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From Boise

Assassination

published3 months ago
7 min read

Hi! Today's story is by Amanda Patchin. I found it fascinating & hope you do, too. Enjoy!

In 2005, my husband and I bought a house on Manitou Avenue in Boise. I was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, and hadn’t seen the street name before nor had I been to Manitou Park: the lovely green space nestled under the Boise Bench and right in the middle of the neighborhood. I found myself spelling the name a lot as I wrote thank you notes for wedding gifts and changing mailing addresses on accounts. I found that when I needed to tell someone my address, I needed to spell Manitou out for them because of its unfamiliarity. A few months later I noticed a huge old painted sign on the side of a building downtown: Hotel Manitou. The Baader–Meinhof phenomenon at work!

The historic Hotel Manitou on Main Street in downtown Boise. Credit Idaho Statesman.

I started asking people if they knew the origin of the word that named my street and an old hotel downtown. Someone told me that there was a “Chief Manitou” ruling one of the tribes native to the Boise area, but they had no source. Google was a little more helpful, informing me that Manitou is the Algonquin name for the life force that animates the world. In Algonquin theology, “otshee manetoo” designates the evil force that harms the world while “aashaa monetoo” is the good force put into the world by the Great Spirit, or “Gitche Manetoo”. During the early stages of European contact, Gtiche Manetoo was used by missionaries as a designation for the Christian God and that designation was adopted by Anishinaabe Christian groups like the Ojibwe. Spelled many ways in European-made dictionaries, it is the naming root of Lake Manitoba in Canada, Manitou Springs in Colorado, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, as well as the street I live on in Boise.

Hotel Manitou once occupied the floors above the old Blues Bouquet, a landmark downtown Boise bar that has been closed for more than five years. While the space is currently sitting empty and with boarded up windows, BoiseDev reports that a developer is putting a hotel and two restaurants into the historic space.

In front of the Bouquet are a few historical markers offering a summary of the rich history of the Main Street block between 9th and 10th. Once known as “Little Tammany” (a reference to Tammany Hall of New York), the backrooms and basements were the meeting place for labor organizers at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Labor organization was a pressing concern for miners and mine owners, and Boise politics were driven by the tension between the two groups.

In 1896, Frank Steunenberg was elected governor of Idaho on both the Democratic and Populist tickets. He was the first non-Republican elected to the office, however, given that Idaho had only been a state for six years, he wasn’t breaking a long-running pattern and, despite the current sense of Idaho as an overwhelmingly Republican state, her governors have been one third Democrat to two thirds Republican.

A portrait of Frank Steunenberg. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.

Steunenberg was elected, primarily, because the labor unions believed he would be sympathetic to their cause. Governors only served two-year terms and he was easily reelected for a second term. Unfortunately, during that second term, mill equipment at a non-unionized mill was destroyed by men hired by the Western Federation of Miners. The WFA union, meeting in the basement of the bar, were horrified when Steunenberg declared martial law to stop the union from taking over a mill up near Coeur d’Alene. Because the Idaho National Guard was deployed to the Philippines, he even requested federal troops, which President McKinley dispatched. This was so obviously not what his supporters wanted that he didn’t even run for governor in the next election.

Governor Steunenberg and others. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.

Instead, he settled in Caldwell and worked at some unspecified business concerns over the following few years. The union didn’t forget what they saw as a betrayal, one they assumed was tied to a large bribe from mine owners and one that brought federal troops into Idaho to enforce big business over laborers. Of course, Steunenberg and his supporters saw the intervention as necessary to preserve the integrity of private property and to prevent the unions from enforcing their will through organized crime.

On December 30th, 1905, Frank Steunenberg was assassinated by a bomb at his Caldwell home.

The Steunenberg Home in Caldwell, Idaho. 1905. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.
The site of the explosion outside of Steunenberg's home. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.

Initial reports indicated that it was a wire-tripped device attached to his gate that set off a nitroglycerin bomb. Pinkerton detectives investigated further and discovered that it was actually sulphuric acid that was rigged to spill on blasting caps when the gate was opened. Over a hundred Caldwell men were immediately deputized to guard every road in and out of Caldwell – this long before Boise, Meridian, Nampa, and Caldwell had all grown into each other – and it only took one day for investigators to find their suspect.

Albert Horsley was a man of many aliases. Checked into a hotel under the name of Tom Hogan, known to Union bosses as Harry Orchard, he was quickly arrested after blasting caps and other evidence were found in his hotel room.

The arrest of Harry Orchard. Orchard is the third man from the left with his hands behind his back. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.

If tried and convicted, he would have likely been executed by hanging. This threat convinced him to cooperate with the Pinkerton agent in charge of the investigation. He signed a huge document detailing his assassination of the former governor, confessing to other attempts on Steunenberg’s life, and numerous other crimes including killing 17 other people in the Colorado Labor Wars.

Horsley/Orchard/Hogan was a colorful character long before he confessed to the assassination of Steunenberg. A bigamist with abandoned wives across the west, a frequent entrepreneur who burned his cheese making business to the ground for the insurance money, and a one-time mine owner with a 1/16th stake in a small silver operation, he had spent the last few years as a hired goon for union interests. He declared that he loved nice clothes, spending freely on his wardrobe, but most of his money disappeared into high-stakes faro games at saloons.

Portraits of Harry Orchard. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.

The trial was a national sensation and both the prosecution and defense attorneys were already nationally known and would go on to greater fame. William Borah, later a governor who would have a mountain named after him, led the prosecution.

Scenes from the trial. Harry Orchard is pictured seated on the left in a pinstripe suit. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.
Scenes from the trial. Judge Freemont Wood sits at the desk with the Jury seated below him. Credit: Identifier, Idaho State Archives.

With a signed confession from one participant, it seems like it should have been an easy win, however, Clarence Darrow, later of Scopes “Monkey Trial” fame, led the defense and given the rules requiring corroboration of confession was able to get Horsley’s co-conspirators off. Darrow would also later defend the murders who inspired the Hitchcock film, The Rope. Despite Darrow’s defense and because of his confession, Horsley was sentenced to life in prison and he spent more than 46 years in the Old Idaho Penitentiary: the longest term served in the institution!

Horsley in prison. 1953. Credit Bob Lorimer (photographer) and Idaho State Historical Society (publisher).

Horsley’s confession took on a life of its own. McClure’s, a national magazine, requested exclusive access to the prisoner and the governor intervened to allow it. They serialized the confession which morphed into an autobiography as he filled in details for the reporter.

Despite some of his more sensational claims, and that the defense attorneys argued that his confession was invalid because he claimed to have committed crimes that it was logistically impossible for him to be involved in, Horsley maintained the truth of both his signed confession and the McClure’s publication up until his death. His pleas for parole were repeatedly denied but even in those hearings he never recanted anything in his confession or autobiography.

Incidentally, he also confessed to planning to blow up the Idanha Hotel at one point but was, apparently, stopped from doing so by the sight of children going in and out.

The Idanha Hotel in downtown Boise, 1968. Credit Ivan M. Fitzwater (photographer) and Idaho State Archives (publisher).

Steunenberg’s legacy, although little known today, is memorialized in front of the Idaho Capitol. There, a statue bears the inscription requested by his family.

Frank Steunenberg
Governor of Idaho
1897 - 1900
When in 1899 organized lawlessness challenged the power of Idaho, he upheld the dignity of the state, enforced its authority and restored LAW AND ORDER within its boundaries, for which he was assassinated in 1905.
"Rugged in body, resolute in mind, massive in the strength of his convictions, he was of the granite hewn."
In grateful memory of his courageous devotion to public duty, the people of Idaho have erected this monument.
Statue of Frank Steunenberg outside of the Idaho State Capitol. Credit Idaho Press.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the early 20th century would be so much like the early 21st century. More than a hundred years ago, wages (and who gets to decide them), political power and its tense relationship to popular opinion and to the influence of money, and violence in service of ideology were all at the forefront of a national trial. These are threads that still run through public discourse and public life in 2021.

As the Idanha Hotel remains standing in downtown Boise, morphing with the years, and the shambles of the old Manitou Hotel have yet to be renewed, it seems to serve as a reminder of how much the human condition remains despite changing technologies, changing cultural expectations, changing landscapes.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

-Amanda Patchin

You can learn more about Amanda at amandapatchin.com

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