The Haywood-Mayer-Pettibone case - Louis Adamic

Charles Moyer, Bill Haywood and George Pettibone in 1907
Charles Moyer, left, Bill Haywood, centre, and George Pettibone in 1907

Louis Adamic's excellent history of the trial and acquittal of three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, Charles Moyer, Bill Haywood and George Pettibone, for the murder of ex-Idaho state governor Frank Steunenberg in 1906.

Submitted by Steven. on June 14, 2014

Unquestionably the most significant incident in the war between the have-nots and the haves in the first decade of the twentieth century was the Haywood-Mayer-Pettibone case at Boise City, Idaho, in 1906-1907.

American socialist Eugene Debs called it "the greatest legal battle in American history."

Fifty special correspondents from all parts of the country and from England covered the trial. It involved the leaders of the most notorious, the most revolutionary, labor organization in the country, and started William Borah and Clarence Darrow on their different routes to fame.

It drew in the President of the United States and, before it was over, threatened to cause a most formidable uprising of the underdog element in America.

The background was the murder of Frank Steunenberg, ex-Governor of Idaho, who was blown to pieces by a bomb planted at the entrance to his home, on December 30, 1905.1

The next day Governor Gooding of Idaho offered $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators of the crime. The Steunenberg family offered $5000 more.

The large sum aroused the interest of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and one of its managers, James McParland, came from New York to take charge of the work. McParland was in his late sixties, looked like "an innocuous countryman," and had a record that might have made Sherlock Holmes turn green with envy. It was he who, some thirty years earlier, had been largely instrumental in the breaking up of the Molly Maguires.

McParland arrested a man going by the name of Harry Orchard and placed him in solitary confinement. Orchard was known to be somewhat of an underhand-man and occasional companion of Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of Miners, and of labour leader Bill Haywood. The man was a frequent visitor at the W. F. of M. headquarters in Denver and occasionally acted as Moyer's bodyguard.

Under McParland's examination, Orchard broke down, whereupon it took the detective three days to take down his story, in which he confessed to 26 murders, all of them, he said, planned by an inner circle of the W. F. of M. McParland further obtained a confession from an alleged accomplice of Orchard.

The "inner circle" implicated by Orchard's confession consisted of Haywood, Moyer, and George A. Pettibone, the latter an unofficial factotum in the affairs of the Federation. According to Orchard, the three men had been hiring him to murder mining bosses in Colorado, Idaho and other states over a period of several years. They - especially Haywood - were the brains, he only the hand of the crimes. All three were living in Denver.

The confession was not made public.

Idaho officials proceeded to Denver and presented to the Governor of Colorado their evidence against Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone, and a request from Governor Gooding for their extradition. But there were legal difficulties in extraditing them; so the resourceful Idaho men of-the-law decided to kidnap the two labor leaders and Pettibone.

On the night of February 17, 1906, they were arrested; Moyer at the station just as he was leaving for Kansas on some "organization business"; Pettibone at his home; and Haywood in a rooming-house near the W. F. of M. headquarters. In the morning they were put in a special car, Idaho-bound.

At Boise they were lodged in the penitentiary, and later transferred to the county jail at Caldwell. They stayed in prison for eighteen months while the preparation for the historical trial went on.

Now Debs raised a cry: "Arouse, ye Slaves! Their only crime is loyalty to the working class!"

He wanted to organize an army in the manner of John Brown (whom he admired above all other characters in American history) and march to Idaho and free Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone by force. But fortunately Debs had a level-headed wife who kept him from embarking upon many a wild venture.

Instead of going to Idaho, he wrote melodramatic editorials in the Appeal to Reason.

Other socialist papers the country over raised the cry of "Frame-up!" The kidnaping of Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone was an effort on the part of the capitalists to ruin the W. F. of M. They charged that the Steunenberg murder was part of a plot to discredit labor before the great American public.

In this theory, Orchard, the instrument of the crime, was an agent of the capitalists, and the confession and evidence obtained from him were all prearranged between the detectives and Orchard himself.

Daniel De Leon's paper, The People, reminded its readers that in the railway strike in 1894 it was the capitalists who set the cars afire at Chicago in order to furnish an excuse for sending Federal troops to suppress the strike; that in 1903 in Colorado it was the Mine-Owners' Association that hired thugs to derail trains, blow up mines, and railroad stations. The greedy capitalists were capable of doing anything to advance their interests, to crush labor.

Another suggestion made by the socialists was that Steunenberg had been mixed up in land frauds and was killed by some enemy he had made in that quarter. Much was made of the fact that Borah, attorney for the prosecution, had recently had some connection with such deals, and had been Steunenberg's friend and personal counsel. As a matter of fact, the president of the lumber company of which Borah was the attorney was in the same jail with Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone for fraudulently locating certain timber claims.

The case was front-page news throughout the United States, in England, on the Continent. Magazines printed endless articles. McClure's ran Orchard's autobiography, written in prison; an amazing yarn which could not have been made up by anyone whose imaginative powers did not measure up to those of a Defoe.

One of the editors of the magazine, who had interviewed the man, insisted, in an introductory note to the story, that Orchard's mind was "absolutely devoid of imagination … sane to the point of bleakness … direct, practical, concrete." The Independent referred to Haywood and his fellow prisoners as the "Molly Maguires of the West."

Radical labor organizations began to raise defense funds, which by the time the trial began approached $250,000.

The best legal talent in the country was engaged to defend the three men. E. F. Richardson of Denver, perhaps the ablest criminal lawyer in Colorado and a partner of United States Senator Thomas M. Patterson, became the chief counsel of the defense, with Clarence Darrow - just turned fifty - as second in command, but, with his dramatic ability, easily the most picturesque figure on the staff.

There was a great hullabaloo over the fact that the men had not been legally extradited. An application was made to the United States Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied eight to one, Justice McKenna dissenting. In his minority report he declared the kidnaping was a crime, pure and simple, perpetrated by the States of Idaho and Colorado.

Debs wrote about the Supreme Court decision:

Kidnaping, then, being a legitimate practice, we all have a perfect right to engage in it. Let us take advantage of the opening. For every workingman kidnaped a capitalist must be seized and held for ransom… The kidnaping of the first capitalist will convulse the nation and reverse the Supreme Court.

Feeling throughout the country ran high, pro and con.

When Maxim Gorky visited the United States, he wired the men in the Caldwell jail "greetings from the workers of Russia," to which Haywood replied that their being in jail was an incident in "the class struggle which is the same in America as in Russia and in all other countries."

Immediately after this a howl went up against Gorky in regard to his wife, who had come from Russia with him. American moralists, among them Mark Twain, objected to the fact that Gorky had never been legally married to the woman, although they had lived together many years.

Prior to his exchange of telegrams with Haywood there had been no objection to his common-law marriage. Now he was thrown out of hotels, viciously attacked in the press, and finally forced to leave the country.

President Roosevelt addressed a letter to another politician in which he grouped together Moyer, Haywood, Debs, and E. H. Harriman, the bribe-paying capitalist, as types of "undesirable citizens."

Haywood replied from jail calling T. R.'s attention to the fact that, according to law, one was considered innocent until proved guilty, adding that a man in Roosevelt's position should be the last to judge until the case was decided in court. Many people, not otherwise sympathetic to Haywood, agreed with him. Roosevelt then elaborated:

Messrs. Moyer, Haywood, and Debs stand as representatives of those men who have done as much to discredit the labor movement as the most speculative financiers or most unscrupulous employers of labor and debauchers of legislatures have done to discredit honest capitalists and fair-dealing business men. They stand as representatives of those men who … habitually stand as guilty of incitement to or apology for bloodshed and violence. If that does not constitute undesirable citizenship, then there can never be any undesirable citizen.

Debs, in the Appeal to Reason, returned the attack with his usual fury:

He [Roosevelt] uttered a lie as black and damnable, a calumny as foul and atrocious, as ever issued from a human throat. The men he thus traduced and vilified, sitting in their prison cells for having dutifully served their fellow workers and having spurned the bribes of their masters, transcend immeasurably the man in the White House, who with the cruel malevolence of a barbarian has pronounced their doom.

Tens of thousands of men, women, and college boys began to wear buttons inscribed: I AM AN UNDESIRABLE CITIZEN.

The trial of Haywood was set for May 9, 1907. The prosecutors in Idaho had given out the information that the evidence against him and his two fellow prisoners was ample to convict and hang them; that, indeed, should they be returned to Colorado, they could be convicted of, and hanged for, at least a dozen other atrocious murders there. Men prominent in the labor circles in Denver and elsewhere privately shook their heads and said that "things looked bad for Bill" while publicly, of course, they denounced the "frame-up."

Then-in the first days of May-tremendous proletarian demonstrations occurred in the larger cities all over the United States. On May 4, Fifth Avenue in New York was wholly blocked with a procession from sundown till late in the night. The marchers carried Chinese lanterns, banners, flags, transparencies, all swaying to the strains of the Marseillaise. On the banners were inscriptions - ROOSEVELT CAN SHOW HIS TEETH - WE ARE NOT AFRAID. WE STAND BY OUR BROTHERS IN IDAHO

At the same time another procession was in progress on Lexington Avenue, two blocks away, just as orderly and colorful as the one on Fifth Avenue-banners, Roman candles, Greek fire, red flags, bands playing the Marseillaise. In both processions from 80,000 to 100,000 people participated.

On the same day Debs wrote in the Appeal to Reason:

Let every workingman who has a heart in his breast make a mighty oath that not a wheel shall turn in this country from ocean to ocean until the verdict is set aside and everyone of the accused is set free. Let our factories be closed; let our mills stop grinding flour and our bakeries stop baking bread. Let our coal mines close, and let us die of hunger and cold if necessary to make our protest heeded. Let us show the world that the workingmen of America are not so lost to shame, not so devoid of the red blood of courage, that they will allow one of their comrades to suffer death at the hands of their enemies. Hurrah for the Great National General Strike!

Now, suddenly, the conviction of Haywood became unlikely.

The trial that followed was more than fair to the defense. The defense had a huge fund. Orchard's story was left uncorroborated. Not, however, that the trial was uninteresting; on the contrary it was full of brilliant clashes between the prosecution and the defense, and startling testimony.

Ed Boyce, a former president of the Western Federation of Miners, for instance, admitted on the witness stand that in 1896 he had "earnestly hoped to hear the martial tread of 25,000 armed miners before the next convention."

To which, years later, Bill Haywood remarked in his book: "It gave me a thrill of the old days to hear Ed testify."

The picturesque Darrow called Orchard "the most monumental liar that ever existed," although Prof. Hugo Münsterberg, the eminent Harvard psychologist, who went to Boise for the purpose of making a study of Orchard, announced his belief that the man's confession was "true throughout." But the defense admitted that, when Orchard was arrested, Haywood had wired immediately to the W. F. of M. lawyers to look after his case, and never denied that Orchard had murdered Steunenberg.

William Borah made a long speech, brilliant in spots, but ineffective as a whole. He obviously was not doing his best. He said:

If Orchard had not turned State's evidence, he would now be on trial, and the eminent counsel from Chicago would be defending him with all the eloquence he possesses instead of denouncing him as the most despicable monster on earth.

Richardson spoke nine hours for the defense. Then Darrow for eleven hours.

"He stood big and broad shouldered," as Haywood describes him, "dressed in a slouchy gray suit, a wisp of hair down across his forehead, his glasses in his hand, clasped by the nose-piece." He sketched the history of the W. F. of M., the troubles in Coeur d' Alene in the nineties; then he came to the present trial, which, he said, was but an attempt to put Haywood out of the way.

To kill him, gentlemen! [he cried.] I want to speak to you plainly. Mr. Haywood is not my greatest concern. Other men have died before him. Other men have been martyrs to a holy cause since the world began. Wherever men have looked upward and onward, forgotten their selfishness, struggled for humanity, worked for the poor and the weak, they have been sacrificed… They have met their death, and Haywood can meet his if you twelve men say he must.

But gentlemen, you short-sighted men of the prosecution, you men of the Mine Owners' Association, you people who would cure hatred with hate, you who think you can crush out the feelings and the hopes and the aspirations of men by tying a noose around his neck, you who are seeking to kill him, not because he is Haywood, but because he represents a class, oh, don't be so blind, don't be so foolish as to believe that if you make three fresh new graves you will kill the labor movement of the world.

I want to say to you, gentlemen, Bill Haywood can't die unless you kill him. You have got to tie the rope. You twelve men of Idaho, the burden will be on you. If at the behest of this mob, you should kill Bill Haywood, he is mortal, he will die, and I want to say to you that a million men will take up the banner of labor at the open grave where Haywood lays it down, and in spite of prisons or scaffolds or fire, in spite of prosecution or jury, these men of willing hands will carry it on to victory in the end…

The legislature, in 1902, was asked to pass that law which the Constitution commanded them to pass, and what did it do? Mr. Guggenheim and Mr. Moffatt and the Mine Owners' Association and all the good people of Colorado who lived by the sweat and blood of their fellow men-all of those invaded the chambers of the House and the Senate and said: "No, you must not pass an eight-hour law; true, the Constitution requires it; but here is our gold, which is stronger than the Constitution." The legislature met and discussed the matter. Haywood was there; the labor organizations were there pleading then, as they have always pleaded for the poor, the weak, the oppressed…

If you kill him, your act will be applauded by many; if you should decree Haywood's death, in the great railroad offices of our great cities men will sing your praises. If you decree his death, amongst the spiders and vultures of Wall Street will go up pæans of praise for those twelve men who killed Bill Haywood… In almost every bank in the world, where men wish to get rid of agitators and disturbers, where men put in prison one who fights for the poor and against the accursed system upon which they live and grow fat, from all these you will receive blessings and praise that you have killed him.

But if you free him there are still those who will reverently bow their heads and thank you twelve men for the character you have saved. Out on the broad prairies, where men toil with their hands; out on the broad ocean, where men are sailing the ships; through our mills and factories; down deep under the earth, men who suffer, women and children weary with care and toil. will kneel tonight and ask their God to guide your judgments … to save Haywood's life.

Haywood thought it was a great speech.

On July 28, the jury, which consisted mostly of poor farmers, acquitted Haywood in compliance with the instruction from the trial judge.

Darrow said: "The trial has been fair, the judge impartial, and the counsel considerate. We have no complaint to make," although but a few days before the socialist and labor press had referred to the judge and the prosecution as "corporation vultures and vipers." Some time later Moyer and Pettibone were freed too. Orchard drew life imprisonment and turned religious.

The radical labor movement was openly triumphant.

Debs said that the powerful interests prosecuting Haywood had realized during the trial that a conviction would have a decided bearing on the approaching national election and, accordingly, "brought their influence to bear upon the court in favor of acquittal… This," he added, "in my judgment accounts for the instructions of the court, which amounted to a plea in favor of the defendant for the verdict resulting in his acquittal." The victory was great.

In his History of the American Working Class, Anthony Bimba says that Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone "were saved from the gallows by the militant section of the working class."

One of the jurors in Haywood's case was reported to have said:

"The jurors all thought Haywood guilty, but some of them said the State, under the prosecution, had not made out a case against the prisoner. Gilman, myself, Burns, and Gess were for conviction in spite of the judge's instruction. Gess weakened at midnight and went over to the other side. Burns followed soon after. That left Gilman and me to argue against ten men. It was hard work, especially in the face of the instruction from the bench and the cutting out of so much testimony. And as Orchard was not corroborated, Gilman and myself went over to the majority."

The Chicago Tribune said editorially:

The verdict sets Haywood free, but public opinion has not cleared him. Under the Idaho statute the jury could not convict on Orchard's testimony, even if they believed it, unless it was supported by corroborative evidence. Public opinion, however, is not bound by the Idaho statute. The public believes that Orchard's story is substantially true.

During Haywood's imprisonment the membership of the Western Federation of Miners and the revolutionary union the Industrial Workers of the World increased over 10,000. Haywood was a hero to a vast multitude of workers even outside the W. F. of M.

When the news of his acquittal spread through the mining districts there was great jubilation among the boys.

Says Haywood in his book:

Perhaps tons of dynamite were exploded in the celebration. In Goldfield when I went there later they showed me dents that had been made in the mahogany bars in the saloons by the hobnails of the boys who had danced to celebrate their joy at my release. There is no way of estimating how much whisky was drunk for the occasion.

Haywood was regarded with respect and awe by the public at large, in spite of the Chicago Tribune's editorials.

Some of those who publicly denounced him secretly admired him. Everybody believed him guilty of complicity in Orchard's deeds; he really never denied anything definitely or emphatically. He believed in violence, openly advocated and practiced it. There was in him none of the tendency to be one thing secretly and another publicly, the tendency that four years later-in the McNamara case - involved the leaders of the American Federation of Labor in a disgusting mess.

Haywood's violence was, to use syndicalist George Sorel's phrase, a "clear and brutal expression of the class war," (Russian anarchist Mikhail) Bakunin-like, consistent, almost heroic and inspiring, and, from a certain angle, constructive in a social way. It was, in brief, revolutionary, not "racketeering."

Although the press and the pulpit denounced him, deep down in its heart the country felt instinctively that he was no mere murderer, not an "undesirable citizen."

His violence was a reaction, a response to the brutality of the employers. Behind it was the hunger and desperation of thousands of his fellow workers.

This text has been excerpted, and very slightly edited by to make sense as a stand-alone text, from Louis Adamic's excellent book, Dynamite: the story of class violence in America.

  • 1 libcom note: The background to the murder was that Steunenberg had been elected governor with the support of the unions. However, once in office he helped mine bosses break a strike by sending in federal troops and detaining nearly 1000 workers in stockades without trial.