The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 104, July 2000 - April, 2001 Page: 316
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
first decade of the twentieth century in southwest Idaho. With immaculately
researched and flawless writing, J. Anthony Lukas introduces the modern reader
to a motley assortment of individuals, including Governor Frank Steunenberg
(blown up by the end of the first chapter), Big Bill Haywood, Clarence Darrow,
James McParland, William E. Borah, Teddy Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.
While the modern reader is familiar with each of these men, Lukas explains who
they really were, and the importance of their coming together at this moment in
time and at this particular place.
Bzg Trouble explores the renowned 1905 assassination of former Idaho gover-
nor, Frank Steunenberg, and the subsequent 1907 trial of labor leader Big Bill
Haywood. Lukas argues persuasively that the trial was one of the most important
court cases of the twentieth century. It was ultimately, he contends, about the
possibilities of a real, full-blown class war in the United States. Darrow, lawyer for
the defense, said as much in the trial. It was not just about murder, but about
the "haves" versus the "have nots." Set in a prosperous western boom area, Bzg
Trouble examines the boosters and business owners who wanted profit and a soci-
ety based on property rights, and labor which wanted economic protection and
social equality. In essence, the trial was about who controlled and who owned
America. Rarely, if ever, did the two sides find common ground.
While it may seem a simple plot at first glance, it is far from that, as national
politicians, celebrities, private detectives, and pro-socialist labor activists inti-
mately entangled themselves in the story. As Lukas argues, the murder of
Steunenberg and the subsequent trial is really about the soul of early-twentieth-
Not only is Big Trouble a great read, but it is also an important story about the
American West, about economic dislocation, and about the fragility of the
American social fabric at the turn of the last century. One gains important
insights into the characters of the times, and also the economic and cultural
contexts of the actions of those characters. Herein, this reviewer believes, lies the
real genius of the book: Lukas ably explains the social history of the time
through the eyes of individuals. He understands the intimacy and symbiosis of
the person and the community.
So, "who dunnit?" Did Western Federation of Miners' leader Big Bill Haywood
order the assassination of Steunenberg? The jury acquitted Haywood. But while
Lukas sympathizes with labor's goal of a more egalitarian society, he implies at the
end of the book that Haywood and the other leaders of the WMF were responsible
and ordered the hit on the former Idaho governor. Lukas is also quick to explain
that all sides in this story were brutal and ruthless, as capitalists and socialists were
each deeply rooted in the western American tradition of violence.
I had the privilege of meeting Lukas in the mid-199os in Bloomington,
Indiana. Over lunch, he graciously and patiently answered numerous questions
a friend and I had regarding his life as a full-time writer. As he listened to us,
and, in turn, regaled us with the fascinating story of his well-known coverage of
the 1969-1970 Chicago Seven trial, he impressed us with his immense gifts, his
genuineness, and the depth of his intellect. As I read Big Trouble, I could not
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 104, July 2000 - April, 2001, periodical, 2001; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101221/m1/368/: accessed April 26, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.