Return to the Scene: Forensics at the Haymarket Trial

Walter Stanley Haines’s skills in medicine and chemistry were called upon in several murder trials. (The University of Chicago Library)

Walter Stanley Haines’s skills in medicine and chemistry were called upon in several murder trials. (The University of Chicago Library)

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.

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.