The Idaho murder trial: Labor unites to defeat a frame-up
It began with the bombing of a building. The explosion led to a hunt for terrorists. Men were seized without warrants, transported long distances, and placed in solitary confinement. Those judicial kidnappings were defended by the Supreme Court. But the events did not originate from the mountains of Afghanistan (or anywhere in the Middle East); they sprang from the Rocky Mountains of the American West.
It’s important to remember an intense campaign which the labor movement waged to defend its rights near the beginning of the 20th century. The chain of events began in April 1899.
The 1890s were a time of great turmoil in Idaho’s silver mines. Federal troops were called to Idaho three separate times in the course of this conflict. On April 29, 1899, the world’s largest concentrator, owned by the Bunker Hill Mining Company of Wardner, Idaho, a company which paid starvation wages, was blown to smithereens by dynamite.
The explosion in Wardner provided Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg with a rationale to ask U.S. President William McKinley to send federal troops to crush the labor revolt going on in his state. Steunenberg, a sheep rancher, had originally been elected with labor support, but governed as a defender of corporate interests once in office.
McKinley granted the request, and federal troops were deployed. Martial law was declared in northern Idaho. On May 4, 1899, federal troops arrested every male in the union-controlled town of Burke, Idaho. The arrested men included miners, bartenders, a doctor, a preacher, even a postmaster and a school superintendent. The detainees were loaded into boxcars, taken to Wardner, and herded into a “bullpen” unfit to house cattle. Within a few days, the number of men held captive in Wardner grew to over 1,000. The strike was crushed. The influence of the union which had organized the strike – the militant Western Federation of Miners – began to decline in Idaho. Federal troops remained in northern Idaho for many months.
The harsh treatment meted out to those who were forced to exist for months on nothing but tainted and spoiled food in the bullpen in Wardner left a legacy of great bitterness. But the bullpen was not the last violation of labor’s rights that the events of April 1899 would provide a pretext for.
A murder in the snow
On Dec. 30, 1905, Frank Steunenberg was returning from an early evening walk in eight inches of freshly fallen snow. As he opened an in-swinging gate leading to the porch of his Caldwell, Idaho home, he was hurled 10 feet in the air by an explosion. The blast shook the earth and could be heard for miles around.
Almost immediately, representatives of the mine owners accused the Western Federation of Miners of being behind the killing, charging that the union had taken revenge for Steunenberg’s request for troops during the strike. The union’s officials indignantly denied this, pointing out that their enemy was the whole system of “industrial slavery,” not individuals. The union’s leaders publicly called for a full investigation.
On January 1, 1906, law enforcement officials found a suspect. They arrested Harry Orchard, a sometimes miner and occasional WFM member, who had been in and around Caldwell for several weeks, pretending to be a sheep buyer. When detectives searched Orchard’s hotel room, they found crumbs of dynamite, plaster of Paris, and bits of twine – the ingredients of the bomb.
The authorities’ purpose became plain just days later when Idaho Governor Frank B. Gooding hired James McParland as the chief investigator for the state. McParland was a notorious anti-labor figure. The head of the Denver branch of the strikebreaking Pinkerton Detective Agency, McParland had been involved 30 years earlier in framing several leaders of the coal miners in Pennsylvania — the so-called “Molly Maguires.” He had worked for many years with the Mine Owners Association of Colorado to destroy the Western Federation of Miners in that state.
McParland moved quickly to take charge of the murder case. Before he ever met Orchard or examined any evidence, McParland decided that the WFM was involved. McParland had Orchard transferred from the relatively comfortable Caldwell jail to death row in the state penitentiary in Boise. Orchard’s food rations were cut.
On January 22, the hungry prisoner was escorted into the warden’s office and left alone with McParland. The two consumed a feast of a meal followed by fine cigars. McParland threatened Orchard with immediate hanging and told him that the only way he could avoid that terrible fate would be to testify against the top leaders of the Western Federation of Miners. When Orchard seemed skeptical, McParland told him about “Kelly the Bum,” the confessed murderer who testified for the prosecution in the cases involving the “Molly Maguires.” Kelly not only received his freedom as part of the deal, but was given one thousand dollars to subsidize a new life abroad.
McParland gave Orchard a stark choice: Either testify that he carried out the bombing as the tool of WFM leaders or hang. Within days, Orchard agreed to McParland’s terms. For four days – January 27-31, 1906, McParland took down Orchard’s 64-page “confession.” In this document, Orchard confessed to the murder of Steunenberg, and at least 17 other killings and numerous dynamitings. All of these had supposedly been commissioned by the “inner circle” of the Western Federation of Miners – which included the president, Charles H. Moyer; the secretary-treasurer, “Big Bill” Haywood; and an advisor to the union, George A. Pettibone.
The state of Idaho indicted Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone. However, all three lived in Denver, Colorado and extradition was a complicated matter. So, McParland came up with a simple plan: The three would be kidnapped.
On the night of February 17, 1906, Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone were arrested without warrants in Denver and placed for a few hours in the city jail. They were denied permission to call their families or lawyers. The three were hustled in the early hours of the morning of February 18 to the Denver depot, and placed on a special train which had orders not to stop until it crossed the Idaho border. The trip ended at the Idaho penitentiary where the three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners were held in solitary confinement on death row.
This stunning act of judicial kidnapping was condoned by both the Supreme Court of Idaho (in April 1906) and then the Supreme Court of the United States (in December 1906). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the arrest and forcible removal from Colorado of the three union leaders – even though it had been carried out through fraud and with the complicity of the governors of two states – did not violate the defendants’ constitutional rights. In a sense, this could be considered the first excusing of “extraordinary rendition” by a branch of the U.S. government.
The Working Class Responds
All over the country, unions and other working-class organizations responded to the arrests with outrage.
The Industrial Workers of the World issued a leaflet entitled “Shall Our Brothers Be Murdered?” The leaflet called for “mass indignation meetings” across the country. The magazine “Appeal to Reason” published a “Kidnapping Edition” about the case, with an impassioned appeal from Eugene V. Debs to defend the three union leaders. Famous writers Jack London and Maxim Gorky spoke out in defense of the accused.
As the date of the trial approached, local defense committees were founded in many large cities across the United States. These committees included members of the Western Federation of Miners, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party, and some central labor bodies affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Large demonstrations were held in major cities from New York to San Francisco. In Boston, 50,000 unionists marched through the streets, chanting: “If Moyer and Haywood die; if Moyer and Haywood die; Twenty million workingmen will know the reason why.”
Shortly before the trial began, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt thrust himself into the debate, calling Haywood and Moyer “undesirable citizens.” Labor responded to this blatant attempt to prejudice potential jurors by holding mass rallies with workers sporting buttons proclaiming “I am an undesirable citizen.”
The Trial Begins
With intense publicity, the new trial began on May 9, 1907, in Boise, Idaho. The state had determined that Haywood was the most “guilty” – and the most politically dangerous – of the defendants, so he was tried first. For the next three months, the attention of the country was focused on Judge Fremont Wood’s third-floor courtroom in the Ada County Courthouse.
William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood was one of the most striking figures in the U.S. labor movement. Born in Salt Lake City in 1869, he went to work in the mines when he was 15 years old. He had been elected secretary-treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners in 1900 and rapidly become the union’s key figure. At six feet two, he had an almost Paul Bunyan-like appearance. Of him, McParland is alleged to have asserted: “Haywood is too dangerous an agitator; he must be done away with.”
Of course, one newspaper was quite correct when it editorialized: “It is not merely that Moyer and Haywood are on trial at Boise. A great labor organization is on trial. If Moyer and Haywood are found guilty, if it is shown that the Western Federation of Miners did conspire to assassinate a state governor who was unfavorable to labor, then organized labor will receive its bitterest blow.”
Haywood was defended by a team including Clarence Darrow, the great progressive lawyer, and Edmund Richardson, the general counsel of the Western Federation of Miners. McParland placed a spy – “Operative 21” – on the defense team. The spy worked as a jury canvasser, and was told to give the defense erroneous reports on the preferences of potential jurors. Ultimately, the spy was discovered, but not before damage was done.
At the trial, the only evidence against the three defendants was that of Harry Orchard. After Orchard took the witness stand, wearing a tweed suit and a neat mustache, one reporter described him as “looking like a Sunday school superintendent.” With a strong, steady delivery, Orchard told his story to a packed courtroom. (There were also hundreds of spectators unable to find seats milling around on the courthouse lawn.)
Orchard testified for six days. He described how he had killed 19 men, including Steunenberg, supposedly at the behest of Haywood and other members of the “inner circle” of the Western Federation of Miners. Edmund Richardson cross-examined Orchard for 26 hours. In the course of that cross-examination, the defense showed Orchard to be a double agent, having served as a paid informant for the Mine Owners Association when he first met Haywood; a bigamist, who abandoned wives in Canada and Cripple Creek; a heavy drinker; a gambler; and a pathological liar.
The defense called almost 100 witnesses to rebut various points of Orchard’s “confession” or cast doubt on his motives. The defense brought out that Orchard had a personal motive for killing Steunenberg. In 1897, Orchard had invested in the Hercules Mine in Idaho. He had been forced to sell his one-sixteenth share of that silver mine for $300 when Steunenberg had issued his martial law decree during the labor conflicts of the late 1890s. Darrow pointed out that if Orchard hadn’t been compelled to sell his share, he would have become wealthy. While Orchard denied this, Haywood’s defense team brought forward five witnesses from three states who testified that Orchard had told them about his anger at Steunenberg. Among them were witnesses who stated that Orchard had vowed to seek revenge against Steunenberg.
In late July 1907, with the trial drawing to a close, Darrow was extremely worried about the verdict. Despite the fact that the prosecution’s entire case rested on the testimony of one man with ulterior motives and that there was no other evidence to connect the defendant to the crime, the famous defense attorney was very concerned about how the jury would interpret the testimony. He decided to stake everything on his final summation to the jury.
Darrow closed for the defense with an 11-hour speech. The “attorney for the damned” was never more impassioned. At times, his words had Haywood’s wife and mother and many of the other women in the courtroom in tears.
The Chicago attorney cut at Orchard, who he called “the biggest liar that this generation has known.” Again and again, Darrow returned to the theme that there was more at stake in the trial than the murder of one man and whether Haywood was responsible for it; there was the question of the organized campaign of the mine owners to crush the Western Federation of Miners.
Darrow explained to the jurors – most of whom were farmers or ranchers – what conditions were like before the Western Federation of Miners was organized. He described the long hours, the danger, the starvation wages paid by rich mine owners. He recounted how the union tried to change all that, and how it came under attack by the miners and the government. He pointed out that one part of this attack was the use of labor spies – like Harry Orchard.
Darrow spoke for everyone who has every had to defend an imperfect union movement when he declared:
“I don’t mean to tell this jury that labor organizations do no wrong. I know them too well for that. They do wrong often, and sometimes brutally; they are sometimes cruel; they are often unjust; they are frequently corrupt. … But I am here to say that in a great cause these labor organizations, despised and weak and outlawed as they generally are, have stood for the poor, they have stood for the weak, they have stood for every human law that was ever placed upon the statute books. They stood for human life, they stood for the father who was bound down by his task, they stood for the wife, threatened to be taken from the home to work by his side, and they have stood for the little child who was also taken to work in their places – that the rich could grow richer still, and they have fought for the right of the little one, to give him a little of life, a little comfort while he is young. I don’t care how many wrongs they have 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. …
“Through brutality and bloodshed and crime has come the progress of the human race. I know they may be wrong in this battle or that, but in the great, long struggle they are right and they are eternally right, and that they are working for the poor and the weak. They are working to give liberty to the man, and I want to say to you, gentleman of the jury, you Idaho farmers removed from the trade unions, removed from the men who work in industrial affairs, I want to say that if it had not been for the trade unions of the world, for the trade unions of England, for the trade unions of Europe, the trade unions of America, you today would be serfs of Europe, instead of free men sitting upon a jury to try one of your peers. The cause of these men is right.”
Darrow told the jury of his respect for Haywood and his concern about what a conviction would do to Haywood’s family, but emphasized that those were not his main concerns:
“Gentleman, it is not for him alone that I speak. I speak for the poor, for the weak, for the weary, for that long line of men who in darkness and despair have borne the labors of the human race. The eyes of the world are upon you, upon you twelve men of Idaho tonight. Wherever the English language is spoken, or wherever any foreign tongue known to the civilized world is spoken, men are talking and wondering and dreaming about the verdict of these twelve men that I see before me now. If you kill him your act will be applauded by many. If you should decree Bill Haywood’s death, in the great railroad offices of our great cities men will applaud your names. If you decree his death, amongst the spiders of Wall Street will go up paeans of praise for those twelve good men and true who killed Bill Haywood. In every bank in the world, where men hate Haywood because he fights for the poor and against the accursed system upon which the favored live and grow rich and fat — from all those you will receive blessings and unstinted praise.
“But if your verdict should be ‘Not Guilty,’ there are still those who will reverently bow their heads and thank these twelve men for the life and the character they have saved. Out on the broad prairies where men toil with their hands, out on the wide ocean where men are tossed and buffeted on the waves, through our mills and factories, and down deep under the earth, thousands of men and women and children, men who labor, men who suffer, women and children weary with care and toil, these men and these women and these children will kneel tonight and ask their God to guide your hearts – these men and these women and these little children, the poor, the weak, and the suffering of the world, are stretching out their helpless hands to this jury in mute appeal for Bill Haywood’s life.”
It was ten o’clock in the evening when an exhausted Darrow finished. The jury received the case at 11:04 the next morning, Saturday, July 28, 1907. After deliberating through the night, the jury came back to Judge Wood’s courtroom on Sunday to report its verdict: “Not guilty.”
The verdict in the Haywood trial meant that the labor movement had won what Eugene V. Debs called “one of the greatest legal battles in American history.” Haywood was released, but the state of Idaho brought Pettibone to trial. In January 1908, he too was acquitted. The charges against Moyer were dropped. In March 1908, Harry Orchard was tried and convicted of the murder of Steunenberg. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
The fight to save the lives of Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone forced the Western Federation of Miners and the entire labor movement to spend considerable amounts of time and money, but the result was worth it. The acquittal of Haywood showed what can be accomplished when tens of thousands of people unite to actively fight attacks on civil liberties. The labor movement of that time understood that the accusation against the three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners was a political attack on the entire working class and had to be opposed by the entire working class with everything at its disposable. That’s the kind of understanding we need today, in a world where hysteria about terrorism and frame-ups, attacks on civil liberties, and kidnappings by government agencies abound.
The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.