Monday, January 10, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords and the Assassination of Frank Steunenberg

The attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords calls to mind another act of political violence that sent the nation reeling more than a century ago. Late one December afternoon in 1905, former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg opened the gate to his house and was blown to pieces by a crude bomb that had been designed to detonate when the gate was opened.

Steunenberg had earned the bitter enmity of miners by sending in the National Guard to end a miners strike when he was governor, so it was widely assumed that he had been murdered by a radical miners union, much as it has been theorized that Rep. Giffords was targeted by right-wing or Tea Party extremists.

In fact, Gov. Steunenberg was targeted by a deranged loner with murky motives - much as it’s beginning to appear Rep. Giffords was targeted. Steunenberg’s assailant went by the name Harry Orchard, though his given name was Albert Horsley. In exchange for escaping the gallows, Orchard agreed to testify against three union officials who were charged with conspiring to murder Steunenberg. But Orchard’s connection to the union was tenuous at best, and the three officials (defended by Clarence Darrow) were acquitted.

I guess the lesson here is to be careful about jumping to conclusions about the motives behind acts of political violence.

(The story of Frank Steunenberg’s assassination is superbly recounted at this wonderful website.)