"BIG TROUBLE" fine discussion of political, cultural history

[From the Big Sky Life Sunday Feature Section of The Montana Standard, Butte, November 16 1997]

Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. By J. Anthony Lucas [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, 876 pp., photographs, bibliography, notes on sources, index.]

By John Hunter Gray

It was not, by any yardstick – Western American or otherwise – a commonplace murder. When former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg, a sheepman, opened a gate at his Caldwell, Idaho, home on the evening of December 30, 1905, he was blown into eternity.

As the Industrial Revolution filtered into the west following the Civil War and traveled the earlier trails of fur hunters, cattlemen, sheepmen, farmers and prospectors and self-employed miners, it saw these latter two replaced by rapidly growing mining companies. The companies were often based outside the West. Social class divisions were quickly driven canyon-deep. Wages and safety conditions plummeted and hours lengthened. This prompted miners and related workers to organize in individual local unions. Then, after a prolonged and thoroughly embittered strike in Idaho’s Coeur d’ Alene district in 1892, in which federal troops held hundreds of strikers in bullpen concentration camps, hard-rock miners formed the Western Federation of Miners [W.F.M.]

Spreading across the mountain west, with the Butte local as its centerpiece, the W.F.M. met the force and ruthlessness of mine owners and managers with a militancy and recklessness of its own .". . .The extremes of violence in these labor struggles," wrote historians Selig Perlman and Philip Taft in the 1930s, "proceeded from no theory of revolution but from the general characteristics of the frontier."

Anthony Lucas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has written much more than simply an account of a murder and a trial. He’s feathered out a vast forest of fascinating people and issues in the regional, national and international settings.

Frank Steunenberg, a Democrat, was elected governor in 1896 with strong labor support. But when more "Coeur d’Alene troubles" erupted in 1899, violence flowed from both sides. The governor, apparently blaming the W.F.M. in total, panicked and called for federal troops. New concentration camps appeared, the W.F.M. was badly weakened in North Idaho and miners across the West saw Steunenberg as a traitor.

Almost immediately after the murder, Harry Orchard – a drifter with peripheral W.F.M. connections but with many other involvements as well – was arrested in Caldwell. "Bomb-makings" in his hotel room tagged him as the actual killer. Into the situation came the western head of the Pinkerton Agency, James McParland who, 30 years before as an undercover Pinkerton, had "fingered" the Molly McGuires in Pennsylvania for allegedly killing a coal mine manager.

McParland closeted himself with Orchard. While hymns played near Orchard’s cell, McParland figuratively dangled a hangman’s noose in front of Orchard. With his silvery tongue, the old-time detective persuaded Orchard to write a massive confession detailing Orchard’s criminal career. The key point in this sociopathic composition was that Orchard had been employed to murder the ex-governor by the "Inner Circle" of the W.F.M. This "circle" included William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, a former cowboy and prospector who was secretary-treasurer of the union and a founder of the new Industrial Workers of the World; Charles Moyer, W.F.M. president; and George Pettibone, a close friend of the union.

Orchard was promised an escape from the gallows. Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone were seized in Colorado and taken to Idaho in a sealed special train. The men were charged with conspiracy to murder, a capital offense. Because they had not been in Idaho at the time of the killing and were not accused of directly doing the deed, the seizure was widely seen as blatantly illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court, while frowning on the method, refused to intervene. The men were placed on death row at the Idaho State Penitentiary to await trial.

All hell broke loose.

The W.F.M. and its offspring – the I.W.W. – and the Socialist Party and others on the left charged kidnap and frameup. They were quickly joined by radical and labor people and then social reformers. The usually nonviolent head of the Socialist Party, Eugene Debs, warned that "if they attempt to murder Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone and their brothers, a million revolutionaries will meet them with guns."

Montana Socialists, who were strong at Butte, offered to meet Debs at the Idaho border with 10,000 armed men on horseback to free the W.F.M. leaders.

The defense team was quickly headed by former corporation lawyer turned "Attorney for the Damned," Clarence Darrow of Chicago, and the capable W.F.M. attorney, Edmund Richardson of Denver. The prosecution team was led by James Hawley, a pioneer Idaho lawyer and legend, and William Borah, just elected Idaho senator [he was not seated until after the trial].

The big show was Boise – Haywood to be first in the docket – and passions continued to boil. Supportive demonstrations occurred across the country and then throughout the world. President Teddy Roosevelt issued a statement indicating that, while the three men hadn’t yet been convicted, he considered them "undesirable citizens." Supporters of the three defendants sported thousands of buttons stating: "I Am An Undesirable Citizen."

The Haywood trial opened in early May 1907, with Judge Fremont Wood presiding. The jury included nine farmers, a real estate agent, building contractor and fence construction foreman for a railroad. Most were Republicans, the others Democrats – save for a lone Prohibitionist. Only one had been a union member, 14 years previous.

Journalists and sightseers converged on Boise.

The trial was a burning crucible of intensity. In the end, it all depended on whether one believed Harry Orchard, whose life and ill-works were examined by the defense with exquisite and damning artisanship. Haywood, on the witness stand, was calm, candid, impassive, impressive. Most partisans readily conceded that all attorneys functioned splendidly and that Judge Wood presided fairly.

Darrow addressed the jury for 11 hours while much of the courtroom wept. Attacking, among others, Orchard, McParland and "the Spiders of Wall Street," he told the jury that ". . .the poor, the weak, and the suffering of the world are stretching out their helpless hands in mute appeal for Bill Haywood’s life."

On July 29, 1907, after 21 hours of jury deliberation, Haywood was acquitted and freed. Pettibone was tried next and acquitted. Moyer was freed without trial. Orchard drew life, dying in prison in 1954.

Anthony Lucas, a New Yorker, spent the better part of a decade on this book. He made two dozen trips to Idaho and, among the wide archival sources he mined and refined, drew on the rich resources of the Idaho State Historical Society. [For reasons apparently unrelated to "Big Trouble," Anthony Lucas committed suicide shortly after he finished the book.]

In an odd, brief epilogue, he uses several obscure letters from non-W.F.M-related radicals to imply that he believed Haywood was guilty. This is singularly weak and a view not supported by known facts or by most historians. But this trivial cloud should not deter anyone from reading this extraordinarily fine book: an immensely satisfying and massively encompassing discussion of American socio-economic and political and cultural history.

Finally, there is that jury of American citizens – Idaho westerners who, in the eye of a maelstrom listened carefully, deliberated thoughtfully and renewed and strengthened the reality of the democratic American justice system.

[Arizona native John Hunter Gray is a retired professor and former chairman of the Indian Studies Department at the University of North Dakota. He was involved with the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in the 1950s and 1960s and has written extensively on the Industrial Workers of the World. Gray lives in Pocatello, Idaho. He is the father of Montana Standard reporter Peter Salter of Anaconda.]


It is worth reiterating that this is a book well worth reading -- but it is, again, worth underscoring the fact that the Epilogue should be taken, frankly, with a grain of salt. It definitely appears to have been written a good while after the basic book was completed -- and very shortly before Anthony Lukas' obviously tragic suicide. He produces not a whit of evidence to indicate the guilt of Bill Haywood or Moyer or Pettibone -- or anyone else connected with the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World. All legal evidence points to the fact that the three men were completely innocent and victims of a deliberate, colossal frameup.

Everything that their colleagues -- and History -- tell us indicates that this sort of thing, the murder of Frank Steunenberg, whether done directly or through a hireling, ran completely counter to the direct and open approach taken always by Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone who also, consistently, counseled tactical non-violence.

The principal source for this very strange conclusion of Anthony Lukas -- completely unsupported by the factual situation or anything else -- appears to rest with the wild speculation of George Shoaf, a socialist who was not connected in any way with either the WFM or the IWW -- and who, for whatever reason, developed and propounded this canard/of/guilt. Shoaf was well known, throughout his entire life, to "shoot with the long bow" -- wild and unsubstantiated conclusions. A full half-century after the Idaho trials, he was still doing exactly that on all sorts of topics. By interesting coincidence, I learned that about George Shoaf in 1957 -- when he was quite old and I was 22 and 23. He began to correspond with me about articles that I had written in The Industrial Worker -- official organ of the IWW. (Mr. Shoaf was still not a Wobbly.) It took me not long at all to realize that he "shot wild" on all sorts of things. This was confirmed by my very solid, very rational, excellent mentor and friend over the many decades -- and extremely competent IWW editor, the late Fred Thompson. Fred confirmed my wariness of George Shoaf and his many erratic judgements and advised great caution. Fred died in early 1987, long before Big Trouble was even conceived -- but I know what direct-talking Fred Thompson would say about the Anthony Lukas Epilogue. And other facets of the Epilogue are even shakier -- if that's possible!

William D. Haywood's own work is well worth consulting -- not only on the Trials but as a hell of a great Western/American saga: Bill Haywood's Book: The Autobiography of William D. Haywood (New York: International Publishers, 1929) and several much more recent editions. I also strongly recommend the excellent Joseph Conlin's Big Bill Haywood and the Radical Union Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1969.)

Who hired Harry Orchard, a classic professional killer? The on-going and perennial class war was not the only economic struggle in the Mountain West. The latter part of the 19th Century saw a myriad of conflicts -- almost all of them violent -- around land and grazing and water issues. Ranchers and homesteaders clashed in such settings as the Nebraska Panhandle; big cattlemen and small shot it out in Wyoming's Johnson County War. In Arizona Territory's Tonto Rim/Tonto Basin country, the Graham family (cattle) and the part-Indian Tewksbury clan (sheep) became embroiled in the Pleasant Valley War ("Arizona's Dark and Bloody Ground") which carried into the Twentieth Century. Frank Steunenberg was a sheepman in a state where tension and polarization with cattlemen was a central part of the culture.

In the West of my growing-up, when the Coeur d'Alene mining wars and the Idaho Trials and Bill Haywood and Clarence Darrow were discussed, the best guess regarding Orchard's employer lay in the world of the cattlemen.

Hunter Gray [Hunter Bear]