History is being uncovered near the Haymarket Martyrs Monument in Forest Home Cemetery. A large team of volunteers worked to recover a time capsule that was buried near the monument over a hundred years ago. Despite adverse weather conditions over the weekend, they made remarkable progress, finding a cube, believed to contain the ashes of Haymarket martyr, Oscar Neebe. Beneath this, they discovered a cylinder that appears to be the time capsule. It was removed late Monday afternoon. 

This discovery caps over two years of effort on the part of local residents and archeological experts. Researchers Mark Rogovin, a labor historian, and Bleue Benton, an Oak Park Public Library research librarian, first found mention of the capsule in a Chicago Tribune article from Nov. 7, 1892. It describes a capsule being ceremonially buried under the cornerstone of the monument. 

A speaker at the ceremony stated, “When generations to come dig up these records and read them, they will wonder that such barbarity could have been tolerated in the 19th century.”

“Barbarity” would describe the treatment of the eight working class leaders, who were arbitrarily blamed for a bomb that exploded on May 4, 1886, in Haymarket Square. The bomb directly killed one Chicago Police officer. Other officers and protesters were killed in the chaotic shooting that followed the explosion. The identity of the bomber remains a mystery to this day.

Nevertheless, following their trial, four of the defendants were hanged. In 1893, the Pioneer Aid and Support Association erected the monument to honor them. Prior to the monument’s construction, the capsule was buried on Nov. 6, 1892.

The Pioneer Aid and Support Association listed the contents of the capsule. It includes articles from Chicago newspapers from the Haymarket era. There was also a long list of documents from a variety of labor unions, including Beer Brewers Union No. 18, the Progressive Cigar Makers Union 160, and the Ladies Tailor Union. Reportedly, there are also documents from the Socialist Men’s Choir, the German Ladies Society and other labor organizations.

Finally, more personal items: Letters penned by the martyrs and family photographs. The list of contents is long and there is a large collection of court documents from the “Great Trial of the Anarchists in 1886.” These documents were interred with the intention of having them read by future generations. 

When Rogovin learned of the capsule’s existence, he contacted archeologists in the area and organized an effort to discover its location. Dr. Rebecca Graff, a professor and fellow at Lake Forest College, led the effort. 

“I was contacted by the Illinois Labor History Society,” Graf recalled. “I was actually asked to find something. It’s been a real pleasure; the degree of collaboration is delightful.” 

This summer, Graff brought ground-penetrating radar to the cemetery and surveyed south of the monument. (Time capsules are traditionally buried near the southwest corner of a monument). An object matching the size of the capsule was located and preparations were made to recover it. Finally, after all the permits were in place and they had secured the cemetery’s blessing, the hands-on work began on Saturday.

The workers and equipment were donated by Lake Forest College and De Paul University. The digging began on the morning of Oct. 1 by 13 students from Lake Forest and seven from De Paul. They were supervised by two urban archeologists: Professor Graff and her counterpart at De Paul, Professor Jane Baxter, who were using the project to teach students field methods. The students weren’t getting course credit but simply came for the learning experience.

They soon found themselves in a very wet “classroom.” Steady rains hampered their work. “I’ve worked all over the world,” Graff said, “and never got so soaked.” This didn’t dampen the spirits of the volunteers. Victoria Karker, a junior from Lake Forest College, said, “We were really excited about digging and finding a concrete object. We were also excited about the Haymarket.” Karker, like the others, came to the dig for three days straight.

Morgan Krause, a senior at De Paul and a teaching assistant, helped supervise the dig. “Some of the students have little experience with digging,” she noted. “This project gave them hands-on experience, under challenging conditions.” 

The students first sifted through the topsoil and found marbles and other artifacts from visitors. This was what they normally come across — buttons, coins, shards of pottery — but they were seeking something much larger and more significant.

Krause was the first to strike “pay dirt” so to speak. Her digging tool suddenly made a “clink, clink, clink” as it encountered the cube. It was believed to be the urn vault holding the remains of Neebe, one of those pardoned, who died in 1916. It was resting atop the cylinder. Krause and the others partially unearthed the cube and placed it aside. Then they dug with care around the cylinder. Krause was the first to find the bottom of it. It was 62 centimeters high and 30 centimeters across. It appeared to be made from stone, with a lid of white marble. 

Krause’s teacher, Professor Baxter, said, “From an archeological viewpoint, this is significant. The people who placed this capsule were thinking of us.” 

It wasn’t just academics getting in on the fun. Nikola Egedus, a member of the Carpenters Union, happened on the project Saturday and provided some muscle for the dig. He returned again on Sunday to help. On Monday, he called off work, and headed to the cemetery. 

“I found out more about the monument,” Egedus said, noting that his Local 1027 had donated funds for its restoration. 

Stephen Backman, of the Forest Park Historical Society, came to the site wearing his work boots and pitched in with the digging. On Sunday, Mayor Calderone stopped by to observe the dig and encourage the workers. Debbie Clark, Forest Home’s general manager, took time to oversee the project. She was acting in her role as funeral director, to make sure Neebe’s remains were not disinterred. Stephanie Fortado, executive director of the Illinois Labor History Society, was also on hand. 

“We’re super-lucky that so many people are donating their time,” she said.

This includes Bartosz Dajnowski, from the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park, who flew all the way in from India on Monday to help out. Dajnowksi was going to assist with the removal and opening of the capsule at his nearby shop on Desplaines Avenue. 

What’s inside? As of press time, that remains a mystery. But regardless of the outcome, the collaboration of so many students and volunteers to recover a piece of history shows that there may be much to learn from an era when “barbarity” toward workers was “tolerated.” 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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