Samuel Fielden and the Haymarket Square Riot

Samuel “Sam” Fielden was an American Methodist pastor and activist fighting for the eight hour workday. He was one of the sentenced for the bombing at the Haymarket in 1886.

Shapes from a tough upbringing

Sam was born in Lancashire, England in 1847. When he was ten years old his mother, Alice, died so he grew up with his father Abraham who was the foreman at a cotton factory. Despite being a foreman, they lived poorly. Abraham was involved in fighting for every worker’s right, mainly for the cause of long workdays being shortened to ten hours. After having worked in the cotton industry for eight years, not so impressed by the conditions, he emigrated to America to find success and happiness. After many different jobs he ended up in Chicago where he studied theology and became “lay preacher” of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Even though he was never employed by the church he served as “lay pastor” in several congregations in the working blocks of Chicago. This was where he came in contact with socialism and “socialist thinking”. He joined the movement and from 1884 he dedicated all of his time to this and to his membership in the American Group Faction of the International Men´s Association. After a few years he was named the paymaster of the organisation. Sam, with his background as a pastor, had the gift of speech and was a diligent speaker when there was a gathering in one of the worker organisations.  

Haymarket Riot

On May fourth in 1886, Sam was working on delivering stones to German Waldheim Cement and hadn´t yet heard about a planned demonstration at the Haymarket that night. He had already promised to make a speech to some workers that night but had to cancel when he heard about an important meeting with the American Group being held, on short notice, at the office of the German newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung. Since he was the paymaster in the organisation, he had to prioritize this meeting. It was at the arrival at this meeting he got the news of the demonstration at the Haymarket. He agreed, after some persuasion, to speak at the demonstration. He held a speech, for about twenty minutes, on the alliance between socialism and the working class and the current legislation being the enemy of the workers. At the end of his speech he was interrupted by the police that had decided to end the demonstration. Sam protested but stepped down from the wagon from which the speech was made. At that same moment someone threw a bomb into the crowd. Sam was hit by a shot and hurt a knee when escaping the chaos. The day after he was arrested in his home, accused of having encouraged the crowd to make a riot and to use violence.

The Police said that Sam had drawn a gun and shot into the crowd. Sam denied it and many people witnessed to his truth. No-one but the Police had seen Sam draw a gun, and much less seen him encourage violence. Sam was sentenced to death along with six others but got his sentence changed to life in prison. After six years in prison he was released. The remaining years of his life he spent with his wife on a ranch in Colorado.