Big Trouble: The Steunenberg Assassination

A statue of former Idaho Governor, Frank Stuenenberg faces the Idaho Capital in Boise. Harry Orchard assassinated Governor Stuenenberg in 1905 in retaliation for the Governor's role in surpressing the violent 1899 miners' strike in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.

Great history books generally fall into one of two categories. The first category is a streamlined and essentialized rocket trip straight through a subject to the heart of the matter. The second category branches out from the subject at hand to touch on the context, consider the background, describe the setting, and explain the implications thus providing the fullest possible understanding of the subject matter. Usually history books of this second kind are terribly boring – the author droning and rambling on and on, lacking the adult supervision of a competent editor. Every once in a while however, a book of this second kind nevertheless achieves greatness through colorful presentation of a rich background texture of events in support of a gripping tale.   Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas is such a book.

Frank Steunenberg was the fourth Governor of Idaho, serving from 1897 to 1901. On December 30, 1905, a bomb planted in his garden gate detonated. Steunenberg died of his wounds soon thereafter. Authorities quickly captured the assassin, Harry Orchard. In those pre-FBI days, criminal investigation across state lines was typically conducted by private investigators. The leading firm was the Pinkertons, who made a business of providing private security for railroads, mines, and other industrial concerns. Idaho engaged their top man, James McParland, to lead the investigation.

McParland skillfully extracted a full confession from Harry Orchard. Steunenberg was targeted for his role in requesting the U.S. Army to break up the violent Coeur d’Alene miners’ strike of 1899. Orchard implicated three key figures in the Western Federation of Miners: Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone. McParland concocted an extralegal scheme with the connivance of authorities in Colorado and in Idaho to kidnap the three labor leaders and spirit them away to Idaho on board a special express train provided by Union Pacific.

The case against Haywood, Moyers, and Pettibone was weak, relying as it did almost exclusively on the testimony of Harry Orchard. Accordingly, McParland secured the arrest of Steve Adams, an accomplice to Orchard, and persuaded him to confess to his role in the plot.

By this time, the labor leaders were in serious jeopardy of the gallows. The full resources of the union and an outpouring of funds from Socialists and other supporters helped fund the defense. Renowned defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, took the case. The famed agnostic, perhaps best known for his defense of the Darwinian cause in the Scopes Monkey Trial, earned his reputation by his bare knuckles, win-at-any-cost approach to litigation. He proved a match for the prosecution’s tactics, by bribing relatives of Steve Adams to induce him to renounce his confession.

The pre-trial maneuverings were marked by unethical conduct on both sides. The prosecution managed to place an operative on the defense team responsible for surreptitiously polling potential jurors for their views and biases with respect to the case. Naturally, the prosecution conducted its own juror polling as well. Both sides used this intelligence in jury selection.

Further details of the trial and its outcome are available from the book, or from online sources.

The detail in Lukas’ treatment is simply incredible. Off the topic of my head, here are a few diversions I found particularly memorable:

  • The history and politics of the turn-of-the-century labor movement,
  • The cattleman versus sheepherder wars,
  • The history of Boise’s “Red Light” district,
  • The basis of the long standing Anglo Saxon antipathy toward professional police and law enforcement agencies,
  • The history of the Pinkertons,
  • The detailed biographies of the key players, particularly McParland and Darrow, and
  • A wonderful and insightful explanation of the role fraternal organizations like the Elks, Odd Fellows, and Eagles played in the social scene of the American West.

In summary,  Big Trouble presents an elaborate and richly detailed portrait of a singular event and the times from which it arose. I particularly enjoyed the objective and even-handed way in which Lukas chronicled both the excesses of certain mine owners as well as the tactics of terror employed by Haywood and others in the labor movement. Tragically, Lukas hanged himself shortly before the book was published.

A number of other excellent books describe or touch on the events of the Steunenberg assassination. I first learned the story from the memoirs of Charles Siringo,  A Cowboy Detective. Siringo worked for the Pinkertons as one of their top operatives. Not only was he a key figure in infiltrating but also he served as bodyguard to McParland throughout the Haywood trial. Siringo’s memoir merits a post of its own at a later date. I also recommend Debaters and Dynamiters: The Story of the Haywood Trial. This is a good place to start, although not as richly detailed as Big Trouble. Further, a DVD documentary from Idaho Public Television is also available.

Finally, as I was writing this post I had the good fortune to run across John T. Richards, Jr.’s “Idaho Meanderings” blog. Richards, a great grandson of Frank Steunenberg, maintains this  blog devoted to the history surrounding his great grandfather’s assassination, early Idaho history, and related topics. It’s worth checking out.

UPDATE: Here’s a sample, Richards’ commentary on the Haywood trial verdict.

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