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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 375


This is the grave of Frank Steunenberg.

Born in 1861 in Keokuk, Iowa, he went to college at Iowa State and then went into the newspaper business, taking a job as a reporter with the Des Moines Register. He worked at that for awhile, then moved back to Knoxville, Iowa, where he spent most of his youth, and published a newspaper there for a few years. But like many young men, he wanted some adventure in the West. So he moved to Caldwell, Idaho, in the southwestern part of the state. Like Iowa, that was farm country and he and his brother took over the publishing of the Caldwell Tribune. Idaho became a state in 1890 and Steunenberg had been infused with the spirit of Populism back home in Iowa, even though the movement was less salient there than in states such as Kansas and Texas. So he ran for Idaho’s first state legislature and was elected on a fusion Populist/Democratic ticket. His record as a state legislator remained consistent with Populist principles and so when Steunenberg ran for governor in 1896, he won with union support and then again in 1898. Alas, he would soon betray the unions.

Northern Idaho had a tremendous amount of labor agitation in the 1890s. Miners were fighting for survival against rapacious owners who exploited and killed them without a second thought. As desperation set in, the miners could respond to violence with violence of their own, such as what happened in 1892, when miners blew up a mill with Pinkertons inside of it after a firefight. This was the kind of action that Steunenberg had risen to power understanding and even supporting. But once he took office and started hobnobbing with mine owners and their representatives, he changed his tune. In 1899, the northern Idaho miners went on strike again. The mine owners worried that Steunenberg would not do what was expected of Gilded Age governors: use state security forces as the private police force of employers. But he surprised them. Steunenberg declared martial law. Now, he would normally have sent in the National Guard to bust the strike. But they were deployed to the Philippines to support the United States’ unjust, racist, and brutal war of conquest against those islands. So Steunenberg, a theoretical Populist, contacted the great anti-Populist himself, President William McKinley, and asked for federal troops to crush the strike. McKinley of course was happy to do so and, once again, the military would end a strike. Martial law remained in place through the next year and Steunenberg wisely chose not to run for a third term in 1900.

Instead, he went back to Caldwell. He mostly stayed out of the news until 1905, when out of nowhere, Harry Orchard assassinated him by planting a bomb in front of his house. Orchard, a violent strikebreaking thug, was unstable and it’s hard to know why he killed Steunenberg. But it soon became a national trial, as Western Federation of Miners leaders Big Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone were framed for the murder. And look, they have had every moral reason to kill someone who had so betrayed them and the workers of Idaho, but they weren’t stupid enough to do it and there was no reason to do so six years after the fact anyway. The case made no sense. Everyone thought they would be found guilty though in that deeply anti-radical period, including Clarence Darrow, who represented them, but the case was such a mess that the jury found all three not-guilty. Orchard spent the rest of his life in prison.

Frank Steunenberg is buried in Canyon Hill Cemetery, Caldwell, Idaho.

If you would like this series to cover other governors involved in the nation’s classic labor disputes, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Murphy, whose fair actions during the Flint strike helped create the modern union movement, is in Harbor Beach, Michigan while Davis Waite, whose intervention on behalf of workers in the 1894 Cripple Creek strike nearly got him lynched, is in Aspen, Colorado. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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