Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America

by J. Anthony Lukas

Hardcover, 1997

Call number

979.6 LUK



Simon & Schuster (1997), Edition: First Edition, 880 pages


"Big Trouble begins on a snowy evening at Christmastime 1905 in the little town of Caldwell, Idaho, to which the state's former governor, Frank Steunenberg, had returned to head his family bank while contemplating his political future. As he walked home that night, he sensed all about him the bold, exuberant, unashamedly acquisitive spirit of Caldwell's young entrepreneurs, who - as his brother had written - were "here for the money." Like so many in the West at that time, these brothers believed their prospects for enriching themselves were limitless, that the future opened wide before them." "And yet the governor suffered premonitions that he and his neighbors weren't fully in control of their own destiny, that something malign threatened their well-being." "Now, as he followed the plume of his frozen breath, his boots crunching eight inches of freshly fallen snow, he turned through his garden gate and a bomb attached to the gatepost blew him "into eternity."" "Authorities threw a dragnet around the town, and soon the state placed the investigation in the hands of America's most renowned detective, James McParland of the Pinkerton Agency. Now sixty-two, McParland hankered after one more coup to top off his glittering career. Before long, he extracted an astonishing confession from an itinerant "sheep dealer" named Harry Orchard, who admitted setting the bomb that killed the governor and said the murder had been commissioned by "Big Bill" Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners in retaliation for the harsh tactics that Steunenberg had used to put down a miners' "insurrection" in northern Idaho six years before." "In the summer of 1907 Haywood went on trial for his life in Boise, defended by Clarence Darrow, the country's most famous defense attorney, and prosecuted by William Borah, a golden-throated orator just elected Idaho's junior senator. For three months they did combat with lofty rhetoric and sly espionage." "Big Trouble is both a narrative of a sensational murder case and a social tapestry. It is richly peopled with vivid characters: Operative 21, Pinkerton's daring undercover agent who penetrated to the heart of Darrow's defense team; E.H. Harriman, the icy railroad magnate; William Howard Taft, the gargantuan secretary of war; Jacob Fillius, the Denver mining lawyer who secretly bankrolled the prosecution on behalf of Colorado's mine owners; Eugene Debs, the fiery Socialist leader; the fearsome gunslingers Charlie Siringo and Bob Meldrum." "At times the book seems like a nonfiction Ragtime, for some most unlikely figures found their way to the trial or its environs that summer: among them, Ethel Barrymore, the most glamorous young actress of her day; Walter Johnson, perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever threw a baseball; Hugo Munsterberg, director of the Harvard Psychology Laboratory; and Gifford Pinchot, the lanky chief forester of the United States and confidant of President Roosevelt."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nemoman
This book's core concerns itself with early 20th century labor violence in the western mines, but thereafter sprawls wondrously through all sorts of historical asides, including the history of the Pinkerton Detective agency. Whereever Lukas takes you, you enjoy the ride and he seems to capture an
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era in American history through the single incident of a bomb explosion that killed a former governor of Idaho and the ensuing trial of its alleged perpetrators.
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LibraryThing member jaHce
Historical drama about the investigation of the assassination of an ex-Governor of Idaho in late December 1905; takes readers on various excursions in the life and times of US at the turn of the century; power, wealth, capital and labour, lead prosecutors, Sen. William Edgar Borah; the lead defense
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attorney, Clarence Darrow; James McParland, a Pinkerton agent, social conglomerates, miners' federation, railroads, small western town, gunslingers.
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LibraryThing member clmerle
One of the best history books I've read about America. In the author's note at the beginning, Lukas lays out his reason for writing the book and covering it the way he did. It is a big sprawling book and covers a huge amount of background. In a lot of ways the book is more context than subject.
LibraryThing member busterrll
Well written, but veers off for long stretches and doesn't connect back smoothly. Disappointing


Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — History — 1998)
Spur Award (Winner — 1998)




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