Review: Lukas’s Big Trouble

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

J. Anthony Lukas

Big Bill Haywood

I’m always surprised more people haven’t read this book about the assassination of Idaho’s former governor and the class war in the courtroom battle that grew out of it. It’s a well written, fast paced, but deeply researched, look into the labor wars of the early twentieth century. You’ll probably like it.

Here it is in a nut shell: Former governor of Idaho is assassinated with a bomb, local miner gets caught with evidence and is coerced by Pinkerton agents into implicating labor leader (and anarchist hero) Big Bill Haywood. Haywood stands trial for the murders and is defended by Clarence Darrow, who wins his acquittal.

Ok, there you have the plot. But this book is much more than the plot, it’s an insight into one of the most tumultuous times in American history when organized labor was radical, and on rise, and the capitalist were legit nervous. Scores of other important people from the time make cameos, and numerous other important labor disputes are discussed. It’s a sort of history of the early American labor movement told through the story of a murder and trial and it is excellent.

I read this as a young anarchist and it was influential in my personal development away from so-called “lifestyle” anarchism to more of a focus on the importance of organized labor.

My personal politics of the time when I read this seem far away now, but the book doesn’t. Even now, fifteen years later, there’s scenes I can clearly recall and minor characters I can remember. It’s well written and capture an important, and often forgotten, part of U.S. history. Anyone interested in American history would get something out of this book.


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