5. 1905 The Assassination of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg
Due to strong support by the State’s union membership, Steunenberg, a Democrat and Populist was elected as the first non-Republican Governor of Idaho in 1896. He was reelected in 1898 (terms were for two years). The governor was seen as a very strong supporter of labor, particularly within the mining industry.
Fearful that Steunenberg’s government would not provide them with support if the workers striked, the mine owners increased wages for workers. Well, except for one: the Bunker Hill Mining Company refused to play ball.
In 1899 the Western Federation of Miners launched an organizing drive at the Bunker Hill Mining Company. Mine Superintendent Albert Burch declared that the company would rather “shut down and remain closed twenty years” than to recognize the union. Next, he fired seventeen suspected union members. He followed up by demanding that all other union men collect their back pay and quit.
In what quickly became the modus operandi of powerful unions, the Federation of Miners reacted with violence. On April 29, 1899, 250 striking union miners seized a train in Burke, Idaho and drove it to the site of a mill for the Bunker Hill mine. There, the union miners set off three thousand pounds of dynamite, destroying the mill. Two men were killed, one of them a non-union miner, another a union man accidentally shot by other union miners. All for ‘the greater good’ of course.
In response Governor Steunenberg, declared martial law and asked President William McKinley to send federal troops to quell the unrest. This action was seen as a betrayal by Steunenberg’s union supporters. Martial law remained in place through the end of his term.
Six years later at the end of 1905 professional hit man Harry Orchard, killed Steunenberg, via a bomb rigged to go off when the former governor opened the gate to his home.
In the early evening of December 30, 1905, Frank Steunenberg, returning from a walk in eight inches of freshly fallen snow, opened an in-swinging gate leading to the porch of his Caldwell, Idaho home, and was blown ten feet into the air by an explosion that “shook the earth and could be heard for miles around.” Within an hour, Steunenberg, the former governor of Idaho, was dead.
When captured, Orchard admitted to the murder and identified the people who hired him as the officials of the Western Federation of Miners who wanted to get back at the governor for his 1899 “betrayal.”
Three Federation leaders, whom Orchard said had commissioned the assassination, were arrested. “Big Bill” Haywood, the Federation’s secretary-treasury was, put on trial first. At the time, it was the trial of the century. The closing argument by Darrow’s co-council Edmund Richardson appealed to the racism of the jury:
“They threw them in the dirty, vile-kept bullpens and they were subjected to all sorts of indignities and insults at the hands of those Negro soldiers. If you had been there…gentleman of the jury, it is certain that you would have attained in your breast a righteous hatred for every person who had anything to do with causing your humiliation and suffering.”
Darrow followed and seemed to argue for what today would be called jury nullification, while not admitting to Haywood’s guilt, he argued that the union’s violence was justified:
.. I don’t care how many wrongs they committed, I don’t care how many crimes these weak, rough, rugged, unlettered men who often know no other power but the brute force of their strong right arm, who find themselves bound and confined and impaired whichever way they turn, who look up and worship the god of might as the only god that they know–I don’t care how often they fail, how many brutalities they are guilty of. I know their cause is just.”
It’s the socialist ideal in action: violence is horrible… except when it’s committed in the name of ‘the workers’.
In the end, Haywood was found not guilty. A second union leader George Pettibone, was acquitted in 1908 and charges against the union president Charles Moyer were dropped.
Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a letter to the British ambassador that the Haywood trial verdict was “a gross miscarriage of justice, concluding, “I suppose the jury was terrorized.” He may have been right.