The Chicago 7 Show Trial and Silent Spring


Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history.

– Senator Ernest Gruening (D. AK) to Rachel Carson, June 4, 1963

September 27 will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book would be on any historian’s short list of the most influential books in American history. Like Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it provoked a very strong public reaction and helped change laws. It certainly had a profound impact on WC. But what, you ask, does it have to do with the U.S. government’s show trial of the Chicago 7 (or Chicago 8, if you count Bobby Seale)?

In the autumn of 1968, WC enrolled at the University of Oregon. Among his fall classes was Physical Chemistry, and his instructor was Ass’t Professor John Froines. Froines was a good teacher, with a dry wit and an engaging speaking style. He had assembled a group of lab assistants who were very good at helping students through the arcane processes of physical chemistry.

But on Thursday, March 20, 1969, Prof. Froines announced to WC’s class that he had been placed on leave without pay by the University. (The University later said he had asked for and received administrative leave.) He had been indicted as a co-conspirator in the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago that led to the police riots there. He was innocent, he said, but the University didn’t want him around. He gave all of us a recommended reading list as a going away present. And on that list was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

(Oregon seemed to make an effort to expurgate any trace of John Froines from its records; WC’s transcript shows his P-Chem classes were taught by Dr. Don Swineheart, the department head. Never mind that the first two quarters were taught by Froines.)

So on Prof. Froines’ recommendation, WC read Silent Spring over spring break, and more than any single factor, it made WC an environmentalist. It’s still a terrific read. Sure, Carson got some of the science wrong, but not much. And the impact on birds is indisputable.

Froines was acquitted by the jury – eventually, all of the defendants were acquitted of the crimes for which they were indicted. The trial itself was a circus, and marks a low point in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system in the modern era. The trial judge, U.S. Dstrict Judge Julius Hoffman, was blatantly biased in favor of the prosecution. He had no idea how to cope with defendants who were more interested in acting out than being acquitted. The courtroom artist’s drawing of Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in the courtroom, depicted a watershed moment in American law.

Bobby Seale Tied and Gagged in Open Court

Bobby Seale Tied and Gagged in Open Court

Judge Hoffman held all of the defendants, including Froines, in criminal contempt after trial, but all of the convictions against Froines (and most of the other defendants) were eventually thrown out. The feds never really had a case.

WC has two, quite different, conclusions to this post. First, in May 1970, WC attended an off-campus lecture by a vindicated John Froines, recounting the trial and surrounding media circus from his point of view. WC chatted briefly with Froines afterwards, and snagged a photo for the Oregon Daily Emerald. WC asked Froines if the incident had affected his activism. Froines said it had not, but that it had taught him that the consequences of activism could be far greater than he had known before. WC then had Froines sign his copy of Silent Spring.

Second, when WC wandered off to law school at Northwestern University in the fall of 1972, WC was appalled to discover his first class was in a classroom memorialized by a grateful alum of NU Law: Julius Hoffman. Yep. A bronze sculpture of Judge Julius Hoffman frowning down from the wall. And the professor in the second lecture WC attended there was the late Jon R. Waltz, co-counsel for John Froines in the Chicago 7 trial.

If there’s any significance to either of those conclusions, WC will leave it to you to sort them out.

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One thought on “The Chicago 7 Show Trial and Silent Spring

  1. Your picture isn’t showing. Very interesting post, WC. It has reminded me, an unashamed tree hugger, that I never did read the book. I was deep in my college studies at the time and put it off. Those were memorable times, eh?

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