On Tuesday, the new episode that aired reached just 474,000 viewers, a middling audience in a country of 320 million, but easily outpacing much splashier fare, including the JFK Jr. retrospective airing on A&E and Alternatino on Comedy Central. On the other hand, it lost 50,000 viewers from the Expedition Unknown rerun airing right before, suggesting that the Travel Channel audience agrees that America Unearthed is not what it used to be.
We open with news footage of bombings of the past thirty years, including the Oklahoma City federal building attack of 1995 and the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. Wolter then claims that the first person ever to bomb on U.S. soil has finally been identified. We cut to the opening credits—whose discussion of “artifacts,” “inscriptions,” and “tombs” has never been less connected to the content of the show—and then we see footage of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. Wolter recall where he was on that fateful day… Duluth, Minn. The story is… not relevant.
Wolter announces that he plans to investigate the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Massacre, which began with a bomb thrown during a labor protest and to find out who threw the bomb, a question that has remained unanswered for more than 130 years. We then watch a historical reenactment of the bombing and subsequent police gunfire, resulting in eight deaths.
Wolter is in Chicago meeting with Bleue Benton, a researcher who wants his help to find a time capsule buried in 1892 beneath the Haymarket victims’ memorial with newspaper articles, photographs, and trial transcripts. (These transcripts are available from other sources, and they are not a secret.) Benton believes that Wolter’s geological expertise in stone and concrete can help him to identify the location of the time capsule. However, Wolter concludes that there is no way to excavate the time capsule due to the size and weight of the monument, which would be damaged by any dig. He vows to investigate anyway, and Benton tells Wolter about an alleged Pinkerton’s conspiracy to weaken labor on behalf of big business to make the labor movement look like a bunch of violent radicals. The conspiracy suggests that business paid the Pinkerton detectives to pose as anarchists and to bomb the Haymarket to turn public opinion against labor.
Therefore, Wolter visits the Pinkertons, who tell Wolter that there is no definitive information. Wolter suggests that he could answer the question by studying the specs of the bomb to determine whether it was intended to be deadly or a distraction. Wolter meets with the FBI’s top explosive scientist, Kirk Yeager, and the two prepare a plan to recreate the bomb to measure its destructive power. Then we go to commercial, having wasted 15 minutes of air time on about three minutes of content.
The second segment is all about making the bomb. The cooperation between the FBI and America Unearthed gives the lie to early seasons’ suggestions of a government conspiracy to suppress the truth and block Wolter’s investigations. Wolter visits the Chicago History Museum to see remaining evidence of the bombs that were made for the Haymarket attack, and we slowly go through the process of assembling a bomb in the nineteenth century style with the help of various experts, and we cut to commercial with Wolter promising to blow up the recreated bomb. I imagine that the show’s core audience of old men are very excited by this, but I tend to find watching people make things to be rather boring, particularly when the bottom line is a one-sentence summary of whether the bomb was intended to be powerful enough to cause injury or death or whether it was meant to be a glorified firecracker. I don’t need two and half segments of a TV show to get to that sentence.
In Camp Ripley, Minn., a military and police training facility, Wolter arrives to blow up the test bomb with the help of the FBI. The show chooses to approach this in one of the most boring ways possible. Wolter tries to throw one of the test bombs (without explosives) to prove it could be hurled a long distance—to which, duh. Shotput is a sport. A live bomb is detonated amidst a field of mannequins, and Wolter concludes from the damage they sustained that the bomb was intended to kill and therefore was the work of an actual anarchist and not a Pinkerton pretending to be one, on the theory that the Pinkertons wouldn’t have intentionally tried to kill cops.
We go to commercial, having now spent more than half of the show on ideas that might reasonably have filled five to seven minutes of screen time in a better-written documentary.
The segment opens with a glamor shot of Wolter’s Masonic double-eagle pinkie ring as he reads papers and begins to speculate about whether German immigrant George Meng was the Haymarket bomber. His great-granddaughter tells Wolter that her mother thought Meng to be the bomber (a claim circulating since the 1980s), but there is no clear evidence that Meng was in the right place at the right time. Wolter goes over the evidence in his lab with Yeager, and we see Masonic symbols and paraphernalia on the walls. The two review a number of potential suspects and focus in on Rudolph Schnaubelt, a leading anarchist and associate of Meng. Some sleight of hand conceals from viewers that Schnaubelt was the suspect that Chicago police had identified at the time of the attack and whom a witness identified as the bomber. A police captain became incensed at the “stupidity” of the officers who let him go after arresting him twice. We cut to commercial with Wolter promising to learn more.
Man, this episode is dragging due to the lack of facts and content. Restating the same thing over and over again makes the time pass very slowly, no matter how much dramatic music gets thrown over the lack of content. Local Chicago historian Richard Lindberg discusses various claims with Wolter, but it’s mostly just a reprise of information from earlier segments. Wolter says that Lindberg’s information “seals the deal” because Schnaubelt moved to California and died there in 1896. I’m not entirely certain how, but Lindberg suggests that Schnaubelt was “on the run.” Well, we already knew he was a wanted anarchist, so I’m not sure how this adds additional evidence for his guilt. It seems that some key information was missing from the segment, such as the fact that Schnaubelt was long considered the chief suspect, apparently to make the Schnaubelt revelation seem more dramatic. Everything Lindberg tells Wolter has been known for nearly a century. For example, Art Young described the same thing—right down to the claim that Schnaubelt’s move to California was a flight from justice--in 1939.
Wolter visits police sketch artist Luis Santoyo at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to have the artist create a sketch of the Haymarket bomber based on eyewitness descriptions of the bomber. Wolter hopes that the resulting sketch will match a photograph of Schnaubelt, and we cut to commercial before finding out.
In the final segment, Wolter and Santoyo decide that the resulting sketch looks similar to Schnaubelt, though really it could be almost any Victorian white guy. The show uses a strange angle to enhance the similarity and obscure differences. Seen straight on, Schnaubelt appears rounder and softer than the hard-angled sketch.
Wolter calls the resemblance uncanny, but we don’t get important information, like whether Santoyo was already familiar with Schnaubelt’s photo, as seems likely given that Schnaubelt was the police’s chief suspect in 1886 and has been frequently identified as the bomber since then. This could have influenced his depiction. At this point the Travel Channel app broke down and spiraled into an endless cycle of commercials, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the time trying to see the last three minutes of the show. I powered through anyway, only to be rewarded with Wolter restating everything we saw in the earlier segments as he tells Benton that Schnaubelt was the most likely bomber. Wolter summarizes with paean to the labor movement and his support for a higher minimum wage.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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