Top 50 Stories — 1907 — 'Trial of the Century'

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJune 8, 2014 


    To celebrate 150 years of producing this newspaper, we are reprinting one of our Top 50 stories each day through July 6. Then you can vote for your Top 10 stories, which will appear in our commemorative special section on July 26. Read more stories from this series at

For 11 weeks in the summer of 1907, a murder-conspiracy trial that embodied violent conflict between labor and business was front-page news across the country and in Europe.

Big Bill Haywood, founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, was charged with conspiring in the Dec. 30, 1905, assassination of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg.

Steunenberg, who had crushed a miners strike by declaring martial law in the Silver Valley in 1899, died when he opened the gate on his white picket fence outside his Caldwell home. A string, a cork, an acid-filled bottle and a blasting cap triggered a bomb that broke every window in the house.

Condemned by President Teddy Roosevelt as an "undesirable citizen," Haywood was a celebrated orator with a dead right eye and a veteran of violence at Colorado mines. It was from Colorado that he and two fellow defendants were kidnapped - without extradition - and railroaded to Boise.

On the weekend before the trial began in May 1907, 100,000 rallied in Boston and tens of thousands in other cities to support Haywood.

The cast of characters who participated in or attended the trial included famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, prosecutor and newly elected Sen. William Borah and Pinkerton agent James McParland. Up to 1,000 people milled outside the Ada courthouse.

Actress Ethel Barrymore admired a jury dominated by farmers and ranchers, calling them "the most wonderful looking men I've ever seen ... with the bluest eyes, like sailor's eyes, used to looking at great distances."

Novelist Jack London wrote that the charges were a plot to kill Haywood and other officials of the Western Federation of Miners, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone, because they stood "between the mine owners and a pot of money."

Prosecution spies infiltrated the defense camp and another alleged conspirator recanted. The star witness was Harry Orchard, a double agent working for unions and mine owners who admitted planting the bomb. He pointed the finger at the defendants.

Darrow argued that McParland engineered Orchard's confession to destroy the 500,000-member union. The jury agreed, acquitting Haywood on July 28 after 21 hours of deliberation. Orchard, originally sentenced to be hanged in 1908 in Steunenberg's death, died at the Old Idaho Penitentiary in 1954.

Today, Steunenberg's statue stands between the bronze of Abraham Lincoln and the Idaho Statehouse, on Capitol Boulevard. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas wrote a history of the trial, "Big Trouble," published in 1997.

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