10 Fascinating Facts About the Chicago Seven

Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020).
Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020).
Niko Tavernise/Netflix

On August 26, 1968, the Democratic National Convention kicked off its four-day event at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago. The year had already proved to be a tumultuous one; racial tensions and political unrest were at an all-time high following the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. So it was hardly surprising when protestors from around the country—many of them speaking out against the Vietnam War—descended on the DNC.

On August 28, approximately 15,000 protestors arrived at the Grant Park Bandshell to attend a rally, which the city had granted the demonstrators a permit to hold. But when the afternoon event ended and several thousand of those in attendance decided to march to the International Amphitheatre, the earlier peacefulness of the event turned to violence. Over the next five days and nights, police and activists found themselves in direct conflict with each other; while the authorities used tear gas and their batons, the protestors threw rocks.

Though many arrests were made, seven of the people put in handcuffs that night would quickly become household names: Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner. Better known as the Chicago Seven, these political radicals were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot and put on trial. By the end of that trial, they'd all be acquitted of conspiracy, but five of them would be found guilty of inciting riots, and even their defense attorneys would score some jail time for contempt of court.

From their March 20, 1969 indictments to the February 19, 1970 verdict, the circus in the courtroom became a national news story. The event has been the basis for a score of songs and dozens of movies, including The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer-director Aaron Sorkin's new Netflix feature. Read on for more facts about the real story behind the infamous trial.

1. The Chicago Seven was originally the Chicago Eight.

Bobby Seale at John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1972.Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was initially one of the men charged along with Hoffman, Hayden, and the rest of the Chicago Seven, but he was removed from the case after vocally refusing to have his right to a lawyer ignored. Seale wanted well-known attorney Charles Garry to represent him, but since Garry had a scheduled gallbladder surgery, he requested the trial be postponed. Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) denied the motion, but Seale rejected his court-appointed attorney. And since Judge Hoffman wouldn't allow Seale to represent himself, he effectively took away his right to legal representation.

2. Judge Hoffman had Bobby Seale bound and gagged.

After being denied his right to legal representation, Seale called Judge Hoffman a racist and repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, at one time saying, "You have did everything you could with those jive lying witnesses up there presented by these pig agents of the government to lie and say and condone some rotten racists, fascist crap by racist cops and pigs that beat people's heads in—and I demand my constitutional rights!"

Judge Hoffman ordered that Seale be restrained, both physically and audibly. So Seale was chained to a chair and gagged, then removed from the case a week later after Hoffman ordered him to serve four years solely for contempt of court.

3. The Chicago Seven were charged under a brand-new law.

The Chicago Seven were the first people charged under the anti-rioting provision set out in Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (more commonly known as the Anti-Riot Act), which had been signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in April 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil unrest that followed. That was two months before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who had been running for the Democratic Party nomination, and four months before the protests at the Chicago DNC.

4. Noam Chomsky and other well-known figures came to the Chicago Seven’s defense.

Noam Chomsky was one of many famous people who showed their public support for the Chicago Seven.Hans Peters / Anefo // CCO, Wikimiedia Commons

In an open letter to The New York Review of Books, activists/intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Judy Collins, and others rebuked the use of the anti-rioting provision of the law and came to the defense of "The Conspiracy" (another name for the Chicago Seven). Their letter began: “The federal indictment in Chicago of eight political dissenters for conspiracy to promote disorder and riot during the week of the Democratic National Convention is one of the most ominous challenges to political liberty since the passing of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy."

5. Yippies ensured the Chicago Seven’s case would be theatrical.

Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were co-founders of the Youth International Party, more commonly known as the Yippies. The revolutionary movement used absurdity and dramatics to draw attention to their causes, and the trial of the Chicago Seven was no exception. These "Groucho Marxists" openly mocked Judge Hoffman and, in one instance, wore their own judges' robes into the court. When Judge Hoffman demanded they remove them, they obliged ... only for the courtroom to see that they were wearing Chicago Police Department uniforms underneath.

6. Abbie Hoffman played tug-of-war with a federal deputy marshal over a flag.

Abbie Hoffman visiting the University of Oklahoma to protest the Vietnam War.Richard O. Barry, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

In addition to playing dress-up, Hoffman also unfurled a National Liberation Front flag—a popular symbol of support for the Viet Cong—at the defense table. When marshal Ronald Dobroski attempted to remove the flag, he and Hoffman engaged in a round of the classic playground game that only intensified the farcical nature of the proceedings. It was also captured by a courtroom artist.

7. The defense called more than 100 witnesses during the trial of the Chicago Seven.

That included a lot of famous faces. The defense team's core argument was that the protests in Chicago had been peaceful until police had instigated violence. The bulk of their witnesses attested to that fact, including poet Allen Ginsberg, comedian Dick Gregory, musician Arlo Guthrie, and writer Norman Mailer [PDF].

8. Even the Chicago Seven’s defense lawyers were charged with contempt.

The contempt of court citations began on the first day of the Chicago Seven’s trial when Tom Hayden gave a fist salute to the jury and was reprimanded for it. But the rest of the trial was largely an exercise in the defendants showing their contempt for Judge Hoffman's court in response to the judge showing his bias against them. While the jury deliberated, Hoffman announced 159 total contempt citations for the defendants and their lawyers, including eight months for Abbie Hoffman for laughing and four years for defense attorney William Kunstler for addressing the bench as "Mr. Hoffman" instead of "Your Honor" [PDF].

9. Five members of the Chicago Seven were found guilty, but their sentences were eventually overturned.

The jury ultimately acquitted [PDF] all seven men of conspiracy charges, cleared John Froines and Lee Weiner of all the charges against them, and found the remaining five members of the Chicago Seven guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot. After all the chaos and theatricality of the trial, all the sentences and contempt citations were overturned on November 21, 1972, by a three-judge panel that deemed Judge Hoffman had shown bias against the defendants in the jury selection process, in excluding evidence, and in not informing them of his own communications with the jury.

10. Pacific David Dellinger was arrested again at another Chicago Democratic Convention.

Radical pacifist David Dellinger was arrested again at a sit-in protest at the Democratic National Convention when it came to Chicago again in 1996. Abbie Hoffman's son Andrew was among those arrested that day. Dellinger was 80 years old at the time.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

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2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140


Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48


Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30


The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70


Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120


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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.