Historian Katherine Aiken is the Dean for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho. Her latest book is Idaho's Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885-1925. This interview was conducted in January of 2007.
BR: What were working conditions like in the 1890's in Idaho's Coeur d'Alene mining district?
KA: Mining — not just then, but now — is incredibly dangerous work. People didn't have protective equipment, they worked incredibly long hours in conditions that were hot and wet and uncomfortable. The physical amount of labor was tremendous, and the nature of the work was uncertain. You didn't know that you would have work over an extended period of time; and so, when prices went down or supplies were too high or for whatever reason, you would simply be unemployed, and there's no social welfare safety net that protects you.
We know that lead and mercury and other elements that were underground are dangerous; and particularly once they started using machine drills, and there's lots of dust, miner silicosis is a terrible problem in all mining in the west. Life expectancy was not long and people who contracted that disease had a very long and painful death ahead of them."I think miners were convinced that this was all a conspiracy on the part of mine owners to defeat The Western Federation of Miners; and I think mine owners were convinced that it was a conspiracy on the part of The Western Federation of Miners to punish Steunenberg for his actions in the 1899 labor episode."
And mine owners were determined that skilled miners should receive $3.50; but other people who work underground — primarily muckers, the people who shovel rock into ore carts and ship it out of the mine — should receive less money, $3.00. Miners saw that as an assault on their dignity as workers, and they refused to entertain that idea.
BR: Folks might be surprised at the amount of violence in northern Idaho.
KA: There are two major incidents of violence in the Coeur d'Alenes: one in 1892 and one in 1899, where martial law is declared and miners are incarcerated in so-called "bull pens," makeshift jails. There simply weren't permanent jails there to accommodate that many people when you've arrested them; but there actually is ongoing violence throughout the 1890's in various ways and in various locations, and that entire decade is a constant war between mine owners and miners.
The Western Federation of Miners is created in the wake of the 1892 episode of violence, where miners are arrested and imprisoned; and while they are in federal prison, they talk about what has happened to them, and they decide they never want that to happen to them again, and they create this organization. And I think the fact that it's called The Western Federation of Miners is illustrative of their notion that the western hard rock miner had a unique role to play in labor organization, and that they wanted an organization that represented them and only them and really understood their interests.
BR: What was the worst kind of violence that occurred in the Coeur d'Alene mining district?
KA: I suppose that depends on your perspective. From mine owners' perspective, the worst kind of violence was when their private property was destroyed. I would argue, and I think miners would argue, in the 1890's that they confronted violence every day when they were forced to go underground and confront these dangerous conditions, and how their families suffer from not having enough to eat and having poor housing and not having health care.
BR: How did the state of Idaho respond to the violence that involved dynamite?
KA: The sanctity of private property is a critical element of the American psyche; and even though oftentimes it was the case before the 1870's, '80's and '90's that local government in particular was more closely allied and more sympathetic to workers, by the time we get into the period that we're talking about, government took more seriously its role as protector of private property; and it chose business and management over other individuals, because that sanctity of private property was so important.
BR: How important was the Coeur d'Alene mining district to the nation and the world?
KA: The Coeur d'Alene mining district is probably the premiere mining district in the world, and certainly the single most important economic enterprise in the state of Idaho, and a huge producer and long term producer of metals that are central to allowing the United States to become an industrial power.
BR: What particular relationship did Frank Steunenberg have with unions and with the mine owners?
KA: I think part of the reason that mine owners were sympathetic to Steunenberg is because he did come to their aid in terms of troops when they called upon him. But miners thought that the governor was going to favor them in all of this because he had been very pro-labor in his earlier life, and even at the time of his election; and I think miners felt like they had been betrayed by his action in declaring martial law.
BR: Did they view the assassination of Governor Steunenberg differently?
KA: I think miners were convinced that this was all a conspiracy on the part of mine owners to defeat The Western Federation of Miners; and I think mine owners were convinced that it was a conspiracy on the part of The Western Federation of Miners to punish Steunenberg for his actions in the 1899 labor episode. I think it is unclear which of those is the correct answer."When the rubber hit the road, this group of Idaho farmers was willing to deliver a verdict of Not Guilty, when that didn't happen at Haymarket or numbers of other places. Idahoans' sense of fair play, I think, enters into this."
BR: After the assassination, did most people blame the Western Federation of Miners?
KA: I think there are few Americans who, when asked, wouldn't be cognizant of the fact that Americans are very fascinated by ideas of conspiracy, and that's probably because we don't like to think that things just happen because they happen. There has to be some explanation.
How could the former governor be assassinated? Just like how could the President, John F. Kennedy be assassinated by just an individual? It has to be more complicated than that. It makes people feel better to think that this is the product of a larger conspiracy than just that a mad person or a single individual can wreck such havoc with our lives. It's comforting to think it's a conspiracy, plus it's really exciting, I think, to think that.
BR: In some grotesque ways Harry Orchard was a real fascinating character.
KA: He was certainly colorful, and the problem with somebody that culpable, is that it's hard to separate the facts from the fiction.
BR: And yet he made a compelling witness. We read the accounts of the reporters. They are fascinated by this guy.
KA: My supposition is that there are several explanations for that. One is that I believe he probably legitimately did have a conversion experience. And people who have done that are often incredibly articulate and forceful in their viewpoint because they think God is inspiring that to happen. And I also think he may very well have been coached and coached extensively.
BR: James McParland, the Pinkerton detective, seemed to be a master puppeteer pulling the strings.
KA: The Pinkerton Detective Agency had, from my perspective, become really a sort of private security force for industrialists across the country. They made their reputation and their money by going to work primarily for large industrial entities, and they made their reputation by infiltrating labor groups and interests and by helping industrialists defeat unions. And by the time we get to this period they had been doing that for well over a decade, and were very good at that, especially James McParland, who had experience with the Molly Maguires, and had infiltrated them, and has a tremendous reputation as probably the most well known detective in the country at the time.
And as I envision him — and I have no way of documenting that this is true — I suspect that he could be a very convincing interrogator. Were I sitting in the room and James McParland was trying to convince me to confess, I feel very certain that I would have confessed to whatever it was he was asking me to confess to!
BR: I assume that many of the miners believed that the mine owners association had conspired to kill Steunenberg and place the blame on the Western Federation of Miners.
KA: I think miners in the Coeur d'Alenes were very convinced that the Western Federation of Miners officials were scapegoats in a much larger picture, and that they were being victimized by these forces of industrialization and government."It's difficult for them [my students] to believe that Clarence Darrow and William Borah and James Hawley would all be present and be participants in this. And I think they are fascinated that Idaho became such a focal point for attention about these issues... do individual workers have rights, or are the rights of private property more important?"
There was no question, I think, in very many peoples' minds that Harry Orchard had assassinated Governor Steunenberg. Where the question comes is, what prompted him to do that? And as I indicated, few people were willing to say that Harry Orchard assassinated the governor because he was a crazed mind, so there had to be some other kind of explanation.
And once you get to that point, then there were numbers of miners who believed that mine owners were capable of doing that, because they saw every day what mine owners were capable of doing to them on a personal level.
BR: We now know that the mining companies paid for the Prosecution side in the Trial.
KA: I believe the mining companies practically totally funded the prosecution's effort, and they also very clearly — the record is very clear — tried to keep people from testifying who would know that, so that the jury wouldn't know who was paying to have all of this happen.
And Frederick Bradley, the president of Bunker Hill Company, stayed out of Idaho during all of this because he did not want to be subpoenaed, because he did not want to have to testify what he knew about all of this. He totally avoided his big interest in the Bunker Hill Mine and managed it from California until all of this was over so that he would not be forced to answer these questions.
BR: Why is this trial important?
KA: It seems to me there are a number of things that are very important about this trial. First of all, it indicates what I think is a key theme in Idaho history, and that is, Idaho has an industrial aspect to its economy from its very beginning, and while we like to portray ourselves as only this rural sort of agrarian place, in reality there has always been another side to the Idaho economy, and all of this I think demonstrates that.
Secondly, I think this trial shows that Idaho is more than this hinterland, that what is happening in the Coeur d'Alenes had significance — not just in terms of the industry but when literally hundreds of thousands of workers in New York City are marching and are contributing to the defense of the Western Federation of Miners, that indicates to me that Idaho is at the center of labor controversy in this whole class war that we've been talking about, in ways that I think are not imaginable to a lot of people. People forget how important that was to Idaho."I'm sympathetic sometimes to Harry Orchard, because I think, when all is said is done, everybody else involved in this trial went on about their business and had a life, and Harry Orchard is left holding the bag for this whole thing."
Thirdly, I think when you look at all the examples of trials that are associated with labor violence, it's in Idaho that the Western Federation of Miners, that Big Bill Haywood is found innocent.
And Idahoans sometimes, I think, are tarred with this brush of being the bulwark of ultra-conservatism. But when the rubber hit the road, this group of Idaho farmers was willing to deliver a verdict of Not Guilty, when that didn't happen at Haymarket or numbers of other places. Idahoans' sense of fair play, I think, enters into this. Idahoans are conservative. They also have this idea that there are laws, and we follow them, and that equity and justice are important, and they are willing to do that when they knew it would be an unpopular decision.
BR: The press seemed to play a large role in this trial.
KA: A huge number of the press came to Idaho to cover this trial, and they covered the spectrum of politics and interests. And remember that newspapers and magazine print journalism is the only available way for people far away in the east to keep track of this trial; and it was pretty obvious, even to people then, that a trial when you have characters like Big Bill Haywood and Clarence Darrow and William Borah performing, that this is of interest; and so they wanted to tell the story.
I think it's one of the first trials where the journalists are as much a part of what happens in that court room as the two sides are — the defendants and the prosecutors and the defense attorneys and the judge. They are participants in all of this, and what they did shapes how we view what happened at the trial.
BR: We call this the "Trial of the Century."
KA: There are a number of "Trials of the Century." The Scopes Trial might be a trial of the century; the OJ Simpson trial might be the trial of the century; but certainly at the time that it took place, it took on the trappings of the Trial of the Century, because it had so much press attention; and also I think because of the verdict. I think one of the comparisons is that the Haymarket conspirators — for which there was no evidence that they had anything to do with that — yet they were convicted, and several of them executed.
We know in the case of the Steunenberg assassination that there certainly was an assassination, and we know who did it, and there certainly was some circumstantial evidence, at least somebody, Harry Orchard, claimed that the Western Federation of Miners had been responsible; and yet they are found innocent; and so I think that's probably what attracts so much attention.
BR: You seem proud to be an Idahoan when you talk about the verdict.
KA: I am proud to be an Idahoan! I think sometimes Idahoans get a bad rap on a number of levels for how we view issues of human rights. When you think about the recent terrorist trial, alleged terrorist trial, in Boise where that defendant was found innocent when everyone assumed that he would be found guilty. Idahoans have a strong sense of fair play, and they are willing to exercise that sense of fair play in times when other juries — if you think about civil rights juries, for example, in the south — who often came to decisions that went against the evidence or went against the instructions of judges. Idahoans don't do that, and so I think we should be proud of that.
BR: What do your students think of this trial? What resonates with them?
KA: I think it's difficult for students to imagine that any of this could happen, to begin with. It's difficult for them to imagine that conditions were that way in the Coeur d'Alene mines. It's difficult for them to imagine that you could kidnap these Western Federation of Miner people and bring them, apparently illegally, from Colorado to Idaho and try them."Could he really have been reformed? Could he really have had such a dramatic change of heart? Or was this whole thing just a kind of theatrical performance on his part?"
It's difficult for them to believe that Clarence Darrow and William Borah and James Hawley would all be present and be participants in this, and I think they are fascinated that Idaho became such a focal point for attention about these issues, which really are, to my way of thinking, the issues about, do individual workers have rights, or are the rights of private property more important? Do they take precedent over those, and how do we negotiate that?
Idaho students are fascinated that it was in Boise, Idaho, that people were asking those questions.
BR: Who do you think were the winners and who were the losers in this trial?
KA: I'm not sure there are any groups that are totally winners or totally losers in this; but it certainly is the case that it was very difficult for the Western Federation of Miners to organize in the Coeur d'Alenes and in many other places in the west — really up until they become the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers — so it was very difficult for them.
In the short term, I think it advantaged mine owners who were then free to conduct their business as they wished without interference from labor unions, and who saw this entire episode as an indication of their attitudes that people who were part of labor unions were dangerous and threatened Democracy and the American Way. It's almost two generations before workers in this country in general and north Idahoans specifically are able to actually engage in collective bargaining and organize labor unions to represent them.
BR: I've heard folks say that the verdict actually helped the cause of democracy, that a guilty verdict would have led to rioting and revolution.
KA: I'm not convinced that that's the case. When I look at American history over the long term, Americans are, regardless of their social economic group, are committed to sort of the ideals of the founders and the nature of our country. Where in other such situations people revolt or resort to violence, we don't do that in this country because, fundamentally, everybody is committed to making this system work.
And that's why radicals are never successful in the United States, in part because they never really can get to the point where they are willing to throw out everything that the founders started. They don't do what their European counterparts, or their counterparts in Latin America or in China do. They aren't willing to take that stand, because they are deeply committed to the idea of Democracy, and because they are convinced, because of the nature of our system, that they may at some point be the capitalist.
BR: What effect do you think this trial had on radicalism?
KA: What Clarence Darrow claimed and what Richardson claimed was that it wasn't really Big Bill Haywood who was on trial, at all. It was the Western Federation of Miners and its ideas that were on trial. Clearly, there were numbers of people in the United States, once the verdict was delivered, who believed that this verdict represented some support for the idea that individual workers have a right to organize and to join labor unions and to advocate on their own behalf in terms of their working conditions, and so I think that is certainly one result. It doesn't mean that they are able to actually do those things immediately, but it does confirm for some of them that those were legitimate concerns for workers to have.
BR: It seemed to stick a fork into a lot of socialist thinking, that you can't get a fair trial in this country.
KA: I think that's true. I think even labor union people and workers themselves were surprised by the verdict, because they did have many other examples where verdicts had gone against them. The fact that this whole system worked seemed to, I think, run counter to what many of their arguments were. I think that is correct.
BR: Do you find any heroes in this story?
KA: The word "heroes" does remind me that this is a very masculine story; and we forget how things have changed in a hundred years. We would never have a courtroom where the pictures look like these photographs look, where there are all of these men filling every single role. So in that respect, it's a very different kind of situation, and I'm not sure that there are any people in this entire story whose actions are all above reproach.
BR: Should this trial even matter to us today, or is it just an interesting footnote?
KA: I think it matters for a couple of reasons. One, it matters just because it's just a great story, and a great story remains a great story regardless of the passage of time. These are colorful characters engaged in exciting work, the rhetoric is wonderful, the oratory is wonderful. When you read the words today — we don't have a tape of this — they are still exciting. When you read what everybody involved in this had to say, it brings chills to the spine because they were so articulate and dedicated and spoke so well.
So there's that whole story side. But I also believe that this whole issue about how important are individual rights in a country like ours — where do we have to sacrifice them in order to protect ourselves and insure our security is a question that we are asking all the time in the current situation, and it's one of the great questions of Democracy. How do we find that balance between the needs of the overall society for safety and our recognition that what makes the United States and Idaho the United States and Idaho is this emphasis on individual rights.
That's a constant tension. We don't always have the right answer, but one of the reasons I like American History so much is we usually get to the right answer eventually.
BR: One of the ironies of this story is that Harry Orchard outlives all the major participants in the trial.
KA: Even though I think he probably was a murderer, I'm sympathetic sometimes to Harry Orchard, because I think, when all is said is done, everybody else involved in this trial went on about their business and had a life, and Harry Orchard is left holding the bag for this whole thing and is incarcerated in Idaho State Penitentiary, basically for the rest of his life.
And I often wonder if he really was the victim of the Pinkertons who were looking out for their interests, and the attorneys who were looking out for their interests, and the Western Federation of Miners were looking out for their interests, and mine owners, and the one person who never really was able to get past this was him.
In a way I feel sorry for him. And he apparently was a model prisoner, by all accounts. I think we're often asking ourselves, could he really have been reformed? Could he really have had such a dramatic change of heart, or was this whole thing just a kind of theatrical performance on his part? I don't know.