Home / General / This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1905

This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1905


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.

Haywood’s Trial

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.

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  • It would be great to hear someone who is already a household name speak so eloquently and passionately on behalf of workers and their families.

    The guy who works the counter at Kwikkie Mart isn’t as visually dramatic as the fishermen and miners, but someone could bring it to life. We NEED people to stock the shelves, drive the goods, answer the phones, mop the floors, etc. There is nothing wrong with doing necessary work, it is no shame; and it’s about time Americans stopped treating honest work as failure for losers. Anyone with that sentiment who uses the services provided by working people is taking what’s given them, and there’s nothing smart or “classy” about that.

  • Growing up in Boise, as I did, one can’t help but know something of Steunenberg, as there’s a big statue of him in front of the State Capital building. He’s discussed a bit in state history in school, but only a tiny bit, unsurprisingly.

    • The last time I was in Boise, I made a beeline to that statue. I should have taken a picture.

      • I haven’t looked at it closely in a few years, but my memory is that he looks like less of a doufus in the statue than in the photo above.

        • I believe the phot is of Big Bill Haywood.

          • Ooops I guess you meant the first photo. More coffee Jeeves.

  • bobbyp

    Thanks, Erik! And what wileywitch said.

    • Bart

      Ditto, and too many bosses, not enough outside gates.

  • stickler

    I was under the impression that the jury acquitted Haywood after looking out onto the courthouse lawn, and seeing a large crowd of miners assembled … looking in the jury deliberation room’s windows. And apparently some of the miners were holding up bits of cardboard with the home addresses of the jurors written in big letters.

    I can’t remember where I read that part but it would be even more poignant if it’s true.

    Also, why not mention that Big Bill Haywood is buried in the Kremlin wall? How many other one-eyed labor leaders can you say that about?

    • HonorableBob

      I find it awful that anyone would hold up Haywood as some kind of hero.

      More than likely, the jury got it wrong or were, indeed, intimidated. At the very least, Haywood fled the country to a comomunist country to avoid prosecution on serious anti-American charges.

      There is a reason why organized labor has the stink of corruption just like the mafia and this is a good example.

      Better “heros”, please.

      • Bill Murray

        yeah being implicated by a man given the choice of implicating the WFM leaders and getting better treatment and possibly freedom and money or getting hung, it is incredible that any one doesn’t believe Big Bill was guilty

      • Jay B.

        He fled after several trumped up cases against him. Thankfully, while the stink of union corruption fills your delicate nostrils, the titans of capital have remained above reproach and their actions remain models of rectitude and probity. Otherwise one would think a labor concern troll is concerned.

        • HonorableBob

          I think we can all agree that political ASSASSINATION can never be condoned.

          I also believe we can all agree that organized labor was responsible, regardless of who set the bomb. No one just picked him out of the blue to blow up.

          So, if you wish to now say that this was somehow justified, how would you then be able to condemn the assinations of abortion doctors for their beliefs?

          It’s a bad road you go down to whitewash this murder. Labor is responsible.

          • Hogan

            I also believe we can all agree that organized labor was responsible

            Even though there’s no clear reason to think that’s true. It’s just the kind of thing those filthy proles do.

          • Jay B.

            I am not, in fact, in favor of assassinations. But you clearly have no idea what happened in this case, you used the dumb phrase “serious anti-American charges” like that’s actually worse than the murder accusation, you stupidly blame “labor corruption” on a 100-year old case and equate the labor movement with the mafia. Since my grandfather and father were union guys because they believed in solidarity and collective bargaining and not because they were vested in a criminal enterprise, I find your concerns idiotic. Even if, in the remote possibility that the state’s charges against Hayward were true, it has literally no bearing on my strong support of the labor movement or its vital mission in this country.

            I was in favor of the dignity of the working man, but since frank stuenenberg was assassinated 60 years before I was born, I’m worried about a Red Revolution in this country.

            • HonorableBob

              What other possible reason was he murdered other than his anti-union political activities?

              Activities that were within the law, unlike the murder.

              • jefft452

                “I also believe we can all agree that organized labor was responsible, regardless of who set the bomb”

                “It’s a bad road you go down to whitewash this murder. Labor is responsible.”

                “What other possible reason was he murdered other than his anti-union political activities?”

                Replace Harry Orchard with Jared Lee Loughner, Stuninburg with Congresswomen Giffords

                “I also believe we can all agree that The Tea Party was responsible, regardless of who pulled the trigger”

                “It’s a bad road you go down to whitewash this murder. Sarah Palin is responsible.”

                “What other possible reason was he murdered other than her pro-ACA activities?”

                Do you still agree?

                • HonorableBob

                  Do you still agree?

                  I don’t agree and neither does any reasonable person.

                  Unions are known for thuggery. They got that reputation fairly. Not so much for the Tea Party.

              • R Johnston

                What other possible reason was he murdered

                That might be the most ridiculous combination of consonants and vowels ever assembled in a supposedly English language construction.

                There are lots and lots of reasons why every person who has ever lived might be murdered. Some are more likely than others, but if you can’t imagine a whole lot of plausible reasons in any particular case then you are not a sentient being.

          • I’m not going to put up with the slandering of unions here.

            • stickler

              Judas freaking Priest, a guy leaves a comment on a blog, drinks a little champagne, and finds 24 hours later that a total dipshit has left an obtuse and odd response.

              Haywood was flawed. Unions are flawed. Corporations are flawed, but with a lot more money than unions.

              Haywood and Steunenberg are both interesting, and important in their own way.

              Trolls can kiss my white, hairy, easychair.

          • I think we can all agree that political ASSASSINATION can never be condoned.

            Really? So if Hitler, Stalin, or Mao were assassinated, you would not condone it? How foolishly consistent of you.

            • Holden Pattern

              Any takers on how this guy feels about Al-Awlaki’s assassination?

  • Antonio Conselheiro

    Clarence Darrow was also a Populist, and he was also the Populist at the Scopes trial. Bryan was always a Democrat, though the Populists endorsed him in 1896. Mencken was a hard-money elitist cynic.

  • DrDick

    Another reminder of why we have unions and how long and hard we have been fighting this battle. I expect Brad or one of our resident trolls to show up any time now to tell us just how benevolent corporations and capitalists are and how this was all the fault of those damned union thugs. No war but class war!

  • Anderson

    Lukas committed suicide immediately upon completing the book in 1997.

    Wow. And I was just reading this.

  • I’m a big promoter of Big Trouble. I’ve been trying to get everyone I know to read it since I finished reading it the first time. Same with Lukas’s Common Ground.

    • Richard

      I thought it was a great book but Lukas thought he had failed in writing it and became so depressed he killed himself

  • JohnB

    I just want to add, for anyone interested in primary sources, a link to some of Steunenberg’s papers.

  • skidmarx

    He fled to the Soviet Union while on bond in 1921, living there unhappily until his death in 1928.

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that he was initially enthusiatic about the Russian Revolution, and his wikipedia entry supports the suggestion that it was the rise of Stalin that made Haywood homesick:

    In Russia, Haywood became a labor advisor to Lenin’s Bolshevik government, but Lenin’s illness and death and Stalin’s rise to power ended his role as an advisor to the Soviet labor movement in 1923. Various visitors to Haywood’s small Moscow apartment in later years recalled that he was lonely and depressed, and expressed a desire to return to the United States.

    • A lot of American radicals were initially enthusiastic about the Soviet Union, until they witnessed it first hand. Emma Goldman got out of there as soon as she could.

  • mining city guy

    I am also a big promoter of Big Trouble. Lukas was an incredible researcher and it should be of interest to anyone interested in the labor movement in this country. The book covered not only Idaho and the trial of Big Bill Haywood but also other fascinating items of labor history such as the Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvania coal fields and the role of the Pinkertons.Also had some interesting digressions, to me at least, such as the importance of baseball at this time in our country, focusing on the exploits of Walter Johnson who was pitching for the Weiser Kids in the Idaho State League at the same time,facing teams like the Boise Senators, but also the Payette Melon Eaters and the Emmett Prune Pickers. Clarence Darrow was an avid baseball fan and undoubtedly saw Johnson pitch at this time.

  • Hogan

    Erik, at the appropriate time I’d love to hear your thoughts on the hate strikes of the ’40s, especially at GM and at the PTC in Philadelphia. Not a shining moment for the labor movement, but they should be dealt with.

    • I will eventually get to less shining moments. One of the next few posts is on a real bad moment.

  • steelpenny

    Thanks Erik!

    I would add that Sen. William Borah made his name with this trial. He’ll appear on Idaho’s top 10 politicians (if we ever get there).

    • Man I am taking a lot of crap for being so lazy on the top 10 lists. Fine people, I finish a project for once in my life!!!

  • jon

    Joe Hill’s not dead, says I.

    • Hey, don’t jump the gun on my upcoming Joe Hill entry!

  • Dave W.

    There are a couple of other descriptions of the trial over at Douglas Linder’s Famous Trials site here and in a contemporary account from 1907 here.

    Linder’s summary gives a somewhat different perspective on some of the key events that Erik described:

    The 1890’s had been a time of unprecedented violence in Idaho’s silver mines. Federal troops were called to Idaho three separate times to combat union-sponsored terrorism that had resulted in many deaths and extensive property damage to mining company property, the last time being an eighteen-month occupation from May, 1898 to November, 1899 undertaken at the urging of Governor Frank Steunenberg. Steunenberg asked President McKinley to send troops after union miners hijacked a train and planted sixty boxes of dynamite beneath the world’s largest concentrator, owned by the Bunker Hill Mining Company of Wardner, Idaho, blowing it and several nearby buildings to smithereens. Federal troops responded by arresting every male– even doctors and preachers– in union-controlled towns, loading them into boxcars, and herding them into an old barn where the over 1,000 men were held captive without trial. In declaring martial law, Steunenberg said, “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.” Steunenberg’s tough anti-union stance infuriated leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, all the more so because he was a Democrat who miners helped elect.

    So just to be clear, when the owners use Pinkerton spies to identify and fire union members, that qualifies as “violent” according to Erik’s article (the only place he uses the word). But when union activists hijack a train and blow up several buildings at the non-union company they were trying to organize, killing two men in the process, that can be fairly summarized as “the workers went on strike.” And when Governor Steunenberg then calls out the feds in response (the national guard being away in the Phillipines at the time), the only explanation is that he must have been bribed by the mine owners to crush the strike, rather than having had second thoughts about his former allies in the wake of that incident.

    Of course, the Pinkertons were involved in more violent strikebreaking in other incidents (some of which Erik has noted in other articles), and Steunenberg may have been rewarded politically or financially by the owners in the wake of his stance (I have no information about that either way). But I’m sensing more than a little bit of bias in the presentation here.

    • I too am shocked by bias in the blogosphere.

      • HonorableBob


        Called out…

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  • Robert Blum

    Big Trouble is a fabulous book. Very sad that Lukas took his own life.

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