The Assassination of Gov Frank Steunenberg

In 1905, the assassination of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg led to a sensational trial which featured some of the most prominent attorneys in the US and turned into a national debate over the existence of labor unions.

Frank Steunenberg

In the closing years of the 19th century, there was unrest in Idaho. The state had one of the largest mining industries in the world, and most of the economy (and jobs) depended on gold, silver, copper, and iron mines. Mining was a dirty and dangerous job, with low wages and unsafe conditions. The mining companies, with their enormous economic clout, also dominated the local and state governments, insuring that they could do whatever they wanted with impunity.

In 1892, however, the Mine Owner’s Association in Coeur d’Alene ID was stung when the railroad companies increased their freight charges, cutting into the mining profits. To make up for it, the mine owners began introducing new drilling machines which allowed them to fire many of the miners and to cut the wages of many more. The miners, however, were some of the most militant unionists in the country, and quickly responded with a strike, which then became bitter and turned violent. When “scab” strikebreakers were recruited in Michigan and brought in by train, armed bands of strikers met them at the railroad station to turn them back.

Soon, a private army of Pinkerton detectives was clashing with the strikers. Fierce gunfights broke out, with several killed on both sides, and after martial law was declared, state militia and Federal troops were sent to the scene at the request of Idaho Governor Norman Bushnell Willey. Pinkerton detectives infiltrated the union and acted as spies, passing on membership lists and information about planned actions. In one incident, union members who stopped a train full of scabs were arrested by Federal agents for “interfering with the US mail”. Some union officials were jailed on vague charges of “conspiracy”, and others were packed off to Boise to get them away from the area and prevent them from giving instructions to the strikers. Suspected union members and supporters were rounded up en masse, without any charges, and kept in “bull pens”, barbed wire camps patrolled by troops. (The Supreme Court would later condemn all of these illegal detentions.)

Although the strike was lost after four months of military occupation, the rebellious spirit of the miners all across the state, and beyond, had not been broken, and now the mineworkers were more militant than ever. When the railroad porters led by Eugene V Debs launched a nationwide strike against the Pullman Car Company in 1894, miners in Coeur d’Alene walked off the job in sympathy. Some of the miners, moreover, took the opportunity to wreak vengeance on their enemies: one of the informants who had helped break the 1892 strike was shot to death, a mining company manager was kidnapped, and an attempt was made to blow up one of the explosive storage sheds. Once again, militia troops were sent to occupy the area.

Meanwhile, the miners decided that they needed an association that was better-organized and more militant than the regional unions in Coeur d’Alene, and so in 1893 in Butte MT, the Western Federation of Miners was formed to unionize mine workers across the US and Canada. The WFM immediately launched an organizing campaign that focused on all the major mining centers—and of course one of these was Coeur d’Alene. Over the next few years, many mine owners gave in to union demands rather than risk a disruptive and potentially-violent strike.

In April 1899, however, the WFM targeted the Bunker Hill Mining Company, demanding recognition of the union and a wage increase. The company flatly refused, saying that they would rather close down than allow a union at their mine.

Things quickly turned violent. On April 29, over a thousand WFM members, many of them armed, hijacked a train, filled it with dynamite, and drove it to the Bunker Hill Mine. Oddly enough, one of the men on the train was the local sheriff, James D. Young. A union supporter, Young later testified that he thought the train was merely carrying strikers to a demonstration, and once he learned of the violent intent he tried to stop it but was unable.

At the mine, a small group of police met the train, shots were fired and several men killed before everyone withdrew. The ton and a half of dynamite was then unloaded from the train, piled up in the concentrator mill building, and detonated. It destroyed the entire mining facility.

With this new outbreak of violence, Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, a newspaper publisher who had been elected with unionist support in one of the biggest landslides in Idaho history, called on President William McKinley to, once again, send troops, declaring, “It is a plain case of the state or the union winning, and we do not propose that the state shall be defeated”. Most of the Idaho state militia was still on occupation duty in the Philippines, so McKinley ordered in US Army soldiers from the African American 24th Regiment, recently-returned veterans of the Spanish-American War. In response, rumors flew that Governor Steunenberg had received a $35,000 bribe from the Mine Owner’s Association to protect their interests.

Once again, local officials, supported by the Federal troops and by “special deputies” appointed from the company security police, set up “bull pens” and arrested virtually every adult male in the area, over 1000 in all. The arrestees included Sheriff Young and two of the three County Commissioners. Nobody was charged with any crime. When several indignant union supporters asked to see an arrest warrant, the police would pull their revolver and declare, “This is my warrant.”

In violation of US law, units of Federal troops were also sent across the border into Montana to arrest groups of miners who had escaped the roundup, and brought them back to the Idaho “bull pens”. And when the local Mullan Mirror criticized the mass arrests as illegal and unconstitutional, a representative of the Governor’s office showed up with a group of troops declaring, “I find that you have been publishing a seditious newspaper, inciting riot and insurrection, and we have concluded that publication of your paper must cease”, and closed down the printing presses.

Within two weeks, the mass arrests had broken the back of the strike, and most of the detainees were released. Nine union officials were charged with planning the dynamite-train attack on the mine—one was convicted, and the other eight escaped jail and fled.

Resentments from the strike, however, continued for years afterwards. Steunenberg’s actions in particular were viewed by union supporters as a betrayal, and he became so unpopular that he declined to run for another term in 1900. And in 1905 those resentments finally caught up with now-former-Governor Frank Steunenberg.

On December 30, 1905, ex-Governor Steunenberg took a walk around the little town of Caldwell ID. When he returned to his home and opened the gate, it blew up. Someone had rigged two sticks of dynamite to the fence. Steunenberg died an hour later.

It was, naturally, widely assumed that Steunenberg had been killed by union supporters in belated retaliation for his role in the 1899 strike, and soon enough, Pinkerton detective James McParland, who had earlier helped to break up the “Molly Maguire” union in the Pennsylvania coal fields, now became the chief investigator for the Steunenberg assassination. He identified a union member named Harry Orchard as one of the plotters, and when Orchard was arrested the police found dynamite and wire in his hotel room. Orchard was then offered a deal by the police in exchange for naming the others who were involved, and now confessed that he had been acting on the orders of William “Big Bill” Haywood, the General Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, Charles Moyer, President of the WFM, and miner George Pettibone, who had been convicted of one of the attacks during the 1892 strike. All were arrested.

Haywood was the first to go on trial, in 1907. It quickly turned into a national sensation and was dubbed “The Trial of the Century”.  The prosecution was led by William Borah, a prominent attorney who would soon be elected to the US Senate, while the defense was carried out by Clarence Darrow, one of the most celebrated lawyers in the country. It dragged on for three months. Darrow’s cross-examination of Orchard alone took over a week: the prosecution called 80 witnesses, while the defense called over 100. Despite all of the testimony, it soon became apparent that the prosecution’s entire case rested solely on Orchard’s testimony—there was no corroborating evidence from any other source to tie Haywood to the assassination. Darrow was also able to poke holes in Orchard’s story: Orchard had testified that he had over the years carried out at least 17 fatal bombings and attacks on company employees and local government officials at the WFM’s behest, including a planned assassination of the Governor of Colorado, but there was no evidence for that. In a long impassioned closing argument, Darrow declared that the entire case against Haywood was based on nothing more than Orchard’s uncorroborated story and a lot of anti-union frenzy.

In the end, the jury voted to acquit. When Pettibone went on trial shortly later, he was also acquitted, and the charges against Moyer were dropped before he too went on trial. And then, in a surprising twist, Orchard himself was placed on trial and his own confession was used against him. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but had his execution commuted because he had cooperated with the authorities, and died in prison in 1954. To the end, he maintained that his confession had been true.

Ever since the Haywood trial, legal scholars have debated the verdict. On one side are those who argue that the lack of corroboration to Orchard’s testimony made an acquittal legally proper and justified. On the other side are those who conclude that the jury had acted from its own pro-union sympathies.

Today, there is a memorial stone to Governor Steunenberg at the Idaho State Capitol Building in Coeur d’Alene. The inscription states, “Frank Steunenberg, Governor of Idaho, 1897—1900. When in 1899 organized lawlessness challenged the power of Idaho, he upheld the dignity of the state, enforced its authority and restored LAW AND ORDER within its boundaries, for which he was assassinated in 1905. Rugged in body, resolute in mind, massive in the strength of his convictions, he was of the granite hewn. In grateful memory of his courageous devotion to public duty, the people of Idaho have erected this monument.”



8 thoughts on “The Assassination of Gov Frank Steunenberg”

  1. I hope the day will come when the Worker Class will be the government and the corporate world will be forced to conduct itself with decency toward the Men and Women that made it so wealthy and powerful. Man’s inhumanity to Man must come to an end.

  2. This was a powerful and well written article by Lenny Flank. A source of inspiration for other aspiring writers and revealers of history. Until today, I had never heard of these tragic events in Idaho.

    Does the “Western Federation Of Miners” still exist?

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