Saturday, June 28, 2008

On the Trail of Jack Simpkins - Justice Byron's Johnson's take on those letters...was it the mysterious and missing L.J. "Jack" Simpkins?

This is a continuation of last Saturday's post Was That Harry Orchard In the Idaho Pen? It pertains to the letters from Orchard's prison file that were provided courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society. You will want to take a look at those if you have not yet done so.

Below is an excerpt from the IPTV interview of retired Justice Byron Johnson (BJ) that mentions those letters. Bruce Reichert (BR) of IPTV and the Producer of Assassination: Idaho's Trial of the Century is the interviewer. See the full text at: Byron Johnson Interview (updated link from IPTV with all interviews).

BR: Now, apparently there are some who wonder if the right man was imprisoned for the murder of the former governor.

BJ: Several months ago, while researching the Haywood trial in the archives of the Idaho Historical Society here in Boise, I went through the prison file of Harry Orchard, page by page, and I came across this sheaf of documents that I thought was very puzzling.
The first document was a letter dated May 3rd, 1939, addressed from Belt, Montana, to the Governor of Idaho; and what this letter said in effect was, you've got the wrong man incarcerated in the Idaho State Penitentiary. That's not the real Harry Orchard. The real Harry Orchard bought his freedom for $200,000.00 many years ago, and you ought to find out who is serving in his place.
Well, this befuddled the Idaho authorities a great deal, so they asked for clarification. The individual, whose name was O'Reilly, came back with the explanation that his brother-in-law had died avowedly by being thrown from a horse, but O'Reilly was convinced that a band of criminals in Montana had killed him, and that the leader of that band of criminals was Harry Orchard.
The Idaho authorities just couldn't make heads nor tails out of this despite some evidence that had been presented by Mr. O'Reilly.
As I have contemplated what might be behind this correspondence, I have concluded that there is at least a distinct possibility that Mr. O'Reilly had stumbled on what happened to Jack Simpkins, that Jack Simpkins may have changed identity; and since he is mentioned vaguely — although under the name of Simmons in this correspondence — that maybe Jack Simpkins had secreted himself in Montana, and maybe he did have a band of criminals that he was leading, and that we may actually have the final chapter of the story in this correspondence. And some day I hope maybe somebody will get to the bottom of what Mr. O'Reilly was talking about.
Photo from Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas
And I think the study of this case will never end. I expect a hundred years from now there will be somebody in some medium that has been developed technologically who will be commemorating the 200th anniversary of this trial, who will have new evidence, perhaps based on the correspondence of Mr. O'Reilly from Belt, Montana, perhaps based on new evidence that comes to light from sources that we do not yet know.
One would think after a hundred years we'd plumbed all those sources, but I am surprised every time I begin to look at this freshly, that I find a new interpretation of events, and I think some day we may have even a fuller understanding of all the ingredients of this case. (Courtesy of Idaho Public Television, Assassination: Idaho's Trial of the Century)
Here is a link to an article that appeared in the Idaho Statesman that is also an interview with Justice Johnson and contains some of the same information regarding the mysterious "Jack" Simpkins.
A Mystery From History: Who was behind ex-governor's murder?

And about a 100 years earlier in the New York Times (PDF file): Who Planned the Steunenberg Murder? Look at the photos and you will again find Jack Simpkins.
So what do I think of all this? Maybe tune in next week. I do know that I would sure like to find more information on what happened to L. J. "Jack" Simpkins or Simmons and/or additional evidence from this Mr. O'Reilly or any other parties that that might have been connected to these events. If any of their kinfolk are out there then please dig through those old papers, attics and bureau drawers. Simpkins remains probably the biggest unanswered question in the case surrounding the murder of my great grandfather Governor Steunenberg. If that question could be answered then the $2,000 reward offered by Governor Gooding and the Pinkerton's back in 1906 might even still be available!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Was That Harry Orchard In the Idaho Pen?

As it always seems with high profile assassination cases, conspiracy theories abound. Was Lee Harvey Oswald really the assassin of President Kennedy? Did he act alone? Why was he silenced? The same was true in regards to the assassination of Governor Steunenberg.

Although the following letters raise a similar theory in regards to Harry Orchard, the evidence to date has not led to any substantiation or definitive conclusion. Sound familiar! Then why even raise the issue? Just as with any assassination in history, I do believe "evidence" that might rewrite a bit of history requires a full and complete airing so that other facts that substantiate or discredit such theories can be put forth. I certainly would want to know if anyone else was involved in being the trigger person that murdered my great grandfather. However, until someone can present clear and convincing evidence, then I have no doubt that Harry Orchard was the murderer and he is the one that died in 1954 at the Idaho pen.

Judge Byron Johnson has a great interest in these letters and it was through his research efforts that they were brought to my attention when he and I met in Boise.

I encourage you to read the letters, provide your views and opinions (you can click on the "comments" link at the end of the post) or email me directly. Perhaps some of Orchard's descendants out there have a viewpoint. I will comment more later but wanted to at least get these posted on the blog. Click on each page to enlarge.

letters were provided courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society along with permission to reproduce on this blog. Thank you Linda Morton-Keithley, ISHS. Linda’s citation is immediately below.

m47200801161704.pdf - is a series of 3 letters from AR 42, Department of Corrections Inmate Records, Inmate #1406 The first, dated 3 May 1939 and signed by Joseph O’Reilly, is one page long. The second, dated 13 May 1939 and signed by Joseph O’Reilly, is two pages long. The third, dated 1937 and unsigned, is three pages long.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day & other Musings

Father’s Day

For all you father’s out there…this is your day. I hope it finds you doing whatever it is you enjoy the most be it sleeping in, attending church, out for a walk, watching a ball game, visiting with family, having a cold one, etc. Our family already covered several of those last night when we attended the San Luis Blues semi-pro game here in San Luis Obispo, CA. My wife Cindy, daughter Caley, two sons Joe and Josh, daughter-in-law Chrystie, foster grandson Noah (and most of Noah’ minor league championship team) were all there. It is more the hanging out with family and friends, yakking away and having a couple of Nathan's hot dogs and Sierra Nevada beers that makes it worth while. After all, this is not my Dodgers or Lakers playing so the game didn’t always get a lot of attention. Somewhere during the evening the home team Blues did win. Our visit this evening was complements of Digital West Networks where both my sons have been employed as technical gurus. Joe is still there while Josh is now an independent consultant (

I love all you guys.

Earlier today I called my Dad to wish him a happy father’s day. I was glad he sounded a bit more upbeat despite the challenges that age inevitably brings to him, my mother and my siblings and I. No, not everything has always been storybook in our family but you have to try and look past the potholes on the road of life and keep moving forward. We need to take one day at a time as life is too short and you just never know when that last day will arrive. Love you Dad and Mom.

My Daughter Caley (kay-lee) is turning sweet 16 today. I did say sweet did I not? What a beautiful young lady she has become. After raising two boys, I find my biggest challenge as a father is now having a daughter that is developing other male interests besides me. I have fought and resisted and don’t always like having the competition. Going out with Dad (and Mom) seems to have slipped in the rankings a bit. Oh well, no matter as I still love ya!

Tim Russert

I was reminded of my own mortality this week with the tragic loss of my peer Tim Russert. Together with father’s day, that is probably one reason I am being a bit reflective. In the thick of this political season Tim has always been the trusted source for getting information out of politicians and allowing me to make informed decisions. Although widely respected, a few critics have shown their faces on the blog scene and been critical because Tim was not the political pundit, shock jock or far right or left leaning commentator with an agenda aimed at spoon feeding them with preconceived answers to questions. Instead, Tim challenged both the interviewee and the audience to think, to do research and to come up with educated conclusions of their own. Most of us understand that to be the case but there are still too many folks out there accustomed to letting someone else do all their thinking. It was a bittersweet Sunday morning on Meet the Press with Tom Brokaw sitting in for his suddenly deceased friend and colleague. Many of the familiar faces that have surrounded Tim Russert over the years were there to share moments of the past and to reminisce. One of my favorites is always presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. I recently finished reading her epic Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and I always appreciate the insight and historical perspective that she brings to the table. Like Big Trouble by Tony Lukas, Team of Rivals is a big read and requires some perseverance. Tim Russert certainly seemed to possess that magnanimity in life for which Lincoln was so well known and that we find all too absent from the human landscape today…particularly among our politicians. You will be missed Tim. We celebrate your fatherhood today too.

Always the Historical Note
Lincoln and Steunenberg

While on the subject of Lincoln, I will mention that Teddy Roosevelt wrote a brief introduction to a memorial on Governor Frank Steunenberg in which he said, “That man himself belongs to that type which found its highest expression in Abraham Lincoln…He was emphatically a man of the people” (From Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas).

As someone with a great interest in Lincoln and my great grandfather Governor Steunenberg, I was certainly taken by the comparison and must admit drawing a few of my own during the course of various readings. No, Governor Steunenberg would never reach the national and international stature of a Lincoln but similar views were often expressed about the two men in terms of appearance, dress, upbringing and appeal to their constituents. Frank Steunenberg was a man of the people, simple, unassuming, approachable and facing the challenge of his own civil war in the Coeur d’Alene’s. Lincoln and Steunenberg had to make unpopular decisions to quell insurrections, made enemies in the process and it cost both their lives at the hands of assassins.

By the way, it looks like old Abe may be moving over to the Capitol near Frank. They both need a bit of company and will be able to chat about the Civil War and the Coeur d'Alene. Check it out at:

Plans under way to move Lincoln statue to Idaho Capitol

Picture of Lincoln courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Art Gallery. Com

Old Hippie

On a brighter but still somewhat historical note, I had the pleasure of seeing one of my all time favorite old rock groups this past week…Crosby, Stills and Nash. They were playing right here in SLO County at Avila Beach. A nostalgic flash back to the 60’s/70’s, still hitting the harmonies and singing against the war but it is now Iraq instead of Vietnam. A beautiful evening was had by all with a lot of money raised for a good cause (Options Family of Services: I first saw CS&N some 38+ years ago in Los Angeles. I was struck by the scene at this outdoor venue with smoke rising over the crowd from the barbecues in contrast to the thick and more pungent scent of 38+ years ago. Of course, just like former President Clinton, I never inhaled..right? Where’s Russert when you need him.

Almost Cut My Hair--CSN, Avila Beach, CA, June 10th, 2008. Found this on You Tube. Video is not very good but audio is decent. We were just in front of where this was taken from. David Crosby can still belt it out pretty good. By the way, I've cut my hair and it has thinned a bit too but not nearly as much as David's.

NBA Update

And finally...and painful as it is...NBA Championship Update: The Celtics have my Lakers on the ropes down 3-1 in a best of seven series. I will be glued to the TV set and hoping that they can begin a comeback with a win in tonight’s game. No team has ever come back to win in the championship series when down 3-1 but I have been around long enough to see a few never say never moments come true. Remember Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers and his home run in the 1988 World Series?

Sunday Night News Flash: Lakers beat Celtics to take the series back to Boston. All the "kids" came over to hang out for the evening while we watched the game, had some food and kept the yakking going.

More Bookworms

After Doris Kearns' Team of Rivals, I have taken on a much lighter read but still one written by Doris. Wait Till Next Year is her recollections and stories about life in New York and it centers around her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950's. Of course they became my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1950's/1960's and I was always fascinated by their Brooklyn history and the remaining players and coaches that bridged the gap between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. I still have a few Jackie Robinson, Gill Hodges, Johnny Podres and Carl Furillo cards along with those of up and comers like Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Season for Sorrow

You may have noticed from the previous post that the booklet from We Sing of Idaho also mentions the following: "In 1962 an opera on the same subject was written, with music by C. Griffith Bratt of Boise Junior College (BSU now), and with the libretto by Mrs. Geo. Bowditch of the Idaho Historical Society." The opera was entitled A Season for Sorrow or "A Ring About Orchard." Now I have to plead a bit of ignorance when it comes to the finer points of opera. A few weeks ago I had a delightful phone conversation with the 93 years young Professor Emeritus Dr. C. Griffith Bratt and learned a lot that I did not know. Of course I studied up a bit like a student in Op 101 going in for his first quiz from the good professor. I hope to visit with Dr. Bratt the next time I am in Boise and see a copy of the music, lebretto and perhaps a video of the later performance from the 1990's. I never realized the extent to which this opera focused on my great grandmother Belle Steunenberg and her forgiveness toward Orchard and even includes a part depicting by grandfather Julian Steunenberg. I knew very little of this until I spoke with Dr. Bratt and certainly appreciated his willingness to share information. Thank you too to Professor Wallis Bratt, son of Dr. Bratt and also a professor of music at BSU, for facilitating my contact with his father.

Click here for Find A Grave Page for Dr. Bratt

Below are additional notes I made from our 5/5/08 conversation.
T/C to Dr. C. Griffith Bratt, Boise, ID
A Season for Sorrow
In the early 1960’s, local interest was directed at trying to establish an opera in Boise. Meetings were initiated consisting of local interested parties. Dr. Bratt was then composer in residence at Boise Junior College (later to be BSU). As he recalls, Dean Chaffy may have been the one to originally suggest an opera based upon the historical events surrounding the Steunenberg assassination and Harry Orchard. Originally it was intended to be a workshop opera but ultimately became a full production.

A Season for Sorrow was originally performed in 1962. It was commissioned by the Idaho State Federation of Music Clubs to commemorate the 1963 Territorial Centennial in conjunction with the National Board Session of the National Board of Music Clubs held in Boise, Idaho in 1962. Dr. Bratt wrote the opera in 6-8 weeks which was very fast for an opera score. George and Barbara Bowditch wrote the libretto. The Bowditch’s were New Englanders and not local to Idaho.

In 1990, the opera was presented again by the Boise Opera. An additional act was added written by Hazel Weston with only Mrs. Steunenberg (performed by Joan Metelli) on stage as the sole focus of the scene. A ballet was also added that was choreographed by Warren Stiggins. Dr. Bratt has a video of the 1990 production.
A Season for Sorrow focused on the events leading up to the trial and on Mrs. Steunenberg and her forgiveness toward Harry Orchard.

We Sing of Idaho

The following information comes from the 1963 album We Sing of Idaho produced as a part of the Idaho Centennial. Recently I purchased one of these old albums and on the front it states "Booklet with background notes and fascinating historical information will be found inside the record jacket." Fortunately the booklet was still with this one and scans of the four pages are below.

Gary Eller has gotten me off on this historical music binge although I have always enjoyed the folk ballads of Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie and later Arlo Guthrie, Peter, Paul & Mary and the likes of Utah Phillips who just recently passed away. See more about Utah at I was especially interested in the rendition of The Song of Harry Orchard that I could compare with one done my old Utah and the more recent version by John Larsen. The booklet provides information about each song and mentions Orchard, Governor Steunenberg and the Haywood trial (4th page below).

The Bomb at the Governor's Gate by Bryce W. Anderson

I am going to post some of these old magazines as I am able to to so. This article, The Bomb at the Governors Gate, is one of the more widely known and was circulating through the family not long after publication. There are quite a few other western magazines with related articles that I have added to the collection and will try to share from time to time. Click the images to enlarge for reading

I attempted to contact the publisher/author to obtain appropriate permission to post this item. The American West was at one time published by the Western History Association which held the copyright. However, the WHA of today indicates they have no connection to the magazine, no copyright, believe it to be defunct and are unable to provide any information. A Google search failed to show up any specific information on the author. Hence, I made the decision to post. If anyone knows more about it then please let me know. John

Monday, June 2, 2008

Arthur Hart-Idaho of 1863 had counties now located in other states (Idaho Statesmen 5/27/08)

Just when I was feeling guilty that I had not gotten a little more up on the blog this weekend (although I did go through and create a lot of new links that you will want to try out), up came my Google Steunenberg alert with this article by Arthur Hart. Click on the post title to see it on the Idaho Statesmen website.

If you don't know Arthur, he is Director Emeritus of the Idaho State Historical Society, is an authority on Western history and architecture and has written many books on these subjects. A number of his books occupy an honored spot on by bookcase. He was instrumental in evaluating and appraising the Frank Steunenberg documents at the College of Idaho (COI) comprising the George L. Crookham Jr. collection. Of course you can see many of those documents on the COI Smylie archives website at:

Fortunately, Arthur has never retired totally from the scene and continues to contribute regularly to historical preservation. His weekly column provides often little known nuggets of history and since this one happened to mention Frank Steunenberg it popped up on my auto search. I need to remember and check the Idaho Statesman more regularly for Arthur's stories...maybe start up a weekly link to it on my blog.

I want to thank Arthur for his continued contributions to preserving and documenting our historical heritage.

NBA Playoff Update: For you basketball fans and baby boomers like me, it is going to be like old times in the NBA finals. My Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics beat the Detroit Pistons so we will have a Lakers/Celtics final for the first time in quite a few years. Maybe we can convince Magic Johnson and Larry Bird or Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Robert Parrish or Elgin Baylor and Kevin McHale or Jerry West and John Havlicek to come out of retirement and do an old timers game at halftime? Then again, maybe it is best to leave history alone, see them in the crowd and just reminisce a bit about the old days.