December 30

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 30, 1905:

Former Idaho governor Steunenberg assassinated

Targeted for his role in quelling a miners' strike in 1899, former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg is wounded by a powerful bomb that is triggered when he opens the gate to his home in Caldwell, Idaho. He died shortly afterwards in his own bed.

A former newspaper editor, Steunenberg entered Idaho politics in 1890, when he was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1896, he won the Idaho Governor's seat as the head of a coalition of Democrats, Populists, and Republicans who supported the use of silver to back currency. Generally perceived as a friend to labor and the "little man," Steunenberg won a second term as governor in 1896. During this term, he was confronted with one of the most divisive and violent western battles between labor and management of the 19th century.

Miners in the rich silver districts near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, had been struggling to unionize and gain better pay and working conditions since 1892. Radicalized by their initial defeats, an increasing numbers of miners began supporting the violence-prone Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which advocated aggressive tactics and worker control of industry. Alarmed by the growing influence of the WFM, Coeur d'Alene mine owners attempted to bust the union in 1899, and the WFM responded by blowing up one mining company's huge and costly concentrators with dynamite.

Disturbed by the miners' violent tactics, the hitherto pro-labor Steunenberg heeded the demands of the powerful mine owners and turned against the WFM, requesting that the federal government send in troops. The soldiers placed the region under martial law and herded hundreds of miners into makeshift prisons, ignoring their constitutional rights to know the charges and evidence against them.

Steunenberg's actions restored order in the Idaho silver mines, but also earned him the lasting enmity of many radical WFM members. Six years later, the radicals took their revenge by sending a professional assassin named Harry Orchard to Caldwell. The professional hitman was responsible for planting the bomb that killed the former governor. Orchard was captured, tried, and sentenced to life in prison, and his guilt has never been seriously disputed. However, many were convinced that the plot to kill Steunenberg was supported not just by a radical minority within the WFM, but also by its top leadership. WFM secretary-treasurer William "Big Bill" Haywood was brought up on charges of criminal conspiracy but was found not guilty largely as a result of famous Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow's brilliant defense. Haywood went on to found the even more radical Industrial Workers of the World.

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