On December 30, 1905, former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg walked home after a snowstorm in Caldwell, Idaho. When he arrived he pulled open his outside gate, triggering a bomb that blew him ten feet into the air and killing him. The assassination of Steunenberg led to one of the biggest show trials in American history, as prosecutors decided to try several leading American radicals, most notably Western Federation of Miners executive and future Industrial Workers of the World head Big Bill Haywood.
Steunenberg had arrived in Idaho from Iowa in 1887, quickly getting involved in local politics. In 1890, he was elected to the state legislature and in 1896 won the governorship at the head of a Democratic/Populist fusion ticket. Like a lot of Populists (William Jennings Bryan to his credit was an exception), Steunenberg was elected with labor support but became a tool of corporate power once he achieved office. The mines of northern Idaho were a hotbed of radicalism in the 1890s. The Western Federation of Miners, precursor to the I.W.W., were organizing workers around their terrible wages and working conditions, as well as violent suppression of unionization through the use of Pinkerton spies to fire anyone who signed a union card.
The miners had two reasons to elect Steunenberg. First, he claimed to represent working-class interests. Second, many of these miners were working in silver and silver coinage was a key part of the Populist platform. But when the workers went on strike in 1899, Steunenberg betrayed them, taking bribes from the miners to crush the strike.
Steunenberg declared martial law and convinced William McKinley to send in federal troops to crush the strike. Hundreds of activists were rounded up and kept in stockades for months without trial. Steunenberg stated, “We have taken the monster by the throat and we are going to choke the life out of it. No halfway measures will be adopted. It is a plain case of the state or the union winning, and we do not propose that the state shall be defeated.”
In 1900, Steunenberg retired from politics. His assassination five years later by Harry Orchard, a paid agent of the Canyon Creek Mine Owners’ Association, was bizarre. It’s not entirely clear even today why Orchard did it. He had a history of violence, some of it against scabs, but there’s also significant evidence that he was on the payroll of the mining companies. Orchard agreed to a lighter sentence by implicating the old WFM leadership, including Haywood and WFM president Charles Moyer. Orchard claimed, absurdly, that Haywood and the WFM had hired him to kill Steunenberg. Moyer was arrested attempting to escape to Canada; Haywood while having sex with his sister-in-law.
The trial took place in 1907 in Boise. Clarence Darrow represented Haywood. Darrow completely dominated the leading prosecutor, James Hawley, a nationally famous lawyer in his own right, objecting to nearly everything and flustering Hawley repeatedly. Darrow called Haywood himself to the stand, where he stood up well to heavy questioning (being obviously innocent of the charges helped). The defense attacked Steunenberg himself for the murder, noting that for whatever reason Orchard, who had a long history of violence, killed the ex-governor, the man pretty much deserved what he got for his horrible treatment of miners in 1899. The defense also accused the Pinkertons of the murder, saying they and mine owners had the governor killed to destroy the WFM once and for all.
Finally, Darrow delivered his final statement for the defense.
I have known Haywood. I have known him well and I believe in him. I do believe in him. God knows it would be a sore day to me if he should ascend the scaffold; the sun would not shine or the birds would not sing on that day for me. It would be a sad day indeed if any calamity should befall him. I would think of him, I would think of his mother, I would think of his babes, I would think of the great cause that he represents. It would be a sore day for me.
But, gentlemen, he and his mother, his wife and his children are not my chief concern in this case. If you should decree that he must die, ten thousand men will work down in the mines to send a portion of the proceeds of their labor to take care of that widow and those orphan children, and a million people throughout the length and the breadth of the civilized world will send their messages of kindness and good cheer to comfort them in their bereavement. It is not for them I plead.
Other men have died, other men have died in the same cause in which Bill Haywood has risked his life, men strong with devotion, men who love liberty, men who love their fellow men have raised their voices in defense of the poor, in defense of justice, have made their good fight and have met death on the scaffold, on the rack, in the flame and they will meet it again until the world grows old and gray. Bill Haywood is no better than the rest. He can die if die he needs, he can die if this jury decrees it; but, oh, gentlemen, don’t think for a moment that if you hang him you will crucify the labor movement of the world.
Don’t think that you will kill the hopes and the aspirations and the desires of the weak and the poor, you men, unless you people who are anxious for this blood–are you so blind as to believe that liberty will die when he is dead? Do you think there are no brave hearts and no other strong arms, no other devoted souls who will risk their life in that great cause which has demanded martyrs in every age of this world? There are others, and these others will come to take his place, will come to carry the banner where he could not carry it.
Gentlemen, it is not for him alone that I speak. I speak for the poor, for the weak, for the weary, for that long line of men who in darkness and despair have borne the labors of the human race. The eyes of the world are upon you, upon you twelve men of Idaho tonight. Wherever the English language is spoken, or wherever any foreign tongue known to the civilized world is spoken, men are talking and wondering and dreaming about the verdict of these twelve men that I see before me now. If you kill him your act will be applauded by many. If you should decree Bill Haywood’s death, in the great railroad offices of our great cities men will applaud your names. If you decree his death, amongst the spiders of Wall Street will go up paeans of praise for those twelve good men and true who killed Bill Haywood. In every bank in the world, where men hate Haywood because he fights for the poor and against the accursed system upon which the favored live and grow rich and fat–from all those you will receive blessings and unstinted praise.
But if your verdict should be “Not Guilty,” there are still those who will reverently bow their heads and thank these twelve men for the life and the character they have saved. Out on the broad prairies where men toil with their hands, out on the wide ocean where men are are tossed and buffeted on the waves, through our mills and factories, and down deep under the earth, thousands of men and of women and children, men who labor, men to suffer, women and children weary with care and toil, these men and these women and these children will kneel tonight and ask their God to guide your judgment. These men and these women and these little children, the poor, the weak, and the suffering of the world will stretch out their hands to this jury, and implore you to save Haywood’s life.
Darrow thought the jury would find Haywood guilty. They did not. To everyone’s shock, they acquitted him.
It was hardly the last time the government would look to railroad Haywood on dubious charges. He was charged in 1918 for sedition after he urged a strike in a wartime industry. He fled to the Soviet Union while on bond in 1921, living there unhappily until his death in 1928.
Harry Orchard was sentenced to death, had his sentence commuted to life in prison, and died behind bars in 1954.
J. Anthony Lukas has written the most famous book on this case. Lukas committed suicide immediately upon completing the book in 1997.
This series has also covered the Everett Massacre of 1916 and the creation of the CIO in 1935.