This Day In History: February 17

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Union leaders Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone are taken into custody by Idaho authorities and the Pinkerton Detective Agency. They are put on a special train in Denver, Colorado, following a secret, direct route to Idaho because the officials had no legal right to arrest the three union executives in Colorado. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), of which Haywood was president, tried in vain to stop the unofficial arrests.

Idaho had resorted to this gambit in an attempt to bring the union leaders to justice for the assassination of former governor Frank Steunenberg. On December 30, 1905, a powerful bomb affixed to Steunenberg’s front gate exploded and killed him as he was returning to his home in Caldwell, Idaho. The former governor was a target for union miners after his role in breaking a strike in Coeur d’Alene years earlier.

In order to solve the crime, Idaho called in the Pinkerton Agency and the country’s most famous private detective, James McParland. He was the man responsible for bringing down the Molly McGuires, a secret Irish society from Pennsylvania’s mining district. All men visiting Caldwell were detained and questioned after the bombing, and police began to focus on a man named Tom Hogan.

Through a combination of trickery and intimidation, McParland got Hogan to admit that his name was really Harry Orchard and that he had been hired by the Western Federation of Miners. Orchard implicated Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer, the president of the Western Federation of Miners, and others in the plot to kill Steunenberg. However, these men were in Colorado, where local authorities were friendly to the unions and would not extradite them based on the confession of a murderer.

Government officials in Idaho, including the current governor and chief justice, sanctioned a plan to kidnap Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone so that they could be put on trial in Caldwell. Despite the blatant illegality of their operation, the union leaders lost their appeals in federal court and were forced to stay in Idaho to be charged with conspiracy to commit murder. However, the union had one more ace up its sleeve.

Clarence Darrow, who was on his way to becoming the country’s foremost defender of liberal causes, was brought in to defend the case. It was the first “Trial of the Century,” drawing national media attention and celebrity attendees. When none of Orchard’s accomplices would corroborate his story, the case came down to Orchard’s testimony alone. At Haywood’s trial, Darrow made an impassioned 11-hour closing argument that mercilessly attacked Orchard, and the jury acquitted.

Haywood, who was almost certainly guilty, later fled the country to Russia. He was buried at the Kremlin in 1928.