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In 1886 a bomb exploded during a labor protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Eight anarchists were tried and found guilty; some were executed. In 2003 researchers reassessed the forensic evidence.

By Jesse Hicks | April 28, 2013

On the night of Tuesday, May 4, 1886, a crowd gathered under a light rain in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Estimates vary as to its size—it could have been a few hundred people or a few thousand—but its purpose was clear. It was a protest, a show of solidarity organized by a group of “anarchists,” radical socialists who believed capitalism’s depredations demanded it be overthrown—violently, if necessary—and a new order established.

Many there were immigrants—manual laborers who worked nine to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. As Chicago’s industrial production increased, so had its collective power, making the city the center of organized labor in the United States. With clashes growing between management and labor the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had begun a nationwide general strike to demand an eight-hour workday. A rally at the McCormick Reaper Works the day before had ended in bloodshed when strikers confronted strikebreakers. Chicago policemen fired into the crowd, killing two.

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Sketch of the trial of the anarchists.

The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

Now a crowd stood in Haymarket Square to protest the shooting and declare solidarity with the workers. Anarchists had printed fliers advertising the rally, and many gave rousing speeches from an open wagon parked adjacent to the square. A large contingent of police officers looked on.

The crowd began to thin as the night progressed. At around 10:30 the police commander ordered his men to march toward the speaker’s wagon, demanding that the crowd disperse. As the police advanced, a round object with a burning fuse landed among them. The “czar bomb,” an explosive made with two cast-lead hemispheres bolted together, detonated, filling the air with smoke and sending shrapnel in all directions. Almost immediately gunfire erupted, though witnesses would later dispute just who had started the shooting. Demonstrators and police traded bullets; within minutes at least seven policemen were dead, along with three demonstrators. There were scores of wounded, from both the bomb and gunfire. Skirmishes quickly broke out in the surrounding area, then elsewhere in the city. The New York Times would describe it as “rioting and bloodshed in the streets of Chicago.”

Suitably updated, this scene could open an episode of C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation or any of its regional spin-offs. In the fictional scenario investigators would survey the aftermath, perform a species of high-tech magic, and deliver justice before the end credits—no uncertainty, only justice cleanly and decisively established within the laboratory. In the pop-cultural universe of forensic science “case closed” is almost always the final outcome, with no qualms or revisions. Science is portrayed as a method leading to omniscience; in the world of C.S.I. everything is ultimately knowable.

The New York Times would describe it as ‘rioting and bloodshed in the streets of Chicago.’

Even with modern technology the C.S.I. world offers a comforting fiction in which guilt and innocence are binary oppositions and science unfailingly reveals truth. The real world is decidedly messier. The bomb that exploded on May 4, 1886, reshaped the future of organized labor in the United States. That bloody night in Chicago provoked a crackdown on workers’ rights, hurt the public perception of labor unions, and proved for many activists that there could be no violent, revolutionary vanguard. But the person or entity responsible for detonating the bomb is still up for debate. Was there, as authorities alleged, an organized plot to violently attack the police that night in hopes of spurring a workers’ uprising?

Eight anarchist leaders were promptly put on trial. The trial lasted for six weeks, the longest in Illinois to that time, as a parade of witnesses gave often contradictory accounts and the anarchists turned the proceedings into a forum for broadcasting their ideas. Indeed, they claimed the trial was an injustice and that they were really being prosecuted for their ideas. Historical consensus eventually sided with the anarchists but the trial ended with a guilty verdict.

What was the true story? Was it possible to know for sure, 120-odd years later, or had time eroded too many clues? In July and August 2003 a group of investigators decided to take another look at the Haymarket evidence, this time using today’s methods. The plan: reexamine a pair of unexploded bombs and the shrapnel, looking to convince not a jury, but history, that chemistry could shed light on an old case.

Forensic Firsts

Modern investigators weren’t the first chemists to examine the Haymarket evidence. That distinction belonged to Walter Stanley Haines. By the time he testified at the trial in late July 1886, Haines had been a professor of chemistry at Chicago’s Rush Medical College for nearly a decade. Unlike today’s would-be crime-scene investigators, he had received no specialized training in the field—largely because there was very little of such training to be given. Instead, Haines adapted techniques from the laboratory to fit the courtroom, improvising as necessary. His main expertise lay in toxicology, but he wasn’t afraid to experiment beyond those bounds when the situation warranted it.

Haines had attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He began studying chemistry, but an illness forced him to return home to Chicago after just two years. After switching to the study of medicine he received his M.D. from the Chicago Medical College in 1873. At age 26 he was offered the professorship at Rush; he accepted and would spend almost 50 years there.

He believed in civic duty, offering his scientific expertise to the Committee on Revision of the U.S. Pharmacopeia, which maintained the nation’s official reference book on pharmaceutical standards and practices; to the Illinois Food Commission; and to the Illinois Commission on Industrial Diseases. He also coedited A Textbook of Legal Medicine and Toxicology, published in 1904, a 1,500-page, two-volume work intended as a comprehensive guide to the intersection of medicine and law. His section, titled “General Principles of Toxicology,” detailed the symptoms of common poisons, their treatment, and, if necessary, the best practices for postmortem examination.

By then toxicology had accumulated almost a century’s worth of history. Of course, authorities had sought to identify poisonings almost as long as there had been mysterious deaths. And then in 1812 Spanish-born chemist Matthieu Orfila published Traité des poisons, which introduced greatly improved techniques for detecting arsenic, a favorite among poisoners. At age 26 Orfila became the leader in the emerging science of toxicology. He went on to become a professor of medical chemistry, conducting studies of asphyxiation and decomposition, seeking a scientific understanding that could serve the law, and often testifying at famous trials.

Authorities had sought to identify poisonings almost as long as there had been mysterious deaths.

Still, for all of Orfila’s pioneering, decades later and a continent away forensic science remained a frontier ripe for exploration. Haines followed a path similar to his precursor, applying chemistry in often novel ways in court and in high-profile cases. His calm, precise demeanor made him an excellent expert witness, and he offered testimony in a number of trials, applying a variety of forensic chemistry techniques.

In 1897 Adolph Luetgert, “the sausage king of Chicago,” stood accused of murdering his wife, Louisa. Police suspected Luetgert had killed Louisa in his factory, boiled her down, and then burned the remains in a furnace, leaving only fragments of bone and a pair of rings for identification. Haines told the court he’d tested the prosecution’s theory by boiling three cadavers in solutions of crude potash. The accused had purchased potash before his wife’s disappearance, and Haines’s experiments showed that boiling a body in potash produced remains similar to those found in Luetgert’s sausage factory. Luetgert was convicted and died in prison less than two years later.

In late 1909 childless Kansas City multimillionaire Thomas Hunton Swope died after a short, anguished illness. The executor of his will had died just two days previously. Two months later, when Swope’s nephew died of typhoid fever, suspicion fell on Bennett Clark Hyde, the family physician who had married Swope’s niece before the deaths and who stood to inherit part of a $3.5 million fortune. Investigators later discovered Hyde had purchased cyanide capsules and typhoid samples, leading to a strong circumstantial case against the doctor. But it was a postmortem examination of Swope by Haines and his colleagues and their finding of strychnine and cyanide that led to charges against Hyde. Convicted, Hyde eventually won his freedom on appeal, though until his death he was dogged by his reputation as a poisoner.

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Walter Stanley Haines’s skills in medicine and chemistry were called upon in several murder trials.

The University of Chicago Library

The Haymarket Testimony

Haines took the stand late in the Haymarket proceedings, on July 30, 1886. He and a fellow chemist, Mark Delafontaine, had independently analyzed several samples of bombs and bomb fragments. Two fragments were recovered from the body of Officer Mathias Degan, who died that night at the scene, and from Officer Murphy (no first name given), who survived. They compared these fragments to intact bombs allegedly belonging to two of the accused, Louis Lingg and August Spies. Haines and Delafontaine examined the fragments and samples from the various bombs, looking to compare their chemical components.

The prosecution conceded from the beginning that its witnesses could not identify the bomber in the smoke and confusion of the confrontation. Even worse, a prime suspect, Rudolph Schnaubelt, had fled the country. However, under Illinois law, if the prosecution could prove that the bombing had been premeditated, it didn’t need the bomber. Any member of the plot was legally culpable for its consequences, which meant standing trial for murder. The prosecution aimed to prove that all eight men had known of and participated in a plot to attack the police on the night of May 4, 1886, with the aim of bringing about a revolution.

When Haines took the stand, the prosecution wanted his evidence to connect the bomb fragments taken from Degan and Murphy with the intact bombs tied to Lingg and Spies. Similar chemical components could suggest they had provided the lethal bomb. It would be another bit of circumstantial evidence, delivered by an eminent, respectable professor. Unlike much of the previous testimony, with its tangle of contradictions and human motivations, it would have the allure of scientific objectivity.

Haines had four samples connected to Lingg, thanks to unexploded bombs confiscated by the police. They all contained mostly lead but also small amounts of tin. The first sample contained 1.9 percent tin; samples 3 and 4 contained 2.4 and 2.5 percent, respectively; and the second sample contained 7 percent. All four contained trace amounts of antimony and zinc, with sample 2 also containing traces of copper. Haines and Delafontaine didn’t quantify these traces, citing the difficulty in doing so, but deemed them minute and unimportant to their overall analysis.

The fragment recovered from Murphy contained 1.6 percent tin, along with traces of antimony, zinc, and iron. The Degan fragments were roughly the same. While not exactly matching the recovered bombs, the fragments, the prosecution argued, showed evidence of being made through the same process. Lingg, it had previously alleged, melted down lead and other soft metals, then used clay molds to cast the hemispheres of his bombs. The combination of lead alloys Lingg allegedly used introduced the small percentages of tin—a component Haines claimed commercial lead did not contain. To Haines and the prosecution the tin suggested a “recipe” consistent across the samples. Haines had connected the shrapnel removed from Officer Degan to the unexploded bombs alleged to belong to Spies and Lingg. It was the only physical evidence produced at the trial.

Back to the Future

More than a century later a surprising amount of the physical evidence remains from the trial, some of it, including the fragment removed from Officer Degan, winding up at Yale University. The Chicago Historical Society also received material from the trial, including a bomb casing alleged to have belonged to Lingg.

When researchers revisited the work of Haines and Delafontaine, the intervening decades complicated matters. First, there was the question of provenance for the bomb casing. It had passed through numerous hands following the trial, muddying its connection to Lingg. Second, the lead in all specimens had over a century to oxidize, albeit slowly. And finally, the scanning electron microscope–energy dispersive spectrometry technique used today differs from the Haines and Delafontaine analytical methods. They had scraped metal from the bomb cases to perform a qualitative examination, though the trial transcript leaves their method unclear. The modern analysis, by contrast, is nondestructive. A focused electron beam directed at the sample causes the emission of X-rays. The wavelengths of those rays characterize the constituent elements in the sample, while the rays’ intensity reveals proportions.

Were they innocent? Did they receive a fair trial? Just what does the evidence mean, reinterrogated a century later?

But after comparing results the researchers found no reason to doubt the original analyses. Their examination of the Degan fragment showed it contained an average of 1.7 percent tin; Haines had put the percentage at 1.6 to 1.7. And analysis of the top hemisphere of the bomb casing showed it to be 7.1 percent tin, where Haines had estimated 7 percent. They also found similar trace elements, though modern techniques allowed for greater quantification.

If it’s impossible to know what effect Haines’s chemical analysis had on the jury in 1886, it’s comparatively easy to see how historians have responded. Many find it unpersuasive. After all, the percentages do not exactly match, and taken on its own the suggestion of a consistent “recipe” may not carry much weight. Even if a recipe were proven, recipes can be shared, and the anarchists of the day were well known for distributing information on the “science of revolutionary warfare”—the title of an anarchist instruction manual written by Johann Most. And if Lingg had in fact made the bomb, that didn’t prove his involvement in a plot: Lingg made many, many bombs.

In the C.S.I. world truth often arrives in a sudden flash, a revelation. There’s the “aha!” moment, and afterward everything falls into place. This turn makes for tidy but satisfying narratives. They’re called “police procedurals” because their unique appeal derives from this process: a steady accumulation of incontrovertible evidence leading to an inescapable conclusion. It’s the scientific method as a genre of storytelling, one that transposes the relative certainty of the laboratory to a much more chaotic and unpredictable milieu. In the real world evidence rarely “speaks for itself.”

When the jury made their decision in the Haymarket incident, they voted guilty, believing the bombs belonged to the men accused. One defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison; the rest would be hanged. The defense attorneys quickly appealed—both in the courts and to public opinion. A clemency petition drew 100,000 signatures; such prominent writers as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde criticized the trial. In response, the Illinois governor commuted two death sentences to life imprisonment. Another of the convicted killed himself. Four were executed.

Five years later progressive Democrat John Altgeld became governor. Clarence Darrow, then a labor lawyer, was a close friend and encouraged the governor to pardon the remaining anarchists. Altgeld eventually did so, declaring the original trial unfair and citing a biased judge—who happened to be the governor’s political enemy—a packed jury, and evidence he considered insufficient. He even speculated on the existence of a lone, deranged worker pursuing revenge against the police instead of a conspiracy.

The execution of the four men led to the establishment of May Day, the international workers’ holiday, while the pardon provided support for the current near-consensus that the Haymarket anarchists were martyrs. Today the square is a historical landmark, and nearby stands the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, unveiled just before the 1893 pardon and bearing the words of August Spies, one of the executed: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

Before they were silenced, the Haymarket anarchists declared that they’d been persecuted for their beliefs. And in their silence others are left to interpret their story. Were they innocent? Did they receive a fair trial? Just what does the evidence mean, reinterrogated a century later? These are complicated questions; the debate surrounding them has grown heated, even within normally staid academic journals.

One of the many C.S.I.-style police procedurals, Cold Case, focused on unsolved crimes, often decades old. At the end of each case justice was done, and the victim’s spirit looked on approvingly. There’s unlikely ever to be such a pat ending to the story of the Haymarket case: no forensic evidence will arrive to erase all controversy in a flash of truth. The clarity of the C.S.I. world is, after all, a fiction—where moral judgment is not a fraught and humanly constructed thing, but a discovery waiting at the end of a microscope or tucked neatly away inside a DNA sample.