He also accepted a version of events that had been written into the history books long ago. The details vary, but the broad strokes of the story are the same. A group of workers, most of them German-speaking immigrants, assembled near Haymarket Square to appeal for an eight-hour workday. Many called themselves anarchists, but they were mainly a peace-loving bunch who simply wanted to improve their wretched conditions. As police arrived to bust up the crowd, someone tossed a bomb. No one knows who did it — perhaps an anarchist agitator or, as Howard Zinn suggests in A People’s History of the United States, perhaps “an agent of the police, an agent provocateur.” Regardless of the culprit’s identity, police panicked and opened fire, accidentally killing several of their fellow officers. The incident left seven cops and a handful of protesters dead. In a fit of xenophobic hysteria, authorities rounded up political radicals, showing little regard for civil rights or criminal evidence. At a trial with hostile jurors and a biased judge, eight defendants who could not be connected to the bombing were nevertheless declared guilty. Seven received death sentences. One committed suicide in prison. Four went to the gallows. The other three eventually were pardoned.
Ever since, Haymarket has occupied a central place in progressive lore. The international labor movement honors May Day as its holiday in part because of its proximity on the calendar to Haymarket’s anniversary. In the United States, Haymarket ranks alongside the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs as a fable of anti-radical persecution. Well into the 20th century, its notoriety provoked violent rage. In 1969, Bill Ayers and an accomplice from the Weather Underground engaged in their own Haymarket terror, bombing a statue that honored the fallen policemen of 1886. “This is too good — it’s us against the pigs, a medieval contest of good and evil,” wrote Ayers of the affair in his memoir, Fugitive Days.
The Haymarket legend became more than a preoccupation of red-diaper babies. It entered mainstream education. A common college textbook — America: A Concise History, by James A. Henretta and David Brody — says the Haymarket defendants were “victims of one of the great miscarriages of American justice.” Another textbook — American Stories, whose authors include best-selling historian H. W. Brands — claims that there was “no evidence of their guilt.” Worst of all, the episode was thought to have exposed the nation’s highest ideals as gross hypocrisies: “The Haymarket case challenged, like no other episode in the nineteenth century, the image of the United States as a classless society with liberty and justice for all,” wrote James Green in Death in the Haymarket, a popular account published in 2006.
“I believed all of this,” says Messer-Kruse. “I had drunk the Kool-Aid.” Then his student asked her vexing question: If the trial was a sham, what did everyone talk about for week after week? Driven by curiosity, Messer-Kruse wanted to find out.
His first step was to consult the conventional scholarship — works published by labor historians Henry David in 1936 and Paul Avrich in 1984. “I thought it would be easy to learn what happened,” he says. Yet neither account satisfied him. Then the Internet came to the rescue: Messer-Kruse discovered that the Library of Congress and the Chicago Historical Society had just digitized a large collection of material on Haymarket, including a transcript of the trial. He slogged through thousands of pages, consulting other primary documents to gain a sharper picture of what lay buried in the historical record. Along the way, he realized that earlier researchers had not consulted this transcript. Instead, they had relied on an abstract of the trial prepared by defense lawyers, drawing their conclusions from a flamboyantly prejudiced account of the bombing and its aftermath. “The best source had been hiding in plain sight,” says Messer-Kruse.
Here was a scholar’s dream: untapped evidence about a landmark moment in history. Messer-Kruse looked at Haymarket from brand-new angles, embarking on the CSI: Haymarket phase of his research. The trial transcript made him question the claim that friendly fire was at least as deadly to the police as the actual bomb, so he consulted old maps and built a scale-model diorama in his basement. Cardboard cutouts represented buildings. Plastic green soldiers stood in for police and protesters. One time, his wife came down the steps to find him fixated on his miniature scene. “A beautiful mind,” she said before turning around and heading back up, in an allusion to the then-current movie about John Nash, a brilliant professor who sinks into madness. “I was just trying to understand the evidence,” says Messer-Kruse.