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The Bay View Tragedy of 1886

By Michael Edmonds
Standards: 8.1, 8.4, 8.10; 12.1, 12.2, 12.4, 12.5, 12.9
Grade Level: Secondary
Topic: The Progressive Era

Lesson Plan Text:

Introduction: In the 1880s, workers in Milwaukee began to agitate for the eight-hour workday that we take for granted; until then, workers generally put in much longer days. A two-year, nationwide campaign to get all employers to adopt a standard eight-hour 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 Chicago's Haymarket Square the police had killed demonstrators; many of Milwaukee's 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.

Resources:

Background Reading: "The Birth of the Labor Movement"

Documents to Analyze:
Stephen, Jessie. "The Union Badge: Story of a Worker's Family." Milwaukee Leader, May 24, 1930.

Wallber, Emil. Recollections given in "Bay View Labor Riot of 1886." Milwaukee Free Press, July 3, 1910.


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 Milwaukee-area 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 Documents:
"Milwaukee Riots." in Biennial report of the adjutant general ¿ (Madison, 1887): 13-26.

"A Granger Governor" Chicago Times, May 1, 1886.

Student Activities:

1. What is the basic point of view of Jessie Stephen's recollections in "The Union Badge"? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

2. How complete is his view of the events? What details is he likely to emphasize and which ones is he likely to overlook or omit?

3. What is the basic point of view of Emil Walber's recollections in "Bay View Labor Riot of 1886"? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

4.  How complete is his view of the events? What details is he likely to emphasize and which ones is he likely to overlook or omit?

5. Both memoirs describe what happened at the Bay View Mills. List two important facts on which they agree. List two on which they disagree.

6. When sources of historical evidence disagree, what can you do to discover the truth? Does the official report of the adjutant general fill in the blanks well enough for you?

7. After reading all three documents, who do you think was most responsible for the violence that day? Quote evidence from the documents that supports your view.

8. When workers joined together and acted in unity, they could close down their employer's business and demand a safer workplace, more pay, or other benefits. Was this fair to the person who owned the business? Why do you think that?  List your reasons in statements beginning with the word "Because..."

9. In some workplaces, every employee is required to join the union and pay membership dues (this is called a "closed shop"). Is this fair to new employees? Support your answer with statements beginning with the word "Because..."

10. What effect do you think Gov. Rusk's political ambitions may have had on how he handled the situation? Quote evidence in the sources that supports your view.
 

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