Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America
By J. Anthony Lukas
Simon & Schuster; 880 pages; $30
American history is widely interpreted as the pre-eminent refutation of Karl Marx’s social and political theories. Ironically, though, it was in the United States, between 1890 and 1915, that something very close to Marx’s vision of class warfare unfolded–not, as Marx might have predicted, in the nation’s industrial centers or financial capitals, but in the mining and logging camps of the West. Lacking a sizable middle class of farmers and shopkeepers (who would arrive only after World War I), and undergoing intense and rapid capitalist development, large portions of Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho became sharply polarized along class lines–“labor in one camp, the employers in another, no in-between camp, with government a football between the two,” according to the final volume of John R. Commons and associates’ venerable History of Labor in the United States.
Western miners and loggers defended themselves and their jobs with rifles and dynamite. They also created some of the most incendiary labor organizations ever seen, above all the Western Federation of Miners. Their employers were no less violence-prone. Timber magnates and mine owners deployed armed Pinkertons and strikebreakers as if they were baronial armies. When private force failed, employers persuaded local and state governments to suspend due process of law, arrest suspected troublemakers, initiate mass deportations, and crush strikes with National Guardsmen–using what Commons and his associates called all “the paraphernalia of dictatorship.”
While writing Big Trouble, the late Pulitzer Prize-winner J. Anthony Lukas, who took his own life in June this year, may have sensed that readers in the conservative 1990s would resist being reminded about these ferocious, long-ago American upheavals. Lukas’ penchant for epic had served him well in Common Ground, his account of racial turmoil in Boston during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But, by all reports, he was depressed about the prospects for a large tome about American class conflict.
The United States, after all, has been blessed (we are constantly told) with a dynamic, egalitarian sort of capitalism, one that has always rewarded individual initiative and confounded class distinctions. Lukas’ book runs afoul of this conventional wisdom in two ways: first, by describing a world (as Woody West complains in a dismissive review of Big Trouble for the Weekly Standard) in which there was “no middle term” between plutocrats and wage slaves; and second, by appearing to ignore what West contends is “the most remarkable fact of the capital consolidation of those years, especially in the West: the permeable nature of ‘class’ in America.” Lukas knew better about such pre-World War I hellholes as the Coeur d’Alenes district of Idaho; or Cripple Creek and Leadville in Colorado; or the Comstock mines of Nevada, as described by one Eliot Lord:
View their work! Descending from the surface in shaft-cages, they enter narrow galleries where the air is scarce respirable. By the dim light of their lanterns, a dingy rock surface, braced by rotting props, is visible. The stenches of decaying vegetable matter, hot foul water and human excretions intensify the effects of the heat. The men throw off their clothes. … Only a light breech-cloth covers their hips and thick-soled shoes protect their feet from the scorching rocks and steaming rills of water.
In telling of these American places, Lukas had to challenge some powerful reassuring myths about our past.
He decided to focus on a particular story: the murder, in 1905, of Idaho’s former Democratic governor, 44-year-old Frank Steunenberg. Considered a moderate on labor issues, Steunenberg had been elected governor by a wide margin in 1896, with the support of the Populists and organized labor. Three years later, however, Steunenberg approved the deployment of black troops and the use of preventive detention “bull pens” to squelch labor unrest in the Coeur d’Alenes mining camps. Denied re-election in 1900, he retired to his hometown of Caldwell, about 30 miles west of Boise, forgotten by most of his fellow Idahoans–but not by the aggrieved miners. On the evening of Dec. 30, 1905, as he walked through his front gate, a bomb blast blew him to pieces. Idaho officials immediately suspected that militant miners were responsible.
The job of investigating the murder fell to the celebrated Pinkerton detective James McParland, who had broken up the notorious Molly Maguire labor terrorist groups in the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania 30 years earlier. In Caldwell, McParland quickly apprehended a drifter and sometime associate of various union miners who called himself Harry Orchard. In Orchard’s hotel room, police discovered materials for rigging up a bomb. After prolonged coaxing by McParland, Orchard confessed to Steunenberg’s murder–and, with the clear impression that he could save his own neck by naming others, he went on to implicate three executives of the Denver-based Western Federation of Miners, one of whom, William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood, had co-founded an even more notorious organization, the Industrial Workers of the World.
The arrest of Haywood and the others in Colorado and their removal on a secret train to Idaho (in what amounted to a legal kidnapping) brought an outraged response from such relatively conservative labor leaders as Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, as well as from such radicals as the socialist leader Eugene Debs. The defense, in turn, acquired the services of the nation’s most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow. And after a year and a half of legal wrangling and nationwide protest demonstrations, followed by a three-month trial, Darrow won an acquittal for Haywood, mainly on the grounds that Orchard’s testimony was unreliable. A few months later, another jury acquitted one of the other WFM men, and charges against the third were then dropped. Only the wretched Orchard wound up getting convicted, and (following the commutation of his death sentence) he spent the rest of his life in an Idaho penitentiary.
It’s easy to see what drew Lukas to the Steunenberg episode: a tale of murder that is still shrouded in mystery; along with a long-forgotten causecélèbre populated by such larger-than-life characters as Haywood, Darrow, and McParland; all wrapped around a history lesson about the class bitterness of a century ago. Indeed, Lukas was so drawn to the story and its details that he sometimes seems to have lost his bearings, trying to read significance into every little shard of information that his research had uncovered.
As a result of these huge authorial efforts, Big Trouble is bigger than it had to be. It includes long digressions on subjects ranging from the European origins of private detective work to the gradings along the circuitous railroad route from Denver to Boise. The major characters receive ample biographical treatments, but so do dozens of other figures, famous and obscure, who had only fleeting links to Lukas’ story. The book certainly rewards readers whenever it returns to the main story. Lukas’ mastery of historical events and contexts, and his ability to dramatize them, was acute. But it is a shame, in an age of blockbuster publishing, that Lukas’ editors either did not or could not prevail upon him to lighten up, on himself and on his audience.
Historians may also question whether the Steunenberg affair, on its own, touched off, in Lukas’ words, “a struggle for the soul of America.” To be sure, the larger industrial conflicts of the period amounted to such a struggle. And to his credit, Lukas, for all his obvious sympathies with the workers, was scrupulous in assessing the events surrounding the murder. (In his epilogue, he offered compelling, albeit circumstantial, bits of evidence that strongly suggest that Haywood and the others actually were involved in an assassination plot.) But Lukas never fully clarified why Steunenberg’s murder and its aftermath were as pivotal as his subtitle implies they were. In fact, the immediate result of the trials was to widen the breach between Haywood (who became increasingly radical) and his more cautious WFM associates (who wound up pulling back from the revolutionary IWW). In this sense, Lukas’ story may have been important as part of the struggle over the future of organized labor, but less so as a struggle over America’s soul, at least when compared with the truly momentous Homestead and Pullman strikes of the 1890s, the Triangle Shirt Waist Co. fire of 1911, or any of the other more familiar set pieces of turn-of-the-century labor history.
Still, it is the rare author who can re-create, with so much passion and exactness, aspects of our history that most Americans would just as soon forget. Anyone who knew Tony Lukas even slightly was deeply impressed by his boundless, open-minded curiosity about the injustices of modern life, along with his stubborn reportorial integrity about getting to the very bottom of any story as best he could. Its flaws aside, Big Trouble is a brave book that exhibits those qualities bounteously. And so its tale is truly tragic.