Each year a group of aspiring young professionals joins in our work as summer interns. They often make interesting discoveries in the digital library. Gina Risetter stumbled on a series of reports from the Pinkerton Agency about an Idaho assassination. This is the second in a two-part post.
Read Part 1
The bomb that killed former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg was heard 16 miles away. A drifter named Harry Orchard was soon picked up in connection to the crime. He was a known labor union handyman with ties to another bombing in Colorado that resulted in the death of 13 people. Orchard was quickly arrested after making no real effort to flee the area.
Harry Orchard was held in Boise and introduced to Pinkerton Agent James McParland. McParland was called in to investigate the assassination and while Orchard was captured quickly, McParland was convinced he was not acting alone. Orchard admitted, after an intense interrogation, that while he did set the bomb, he did not act alone. He implicated some of the top leadership of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) as charging him with the task of killing the ex-Governor. Facing the death penalty, Orchard claimed that William Dudley Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone commissioned Orchard in retaliation for Steunenberg’s earlier actions in squashing union strikers. With the individuals in question residing in Colorado at the time, McParland was able to secure a warrant for their arrest and bring the three men to Idaho.
President Theodore Roosevelt was very interested in the trial of these men. Confidential reports made by the Pinkertons were sent to him and are available in the Theodore Roosevelt Center Digital Library for viewing. The Pinkertons had successfully infiltrated the defense team, headed up by Clarence Darrow. They were involved in polling the upcoming jury with unsuspecting members of the WFM to gauge the feelings of how successful the trial would be amongst the public. This deceptive work was at odds with the promise the then-Governor Frank Robert Gooding made to President Roosevelt months prior. Gooding promised Roosevelt that the men would receive a fair trial. In a letter to Roosevelt Gooding said, “I hardly feel that it is necessary to assure you that there is no disposition on the part of myself or anyone else connected with the prosecution of Moyer, et al to work any injustice on the accused men.” Roosevelt had come to learn that the prosecution had maneuvered to fund this trial with money provided by the mining companies through the use of deficiency certificates. This, in essence, allowed the mining companies to fund the prosecution of individuals responsible for organizing their laborers. Gooding went on to assure Roosevelt that the money would be returned and not used for this purpose. The high profile of the defendants and the duplicitous actions of the prosecution team created a scenario that Roosevelt could not ignore.
Despite the deliberate movements of the Pinkertons to infiltrate the defense team and the dubious financial work of the prosecution, Haywood, Pettibone, and Moyer were acquitted of the charges. Orchard, on the other hand, was given the death penalty. Disappointed, Roosevelt called the acquittal a “gross miscarriage of justice.” Ultimately, Harry Orchard was the only individual punished for the death of Governor Steunenberg. He never recanted or changed his story. He received the death penalty, but it was commuted to life in prison for his cooperation with the prosecution. He lived until 1954, spending almost fifty years in prison.
In his closing statement, Clarence Darrow spoke of the importance of labor unions in society. To him, this was more about silencing labor unions than finding the killers of Frank Steunenberg. Darrow said, “Don’t think for a moment that if you kill Haywood you will kill the labor movement of the world or the hopes and aspirations of the poor.”
One of President Roosevelt’s enduring legacies was being a President who supported the rights of workers to organize. Ensuring that labor unions were treated fairly in negotiations was a cornerstone of Roosevelt’s Square Deal. However, this was a case that pitted the impulses of President Roosevelt against each other. On one hand, labor unions were struggling for recognition and validation in an industrialized society that was pursuing profit over the human condition. On the other hand, the radical tendencies of men like Haywood threatened to delegitimize the work Roosevelt was doing in upholding the men fighting for better working conditions. Steunenberg’s death exemplified a wider struggle taking place in America between workers and capitalists.