Return to the Scene: Forensics at the Haymarket Trial

Sketch of the trial of the anarchists. (The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

Sketch of the trial of the anarchists. (The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

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.

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.

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.