BOISE – It was an explosion felt for years: A bomb killed former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg as he opened the gate to his Caldwell home.
The assassination, 100 years ago Friday, led to a trial where labor boss Big Bill Haywood was accused of hiring the killer.
Steunenberg’s statue has stood on the Capitol grounds since the 1920s. And a century later, Idahoans are remembering the drama of those days in new exhibits, lectures, a play devoted to the trial, and a textbook for Idaho schoolchildren.
“So much of the time in Idaho we think we’re so disconnected from what’s going on in the world,” said Amber Beierle, a Boise State University graduate student who created a Steunenberg exhibit that’s now at the Ada County Courthouse. “Really, all eyes were on Boise during this period.”
The killing of Steunenberg, Idaho’s fourth governor, focused national attention on the deep antagonism between the Western Federation of Miners and the owners of Idaho’s silver mines at a time when workers all over the world were demanding better conditions.
Steunenberg had called in federal troops to quell union rioting in the Coeur d’Alene district in 1899, and hundreds of workers were arrested. His single term ended in 1901.
“That’s what got this started,” said Ada County District Judge Ronald Wilper, who has studied the trial. “It marked him as an enemy of the union.”
Harry Orchard confessed that he planted the bomb that killed the governor at his home 24 miles west of Idaho’s capital, and he served a life sentence at the Idaho State Penitentiary. But Orchard told authorities he had been ordered to kill Steunenberg by Haywood and other leaders of the Western Federation of Miners.
The union officials were arrested and transported to Boise – an extradition that their lawyers protested and itself led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Defending the union leaders was Clarence Darrow, the attorney later made famous by his work in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial over the teaching of evolution.
As Haywood and the other union leaders sat in the Ada County Jail, workers around the nation marched in rallies, calling for their release, and collected their pennies, nickels and dimes to pay for their lawyers.
The union leaders were acquitted, and Haywood went on to become the head of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Beierle, 24, heard a little bit about the assassination as she was growing up in Caldwell, but she didn’t learn about the trial until she went to college at Boise State.
The anniversary of the bombing has prompted the exhibit, which is a permanent installation at the Idanha hotel, where journalists and lawyers stayed during the trial. The exhibit is now on loan to the courthouse.
Beierle is giving a lecture at BSU in February on the events provoked by the bombing. And historians at the Center for Idaho History and Politics at BSU have written a fourth-grade Idaho history textbook that will include a section on Steunenberg.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Legal Historical Society is planning its own 100-year commemoration of the trial, which ended in 1907, and has commissioned Boise writer Mike Silva to write about it for the stage.
The details of the bitter century-old battle still fascinate Wilper.
“You read the transcript of that trial and it’s not much different from reading a transcript of a trial that would be held yesterday,” he said. “The principals of the law are still intact. The behavior of the attorneys and the judge was similar … for example, there were subtle little pieces of humor in the trial.”
And what happened then matters now, Beierle said.
“Idaho has become known for basically just keeping the government out of things,” she said. “In fact in the 1880s and 1890s, Idaho was really built on labor and unions. We really are part of a bigger story.”
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