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Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  399 ratings  ·  59 reviews
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 natio ...more
Hardcover, 880 pages
Published October 14th 1997 by Simon & Schuster (NYC) (first published 1997)
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Dan
Dec 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pulitzer-history
Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas

Speaking with reporters before he left town, Darrow said, “It looks very much like another case of the oppression of the weak by the strong.” In short, it was a case made to order for Clarence Darrow, attorney for the downtrodden and dispossessed

Big Trouble is a vastly entertaining and epic tome covering a seemingly insignificant event in America’s history: the 1905 assassination of Frank Steunenberg the ex-governor of Idaho who had a prior history of brutally supp
...more
Checkman
Apr 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
A little background as it relates to this book. Frank Steunenberg (August 8, 1861 – December 30, 1905) was the fourth Governor of the State of Idaho, serving from 1897 until 1901. He is perhaps best known for his 1905 assassination by one-time union member ,and paid assassin, Harry Orchard, who was also an informant for the Cripple Creek Mine Owners' Association. Orchard attempted to implicate leaders of the radical Western Federation of Miners in the assassination. The labor leaders were found ...more
Jim Leffert
Nov 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
After he finished writing Big Trouble, J. Anthony Lukas grew despondent and committed suicide. Although Lukas may have felt that he failed in his ambition for this book. I, for one, am grateful for the work that he left behind. This is a long, sprawling book about a part of American history that most people know very little about—the near civil war that raged in the Western United States in the 1890’s and early 1900’s that pitted miners against mine owners and their allies in government.
At that
...more
Erik Graff
Feb 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Americans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
For contemporary (broadly defined) history I will usually prefer a professional journalist to an academic historian. They often write better, presumably because, unlike academics, they have to be able to sell copy to publishers and readers.

Lukas' Big Trouble is a good example of an excellent piece of history composed by a journalist. Not only does he tell the story of a particular trial which highlighted class-struggle in early 20th century America, but he also fleshes it out with apt descriptio
...more
Nate
May 27, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
***SPOILER ALERT***
Packed with digressions, its more of a historical encyclopedia of its era than a tight narrative, this is a very well researched tome.
The author's anti-union bias is hinted at throughout the book, but in the afterward he reveals himself, declaring the guilt of the accused (all of whom were acquitted BTW) based on correspondence between two socialist journalists a decade after the fact. One of those journalists was utterly discredited by other evidence presented within the book
...more
Aaron Million
You know the feeling you have when you talk to someone who is long-winded? Someone who starts talking about a certain topic, but quickly gets derailed, launching off into something that may only be tangentially related to the original point of discussion, only to come back to it, then quickly go away from it again in a completely different direction? And the end result is that the conversation you thought you were going to have was not quite what you had expected, and tried your patience in the ...more
David
Jun 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lukas was a gifted writer and his talents are on full display in Big Trouble. For the writing alone I can't rate this book below four stars. But I can't rate it any higher because, for me, the material was too sprawling. Virtually every individual or notable place or event received a three or four page diversional history. When it worked I loved the richness of the story and when it didn't I couldn't wait for the author to get back to the main point. Sometimes I checked out mentally and either w ...more
Michael Mulvihil
Possibly the most engrossing history I have read. It does read like a novel, bu with the occasional brief detour to explain who the "Buffalo Soldiers" were, at they appear in the tale as the first black soldiers to guard white men, the mine strikers who are at the base of this story. The great labor leaders of the robber baron era are essentially kidnapped by agents of the state of Idaho to try for the murder of a past governor who put down the miners' strike. The cast includes legal and politic ...more
Pamela_b_lawrencemsn.com
Aug 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Wow. The amount of work it takes to produce one of these tomes is unbelievable - reading countless old newspaper articles, court transcripts, letters, papers, books, etc. I loved every word of it. The story is about the dreadful assassination of the former governor of Idaho, by a bomb under his front gate, triggered by its opening, right after Christmas 1905. The perpetrator, apprehended. quickly, fingered three officials of a mining union who were then prosecuted in 1907. In telling the story, ...more
Tim Schneider
Oh man this is a hard book to review. Buried deep within this quite lengthy tome is a great book about the assassination of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg and the ensuing "Trial of the Century" of Big Bill Haywood. The problem is that within the book are a couple dozen good long articles on other subjects some of which are related to the main story and arguably useful and some of which are so tangentially related that they made for page skipping material. And therein lies the problem. L ...more
Sallie
Jun 22, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book has been making the rounds of the Monroe clan for a few years, and I finally snagged it from daughter Dawn over Father's Day weekend. Interesting story made more so from the fact my great-aunt Doris Steuenberg Knowles was the granddaughter of the victim - or the guy who was killed anyway. It's a big, heavy book (750 pgs before the notes, index etc), so it'll take me a while to read it. I'll take breaks and read sections of my other currently-reading book as I go.

8/19/12 - still pluggin
...more
Stefania Dzhanamova
“Big Trouble” is a very well-written piece of historical literature, describing a seemingly insignificant event in a unique way.
The book focuses on the brutal murder of Idaho’s governor, Frank Steunenberg, who is killed, in winter, by a bomb attached to the gait of his house, and the subsequent trial.
What captured my attention in J. Anthony Lucas’ work is not the trial itself, but the way he depicted the American society on the threshold of the 20th century. The book’s characters vary from a f
...more
David
Feb 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Intricately detailed, deeply researched, compelling.
Gary Dale
Aug 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: History lovers, non-fiction lovers
This intensely alluring tome from Anthony Lukas was one of the most interesting books I have ever read - bar none.

The killing of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg at his home and the whirlwind that surrounded his trial, the twentieth century's first "trial of the century", is a piece of American history few of us these days are familiar with. Anthony Lukas brought this tale to life with vignettes coloring the story of the era, providing an intriguing and appealing backdrop to assasination
...more
Terry
Aug 28, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The 1907 trial of Big Bill Haywood and two other leaders of the miners' union for conspiracy to assassinate a former governor of Idaho who helped mine owners suppress the unions is the central subject of Big Trouble, but this book goes WAY beyond that specific event to delve into the state of the nation at the time, particularly the taking of sides in the struggle of labor v. capital. And I do mean WAY beyond. President Teddy Roosevelt and actress Ethel Barrymore and countless others got involve ...more
Ravi
Oct 31, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a compelling account of the murder trial of Big Bill Haywood and his co-accused for allegedly killing a former Governor in small town Idaho in 1906. Featuring Clarence Darrow as defense lawyer and Senator Borah for the prosecution, the tale is almost Shakespearean in scope and provides a window into the lost world of blue collar Idaho. It is written with a highly lucid journalistic style and provides detailed lovingly drawn portraits of all the players and more. Much more. The author's v ...more
Chris Miller
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, favorites
An interesting take on the people and events surrounding the murder of a former governor of Idaho by union bosses alleged to be upset with his actions in a labor dispute eight years earlier. Suffice to say, some of the characters covered are Clarence Darrow, William Borah, Teddy Roosevelt, Hearst, Pulitizer, Ethel Barrymore, Walter Johnson, Gov. Gooding, William Allen White, and of course, James McParland. If this seems like a lot, Lukas skillfully weaves these and others together around the cou ...more
G3M
I looked forward to the journey of Big Trouble every single day I was reading this fair minded drama. Lukas provides research with a level of detail that truly gives you a slice of life of someone in Idaho (and America) in the 1900s. The cameos are magnificently interwoven, so you learn a ton (while having fun :)).We get an engrossing history of class warfare from the ground up as well as from a birds eye perspective. Phenomenal book.
Vagabond Geologist
Jun 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is a marvelous book. Sweeping is an adjective that come to mind. How ever you describe the book, it covers so many aspects of American history and society during the early 20th century that it’s almost difficult to categorize. The book was interesting from cover to cover and there are very few books I can say that about. It’s another book that has been, and will be, re-read.
Clownface3 Kinder
Fascinating story - helped me get,ore “woke” to the American character.

Too many distracting tangents and, #IMHO, storyline as presented doesn’t resolved the subtitle re who wins the battle for the soul of America.
Chris Johnson
Jul 15, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This was a real chore. So many digressions, some interesting, many not.
Michael L. Taylor
Nov 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fun-history
Good read and interesting history taking place along the Idaho-Oregon border. Read this and them read, "Two Rooms: The Life of Charles Erskine Scott Wood" by Robert Hamburger. Ther is a very interesting link. Both are about the same time period.
Terry Christensen
The 1907 trial of Big Bill Haywood and two other leaders of the miners' union for conspiracy to assassinate a former governor of Idaho who helped mine owners suppress the unions is the central subject of Big Trouble, but this book goes WAY beyond that specific event to delve into the state of the nation at the time, particularly the taking of sides in the struggle of labor v. capital. And I do mean WAY beyond. President Teddy Roosevelt and actress Ethel Barrymore and countless others got involve ...more
Florence
Dec 13, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This could have been a very simple story. A bloody murder was committed in Idaho against an ex-governor who had enemies among union miners, a suspect was rounded up, a trial took place, and there was a bit of a surprise at the end. Instead, we are treated to a full immersion in early 20th century life. There is a diversion on each page of this weighty tome. Lukas wanders off into the subject of the Western Federation of Mining and its colorful leader, "Big Bill" Haywood; the history of the Pinke ...more
Riley Haas
Dec 15, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Let's get one thing out of the way: it's too long. I'm not sure all the tangents are necessary, though they do help paint a clearer picture of the times (in the whole US, not merely in Idaho). Despite this length, Lukas somehow manages to make it tense. You keep reading through the diversions because you have to know what happens. Even though the chapter heading gives it away, I was still dying to know the verdict. I mean dying. Whenever I read something tense like that I have to cover the lowe ...more
Susan Jaffe Pober
Mar 06, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This sprawling book is not just big in size (754 pages of text plus more than 100 pages of notes and index) but massive in the breadth of its subject. The murder of Frank Steunenberg in 1905, former governor of Idaho, and the subsequent arrest & trial of Big Bill Haywood, a founder of the IWW, and other union activists, is just the parentheses between which the great saga of the political and social era of the earliest years of the twentieth century is told. Lukas was a masterful researcher and ...more
Tom
Feb 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best, maybe THE BEST, non-fiction books I've ever read. What a shame I can't give it more than 5 stars. The murder, crimes committed by those on both sides of the argument, the national attention, celebrity lawyers and stars of the stage who traveled thousands of miles to witness the trial will leave you shaking your head and wondering why this bit of national history is not more widely known. Even more astounding was the potential for this nation to be entirely different had the tria ...more
Rob
Apr 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you like history, if you are not opposed to a long epic type read, this book has so much information about the fight between the labor movement and the mining industry. The main substance of this historically oriented work is captured as an Idaho story, which includes the Trial of the Century.

You have to put this book down repeatedly, because it is so long. And it is so detailed and at times tangential. It is out of print, but if you do your research you can find it. Do an on-line search!

If y
...more
Steve
Jul 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I like this book a lot and intend to re-read it this year. The story around the trial of Big Bill Haywood and other union leaders for the alleged murder of a former governor of Idaho also has connections to attitudes about business managers towards workers and the use of both national guard and private militia (Pinkerton) to supress workers' orgnization efforts. The author weaves togejther the historical evidence from many sources to give a feeling for the times and themes at play. Well footnote ...more
Cynthia Karl
This book is chock, chock, chock full of information and I know I should have finished it but I just didn't have the patience or maybe I wasn't in the right mood. The author goes off on tangents explaining in detail aspects of the narrative e.g. a full description of the Pinkerton agency because some Pinkerton detective played a part in the story. By the time I got back to the actual story, I had trouble recalling the details relating to the murder in the small western town. It may be a book tha ...more
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Jay Anthony Lukas was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, probably best known for his 1985 book Common Ground : A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families a study of race relations and school busing in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid - 1970's.

Lukas began his professional journalism career at the Baltimore Sun, then moved to The New York Times. He stayed at the ''Times
...more

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“Like other booster papers across the West, the weekly Tribune was a major instrument for town building, even if—or precisely because—it “sometimes represented things that had not yet gone through the formality of taking place.”39 Western newspapers, like western railroads, often ran well ahead of settlement—a process that, in many bleak locales, was still waiting to happen.” 0 likes
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