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)

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.