Terror in a Small Town

Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America

by J. Anthony Lukas
Simon and Schuster, 875 pp., $32.50

We begin with the sleepy quotidian rhythms of Caldwell, a small town in Idaho. It is afternoon, December 30, 1905. We follow a prominent citizen—ex-governor, owner of the town newspaper—named Frank Steunenberg. Having said, somewhat uncomfortably, a prayer with his fervent wife (a Seventh-Day Adventist), Steunenberg strolls off to his familiar spots. He is treated deferentially, but he makes these rounds too regularly to excite much notice. After thirty-five pages of leisurely description of the town, we get back with Steunenberg to his house, watch him open the gate to his yard, and hear his lower body being blown away by the explosives rigged to the gate.

That is the way it will go for the next 700 pages—slow build-up, placid details of everyday America, then a quick opening of fissures that show a busy hell under the surface. Before the book is finished, an implausibly vast range of characters has been drawn into the story—governors and state courts, armies of private detectives, priests and ministers, socialists, vigilante groups, ladies’ organizations, the National Guard, federal troops, the Supreme Court, President Roosevelt, the theater world, and baseball. This book is to “true crime” stories what War and Peace is to most war novels. It not only gives us the crime of the era, but the era as a crime.

Since the little town of Caldwell had few policemen, a Citizen’s Committee was formed to find Steunenberg’s killer. Rewards were offered to stir up citizen action—which took the form of identifying the obvious suspects, those with foreign names or exotic facial pigment. Current proponents of citizen action and local government will perhaps be delighted at the ordeal undergone by an Austrian couple who looked swarthy.

The governor saw political advantage in prosecuting the killer of his predecessor in office, so he raced to Caldwell from nearby Boise. But he, too, had few resources in that era of small government, so he hired a private detective firm, the Thiel Agency, that had extensive knowledge of community conditions in Idaho. Those who call, these days, for privatization of government functions will no doubt applaud this course—why pay for investigators on a permanent basis when you may need them only in emergencies? Others will be less approving when they learn that the agency had acquired its expertise by more regular employment with mine owners, who wanted spies in the union movement. Government “invasion of privacy” was not nearly as intrusive as these men’s covert activities directed toward the protection, not of the whole community, but of secret managers.

The governor of Idaho, Frank Gooding, had experience with detectives of all sorts, including the most famous and feared agency, the Pinkertons, who had infiltrated the Pennsylvania miners’ secret organization, the Molly Maguires, in the 1870s. When Gooding asked the district Pinkerton office, in Denver, Colorado, to send help, the very man who had gone underground with the Molly Maguires, James McParland, took charge of the entire investigation—giving Lukas his most fascinating character, a criminal hunter…

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