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Frank Steunenberg certainly had his share of political enemies.
As the fourth governor of Idaho (and the first Democrat to hold that office), Steunenberg was first elected in 1898 with strong support from labour. But that hardly stopped him from declaring martial law in 1899 and calling in federal troops to break up a violent mining strike. Given the impact of strike (which continued until the end of his term in 1900), Steuenberg chose not to stand for reelection due to the loss of his labour support). If he and his family thought that he left his political battles behind once he left office, what happened on December 30, 1905 proved them all wrong.
While out for a leisurely walk near his home in Caldwell, Idaho, the 44-year old former governor pulled the wooden slide that opened the side gate at his family home. What he failed to see in time was the home-made bomb that someone had attached to the other side of the gate, apparently placed there to kill the former politician on his return. The explosion blew him ten feet into the air and he was declared dead an hour later. The sound of the explosion could be heard miles away and all the windows on the front of the Steunenberg house were shattered. Some glass fragments were found protruding from inside walls.
As it happened, police found a suspect fairly quickly. A man who had registered at a nearby Saratoga hotel under the name "Tom Goglan" had attracted suspicion after the blast. Police investigtors found that their suspecthad a host of other names, though he preferred to be known as Harry Orchard (and I'll be using this name from here on in to avoid confusion). Born Albert Horseley in 1866, he grew up in Ontario as part of a family of eight children. Never getting past the third grade in school, he drifted into work as a logger before marrying and opening his own cheese business.
After an affair with a married woman, Orchard torched his business and, with the insurance money, fled Ontario with his mistress. Though he had a wife and child by this time, he apparently gave them no further thought after abandoning them. This new relationship was short-lived though and Orchard moved to Washington where he became involved with the mining industry there. Making his early stake by driving a milk wagon, he became part-owner of a small mine though gambling debts and too much drinking forced him to sell his mining share.
With a new job as a "mucker" at a nearby mine, Orchard also became part of the Western Federation of Miners. In an era of violent strike activity, with mining companies hiring Pinkerton agents to protect their businesses from union "enforcers", Harry Orchard found his niche as a paid union activist engaging in guerrilla warfare. Or, at least that was what he said in the lurid confession he later provided. According to this confession, along with being one of the miners who hijacked a Northern Pacific train in 1899, Orchard also developed considerable expertise with demolitions, including the destruction of the Vindicator mine in 1903 (which led to the deaths of two men) and the destruction of an Independence, Colorado train depot six months later. Thirteen men died in that explosion.
While Harry Orchard's career as a domestic terrorist was largely motivated by the money he received from union organizers for his efforts, he later claimed to have been motivated by his own outrage over how the mining company owners exploited mine workers. In investigating the man who had become their chief suspect in Frank Steunenberg's murder, his long history as a union thug who was likely linked to numerous other murders became apparent soon enough. The only real question remaining was whether Orchard had been acting alone or whether Steunenberg's murder had been ordered by the Western Federation of Miners.
Under intense pressure to solve the murder as quickly as possible, Idaho's chief justice received permission from Governor Frank Gooding to call in the Pinkerton Agency to investigate the crime. The agency had already achieved considerable notoriety by breaking up union activity and promoting their services to mining companies and they seemed well-suited to uncovering whatever conspiracy had led to the governor's death.
Legendary Pinkerton detective James McParland was dispatched to take over the investigation. McParland had already become famous for infiltrating the Molly McGuires during the 1870s and breaking up their organization. While there was already an open-and-shut case against Orchard, McParland wanted to implicate the union leaders themselves. Accomplishing that meant pressuring Harry Orchard to turn on his presumed employers and reveal what he knew.
Whether it was McParland's reputation as "the Great Detective" (a nickname some journalists used for him) or the threat of being hanged over the governor's murder, McParland managed to get a full confession out of Harry Orchard using a diabolical strategy. Not only did he have Orchard placed on death row in the Boise penitentiary with restricted rations and round-the-clock surveillance to prevent suicide attempts, but he met with his suspect over a "sumptuous lunch" followed by cigars (Orchard had been denied tobacco up to that time). He flatly told Orchard that he would be hanged for the murder unless he confessed that the union leaders had ordered the bombing. He also promised better treatment in jail, a more lenient sentence, and even a financial reward if Orchard provided the confession that the Pinkertons wanted.
In the 64-page confession he provided McParland, Orchard admitted killing Steunenberg with an carefully constructed bomb that basically involved rigging a bottle of sulfuric acid to fall on some industrial-strength blasting caps. Harry Orchard reported that he had been hired to kill the ex-governor by William Dudley Haywood, then-member of the union's executive board. As an ardent socialist as well as a union activist, Haywood had long been on the list of agitators that McParland and his employers most wanted to see arrested.
Along with Haywood, two other union leaders, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone were also implicated in Orchard's confession. According to Orchard, not only had the union leaders ordered Steunenberg's assassination as revenge for his role in the suppression of the 1899 mining strike, but he admitted to various other union terrorist incidents, including the 1903 Vindicator mine explosion and the Independence train depot explosion. For killing Steunenberg, Orchard claimed that he had been promised several hundred dollars and his own farm.
But that was just the beginning.
Orchard also claimed that Haywood and the others had ordered numerous attempted assassinations which had all failed for one reason or another. In the signed confession he provided McParland, Orchard concluded by writing: "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....I resolved, as far as in my power, to break up this murderous organization and to protect the community from further assassinations and outrages from this gang."
Skeptics were quick to suggest that Harry Orchard's testimony against Haywood and the others was nothing more than an attempt for more lenient treatment by turning state's evidence. Still, Orchard insisted that everything he said was the completed truth. Adding to his confession 0n the witness stand, Orchard even broke down crying at one point as he described "what an unnatural monster I had been" and that he had been motivated to confess because of a Bible he had been sent by a missionary society in Chicago.
But would this confession convince a jury?
To be continued.
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