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The Bay View Tragedy of 1886

Introduction: In the 1880s, workers in Milwaukee began to agitate for the eighthour workday that we take for granted; until then, workers generally put in much longer days. A twoyear, nationwide campaign to get all employers to adopt a standard eighthour day culminated on May 1st, 1886, when unions urged all American workers not yet on the system to stop working until their employers met the demand. In Milwaukee, peaceful parades and demonstrations prevailed as striking workers shut down factories without violence during the first five days of May1886. Then came word that in Chicagoʹs Haymarket Square the police had killed demonstrators; many of Milwaukeeʹs workers and businessmen began to prepare for armed confrontation.

The last important factory that remained open was the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. On May 5, a crowd of demonstrators who went there to call out the workers still inside was attacked by troops. Five people were killed and four wounded. While the massacre at Bay View did not end the agitation, the shots fired dampened momentum for the movement and Governor Jeremiah Rusk became celebrated as a national hero, assumed to have saved Milwaukee from anarchy.

Background Reading: ʺThe Birth of the Labor Movementʺ h t t p : / / w w w . w i s c o n s i n h i s t o r y . o r g / t u r n i n g p o i n t s / t p 0 3 0 / ? a c t i o n = m o r e _ e s s a y

Documents to Analyze: Stephen, Jessie. ʺThe Union Badge: Story of a Workerʹs Family.ʺ Milwaukee Leader, May 24, 1930. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=941 and Wallber, Emil. Recollections given in ʺBay View Labor Riot of 1886.ʺ Milwaukee Free Press, July 3, 1910. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=933

Who, What, Where, When, Why: Two memoirs of the event should be compared for this lesson. The first is by worker Jessie Stephen, who was in the front line of demonstrators and watched a companion be shot down next to him. The second is a reminiscence by Emil Wallber, who was mayor of Milwaukee at the time and supervised the police; this article also shows photographs taken that day. Both memoirs were written many years after the events they describe and were intended for a general audience of Milwaukeearea newspaper readers. The official report of the state militia (who actually fired the guns), created during and soon after the events, is linked below.

Related Document: ʺMilwaukee Riots.ʺ in Biennial report of the adjutant general … (Madison, 1887): 1326. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=934


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