May 4, 1886 | Haymarket Bombing in Chicago

A labour protest in Chicago in 1886 descended into a riot when an anarchist lobbed a bomb at police called out to re-establish order.

Bombs have been part of the terrorists’ arsenal for decades: they were the anarchists’ tool of choice.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — Terrorism is all around us these days. In the wake of constant news coverage and the fact that so many countries appear to be affected it may sometimes seem that we are inundated with violent extremist attacks, unlike other societies at other times. Many people believe that what we are going through now is unique: this may be a factor of so many of us not knowing our histories.

The unfortunate truth is that terrorism has been around for a very long time, at least the late 19th century. Most scholars I am familiar with date terrorism to that age and not before, although I am sure others would push it back further.

That first ‘wave’ of terrorism is known as the era of the anarchists, in which groups and individuals used guns, knives, and the relatively new invention of dynamite and other explosives to target many, including several heads of state. The list of the world’s leaders assassinated is a long one and several attacks have featured in this today in terrorism series (or will be discussed in future ones).

Today’s attack appears to fall within this framework. On this day in 1886 at a labour protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square where participants were petitioning for an eight-hour work day, a bomb was tossed at the police called out to keep order. Seven law enforcement officers and four civilians were killed by the bomb and the ensuing gunfire as the incident turned into a riot. At least four civilians were killed and 70 wounded as the police fired into the crowd.


In August 1886, eight men labeled as anarchists were convicted in a sensational and controversial trial in which the jury was considered to be biased and no solid evidence was presented linking the defendants to the bombing. The death sentence was pronounced on seven of the men, and the eighth was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The anarchist ‘wave’ lasted until the end of WWI then petered out. It was replaced by other forms of ideologically-motivated violence. We still have anarchists in our midst but they have not descended to the level of mayhem…yet.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply