Day to honor laborers owes much to Forest Home Cemetery

Paul Sassone
A monument to four anarchists involved in the Haymarket Riot, who were hanged, was erected over their graves in 1893.

A monument to four anarchists involved in the Haymarket Riot, who were hanged, was erected over their graves in 1893.

You’ll have to wait until the first Monday in September for your Labor Day holiday.

But in more than 80 countries, May 1 is Labor Day, or Labour Day, or International Workers Day.

Part of the reason why May 1 is the day to honor workers around the world can be found in the tranquility of a cemetery in Forest Park.

Forest Home Cemetery is nestled in a bend of Des Plaines Avenue, just south of the hum of the Eisenhower Expressway.

Founded more than 140 years ago, Forest Home (Waldheim, in German) became the burial ground of choice for political radicals because the cemetery was not affiliated with any specific religion.

But more important, radicals chose Forest Home for their final rest because the men executed for the Haymarket Riot are buried there. On May 4, 1886, police attempted to break up a labor demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Someone — no one knows who to this day — threw a bomb, which killed 11 people (including policemen) and injured 11 others.

Eight anarchist leaders were arrested. Four were hanged, one committed suicide and the others served prison terms.

On Nov. 13, 1887, the hanged men were buried at Forest Home in a ceremony attended by 8,000 people. Years later, Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld ruined his career by pardoning the executed men, saying they had not received a fair trial.

A monument to the men was erected over their graves in 1893. Designed by Albert Weinert, the monument portrays a figure of justice placing a laurel wreath on the head of a fallen worker.

The monument still is there and attracts visitors, particularly on May 1. As you enter the cemetery off Des Plaines Avenue, turn down the left path. The monument is directly across from the cemetery chapel.

Late in the 19th century radical political groups agreed on May 1 as the day to honor workers because that date was close to the Haymarket riot. In 1997 the monument was declared a National Historic Landmark. And in 2002 the U.S. Department of the Interior put the monument on the National Register of Historic Places.

Near the Haymarket monument are the graves of other radicals. Radicals Row the area is called. Largest of the markers is that of one of the world’s most famous radicals, Emma Goldman. Red Emma, as her foes dubbed her, died in 1940. She was a noted anarchist, pioneering feminist, an early advocate for birth control, a critic of Soviet communism — a radical for all seasons.

Goldman’s writings and ideas earned her many enemies, including J. Edgar Hoover. He had her deported (she had been born in Russia in 1869) in 1919, calling her one of the most dangerous radicals in this country. She returned to America only once. But just before she died she asked to be buried near the Haymarket martyrs,” whom she said had inspired her life.

Another radical of repute resting in Forest Home is Joe Hill. The subject of many books, songs and even a movie.

Born in 1882, Hill was the tunesmith of the radical movement, with such songs as Casey Jones the Union Scab,” and “The Preacher and the Slave.” The latter song poked none-too-gentle fun at evangelist Billy Sunday — who, by the way, also is buried in Forest Home.

But Hill did more than write songs. He helped organize many a strike.

In 1914 he was charged with murder in connection with a grocery store robbery. Shortly after the killing, Hill went for treatment of a gunshot wound. One of the robbers had been shot. Hill was arrested, tried, found guilty and executed on Nov. 19, 1915.

Hill’s remained were cremated and placed in envelopes, one for every state in the union and a few foreign countries. The Illinois envelope was scattered at the Haymarket Monument.

Someone else Hill wrote a song about also is buried at Forest Home. The song was called “The Rebel Girl,” and was about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Flynn was born to be a radical. Her father was active in the labor movement and her mother was a suffragette.

Born in 1890, Flynn was a speaker at socialist meetings by the time she was 16. She was active for years as a labor organizer. She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. She joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1937. In 1953, Flynn was convicted of subversive activities and served three years in prison. She became chairman of the communist party in 1961.

To celebrate her elevation, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev invited the Rebel Girl to visit the Soviet Union, which she did. But once out, the U.S. government would not let her back in.