|The Murder of Former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg
|Digital History ID 3197
The popular image of the post-Civil War American West stresses
independence and self-reliance. The dominant images in popular
mythology are of rugged individuals: cowboys, pioneers, and prospectors.
But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mining
regions from Colorado to Idaho were the scenes of violent labor
confrontations; the most violent labor clashes in American history.
On New York's Eve 1905, former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg
was killed by a bomb, rigged to go off when he opened his gate.
The explosion could be heard 16 miles away. Suspicion focused
on a drifter named Harry Orchard, who had killed 13 men in 1904
when he dynamited a railroad depot during labor conflict in Colorado.
Orchard confessed to the ex-governor's murder, but said he
had undertaken it at the behest of officials of the Western Federation
of Miners, the most militant labor organization in the country.
The federation, he said, saw Steunenberg as a traitor who had
betrayed the union movement by declaring martial law and calling
in federal troops to quell violence in the Coeur d'Alenes region
of Idaho, an area rich in gold, lead, and silver deposits, in
1899. The soldiers--African Americans who had distinguished themselves
during the Spanish American War--corralled more than a thousand
people, not only miners but also teachers and doctors, in barns
and boxcars. Racist resentment against the soldiers exacerbated
the miners' anger at Governor Steunenberg.
Three Federation leaders, who Orchard said had commissioned
the assassination, were kidnapped from Colorado by the Pinkerton
Detective Agency and spirited to Idaho on a special train paid
for by the mining companies. Given the weakness of law enforcement
in many parts of the West, private detective agencies like Pinkerton
openly assisted government prosecutors.
"Big Bill" Haywood, the Federation's secretary-treasury,
was put on trial in May 1907. Haywood, who along with Socialist
Party leader Eugene V. Debs, had founded the International Workers
of the World, a revolutionary labor organization known as the
"Wobblies," was reviled by many leading politicians
including President Theodore Roosevelt.
Haywood was defended by Clarence Darrow, "the attorney
for the damned," who had already become a legendary figure
for defending Debs in the 1894 Pullman strike. In his closing
statement, which dragged on for more than 11 hours, Darrow
Out on our broad prairies where men toil with their hands,
out on the wide oceans where men are tossed and buffeted on the
waves, through our mills and factories, and down deep under the
earth...the poor, the weak and the suffering of the world are
stretching out their helpless hands to this jury in mute appeal
for Will Haywood's life.
Prosecuting attorney William S. Borah, who had just been elected
to the U.S. Senate, closed his case by recalling the day when
the former governor had been murdered and he saw:
...the stain of his life's blood upon the whitened earth.
I saw Idaho dishonored and disgraced. I saw murder--no, not murder,
a thousand times worse than murder--I saw anarchy wave its first
bloody triumph in Idaho.
At the end of the trial, Haywood was acquitted. A second union
leader was acquitted in 1908 and charges against a third union
official were dropped. Theodore Roosevelt privately called the
verdict "a gross miscarriage of justice, concluding, "I
suppose the jury was terrorized."
The 1907 trial received national newspaper coverage. The arrival
of millions of foreign immigrants, the rise of Socialist parties,
the growth of unions, including radical unions like the Western
Federation of Miners, had made the public jittery. Eugene Debs
had threatened to send armed workers to Idaho if Haywood was executed.
Labor and management in Idaho seemed to be engaged in open
warfare, fighting with dynamite, arson, and rifles. The mine owners,
ranchers, and mainstream press regarded the Western Federation
of Miners as a source of anarchy and disorder. The labor and Socialist
press was convinced that Idaho's government had trumped up charges
against Haywood in order to destroy organized labor in the state.
A rally for Haywood in Boston attracted an estimated crowd of
The miners' federation, which had been organized during the
bitter labor violence of the 1890s, was convinced that it was
engaged in class warfare. Its first president had said: "There
can be no harmony between organized capitalists and organized
labor. Our present wage system is slavery in its worst form."
In 1892, the mine owners in Idaho's' Coeur d'Alene region had
cut the wages of unskilled workers from $3.50 for a 10-hour day
to $3. When the miners had struck, the owners locked them out
and reopened the mines with scab labor. In 1896, the miners had
helped elect the Democratic and Populist candidate for governor,
Frank Steunenberg. Most mining companies responded by raising
the daily wage back to $3.50, but one company refused, and in
1899 heavily armed federation members dynamited that company's
mines. Altogether, the union may have killed dozens of non-union
laborers. It was this bombing that led Gov. Steunenberg to ask
for federal troops.
The miners were convinced that the mine operators would stoop
to virtually anything--including the use of spies and kidnapping--to
suppress unions. Indeed, the Pinkerton agent who investigated
the Steunenberg murder, James McParland, had early infiltrated
the Molly Maguires and testified in the trials in which 20 men
were executed for terrorism in the Pennsylvania coalfields. "It
is war," one reporter said, "and the methods of war
have been adopted."
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