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)

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.

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.

Jesse Hicks is a freelance writer who has taught in the Science, Technology, & Society program at Pennsylvania State University.