About the Program Link
Living History Link
Photos & Stories Link
Read More Link
Interview Transcripts Link
Producers' Q&A Link
mining imageFire in the Hole home page

Photos & Stories: The Trial of the Century

Follow the Fire in the Hole script and accompanying images to learn how the Governor of Idaho was killed, labor went on trial, and legal legends locked horns in 1907.


Governor Steunenberg imageA few days after Christmas in 1905, Frank Steunenberg walked home after a day of business in Caldwell, Idaho. At 44, he had been out of the office of governor for almost four years.

While he had received almost fifty threats for his role in crushing the unions in the Coeur d'Alene, his fear for his safety had eased with passing time. Reaching his home, he swung open the fence gate. . . Just after 7 p.m., Frank Steunenberg died. . .many believe, the first victim of a deliberate bomb assassination in American history. His brother, Will, had to break the news to a sister living in Iowa.

Will Steunenberg:

"My dear sister. Frank died in my arms, and I hope the fellow that killed him will also die in my arms, only in a different manner." – Will Steunenberg

Katherine Aiken/Historian:

"First of all, the whole incident speaks to how powerful the whole 1899 episode was, because immediately his family, state officials, people in the Coeur d'Alene mining district, assume that his assassination is related to the 1899 episode, which I think is indicative of how powerful the episode was."


Immediately the mine owners of Northern Idaho stepped forward to offer their Pinkerton detectives to find the murderers.

But before private detectives could arrive, local police acted on a tip and found bomb-making materials in the hotel room of a man eventually identified as harry orchard. He was charged with the murder of Frank Steunenberg.

Idaho Statesman:

"The face of the man suggests cruelty, cunning and contempt for everything that appeals to the ordinary person. The eyes being of that shifting character that suggests an evil nature. He is the devil incarnate." -- The Idaho Statesman


The incarnation was soon transferred to the state prison in Boise. Waiting for him was Pinkerton detective James MacParland.


"I hate to use the term legendary, because I think its overused. But in his case he is the legendary Pinkerton Operative. He had infiltrated the Molly Mcguires in Pennsylvania and had succeeded in really destroying that union. And was now the head of Western operations for the Pinkertons. And so he really was the top operative, and that's who they sent.

Harry Orchard imageNarrator:

MacParland came to the case convinced the bombing was the work of the Western Federation of Miners.

So the detective used the same technique he had used to break the Irish society of the Molly Mcguires in Pennsylvania in the 1870s.

Hour after hour, day after day he grilled Harry Orchard, indicating he might save his own neck if Orchard would identify ring leaders behind the bombing. Ten days later, James MacParland emerged with an amazing confession from Orchard.


"I awoke as it were from a dream. And realized that I'd been made a tool of, aided and assisted by members of the executive board of the Western Federation of Miners. And once they had led me to commit the first crime, I had to continue to do their bidding or otherwise be assassinated myself." -- Harry Orchard


Orchard confessed. Not only to the killing of Frank Steunenberg, but also to blowing up the Bunker Hill buildings in 1899, the Independence, Colorado railroad bombing of 1904, and murder attempts on mine owners and government officials. Taken for his word, Harry Orchard was claiming to be the most prolific mass murderer in American history to that point. . .and he said he did it all on the orders of the Western Federation of Miners.

James MacParland:

"In making my investigation I have unearthed the bloodiest crowd of anarchists that ever existed, I think, in the civilized world." — James MacParland


MacParland set his sights on three federation figures. Charles Moyer, the groups's president. George Pettibone, a former member of the executive board. And William D. Haywood -- secretary-treasurer of the federation, a powerful organizer and the group's most fiery speaker. Many considered Haywood the heart and soul of the Western Federation of Miners.

Nevada Jane Haywood:

"I thought the world of that man. But nothing mattered as much to him as the labor movement. For it, he gave up his God, his country, his wife and two children. . .everything!" -- Nevada Jane Haywood

Big Bill Haywood imageNarrator:

Haywood, Moyer and Pettibone were in Denver. MacParland guessed that any formal attempt to extradite the men would give them time to escape. Labeling his targets "viper" "copperhead" and "rattler". . . MacParland launched an unusual operation.


"Well ‘unusual' is not a strong enough word. It's unprecedented. What they do is they go to Denver and kidnap "Big" Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone, and force them on a special train that travels secretly from Colorado to Idaho and brings them back for trial."


News of the abduction soon spread, and MacParland not-so-secretly promised that the three men were certain never to leave Idaho alive. A promise that enraged labor leaders throughout the nation. . .such as socialist Eugene V. Debs.

E.V. Debs:

"Let them dare! There will be a revolution, and I will precipitate it. If they attempt to murder Moyer Haywood and Pettibone and their brothers, a million revolutionaries will meet them with guns!"


Only six years into the 1900s, the looming trial was already being billed as the "Trial of the Century."


"The attorneys certainly attract a lot of attention. William Borah had just been elected, well appointed united states senator from Idaho, so he is the new senator. Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney, comes to defend Bill Haywood and the others. And laboring people were attracted to this trial because of the underhanded way that these people were arrested. So they provided money that paid for Darrow to come. And reporters from all around the country and world come to Boise to follow this trial and report on it."


The defendants were to be tried separately. . .with Haywood as the pivotal first case. The charge was murder, the expected penalty: death. Waiting for trial, Haywood busied himself with tending the prison rose bushes and running for governor of Colorado as a socialist. Once started, the trial would stretch through the summer of 1907. But all of the testimony paled when Harry Orchard took the stand.

Oscar King Davis/New York Times:

"Through all the story ran the names of the men for whom he worked, and those who helped him in his wretched task. Haywood was the master. Haywood was the source of the money. Moyer he named occasionally, but Haywood was the master. Without question it produced a tremendous effect, and throughout its recital there ran a growing conviction of its truth." -- Oscar King Davis for The New York Times


To convict "Big" Bill Haywood, the jury had to believe that harry orchard was telling the truth. Clarence Darrow. . .the most famous defense attorney of his time. . . understood the obvious:


"I sometimes wonder if I am dreaming in this case. I sometimes wonder whether here in Idaho or anywhere in this country a man can be placed on trial and lawyers seriously ask to take away the life of a human being upon the testimony of Harry Orchard."


Closing arguments stretched over most of six days in the July heat. Prosecutor William Borah, destined for the U.S. Senate and a close personal friend of Steunenberg, urged the jury to keep the dead governor at the center of their thoughts:


"I remember again the awful thing of December 30th, 1905. I felt again the cold and icy chill, faced the drifting snow and peered into the darkness for the sacred spot where lay the body of my dead friend. And saw true, only too true, the stain of his life's blood upon the whitened earth. I saw Idaho dishonored and disgraced. I saw murder. . .no, a thousand times worse than murder. I saw anarchy wave its first bloody triumph in Idaho. Let us be brave, let us be faithful in this supreme test of trial and duty."


Clarence Darrow spent eleven hours ridiculing Harry Orchard, the Pinkerton detectives, mine owners and the prosecution team. But he also told the jury to weigh the unseen factors of life in America, beyond Bill Haywood.


"Gentlemen, it is not for him alone that I speak. I speak for the poor for the weak for the weary. For that long line of men who in darkness and despair have borne the labors of the human race. The eyes of the world are upon you, you twelve men of Idaho. If you kill him, your act will be applauded by many. Where men hate Haywood because he fights for the poor and against the accursed system upon which the favored live and grow rich and fat."


The jury started deliberations on the afternoon of July 28th, 1907. By midnight there were rumors that the vote was 11-to-1 against Haywood, and that the lone hold out would soon give in. The Idaho Statesman newspaper began setting a headline announcing the conviction. At seven the next morning the jury filed back in the courtroom.

Otto Peterson:

"We, the jury in the above entitled case, find the defendant William D. Haywood. . .not guilty."


Immediately the rumors started. Pinkertons grumbled that one or more of the jurors had been bribed by the Western Federation of Miners. Another report said the jurors were to be murdered if they returned a guilty verdict. William D. Haywood walked out of the courtroom on July 29th, 1907 a free man. A subsequent, half-hearted effort to convict George Pettibone failed. . .and the charges against Charles Moyer were dropped. Mine owners were appalled by the verdict.

But, in a bigger picture, they had triumphed over the Western Federation of Miners in Idaho. The northern Idaho mines had anti-union loyalty oaths as a means of keeping the federation out of their workforce. And Moyer and Haywood had a sharp falling out during the months of their trial. . .and the leadership of the federation would soon undergo a wrenching split. Moyer would urge working within the system. . ."Big" Bill Haywood would try to tear the system down.

(End of Hour One)


When Fire in the Hole continues. . .The nation enters the twentieth century, locked in a desperate struggle for its future. A time that will produce two of the darkest moments in American history.



KUED-7 Home Page
...made possible by US WEST, the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation, the R. Harold Burton Foundation, and NETA.