Class Warfare in Turn-of-the-Century Idaho

Article excerpt


By J. Anthony Lukas

Simon & Schuster 832 pp., $32.50 Pay attention to the subtitle of "Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America." It hints at the scale of the task undertaken by author J. Anthony Lukas. His past work included the Pulitzer-winning 1985 work on racial integration in America, "Common Ground." That book visited the vast topic of race by zeroing in on a Boston neighborhood traumatized by busing battles of the 1970s. "Big Trouble" is another volume that moves from a specific locale and event to the contemplation of larger issues. It starts with a man, a leading citizen, walking the streets of little Caldwell, Idaho, one snowy December evening in 1905. This is Frank Steunenberg, former governor of the state, banker, timber speculator, and the very image of Western respectability, self-assurance, and success. When he returns home, a bomb hidden under the garden gate is triggered, and Lukas's vast cyclorama of people, plots, subplots, and sub-subplots is set in motion. Suspicion immediately falls on the labor-union leaders that Steunenberg had antagonized when, as governor, he used troops and martial law to put down a miners' strike in the Coeur dAlene region of Idaho. The bomber, soon arrested, is a drifter with union ties. Coaxed along by the Pinkerton agency's top detective, he spills out a confession that identifies three top officials of the radical Western Federation of Miners as conspirators who paid him to do the deed. What transpires from there requires more than 700 pages of Lukas's deft prose. Every significant character gets carefully profiled. Pinkerton ace James McParland is drawn as a man obsessed by a conspiratorial view of unions as seedbeds of crime and anarchy. His earlier exploits as an undercover agent putting down murderous insurrection in Pennsylvania's coal district serve as prelude to his work on the Steunenberg case. In a fascinating passage, Lukas examines how the Pinkertons and other private-detective agencies filled the gaps in official law enforcement in the young West. A standout gumshoe like McParland could - and did - become chief investigator, interrogator, and strategist for the prosecution. On the defense side, strategy was hammered out by an often contentious team that featured Clarence Darrow, who was rapidly becoming a legal legend by taking on unpopular defendants. …


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