Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires: 19th century domestic terrorism

Domestic terrorism --- and police entrapment --- have been issues for at least 150 years. "Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires" is my fictional attempt to tell this age-old story.

Here's a sample to rouse your interest:

Chapter Eleven (1906)
On December 30, 1905, Frank Steunenberg, the former governor of Idaho, opened his garden gate and was blown to bits. Less than two months later three officers of the Western Federation of Miners --- Charles Moyer, George Pettibone and Big Bill Haywood --- were wakened from their beds and dragged from their homes in Denver, Colorado, in the dead of night. The Denver police arrested the three union leaders, who recently had led a bitter but unsuccessful strike against Western mining interests, on the strength of a warrant issued by Colorado's governor in response to a request from his colleague, the current governor of Idaho.
Unlike Black Jack Kehoe and the Mollies, who in the 1870s were represented by competent but far from brilliant legal team, Big Bill and his union buddies were able to afford the best. In 1905 the best by common acknowledgment was named Clarence Darrow.
Darrow is best remembered for his performance in the Tennessee Monkey Trial, still some two decades away. His highly publicized cross examination of another famous American orator, politician William Jennings Bryan, during which he asked the State of Tennessee's honorary prosecutor in the evolution case whether he thought a sponge could think, was immortalized in the play --- later the movie --- "Inherit the Wind." But by the time Darrow journeyed to Stokie, Tennsessee, to defend the young school teacher who had broken a state law by teaching that man is descended from monkeys, the great lawyer was old and had few active years still ahead of him.
On October 10, 1906, as he stood before the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court, Clarence Darrow was in his prime. Having ten years earlier won the freedom of another famous labor leader, Eugene Debs of the Railroad Brotherhood, charged with the federal crime of obstructing delivery of the U.S. mail by striking the railroads, Darrow was organized labor's courtroom champion.
"May it please the court," the great lawyer began, his voice echoing through the majesterial courtroom with its high ceiling and almost equally-high bench from which the nine old men in their black robes peered down at the speaker standing at the podium below them.
"The facts show that the Governor of the State, upon whom the demand was made, had full knowledge of the falsity of the proceedings, and with such knowledge of that falsity, actually engaged in a conspiracy to remove citizens of his own state to another state, and actually furnished the forces of his state to aid in the accomplishment of that purpose."
Most attorneys appearing before the nation's highest court --- its court of last resort --- stood erect and nervous before the nine scowling jurists. Darrow instead fiddled with his suspenders, his thumbs sliding up and down their silky lengths, as he orated confidently on, no sign of nervousness intruding upon his argument.
"This is not a case of actual fugitives from justice," he continued, as a long forelock of dark brown hair dropped across his right brow. "If one has committed a crime within a state, and has fled there from, the law is not particular as to the means or the method by which his return to the state is insured."
Darrow paused briefly, allowing the nine somber old men to mentally agree with him on this obvious point, which seemed to cut against his case.
Then, in a voice rising slightly in volume and slowing slightly in pace, he resumed. "The law, however, will never wink at a fraud foisted upon itself, and especially is that true where the fraud is practiced by a sworn prosecuting officer and the chief executive of a state." The great lawyer scanned the faces of the jurists before him, as if challenging them to dare dispute what was manifestly indisputable.
"No man in this country is so high that he is above the law," he proclaimed, his eyes looking up at the justices on their high perch. "No officer of the law may set that law at defiance with impunity."
* * * * *
As the first anniversary of the murder of ex-Governor Steunenberg approached, Darrow sat with his clients in a cell in Boise.
"Well, Mr. Darrow," said Big Bill Haywood, as he smoked a sloppily-rolled cigarette, "Those nine old boys wasted no time in putting our plea to rest."
"No," replied Darrow, perhaps somewhat less somber than his clients, "They seem as eager to have you promptly hanged as do the rest."
"So what now?" Haywood asked, somber indeed, but clearly not frightened. Though Charlie Moyer held the title of president of their union, it was Big Bill who did most of the talking for the trio, now about the go on trial for their lives in the Steunenberg murder case.
Darrow leaned his elbows on the scuffed wooden table that separated him from his clients. The unruly tuft of hair hung across his brow, just as it had a couple of months earlier, when he had argued --- unsuccessfully, as all four of them now knew --- that Haywood and the rest had been illegally extradited from their homes in Denver in violation of their constitutional rights. Having lost the procedural battle, Darrow now had the sleeves of his soiled white shirt rolled up high on his arms, symbolic of his determination to win the substantive murder case. Winning meant as much to him as to his clients, although their very lives, and not his, were at stake. He knew the world was watching. And besides, he'd lost a client to the hangman's noose once, early in his now illustrious career--- a mad bomber, an anarchist, back in Chicago --- and he had vowed that it would never happen again.
Like his three clients, Clarence Darrow smoked a carelessly-rolled cigarette. He blew smoke thoughtfully over the heads of the three attentive prisoners. "The prosecution would like three separate trials. That way they get three bites at the apple... three chances for a hanging," he stated flatly. "Plus, some of them like the publicity. One at least wants to further his political career with a hanging."
"That Borah is a bastard," grumbled Haywood. "He's already won his election into the Senate. Why the hell can't he go off to Washington and leave honest unionists alone?"
Darrow pushed the forelock off his forehead with a hand that was surprisingly large and powerful looking for a man who earned his daily bread in courtrooms rather than in the silver mines from which his clients had risen to union prominence. A critical observer might have noted that his hair was thinning in middle age.
"No sense in cursing them, Bill," he said patiently, conscious he was talking to men who had faced violence and hatred and frustration for much of their adult lives as union organizers, and who now faced death if he let them down.
"So what's the grand strategy?" Moyer chimed in, moving the discussion right to the bottom line. Though lacking Haywood's charisma, he was a practical man, good with details, which was why he was the union's president.
Darrow ground out his cigarette on the wooden table, adding one more burn mark to the multitude of others that gave the surface a pock-marked appearance, like a poxied face. The afternoon had grown late. Outside it was almost dark and cloudy to boot. The cell was large, but four bunks, four chairs and a table were crowded into it. Four men huddled around the table made it seem cramped. The light from a single kerosene lamp made it seem conspiratorial.
The lawyer leaned in close and withdrew an envelope from the inside pocket of his suit coat. He carefully, almost gently, extracted a single sheet of paper from the envelope. He unfolded it and spread it on the table. Caught up in their attorney's mysterious demeanor, the three prisoners leaned in closer, too, so that the four men could smell one another's tobacco scented breath and the sweaty aroma of skin not often accorded a good scrubbing. No one of them really noticed these smells. They were too caught up in the spell Darrow had spun in the gloomy cubicle. And besides, they were comrades; that they sometimes stank a little was no big deal to any of them.
His eyes moving from face to face, left to right, the way he might catch the attention of each individual juror, Darrow intoned softly, "Boys, this piece of paper just might be your salvation."
"What is it?" inquired George Pettibone, almost in a whisper.
"It's a letter, George."
"A letter?"
Darrow nodded ever so slightly. "That's right. It's a letter from a Pinkerton operative in Denver to the Caldwell sheriff, telling him that Harry Orchard planted the bomb that killed Frank Steunenberg."
The four men sat in silence. Darrow waited quietly for what he had just said to sink in. Haywood, always the sharpest of the trio, spoke first. In his growing excitement, his voice was a little too loud.
"You mean you can prove this whole thing was a..."
"Easy, Bill," his lawyer interrupted. "Your voice carries farther than you might think in here."
"Who cares who hears us?" Moyer offered rhetorically. "If this is really what you say it is, we're in the clear."
"Where the devil did you get it?" Pettibone inquired.
Darrow answered Pettibone's question first. He kept his voice as low as before, and as if to confirm his concerns a guard's keys jingled at the other end of the cell block. The sound was a crisp, metallic reminder that in a prison privacy is at most a fleeting illusion.
"Your union has friends inside the prosecutor’s office. Not everybody in Idaho is against you miners. That's how I come to have this letter." He paused, but resumed before one of his excited clients could interrupt him again.
"Before you start making your holiday plans, let me caution you. This letter doesn't say that the Pinkertons put Orchard up to the dirty deed. Nor does it say who hired the Pinkertons. Additionally, if I tried to use this document to persuade the court to throw out your cases, I'd be betraying a friend of labor."
"Then you expect to get us acquitted?" inquired Moyer, ever the most practical of the trio. His bald head glistened with perspiration in the lantern light.
"But how," asked Haywood, obligingly lowering his voice to something approximating at least normal conversational tones, "if you can't use this?"
"This letter tells me all I need to know," Darrow replied. "Gentlemen, we've always known somebody besides the three of you put Orchard up to it. But up to now we've lacked any tangible link. This letter names the link." He paused, his sense of the dramatic an ever-present part of his very being.
"The link's name is James McParland, whose signature is on this letter. I know now what I must do in order to win this case.”

More on the Molly Maguires and other early terrorist cases:

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