Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America
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 of criminals.
The governor had a suspect, whose hotel room was full of incriminating items related to bomb-making, but his men had been unable to extract a confession. McParland put his prisoner, Harry Orchard, in a deprivation program, then came on as his friend and rescuer, saying he could make Orchard a hero if he would say he was just acting on orders from higher-ups. Orchard confessed then, and implicated five others. The big bonus for McParland and the governor came from the fact that two of the five—Charles Moyer and William (Big Bill) Haywood—were top officials in the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). This made the crime political. Orchard had a possible private motive for the murder—he had been run out of the state, to his great financial loss, when Steunenberg was governor. But the prosecution team, always directed by McParland, preferred to think the act was a retaliation, six years later, for the fact that Steunenberg had brought in federal troops to put down a miners’ strike. This was the state’s opportunity to break the union.
There was only one problem. Moyer and Haywood were at union headquarters in Denver (McParland’s own fiefdom, where he had been keeping an eye on them for a long time), and there was not sufficient evidence to win extradition from the state of Colorado. The two had not been in Idaho during the murder, so they could not be “brought back” as fugitives. Technicalities rarely gave McParland pause. He drew up papers that simply lied and said the men had been at the murder scene. Lukas describes how, in a secret deal with Colorado’s authorities, the two were then kidnapped—clandestinely arrested at night without warrant, held without charges, smuggled at dawn onto a privately hired train for which the tracks had been cleared for a run to the state border before anyone could learn of the maneuver and stop it by habeas corpus.
The union lawyers swiftly appealed this illegal act to the Supreme Court, which gave a decision that would please today’s conservatives. Yes, the men had been illegally seized and transported, but now they were charged with a crime and were in the state where the crime was committed, so it did not matter how they got there. No substantive due process in that Court. No letting “criminals” go free because of magistrates’ error.
If the Supreme Court was treating Moyer and Haywood as criminals before they were convicted, so was the President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt hated Eugene Debs, the labor agitator who was calling the men in Idaho political prisoners, so Roosevelt, in a public letter, called them “undesirable citizens.” The Reverend Lyman Abbott, who had succeeded the nation’s most famous preacher of his time, Henry Ward Beecher, in the prestigious Plymouth Congregational Church of Brooklyn, was a friend of Roosevelt who fed him anti-union information. Meanwhile Abbott’s own successor at the Plymouth Church, Dwight Hillis, became, in Lukas’s words, “virtually a member of the prosecution team,” leading the effort of the religious press to call for peace by smashing the union.
McParland ran a very expensive operation. He mobilized spies to keep track of all the suspects, their relatives, the union members, the defense team. He sent “Operative 21” to infiltrate the defense team—so effectively that “21” led the canvass of potential jurors for the defense effort, feeding it false information and channeling true reports (apparently) to McParland. The mine owners had to find secret ways of financing these activities, which far outran the state’s budget. Here we see “small government” in action. It does not simply abstain from action but becomes the instrument wielded by private interests.
How was the defense to counter such an array of forces against it, reaching from the local power structure all the way up to the President and the Supreme Court? Socialists across the nation rallied, raising money, conducting huge parades in New York and Chicago. Religious organizations, largely Episcopal, called for fairness, in opposition to the lynching rhetoric of Dwight Hillis. The energetic Dreier sisters organized committees of support (Margaret in Chicago) or inquiry (Mary in New York). And—as their trump card—the defense brought in Clarence Darrow, who had defended Debs after the Pullman Strike of 1894 and had successfully negotiated for coal miners in 1903. Darrow could be as devious as McParland, though he had nothing like the same resources. McParland, taking no chances, was determined to keep Darrow from taking a deposition from, or having any contact with, a key witness, Steve Adams. To convict for conspiracy, the prosecution needed more than one witness—Adams was the second one. His was one of the five names Orchard gave McParland, and the detective wheedled a confession out of him. But he knew Adams was shaky, and, sure enough, Darrow shook him, reaching him by a message relayed through a relative, promising defense if he pleaded innocent. McParland thought Darrow had offered a bribe, and Lukas does not consider that impossible.
The polytropic McParland, faced with this setback, sped Adams to trial on an unrelated case, held in the remote town of Wallace, hoping for a conviction that would make Adams plea bargain by reaffirming his confession. But Darrow went to Wallace and won for Adams a hung jury. McParland’s fallback position was to try Haywood aggressively and then, when the prospect of a conviction loomed, to strike a plea-bargaining deal with Moyer.
The trial, held in Boise during the summer of 1906, was the O.J. Simpson case of its time, widely reported. Journalists in town for the event got to see a young Walter Johnson pitch for the local baseball team, and Ethel Barrymore, touring with the play Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, came to hear Darrow open the defense. Darrow strove mightily to rattle Orchard free from his story, but he failed. His final address made the point that the prosecution had nothing but Orchard’s story.
The judge gave very careful instructions to the jurors, under sixty-five headings, thirty-one of them dealing with the presumption of innocence, reasonable doubt, the need for corroboration, or similar matters. As if taking up Darrow’s closing point, that the whole case “is Orchard from beginning to end,” the judge emphasized that “under the statutes of this state a person cannot be convicted of a crime upon the testimony of an accomplice unless such testimony is corroborated by other evidence which of itself, and without the aid of the testimony of the accomplice, tends to connect the defendant with the commission of the offense charged.” Some people think that Judge Fremont Wood, and not Darrow, mounted Haywood’s real defense.
It is hard to see how, if the jury were true to its duty, it could do anything but acquit. Yet most of those on the scene expected a conviction. Nonetheless, Haywood was acquitted. What went so wrong as to make things turn out right? Why did the judge defy public sentiment in his own community to give such clear signals that the prosecution had not proved its case? Was he afraid of the social disorder that would follow on the creation of a martyr in Haywood (the penalty would have been death)? Why did jurors so carefully chosen by McParland, with the advantage of Operative 21’s sabotaging of the other side, vote in favor of Haywood? Did Darrow see through “21” and turn him into a counter-agent? Lukas thinks this a possibility.
And, finally, was Haywood guilty? Lukas also entertains that possibility, since a labor leader later threatened to tell the truth about Steunenberg’s death and some other leaders were fearful of this. They would not privately have expressed their fear, Lukas argues, unless they knew the informer had truth on his side. But even false charges can cause trouble, and the informer was threatening to tell of other things besides the Steunenberg case.
Lukas believes that Haywood was capable of murder for his cause, and he may well have been. In the heat of the mine wars there was little either side would not resort to. But Haywood had more pressing matters in 1905 than to go back six years to settle accounts with a man who was out of the mine wars, who was no longer governor, and who posed less threat than many other plausible targets. Orchard’s private motive is more relevant than Haywood’s political one. How much “shelf life” was there in the events of Frank Steunenberg’s governorship?
Certainly Haywood is seen here as less than admirable. When the federal troops called in by Steunenberg turned out to be black—crack troops with a good record in the Spanish- American war—Haywood accused the soldiers of raping miners’ wives while their men were in prison. In fact, no one comes off particularly well here—except Walter Johnson, Ethel Barrymore, and perhaps Judge Wood. Certainly not President Roosevelt, or the Supreme Court. Darrow countered some of McParland’s skullduggery with ploys of his own, but his closing argument contained radical frothings that might have tipped the jury the other way without help from the judge. Local government was bought by the mining firms, many of them with absentee owners. The press was partisan and biased. Religious groups jockeyed for their own advancement. In this case, it seems, we must reverse the common adage to read tout comprendre, c’est tout condamner. Yet Lukas does not come to condemn. He is an observer. The masses of careful detail convince us of his impartiality. Thanks to his prodigious research, unobtrusively marshaled, fixing all the characters in the dense social weave of their time, we can not only see them clearly but see through them.