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The Conversion of Harry Orchard

The Adventist connection to the country’s most infamous twentieth - century assassin

This article is condensed from a talk Jim Nix presented to the Ellen G. White Estate board in Maryland on January 17, 2014. Because of space limitations, references are used only with the online article, available at www.adventistreview.org.—Editors.

This stranger-than-fiction story begins with Albert H. Edward Horsley, born March 18, 1866, on a rural farm east of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. According to Albert, his father “ruled with an iron hand.” However, his mother, a Quaker, faithfully conducted daily family worships and sent her children to church each Sunday. Unfortunately, Albert was not converted.

About 1888 Albert married Florence Fraser. The couple started a cheese business, and eventually had a daughter, Olive. Life spiraled downward, though, as Albert incurred debts and created difficulties for the family business. Then in 1896 he ran off with a married woman to British Columbia. The woman soon returned home, and Albert began moving from place to place, working jobs in British Columbia and various U.S. states. In time he became involved with the Western Federation of Miners, eventually becoming the union’s hired hit man.

Albert used numerous aliases, but in about 1896 he became known as Harry Orchard—the name by which he is most frequently remembered.

In 1899 Orchard participated in the blowing up of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mill Concentrator in Wardner, Idaho. In 1904 he helped bomb the train depot in Independence, Colorado. This second bombing killed at least 13 men and badly injured 24 others. Estimates of the total number of people Orchard murdered range from 17 to 26. He also unsuccessfully attempted to kill the governor of Colorado, two Colorado Supreme Court justices, an adjutant general of Colorado, and the president of a mining company—all at the behest of the top officers of the miners’ union. In addition to these crimes, Orchard became a bigamist in 1903 when he married a widow with three children.

The Assassination of Frank Steunenberg

In late 1905 Orchard undertook another assignment for the officers of the Western Federation of Miners—the killing of Frank Steunenberg, the 44-year-old former governor of Idaho who had served from 1897 to 1901. The Steunenbergs lived in Caldwell, Idaho. During the 1899 miners’ strike in the Coeur d’Alene region of the state, Governor Steunenberg, a Democrat who had been elected with the support of the miners’ unions, requested President William McKinley, a Republican, to send in federal troops to restore order. The leaders of the miners’ union never forgot or forgave him.

On at least three occasions Orchard tried unsuccessfully to murder the former governor, but each time something intervened that prevented him from doing so.

But on Saturday night, December 30, 1905, everything changed. Orchard rigged a bomb that exploded when Steunenberg opened the gate to his house. The mortally injured man died within 20 minutes. Two days later, on January 1, 1906, Orchard was arrested for the murder.

  • CHATTING WITH THE GOVERNOR: Harry Orchard (left) talks with Idaho’s twenty-second governor, Charles Robins, outside the penitentiary.

  • STUDYING GOD’S WORD: Throughout his 46 years in the penitentiary, Harry Orchard continued to study the Bible and share his faith.

  • FRANK AND BELLE: Former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg and his wife, Eveline Belle

  • MEMORIAL TO STEUNENBERG: A statue in memory of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg stands in front of the capitol building in Boise, Idaho.

  • STEUNENBERG HOME: Frank Steunenberg and his family were living in this home in Caldwell, Idaho, at the time of Frank’s death.

  • STEUNENBERG BROTHERS: A monument in honor of Frank Steunenberg and his brother Albert stands next to the train station in historic downtown Caldwell, Idaho.

  • PENITENTIARY: Inside courtyard of the penitentiary where Harry Orchard served out his life sentence for the murder of Idaho’s fourth governor, Frank Steunenberg

  • ORCHARD’S FAMILY: Harry Orchard’s wife, Florence, and their daughter, Olive

Struggling With God

In his prison cell sleep eluded Orchard. He felt certain that the powerful Western Federation of Miners would back him in court and succeed in getting him off, but the guilt of his past deeds began to haunt him. He questioned whether God could forgive him for the horrendously despicable things he had done. In his heart Orchard believed that God might forgive him only if he made a full and complete confession.

Orchard was moved to the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise, where Detective James McParland interviewed him. Orchard eventually opened up to McParland, who assured him that according to the Bible, God most certainly forgives sinners. Orchard later agreed to tell the detective his entire story. He also wrote out his confession and gave it to the prosecuting attorney.

On May 12, 1906, Orchard wrote to his first (and only legal) wife, Florence, and asked her to forgive him for deserting her and their daughter 11 years earlier. He also told her that he had accepted Christ. She soon responded, offering her complete forgiveness, and added, “I shall never cease praying for you.”

The Gift of a Bible

Shortly after making his full confession, Orchard received a gift of a Bible from David Paulson, founder of the Hinsdale Sanitarium near Chicago, who had read about Orchard in a newspaper. Orchard soon began studying the Bible with a fellow inmate, who also had been given a Bible by a friend who was a Seventh-day Adventist.

One of the topics the two men studied was the seventh-day Sabbath. Then through the intervention of an Episcopal speaker at the prison, Orchard also began Bible studies with John Edwin Froom from Boise, whose son, LeRoy E. Froom, later became a leading Adventist editor and scholar.

Star Witness

Orchard was to be the star witness in two court cases that the State of Idaho brought against Bill Haywood, secretary of the Western Miners Federation, and a second person who also was part of the union’s inner circle. For eight days during the first of the two trials, defense attorneys grilled Orchard. As many newspapers reported, however, the attorneys failed to break his story, including his claim that he had become a Christian. Attorney Clarence Darrow, another member of the defense team, had no use for Orchard’s conversion claim. During his summation to the jury Darrow said, “I want to say a few words for the benefit, not of this jury, but of those sickly, slobbering idiots who talk about Harry Orchard’s religion. . . . The English language falls down on Orchard and likewise upon all those idiots who talk about Orchard’s regeneration.”

No promise of leniency was given Orchard for testifying for the prosecution. Rather, it was Orchard’s hope that somehow the terrible trail of violence that for years had been part of the labor-management struggle in the mines could be broken. Knowing of others who were on the federation’s assassination hit list, Orchard hoped that his testifying would prevent their murders.

As Orchard had assumed would happen, both union leaders were acquitted, but by telling the truth, he had done his best to spare other lives, while also clearing his own conscience before God.

In March 1908 it was Orchard’s turn in court, but obviously the labor union would no longer be there to defend him. Despite his initial “not guilty” plea, he now knew that as a Christian he could no longer make that claim. Consequently, he changed his plea to “guilty.” He was then sentenced to die by hanging for the murder of former governor Frank Steunenberg. His attorney applied for clemency, and Orchard’s death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Amazing Forgiveness

Following Orchard’s sentencing, the former governor’s 21-year-old son, Julian Steunenberg, came to see him. He gave Orchard a package that contained several pamphlets, including a copy of Ellen White’s book Steps to Christ. Julian also had a message from his mother, Eveline Belle Steunenberg. She urged her husband’s now-convicted killer to read the tracts and to give his life fully to Christ. She and her children were Seventh-day Adventists.

Belle Steunenberg’s actions deeply moved Orchard. “Her forgiving attitude toward me convinced me that she surely must be a true Christian,” he said, calling it “the supreme factor in leading [him] to accept Christ fully and then to join the Adventist faith.”

In 1922 Belle and her children were among others who wrote to the then-governor of Idaho, asking that Orchard be pardoned and set free.

Belle became a Seventh-day Adventist through reading the church periodical American Sentinel. While Belle’s husband was governor of Idaho the church’s International Religious Liberty Association sent him copies of the American Sentinel, published by the Pacific Press Publishing Association in Oakland, California. After reading the papers at the office, the governor would take them home, where his wife also read them. In that way she learned about the seventh-day Sabbath. Although Belle was a member of a leading Protestant church in Caldwell, she left it to become an Adventist. There were only eight Adventists in Caldwell at the time the little group was organized the year before Belle joined. In 1909 she donated the property on which the first Seventh-day Adventist church in Caldwell was built.

Her husband did not join any church. Occasionally Steunenberg attended the Protestant church with his wife, but he never became a member. When his wife became an Adventist, he allowed their son, Julian, to attend Walla Walla College. He also welcomed Seventh-day Adventist pastors to his home.

Although Orchard had tried to kill the former governor at least three previous times, Steunenberg’s widow and children believed God spared the governor’s life long enough for him to make his decision for the Lord. On the Sabbath morning of the day he was killed, Steunenberg told his family for the first time that he would no longer conduct business on Sabbath, and he joined his wife and children for family worship. This brought a measure of solace and comfort to the grieving widow and her children.

Deciding for Baptism

Harry Orchard was baptized in the Idaho State Penitentiary on January 1, 1909, by W. W. Steward, president of the Southern Idaho Conference. A short time afterward Orchard wrote to his wife: “About two months ago I was taken into the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Boise, as a full member, without a dissenting voice. . . . I feel greatly honored, and my earnest thought is to live worthy of their confidence.”

During the years he was serving his life sentence, Orchard occasionally corresponded with his wife in Canada (she never remarried); organized and operated chicken- and turkey-raising businesses for the penitentiary; was allowed to live outside the walls of the prison for a number of years in his own small, self-built cabin; and made and sold furniture, combs, and shoes. He also studied his Bible and other religious literature, and shared his faith with others. At the time of Orchard’s death on April 13, 1954, he was the longest-serving prisoner in the Idaho State Penitentiary—some 46 years altogether. Orchard’s funeral service was conducted in the Boise Seventh-day Adventist Church; he is buried in the Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise.

The Ellen White Connection

Ellen White and Harry Orchard did not correspond, nor did she ever mention him in her writings. But there is one significant link.

On November 3, 1890, in Salamanca, New York, 15 years before Steunenberg was assassinated, Ellen White received a vision. It wasn’t until the following March, during the General Conference session held in Battle Creek, that she shared what the Lord had shown her in that vision. She then described a meeting in which the discussion revolved around removing any mention of the seventh-day Sabbath from the American Sentinel. Some in that meeting stood and acknowledged that Ellen White’s description was accurate regarding what had taken place the night before. “Last night?” she is reported to have exclaimed. She thought the meeting had been held months earlier. The vote to remove all discussion of the seventh-day Sabbath from the American Sentinel wassoon rescinded.

Had it not been for the Salamanca vision in 1890 and the subsequent series of events in March 1891, it’s likely that the issue of the Sabbath would not have been in copies of the American Sentinel sent to Frank Steunenberg during the years he was governor of Idaho, and Belle would not have become a Seventh-day Adventist through reading the copies of the Sentinel her husbandbrought home. Without Belle Steunenberg, Harry Orchard, by his own admission, probably would not have become a Seventh-day Adventist.

What Can We Learn?

The story of Harry Orchard raises many questions, but also teaches important lessons. First, God does not always overrule sinful plans. Although three times God prevented Harry Orchard from assassinating former Governor Steunenberg, in the end we live in a sinful world. Only when Christ returns and all wrongs are finally made right will we learn why God did not continue to prevent Orchard from carrying out his murderous intentions against Steunenberg and others. Orchard had the same question: “I have often wondered,” he wrote, “why my poor life was spared when I had sent so many to an untimely death.”

The exploitation of the miners by the mine owners resulted in deaths on both sides of the dispute, but the killing and destruction had to be stopped. When Orchard became a converted Christian, his confession is credited with saving the lives of many already marked to be assassinated, plus an unknown number of others who would have been caught in future disputes. As tragic as the death of former governor Steunenberg was, undoubtedly it, along with Orchard’s full confession, resulted in the saving of many other lives. Although God does not undo the results of our sins, He does attempt to salvage something positive from the awful situations we sinners cause.

Second, when it comes to saving a soul, there is nothing that can compare to the love and forgiveness of a genuine Christian.

And last, God is eager to forgive us for whatever we have done, no matter how horrendous the actions.

While we are right to thank and praise God for Harry Orchard’s radical life transformation, we must also acknowledge that during his early years his demonic actions had a terrible impact on many people, including the wives and children of the murdered men. Although God is willing and eager to forgive us, the aftermath of our sinful actions may impact future generations for many years to come.

The Reclaimed Harry Orchard

There is probably no better end to the story of Harry Orchard than his own description of the change that occurred in him as a result of his conversion to Christ. “In 1931 Orchard told a reporter: ‘The Orchard that blew up mines and killed men as I did was another Harry Orchard who was steeped in sin. I am the reclaimed Orchard that is seeking to atone for the sins of the old Harry Orchard. The Bible says it can be done, and I believe it.’”

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