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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: Frank Steunenberg

Chapter 3 discusses Frank Steunenberg, a Democrat who served as the fourth governor of Idaho from 1897 until 1901. His tenure was marked by a rocky, sometimes violent relationship between labor and management, especially in the western mining industry. Several mining companies, fearing that the populist Steunenberg would not support them if a labor strike occurred, reluctantly increased workers’ wages to stave off unrest. One corporation, the Bunker Hill Mining Company, refused to cooperate with the wage hike. The resulting strike led to violence. Governor Steunenberg declared martial law and asked President William McKinley to send federal troops to restore law and order. The governor’s union supporters were furious at what they saw as a betrayal of rank-and-file miners. Martial law remained in place until Steunenberg retired at the end of his second term in 1901.

Almost five years after he had retired to private life, Steunenberg was killed by a bomb rigged to detonate on a side gate outside his home in Caldwell, Idaho. Investigators arrested Harry Orchard (also known by an alias, Thomas Hogan, and his birth name, Albert Edward Horsley), a former miner with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), and interrogated him aggressively. Orchard initially denied his involvement, but later he confessed and implicated several co-conspirators, including the WFM general secretary, “Big Bill” Haywood, as well as the organization’s president, Charles Moyer, and well-known labor activist George Pettibone. The men were arrested and placed on trial in a case that attracted national attention. US Senator William Borah appeared for the prosecution and famed attorney Clarence Darrow represented the defendants. The charges against Moyer were dropped. Haywood won an acquittal, as did Pettibone in a separate trial. Orchard was convicted and sentenced to death, although later his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

The Steunenberg assassination, largely forgotten today by the general public, was one of the most infamous episodes of violence in American history at the turn of the twentieth century. Whether Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone, or any of their associates, were behind the murder was never answered satisfactorily. It was certainly possible that these men, and perhaps others, planned the killing. With the passage of more than a century, it is likely that no one will ever know with certainty what happened on that cold winter’s evening in Caldwell, Idaho. What is indisputable is that labor and management conflicts, sometimes vicious, frequently bloody, and occasionally murderous, plagued the American landscape for decades to come.

One fact appears reasonably clear: Harry Orchard was a Type 1 actor. Whether acting on orders from the miners’ union or on his own initiative, he killed Frank Steunenberg for political purposes. The former governor had betrayed the labor movement, and he had to be punished. Bombing was a frequent tactic used by the WFM, and it was the method of choice in Steunenberg’s assassination. In his zeal to avenge a wrong, Orchard acted on the clearest of motives. He believed that if he killed the man who had hurt the miners, he would send a message that labor would not kowtow to the elite, moneyed interests. One might question his timing—why kill a former governor who had been out of office for many years?—but his reasoning was comprehensible. He was fully aware of what he was doing, and he was willing to do what was required to suit his political ends.

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