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.
This unusual approach seems to have paid off: Messer-Kruse believes that although it's impossible to rule out lethal friendly fire, several policemen were probably shot by armed protesters -- a fact that chips away at the belief that the anarchists were peaceful. Messer-Kruse also worked with chemists to study the forensic remains of Haymarket's violence. He determined that the original trial experts brought in to study the bomb and bullet fragments had done their jobs well. He furthermore concluded that one of the Haymarket defendants -- Louis Lingg, who killed himself before authorities could carry out his death sentence -- almost certainly built the bomb.
These findings made their way into Messer-Kruse's first formal work of scholarship on Haymarket: a 2005 paper printed in Labor, a top academic journal. Around the same time, Messer-Kruse organized a symposium on his work at an annual labor-history conference at Wayne State University, in Detroit. "I expected skepticism," he says. "Instead, I encountered utter and complete denial of the evidence." The standing-room-only crowd refused to question what had become an article of faith in left-wing mythology. "They seemed to think that our purpose as historians was to celebrate Haymarket, not to study it or challenge it," he says. The most provocative attack came a year later, when Bryan D. Palmer of Trent University, in Canada, published a rebuttal to Messer-Kruse. The Haymarket anarchists, he wrote, were "humane, gentle, kindly souls." Evildoers oppressed them: "The state, the judiciary, and the capitalist class had blood on their hands in 1886-87," he wrote. Those of us who "drink of this old wine adorned with the new label of Messer-Kruse . . . may end up with the sickly sweet repugnance of blood on our lips."
These fighting words convinced Messer-Kruse that he needed to continue his work. He envisioned a magnum opus on Haymarket -- a large book that would ask hard questions and exploit new sources. "A lot of labor historians think they must be deeply engaged with the prospects and agenda of labor unions," says Messer-Kruse. "But we have an obligation to represent as best we can the objective reality of the past."
For several years, Messer-Kruse toiled away. He produced a thick manuscript, only to find that publishers didn't want a big book on the subject. They feared a commercial flop. So he broke it into three parts, delivering his reinterpretation of Haymarket in a long academic paper and two peer-reviewed books: The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists, published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2011, and The Haymarket Conspiracy, published by the University of Illinois Press last summer.
"My aim is not to prove that the police and the courts were right and the anarchists and their supporters were wrong," writes Messer-Kruse in the introduction to Trial. Yet the sum of his work appears to do just that. He shows that Chicago's anarchists belonged to an international network of left-wing militants who believed that only bloodshed could bring social change. They plotted to incite violence at Haymarket. The person who threw the bomb was almost certainly Rudolph Schnaubelt, a close confederate of the defendants. He was never brought to justice because he fled Chicago and vanished from history, though Messer-Kruse suggests that he lived out his days as a farm-equipment salesman in Buenos Aires. The eight men who were arrested received a fair trial by the standards of the day. Finally, most of the blame for their being found guilty lies with a defense team that seemed more committed to political theater than to providing competent legal counsel.