all dairy, the milk all being sold in town. There are numerous large mills in the town, Fielden Brothers being the largest; it contains about 2,000 looms.

When I arrived at the mature age of 8 years I, as was usual with the poor people's children in Lancashire, went to work in a cotton mill, and if there is any of the exuberance of childhood about the life of a Lancashire mill-hand's child it is in spite of his surroundings and conditions, and not in consequence of it. As I look back on my experience at the tender age I am filled with admiration at the wonderful vitality of these children. I think that if the devil had a particular enemy whom he wished to unmercifully torture the best thing for him to do would be to put his soul into the body of a Lancashire factory child and keep him as a child in a factory the rest of his days. The mill into which I was put was the mill established by John Fielden, M.P., who fought so valiantly in the ten-hour movement.

The infants, when first introduced to these abodes of torture, are put at stripping the full spools from the spinning jennies and replacing them with empty spools. They are put to work in a long room where there are about twenty machines. The spindles are apportioned to each child, and woe be to the child who shall be behind in doing its allotted work. The machine will be started and the poor child's fingers will be bruised and skinned with the revolving spools. while the children try to catch up to their comrades by doing their work with the speed of the machine running, the brutal overlooker will frequently beat them unmercifully, and I have frequently seen them strike the children, knocking them off their stools and sending them spinning several feet on the greasy floor.

When the ten-hour movement was being agitated in England my father was on the committee of agitation in my native town, and I have heard him tell of sitting on the platform with Earl Shaftesbury, John Fielden, Richard Ostler, and other advocates of that cause. I always thought he put a little sarcasm into the word earl, at any rate he had but little respect for aristocracy and royalty. He was also a Chartist and I have heard him tell of many incidents connected with the Chartist agitation and movement.

(2) Samuel Fielden, Autobiography of Samuel Fielden (1887)

There appeared in Todmorden at different times, several colored lecturers who spoke on the slavery question in America. I went frequently to hear them describe the inhumanity of that horrible system, sometimes with my father, and at other times with my sister. One of these gentlemen called himself Henry Box Brown; the gentleman brought with him a panorama, by means of which he described places and incidents in his slave life, and also the means of his escape. He claimed that he had been boxed up in a large box in which were stowed an amount of provisions, the box having holes bored in the top for air, and marked, "this side up with care." This he was shipped to Philadelphia via the underground railroad, to friends there, and this was why he called himself Henry Box Brown. He was a very good speaker and his entertainment was very interesting.

(3) Samuel Fielden, speech at his trial (September, 1887)

The men who have been on trial here for Anarchy have been asked the question on the witness stand if they were revolutionists. It is not generally considered to be a crime among intellectual people to be a revolutionist, but it may be made a crime if a revolutionist happens to be poor.

From the time I became a Socialist I learned more and more what it was. I knew that I had found the right thing; that I had found the medicine that was calculated to cure the ills of society. Having found it, I believed it, and I had a right to advocate it, and I did. The Constitution of the United States, when it says: "The right of free speech shall not be abridged," gives every man the right to speak. I have advocated the principles of Socialism and social equality, and for that and no other reason am I here, and sentence of death is to be pronounced upon me.

The great Socialist who lived in is world nearly 1,900 years ago, Jesus Christ, has left these words, and there are no grander words in which the principles of justice and right are conveyed in any language. He said: "Better than ninety-nine guilty men should go unpunished than that one innocent man should suffer."

(4) Samuel Fielden, letter to Richard Oglesby, the Governor of Illinois (5th November, 1887)

I was born in England in humble circumstances, and had little early education. For some years I devoted my life to religious work, being an authorized lay preacher in the Methodist denomination. I came to this country and settled in Chicago. At all times I was obedient to the law and conducted myself as a good citizen. I was a teamster and I worked hard for my daily bread. My personal conduct and my domestic life were beyond reproach.

Some three years or more ago I was deeply stirred by the condition of the working classes, and sought to do what I could for their betterment. I did this honestly, and with no sinster motive. I never sought any personal advantage out of the agitation in which I was engaged. It is true that I have said things in such heat that in calmer moments I should not have said. I made violent speeches. I suggested the use of force as a means for righting the wrongs which seemed to me to be apparent.