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Big Trouble

A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Strugg

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Hailed as "toweringly important" (Baltimore Sun), "a work of scrupulous and significant reportage" (E. L. Doctorow), and "an unforgettable historical drama" (Chicago Sun-Times), Big Trouble brings to life the astonishing case that ultimately engaged President Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the politics and passions of an entire nation at century's turn.

After Idaho's former governor is blown up by a bomb at his garden gate at Christmastime 1905, America's most celebrated detective, Pinkerton James McParland, takes over the investigation. His daringly executed plan to kidnap the radical union leader "Big Bill" Haywood from Colorado to stand trial in Idaho sets the stage for a memorable courtroom confrontation between the flamboyant prosecutor, progressive senator William Borah, and the young defender of the dispossessed, Clarence Darrow.

Big Trouble captures the tumultuous first decade of the twentieth century, when capital and labor, particularly in the raw, acquisitive West, were pitted against each other in something close to class war.

Lukas paints a vivid portrait of a time and place in which actress Ethel Barrymore, baseball phenom Walter Johnson, and editor William Allen White jostled with railroad magnate E. H. Harriman, socialist Eugene V. Debs, gunslinger Charlie Siringo, and Operative 21, the intrepid Pinkerton agent who infiltrated Darrow's defense team. This is a grand narrative of the United States as it charged, full of hope and trepidation, into the twentieth century.

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. When Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg -- a Democrat and self-declared "brother of the working man" -- summoned federal troops to quell the Coeur d'Alene miners insurrection of 1899, he was branded a traitor by the labor movement. When is the use of violence justifies as a catalyst for social or political change? At various times in American history, the government has been criticized for mishandling uprisings and demonstrations. Discuss the ethics of inadequate or excessive responses to public protests.
  2. Compare the 1997 strike by UPS employees with the methods used by the Western Federation of Miners. How have American labor unions evolved since their inception, and how will their role continue to change as we enter the new millennium? Have unions become more or less effective as a means of protecting workers' rights? Why are labor disputes less violent today than they were at the beginning of the century, despite the growing gap between America's rich and poor? Are we headed toward a return of explosive class collisions?
  3. Lukas describes American Socialism in the early 1900s as an "unruly assembly of sects." Attempts by unions of the time to cooperate often failed as well. Discuss the causes and consequences of the fragmentation within the Labor and Socialist movements. Compare and contrast these groups to the Feminist movement of the past few decades. Which movement made the most progress for its cause, despite a lack of unity?
  4. The lawyers, politicians, judges, radicals, journalists, and spies portrayed in Big Trouble often seem larger than life. Which historical figure did you find the most intriguing? The most noble? The most deplorable? With whom did you most sympathize? If you could go back in time, which of the book's protagonists would you most like to pass an hour with at the bar in Boise's grand hotel, the Idanha? If you could spend the months leading up to the Haywood trial "behind-the-scenes" with either the prosectution or the defense, which would you choose and why?
  5. Do you consider the "Great Detective" James McParland a villain or a hero? What do you think his true motives were? How have American attitudes toward detectives changed over the past century? Discuss McParland's infiltration of the Molly Maguires and Operative 21's penetration of Haywood's defense team. To what degree do you think spying is ethical? Should evidence obtained undercover be admissible in criminal trials?
  6. Clarence Darrow is described by Lukas as the "attorney for the downtrodden and dispossessed." Darrow often used the personal histories of his clients to win jurors' sympathies. Did his methods presage modern lawyers' use of the so-called "abuse excuse" to will acquittals by demonstrating that criminals are victims themselves?
  7. President Roosevelt was criticized by both labor leaders and captains of industry for his habit of "balancing the blame." Why was Roosevelt's evenhandedness deplored by those at either end of the spectrum? Are today's politicians denounced or rewarded for taking moderate stances? Discuss Roosevelt's involvement in the Haywood trial and the consequences of his infamous "undesirable citizens" remark.
  8. In the pages of Big Trouble a kidnapping masquerades as a legal extradition, a governor solicits private funds to bolster a state prosecution, and lawyers fraternize with journalists covering their cases. Law-bending abounds and conflicts of interest are endemic in the American West Lukas describes. Is it more or less difficult today for people in power to take liberties with the law? In what fundamental ways has our American justice system evolved over the last century?
  9. In summing up the series of battles that had been waged between labor and capital by the end of this epic tale, Lukas writes: "Operative for Operative, hired gun for hired gun, bought juror for bought juror, perjured witness for perjured witness, conniving lawyer for conniving lawyer, partisan reporter for partisan reporter these cockeyed armies had fought each other to an exhausted standoff." Considering the unethical tactics employed by both sides, it is almost impossible to argue that Haywood got a fair trial. But was the verdict fair, considering the evidence? What do you think was the most decisive factor in the jury's handing clown an acquittal? Is it easier or harder to get a fair trial In the United States today and why? Who do you believe was responsible for Steunenberg's assassination?
  10. Consider the following assertion: The O.J. Simpson trial was to race relations in late 20th-century America what the Haywood trial was to the issue of class in early 20th-century America. Compare and contrast the role of the following elements in each of the trials: evidence, media coverage, juries, layerly tactics, and public opinion. In what ways did these two monumental "trials of the century" mirror one another? In what ways did they differ?
  11. Of the nation's newspapers at the time of the Haywood trial, Lukas says: "Neither the creed of objectivity" nor the separation of editorial and news operations had yet become established....publishers, editors, and senior correspondents became mouthpieces of parties and politicians, sometimes serving as outright political agents." To what degree do politics still influence our national media? How large all impact do you think press coverage of the Haywood trial had on the outcome of the case? How does publicity affect our judicial system today?
  12. Lukas himself was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. How does his experience as a journalist inform his writing of history? Do you think he offers a balanced account of the Haywood trial and a fair portrayal of the larger disputes between labor and capital? Did you find yourself "rooting" for the prosecution or the defense, once the trial was underway in the book? Why or why not?

Garry Wills The New York Review Of Books This book is to "true crime" stories what War and Peace is to most war novels. It not only gives us the crime of the era, but the era as a crime.

Kevin Starr The Wall Street Journal ...Vast, detailed, colorful, at once analytical and driven by a storyline in the best manner of journalism....Big Trouble succeeds as literature as well as history.

Frank Davies The Miami Herald Like a rambunctious Ragtime that captures the brashness and bluster of the United States at the turn of the century, Big Trouble spills over with outsize characters, political and social clashes on a grand scale, and a celebrity murder trial that divides the nation. It's also a bracing portrait of the real, unromantic West.

Alan Brinkley The New Republic This vast and remarkable work of history does many things, but its principal achievement is to reveal how deeply and passionately Americans of the early twentieth century fought each other over issues of power and wealth.