Big Trouble

By Dvorak, Ken | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Big Trouble


Dvorak, Ken, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


Big Trouble. J. Anthony Lukas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Interested in murder? Political conspiracies? Social revolutionaries? Government repression? High powered political and legal personalities? Secret agents and double agents? Potential class warfare? A murder trial deemed the trial of the century? Then Big Trouble has this and more in J. Anthony Lukas' expert examination of the 1905 murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. Following his Pulitzer Prize winning book Common Ground, Lukas provides an excellent account of how a small town murder sets off a "struggle for the soul of America."

In a riveting opening chapter, the reader becomes introduced to rural Caldwell, Idaho, and its former state governor, now managing the families local bank. Almost overnight, Steunenberg becomes associated with a new breed of Western pioneers, the rising entrepreneurs of big business and finance. As he concludes his final working day, Frank leaves the bank for home, slowly walking through town. Later, witnesses said that the former governor seemed preoccupied, seemingly uninterested in the upcoming Christmas holidays. Entering the front gate of his home, a horrific explosion blows Steunenberg into eternity. The resulting uproar at the murder of Caldwell's leading citizen leads to a series of events engulfing government officials from Caldwell to the White House.

Fraught with tension, the investigation of Steunenberg's murder takes on a life of its own. Within days, the mysterious drifter Harry Orchard is arrested for Steunenberg's murder. Leading the investigation is the infamous Pinkerton detective, James McParland of Molly Maquire fame, who insists that Orchard is a pawn of organized labor. In Orchard's confession, he implicates the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), "Big Bill" Haywood, George Pettibone, and Charles Moyer. Orchard tells his captors that the WFM and its leaders were part of a conspiracy to kill Steunenberg for his actions while governor in stopping a miners insurrection in northern Idaho in 1899.

For McParland, tracking down the WFM trio posed a problem since neither of them were in Idaho at the time of Steunenberg's killing. To get them into Idaho to face punishment becomes the primary mission of McParland and a thrilling story of intrigue and mystery. Lukas is at his best in describing the kidnapping and arrest of these men, retelling in detail how McParland masterminded the entire operation. Spirited out of Denver in the dead of night, on a private train, the trio arrives in Caldwell, their abduction almost completely unnoticed.

Their formal arraignment in court began one of the West's most famous criminal trials. On one side stood organized labor, represented by the WFM; standing opposite were wealthy capitalists supported by officials in the local courthouse to the White House. It is here that the central theme of Big Trouble emerges as Lukas examines the potential for open class warfare.

Big Trouble examines Steunenberg's murder from differing perspectives, allowing the author to introduce a cast of characters and motives rivaling that of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The trial of Haywood, Pettibone, and Moyer drew the interest of the powerful and famous.

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