Digital History

Industrialization and the Working Class

The Murder of Former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg Previous Next
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 said:

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 100,000.

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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