Arts & Culture » Stage

Portrait of An Assassination

The trial of the century comes to the stage


Spontaneous Productions, Inc. and the Idaho Legal History Society present a new play about the 1907 trial in Boise that followed the assassination of ex-Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905. The play, written and directed by Mike Silva, opens March 15 for a three-night run. The play, The Gate on 16th Avenue (A 1905 Murder and the Trial of the Century) covers the death of Steunenberg, the arrest of Harry Orchard and the resulting trial in which the famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow headed the defense team for defendant William "Big Bill" Haywood, executive secretary of the Western Federation of Miners. Orchard confessed to the murder and implicated Haywood and others from the union in the murder. The period was a time of national struggle between industry and labor, and the trial became known as the trial of the century.

On the prosecution side was James H. Hawley, mayor of Boise and later Governor of Idaho, whose descendants founded the Boise law firm of Hawley, Troxell, Ennis and Hawley, and William E. Borah, the Lion of Idaho, who represented Idaho in the U.S. Senate for years.

Boise Weekly: How did your commission to write this play come about?

Mike Silva: It was in October of 2005. I was at a cocktail party and Betty Richardson, a local attorney, asked me if I would be interested in writing a play, and I said, yes, I would. So then I met with the Idaho Legal History Society Play Committee. They wanted to do a re-enactment of the "Trial of the Century" for the 100th anniversary of the event.

Harry Orchard was convicted of killing Steunenberg. What did you think of him?

Harry Orchard was a really bad man. I never felt sorry for him. He spent 10 days in solitary confinement with a Pinkerton detective named McFarland, and the detective got a confession out of him. The opening scene of the play is a scene between Orchard and McFarland. It portrays McFarland cajoling Orchard into confessing on the grounds that if he does confess, the state will not hang him. In other words, he offered him a deal. This was the most fun part of the play to write because no one really knows what the two of them said. I kind of made it up based on all my reading and research. I'm convinced that Orchard was talked into confessing this crime plus a lot of other crimes. They [the government and mine owners] were anxious to make a deal with Orchard because they wanted him to implicate members of the union. The mine owners would do anything to get rid of the union. This was part of the larger struggle in America of capital versus labor. The mine owners, I mean they were terrible people. They didn't want to pay anybody anything; they had miners working 12-hour days, their life expectancy was seriously shortened. The union was fighting all of these policies hard, and so they got Orchard to implicate "Big Bill" Haywood to say that Haywood paid him (Orchard) to kill Steunenberg. Steunenberg had, with McKinley's help, sent militia up to the mines near Coeur d'Alene. There was huge trouble with the mines up there, and to quell the riots, the militia put a lot of people into what amounted to concentration camps.

Was Clarence Darrow paid for this trial?

Oh, yes, he was paid by the union. He already had a reputation as a great defender. Each side presented about 100 witnesses. I left all that out when I wrote the play and concentrated on the direct examination of Orchard and the opening and closing arguments.

Did they put "Big Bill" Haywood on the stand also?

Yes, he was on the stand and he made a very good witness. He was very calm, under a lot of scrutiny and he gave very good answers. People were impressed with the way he did it, and apparently he must have impressed the jury, too. Haywood was the first person out of those charged to be on trial, and Harry Orchard was the chief witness for the prosecution.

The crux of the reason that Haywood was not convicted was that in Idaho you cannot be convicted solely on the testimony of an accomplice ... you have to have corroborating evidence, and the state never really was able to put together Haywood and Orchard successfully; there just was not enough corroborating evidence. And the jury, everybody was quite surprised, found Haywood not guilty. Judge Freemont's instructions were very heavily skewed toward the corroboration issue. He told the jury that it they did not find enough corroborating evidence, then they must find him not guilty, and indeed they did. And it was a shock, a shock. It was a shock to Darrow; it was a shock to Haywood. The community was really expecting a guilty verdict. Everybody was shocked. There were audible gasps ... it was a very interesting trial, and this is one of the trials that put Darrow on his way to being famous.

So in the end who was convicted?

Harry Orchard was convicted and sentenced to hang, but because of the deal he had made to be a chief witness for the prosecution, Gov. Gooding reduced his sentence to life in prison. And Harry Orchard spent until 1954 at the Idaho Penitentiary. He was 88 when he got out. He had done a lot of things at the Pen ... even raised roses and chickens.

How is this production being funded?

The money is actually coming from donations that have been given to the Idaho Legal History Society. We also got a grant from Boise Commission on the Arts to bring a professional actor in from California, Gary Anderson. He was in Boise last year doing a one-man show of Clarence Darrow at the Unitarian Church. I saw him, and he absolutely blew me away. He is absolutely wonderful, and I have a wonderful cast with several Idaho attorneys, including Pierce Murphy as William Borah, Tony Park as James H. Hawley, John Elliott as James McFarland, the notorious Pinkerton detective, Keith Couch as Judge Fremont Wood, Christian Shiverick as Haywood, Marc Marshall as Edmund Richardson, another defense attorney, and Tom Poremba as Harry Orchard. Also the Boise Little Theater has generously donated their building for the play.

How long has the play been in production?

We started with a couple of readings in January. It is going to be a staged reading. There are long passages that would take too long to memorize and stage. The play will run just under three hours with two intermissions. The original idea was to do a reenactment, but the play needed to have the context of what was going on in the country of the fight between capital and labor.

March 15-17, 7:30 p.m., $17 general, $12 students and seniors. Boise Little Theater, 100 E. Fort St., 208-342-5104,