Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of the IWW in the Mother Lode and the Jackson Socialistic Circle (Post 2)

Assassination and Repression in Idaho
By David Roddy

Idaho governor
Frank Steunenberg
Temperatures dropped to miserable in Caldwell, Idaho, as the days waned for the year of 1905. Indeed, the temperature hovered around 20 degrees that winter, and ex-Governor Frank Steunenberg must have been chilled in spite of his six foot frame as he walked home through the snow on the night of December 30th . As he opened the gate to his yard, however, the snow and ice around him superheated as a flash of light, heat, and sound stripped him of his senses.

Other townspeople rushed towards the blast, which shattered all the windows of his house facing the street. Lying face down by the gate, amongst broken glass, splintered wood, and singed cloth, they found the governor. He was naked, as the explosion had burned his clothes away but for a few singed rags. Red pulp hung from his thighs, and chunks of his obliterated legs lay strewn around him.

“Who shot me?” he murmured to the growing crowd around him, before telling them to turn him over. Twenty minutes later, he was dead.

The use of dynamite in the assassination of Steunenberg made members of the Western Federation of Miners law enforcement’s primary suspects. Six years earlier, during his governorship, miners affiliated with the union used dynamite to blow up the Bunker Hill mine. It was one of the only non-union mine in the Coeur d’Alene district, and the mine operators kept the wages the lowest in the region. Mine superintendent Albert Burch infiltrated any miner’s organization with Pinkerton detectives, and fired any workers he believed to be union members.

Bunker Hill Mine after explosion. 
In protest, close to a thousand miners from throughout the region commandeered a train from Burke, Idaho laden with dynamite and drove it to the Bunker Hill Mine, where they detonated three thousand pounds of dynamite, destroying the mine and killing two men. The men then boarded the train and left the scene, the tracks lined with other laborers cheering at the act of defiance.

Governor Steunenberg, fearing an insurrection, asked President McKinley to dispatch the National Guard to Coeur d’Alene, and the troops proceeded to arrest miners in the towns of Wardner (the location of the Bunker Hill Mine) and Kellogg suspected of involvement, as well as every man in the town of Burke, where the train was first commandeered. Journalist J. Anthony Lukas, in his book on the unrest, writes:
“They arrested every male: miners, bartenders, a doctor, a preacher, even the postmaster and the school superintendent…Miners were seized as they came off their shifts, cooks and waiters arrested in the kitchens, diners at their supper table.”
The troops first held the men in a barn, but when the number of prisoners swelled to 1,000, they transferred them to a specially made bullpen. Conditions in the pen were miserable, and three men died from neglect. As the state began the process of prosecution, Lukas notes:
“In 1899, when the state needed money for the Coeur d'Alene prosecutions, the Mine Owners' Association had come up with $32,000—about a third of it from Bunker Hill and Sullivan—handing $25,000 over to Governor Steunenberg for use at his discretion in the prosecution.”
The acceptance of Mine Owner Association money as well as the oppressive use of force by Federal troops cast an unwelcome light on Steunenberg. He had run on a pro-labor, Populist Party ticket, and many labor supporters accused him of betraying his stated principles. The repression entered the political realm, and Populist Party officials sympathetic to the union were also arrested. Martial law was still in place as his second term in office ended, and he opted out of running again.
Captured miners in bullpen, Idaho 1905

It was unsurprising that labor union members and political radicals were the first suspects of his assassination, particularly after the assassination of President McKinley, also implicated in the Idaho crack down, four years earlier by a self-proclaimed anarchist. Prosecutors would target the leaders of the WFM, who were now also leaders in the IWW, for the crime.


 Lukas, J. Anthony. Big Trouble: a Murder in a Small Western Town Sets off a Struggle for the Soul of  America. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

"Ex-Governor Killed by Dynamite Bomb." New York Times, 31 Dec. 1905.

Images from University of Idaho special collections and wikimedia commons.

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