Little did I know when I joined the Idaho Legal History Society what I'd be getting myself into!
In fairness to ILHS, it's really not that organization's doing. But it put me very much in the line of sight of Byron Johnson, a retired justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and an old friend. Byron's interest in the Haywood trial dates back to his college days; Clarence Darrow was the subject of his senior thesis. And it was Byron who'd gone to Idaho Public Television to ask that it consider a program on the trial in 2007 — the trial's centennial.
Once funding was available and the project was under way, Byron alerted me: Bruce Reichert, IPTV executive producer and the scriptwriter for "Assassination: Idaho's Trial of the Century," might be calling to ask if I'd get involved. Indeed Bruce did, and his specific invitation was to help with research and doublechecking of historical details.
Not only had I spent 35 years as an editor and historian at the Idaho State Historical Society, but I'd also worked some with Tony Lukas as he researched and wrote Big Trouble — a wonderfully wide-ranging history of the trial and its times. I knew where the trial transcripts were, where many relevant photograph were, where in Boise newspapers could be found. What I didn't know was how a television program (in this case a "docudrama," but any program) is put together. As a result, Bruce and his colleagues have learned from what I could provide, and I've had an incredible time learning something of the extraordinary technology, artistry, and teamwork that go into a successful program.
My first assignments were to compare the script with the trial transcript and to track down newspaper headlines and stories about Frank Steunenberg's assassination, the trial, and related events in the sixteen months between the two. The historical society has copies of most of the transcript, which are part of James H. Hawley's papers; Hawley was one of the two special prosecutors in the trial. Thanks to the kindness of my former colleagues at the society, I spent hours in a small office, cotton gloves on my hands, comparing script with the actual transcript — using only a pencil to take notes and mark up copies of various versions of the script — and photocopying sections I thought might be of further use to Bruce. Along the way, I realized that even such minor matters as punctuation — a comma here, a dash there — would make a difference in how actors spoke their lines. At the same time, I cranked through many, many microfilmed copies of newspapers: at the society's library, Boise and Caldwell for the events of 1905-1907 and Spokane for the dynamiting and arresting and incarceration of miners in the Silver Valley in 1899; at Boise State University for newspaper coverage beyond this region. The treasure at BSU was the New York Times, which had a reporter — Oscar King Davis — in the courtroom every day of the trial. His stories appeared in the Times every day as well, and they contained the details of not only the trial itself and the courtroom but the demeanor, tone of voice, gestures, and accents of the participants. Davis' record of the trial humanizes it, and the information he provided on the individuals involved was promptly shared with the actors who portray them.
Another treasure, back at the historical society, was the photo collection. I photocopied, and ultimately Bruce scanned, a large number of pictures of the trial and its participants. Many of these are on this website; they are also part of the program itself. Early on, some of them were a great help in laying out the courtroom scenes. My colleagues at the historical society were helpful beyond measure in making resources available, and we're all very grateful. What's more, it was a lot of fun to work with them again!
Not all my time was spent in libraries, however. I asked if I might attend the "shoots," and I was welcomed as an observer and assistant in several ways. Joan Hill Yost roped me into helping with costumes, and I also kept an eye on details during the filming lest something just not ring true historically. This was a remarkable experience for me, both in terms of how the filming was done and in watching a community form: the IPTV staff, the wonderful (and almost exclusively local) actors, the local folks who were jury and audience, those of us on the sidelines doing costumes and makeup and hair and watching for anomalies and anachronisms. It was hot, costumes were warm and often heavy, the days were long. None of that mattered. We were in this together, and we were all determined to make the program the very best and most authentic docudrama possible.
In recent weeks, I've watched the edited film — including "talking heads" and the acted-out segments — come together in the hands (and eyes and ears) of Bruce and Pat Metzler, the program's very gifted videographer and editor. I've also watched the half-hour "Making of," which captures the sense of community and enthusiasm better than any written words could.
As I write this, the program's broadcast is two weeks away. I'm torn: eager to see the finished product, sorry that the adventure is coming to an end. Maybe Bruce will have another project that needs a researcher . . .