Shortly before “Big Trouble” was published, you hung yourself in a Manhattan condo. You, of course, know this. Many obituaries, and then reviews of the book, noted that you were depressed because you felt the book did not live up to the impressive standards you had set for yourself. Your beast of a book, which covered every detail of the murder of former Governor Frank Steunenberg and so much more, was a truly a Herculean effort. After a decade of research and writing, I can imagine that finishing the book must have left a hole. I’m upset that you chose to end your life rather than taking the victory lap that you so deserved for publishing this remarkable story.
“Big Trouble” starts with the murder (by a dynamite bomb on his front gate) of Frank Steunenberg, the former Governor of Idaho. Steunenberg was murdered by Harry Orchard. Orchard turns states evidence and blames Big Bill Haywood, the leader of the Western Federation of Miners union. With the “support” of the Mine Owners Association, the Pinkerton detective agency and law enforcement bring Haywood and two other labor leaders to trial, where they are prosecuted by Senator William Borah, and defended by the famous Clarence Darrow. The case merits the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt. For a time, it captivated the nation as much as the O.J. trial did nearly 100 years later. Yet the story isn’t just about a murder trial, it’s about the “social tapestry of the land in which that case unfolded,” as you said yourself in the introduction. That tapestry includes the very violent class conflict between labor and capital that was occurring throughout the U.S. at the time.
Your book took me more than 2 months to read. (Since it took you nearly a decade to write, I’m sure you are unsympathetic.) I am in awe of the detail here. You were not content to note that the Governor sent in the military to curb riots, instead, you gave us 20 pages on the history of that particular military unit. You gave us box scores of minor league baseball games that happened during the trial. You even noted that a buzzing bee floated around the courtroom one day. The detail wasn’t just to show off–each bit of information helped complete the bigger picture of life in the West at that particular time.
The great achievement here is the “leave no stone unturned” approach to the story. You left nothing on the field. The history of detectives and the Pinkertons is important to help understand how they were able to bear so much influence on the case. (Indeed, the lead detective, James McParland, was such a great character–I think you could have easily gotten Gene Hackman to play him in the movie.) The socialists and the labor movement, so perfectly intertwined, get better treatment here than they do in some books dedicated to that topic alone. You spend a chapter on the press who covered the trial, introducing us to important figures who otherwise would have been lost to history. And you captured the “celebrity aspect” that is still in play today in your chapter about Ethel Barrymore, Walter Johnson, and other popular figures of the time who briefly connected with the trial.
Your most notable feat may have been a nearly perfect chapter describing how the Pinkertons illegally brought Haywood, Pettibone and Moyer from Colorado to Idaho to face justice. Because of your research and prose, I was on that train as the Pinkertons kidnapped the alleged co-conspirators.
It is difficult for me to review or recap or even describe an 850 page book (with nearly 90 pages of notes, indices and acknowledgments) in just 850 words. This book was a challenge for me to read. I would make the joke that it nearly killed me, but that’s probably not funny to you. This book did kill you. Which is why I stuck with it, even though at points, I was frustrated with its length and intensity. But I felt like you, author of one of my favorite books of all time, deserved it.
I feel the need to tell my readers about your other book too. It probably deserves its own post, and maybe I’ll do that someday. “Common Ground” was about the Boston busing crisis and it is told through the eyes of three very different families. Not only does it contain impeccable research, it is an emotional tale of a time period that often doesn’t seem too far off from today. I recommend it to anyone who works for a city (you know who you are) or who cares at all about cities, race and class relations, and education (the rest of you).
I’m going to recommend “Big Trouble” to only those who are very serious about history. It’s definitely dry at points. There are going to be places where you wonder why you are reading about something seemingly unrelated to the original story. Behind all of that, though, is a story that was crucial to our country’s history. Mr. Lukas, you must have known what an accomplishment this book was, even if you didn’t let yourself believe it at the end. This book was a stunning achievement and I’m glad I gave you two months of my reading time.