Spring 1991, Volume 8.1


Coeur d'Alene and Angle of Repose: Justice and the Quality of Mercy

On 12 July 1892, a hundred and thirty-two nonunion miners and several women and children had been forced to leave the mining towns of the Coeur d'Alene district after a violent confrontation between the union miners and the mine owners. The party of outcasts had proceeded as far as the Cataldo Mission, where late in the afternoon they were waiting for a steamboat from Coeur d'Alene to take them across the lake. Suddenly a dozen or so men, swearing and shooting their guns, rode down upon the waiting group. What happened next remains unclear. Apparently, the riders robbed some of the nonunionists and chased others up nearby Fourth of July Canyon. Two days later, The Idaho Daily Statesman at first reported that the union had massacred dozens of people at the old Mission, but the reporter admitted the next day that his initial account had probably been an exaggeration. For the next two weeks, The Statesman printed more reports of the alleged atrocity, alternating them with admissions that no bodies had been found. Even today, historians disagree about whether anyone was killed in the incident, although they all agree that the initial reports were exaggerated.1

Almost four hundred miles south of the scene of the alleged massacre, Idaho novelist Mary Hallock Foote read the reports and probably discussed them with her friend Calvin Cobb, editor of The Idaho Daily Statesman.2 Two years later, Foote made the owner-worker dispute the historical backdrop for a novel she titled Coeur d'Alene (1894). "The Massacre," the novel's last chapter, includes her description of the incident at the old Mission. She writes:

Of the fate of those who fled up the wild defile called Fourth of July ca—on much has been asserted and denied on both sides, but little will ever be known; the ca—on and the river have been deeply questioned, but they bear no witness, and they tell no tales.

Clearly, Foote believed that some of the nonunion miners had been killed by unionists, although she notes the absence of any incriminating evidence.

Yet hearsay did exist, for The Statesman reported Advocate General Parsons's assertion of testimony that "the assassins, after killing their victims, put the knife into their abdomens to let out the gas and then threw their bodies into the river when [sic] they sunk . . . " (19 July 1892: 1). Foote apparently believed the hearsay, for the narrator of Coeur d'Alene continues the account of the alleged massacre by describing a scene in which the heroine, Faith Bingham, witnesses the shooting of an unarmed man struggling to swim across the river.

The man with the rifle stood on the bank and waited. Faith could have touched him where he stood. He watched till the swimmer's head showed plainly . . . ; then a bullet went clipping through the wild-rose thicket. . . . he sank—and a coil of ripples unwound in widening circles toward the shore. (230)

The cold-blooded murderer and his cohorts flee when the troops arrive, the Army bugles calling out the warning "Attention!" (236). When the narrator then says that in the ensuing months ". . . the technicalities of the law had done much to retract the ringing lesson which the clear-voiced bugles taught" (237), Foote implies that the martial law imposed by the troops was more just than the area's usual civil law.

Foote later seemed uneasy about the lesson taught by Coeur d'Alene, although she never publicly retracted the stand she had taken in a book she said was "too crude as a novel. . . ."3 Whether crude or not, the novel focuses not on the labor dispute but on the courtship of Faith Bingham and Darcie Hamilton.4 The son of one of the Big Horn Mine owners, Darcie has been sent from his home in Britain to investigate corruption and poor management at the mine. The manager of the Big Horn happens to be Faith Bingham's father. Like Shakespeare's Romeo, who loves the daughter of a rival house, Darcie falls in love with Faith—at first sight.5 When he discovers she is Bingham's daughter, Darcie writes a letter resigning as company spy. Unfortunately for the lovers, Mr. Bingham's maid, a union sympathizer, steals one of Darcie's investigative reports, shows it to the union, and then gives it to Bingham. He forces his daughter to read it, and she concludes that Darcie has betrayed her by winning her confidence under false pretenses. When she confronts Darcie with what she has learned about him, he feels betrayed by her dishonorable reading of his private correspondence and by her readiness to believe the worst of him on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Later events reestablish the lovers' mutual trust, and they marry and live so happily that the narrator says of Faith: "Greater joy than hers no woman, she believes, has ever known" (239). 6

No wonder Foote soon had qualms about this book—for she depicts the unionists as lacking in integrity, yet as author, she had accepted only hearsay reports as proof of guilt. She made the same mistake her fictional lovers initially made: accepting hearsay and relying on appearances. Moreover, at the novel's end her narrator indicates a preference not for the due process necessary in a democratic system of civil law, but for the iron authority and summary punishment imposed by military might.

Mary Hallock Foote went on to write far better novels, but after her death she sank into obscurity until her life became the basis in part for Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (1971). Like Foote, Stegner uses a historical backdrop for his fiction, but instead of using a detached third-person narrator, he creates a fictional character, Lyman Ward, who tells his own life story and who imaginatively reconstructs the lives of his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward, mainly on the basis of his grandmother's letters to an eastern friend. Many of Susan Burling Ward's letters quoted in the novel are letters actually written by Mary Hallock Foote to her friend Helena Dekay Guilder.7 Yet Stegner has changed history by having the Wards' daughter Agnes die in Boise at the novel's climax, whereas the Footes lost no children when they lived in Boise.

Still, some critics charge Stegner with defamation, because Susan Ward is shown as a snobbish and unfaithful woman.8 What those critics apparently will not concede is the significance of the flawed character of Lyman Ward.9 Lyman makes the same mistake Foote made in writing Coeur d'Alene: he preaches justice and integrity, but in judging his grandmother, Lyman proceeds on the basis of only circumstantial evidence. Admittedly, the circumstances almost overwhelmingly point to Susan Ward's irresponsibility as a major cause of her child's death; but as for the infidelity that Lyman believes her guilty of, he must confess: "Right at Susan Ward's core, behind the reticence and the stoicism, where I hoped to see her plain and learn from her, there is nothing but a manila envelope of Xeroxed newspaper clippings that raise more questions than they answer" (468). To justify his belief that his grandmother was guilty of a liaison with her husband's best friend, Lyman notes that his novelist grandmother acted out the plots of her fictions: "Life copying art? Not improbably; her mind worked that way" (478).

Perhaps Susan Ward's mind did work that way. What seems clear is that Lyman Ward's mind most certainly works that way. How can we tell? Not so much because of his imaginative portrait of his grandmother; rather, it is his account of Oliver Ward that shows us Lyman's mind copying art, for readers of earlier western novels have already seen a character like the man Lyman imagined his grandfather to have been. Oliver Ward is an adaptation of Owen Wister's Virginian. Both characters are laconic, unassuming leaders who get along well with most of their men; both enjoy playing practical jokes; and both protect defenseless weaklings. Just as Wister's Virginian corrects Molly Stark's literary taste, so does Lyman's Oliver convince Susan that she must change her estimate of some current literature. 10 And although Wister does not use the term edenic to describe the bridal camp of his fictional couple, his description of it makes it seem an Eden (304-11); and Lyman thinks of his grandparents' lives in such a way that he imagines them living for awhile "in a little corner of Eden" (341).

Many real and some apparent differences distinguish the Virginian from the Oliver imagined by Lyman, however. Wister's cowboy participates in vigilante justice and a showdown at high noon (244-51, 298-303), whereas Oliver does not. But Oliver's friend [and Susan's lover ?] Frank Sargent does take part in some vigilante lynchings—and Lyman must put up a token demurral (448). The Virginian's marriage seems more successful than Oliver's, but Wister's narrator summarizes only a few years of it and must predict the rest whereas Lyman witnessed his grandparents' in their last years.

Clearly, though, Lyman imagines his grandfather as having been like the Virginian, and he admires him for it. And what do Lyman Ward and his imagined Virginian-like grandfather have in common with Mary Hallock Foote and her imagined protagonists? They all profess a belief in law and order and an abhorrence of terrorism; yet they show that in any conflict, they prefer martial law and vigilante justice. And while they condemn unionists for subversive terrorism, they endorse the employment of similar means by the corporation and the state—"our" kind of people. Alan Trachtenberg and Max Westbrook have rightly pointed out the autocratic nature of the Virginian; Lyman Ward admires the sort of patriarchal authoritarianism displayed by the Virginian.11

Unfortunately for Lyman, such feelings have not saved him from what he sees as his wife's betrayal. By the end of the novel, we see that, like Foote, Lyman is beginning to feel qualms about his attitudes. Knowing well from his lifelong study of history the many failures of nineteenth-century American communitarian experiments, Lyman doubts that a utopian society is possible, and he fears that the radicals of the 1960s, who wanted "to save us and bring on a life of true freedom," will instead be like the American officer in Vietnam who said we had to destroy a village in order to save it (14). To isolate himself from such uniformed madness, Lyman turns to his dead grandparents; he says, "I'd like to live in their clothes a while, if only so I don't have to live in my own" (13). He finds, however, that the real past refuses to match his idealized notion of it; and near the end of the novel, his nightmare warns him that his present course is self-destructive and that he must be merciful if he is ever to heal his deep emotional wounds.

His wounds represent the divisions in American society just as clearly as the conflict in Foote's Coeur d'Alene represents the class divisions that had intensified in late nineteenth-century America.12 So useful was Coeur d'Alene as anti-union propaganda in the class conflicts of early twentieth-century America that Foote's publisher was still printing it a quarter of a century after its publication.13 But its weakness as a novel and as a polemic became apparent from the perspective of half a century, and now it seems quaint and old-fashioned.14 Yet the inconsistency between the novel's moral pronouncements and the narrator's moral judgments parallels the inconsistency between Lyman Ward's moral stance and his use of circumstantial evidence to convict his grandmother of infidelity. The parallel between the two novels terminates when at the end Angle of Repose leaves Lyman wondering whether he can bring himself to allow or perhaps even initiate "some meeting," some angle of repose with his former wife.

Lyman's conservative view of social divisions in the West initially resembles Foote's in Coeur d'Alene; and like her, Lyman at first thinks that the Virginian's is the appropriate response to such conflict. But by novel's end, he has concluded that Oliver's conduct, although just, lacks mercy. Lyman's conclusion resembles part of Max Westbrook's assessment of Wister's novel:

In terms of contemporary decadence—corporate indifference to human life, drug-oriented chaos in the streets, violence in the classroom, the troubled American home, the ever-rising crime rate—it might well be that The Virginian is an articulate expression of values conservatives need to improve and apply, rather than admire and dismiss, and liberals need to understand and answer, rather than ignore or misrepresent. (331)

A decade before The Virginian was published, another novel appeared depicting the connection between the economic order and our social life: William Dean Howells's The Quality of Mercy (1892). Whatever happened that same year near the old Mission in Coeur d'Alene may never be known. But Foote's novel has been forgotten and Stegner's will be remembered not only because of aesthetic weaknesses or strengths but also because Lyman Ward reminds us of the truth in the lines alluded to by the title of Howells's novel:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
—The Merchant of Venice 4.1.184-87




1 For news reports of "The Mission Massacre," see the Idaho Daily Statesman 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, and 22 July 1892. Accounts of the ensuing trial of the men arrested and charged with robbery at the Mission appear in the Statesman on 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12 August 1892. In The Coeur d'Alenes: Or, A Tale of the Modern Inquisition in Idaho (1900), May Arkwright Hutton tells the story of the mining dispute from the union point of view, and she says of the news accounts of the alleged massacre: "These reports had not the slightest foundation in fact, as not a single man had been killed in the canyon" (207). Ye Galleon Press of Fairfield, Washington, reprinted Hutton's book in 1985 in a single volume along with James W. Montgomery's Liberated Woman: A Life of May Arkwright Hutton (1974). Montgomery says that in later years Hutton tried to buy back and destroy every copy of her book that she could find. A U.S. government document—"Coeur d'Alene Labor Troubles" House Report 1999, 56th Congress, 1st Session—includes the report of the commander of the troops, Colonel William P. Carlin, written at Wardner, Idaho, on 26 July 1892. Colonel Carlin writes: "I believe that a considerable number of the nonunion miners were killed and that their bodies were thrown into the river or swamps or destroyed by fire. I directed a thorough examination of the region where the barbarous proceeding occurred by a detachment from Fort Sherman and also by Company B, Fourth Infantry, under command of Lieutenant McQuiston. Many men accused of participating in this affair have been arrested, but no dead bodies have yet been found" (26-27). In the Statesman reports of the trial of the accused men, no mention is made of homicide charges, so presumably no evidence was found before the trial. In The Rocky Mountain Revolution (1956), Stewart H. Holbrook says that "It seems certain. . . that several of the unarmed nonunion men were driven into the river by union miners led by one Poynton, reputedly a reckless and ruthless man from Butte, and shot and killed while they struggled in the water" (40-41). But in The Coeur d'Alene Mining War of 1892 (1961), Robert Wayne Smith concludes that the desperadoes "whose identity remains unknown" robbed the nonunion miners, "But nobody was killed and apparently nobody was wounded, although several of the victims suffered from exposure and shock" (72-73). In Debaters and Dynamiters (1964), David H. Grover continues the alternation of views: "A number of men were driven into the river, shot, and robbed" (17). D. E. Livingston-Little's An Economic History of North Idaho (1965) tells us that "Being unarmed, the non-union men ran, some across the meadow and others to the river. The next day seventeen men, most of them wounded, were picked up along the river. Deaths in this affair were suspected, but no bodies were found" (115). Last (but probably not the final word on the incident), in Coeur d'Alene Diary (1968), Richard G. Magnuson repeats Livingston-Little's account, adding some details and the information that "A large number of those waiting for the boat were robbed of all they had. Aulbach reported that the members of the union maintained that no union man had anything to do with the 'Mission Massacre'" (226-27).

2 Foote's friendship with Cobb is discussed in her reminiscences, A Victorian Gentlewoman (xiv, 350-51, 354, 377n, 379, 385).

3 See Maguire's Mary Hallock Foote (19-20).

4 But as Lee Ann Johnson rightly points out in her Mary Hallock Foote: "From a broader perspective. . . , it becomes evident that Foote resorted to the romance form only as a convenient vehicle from which to mount her polemical assault" (91).

5 For a discussion of Foote's use of the star-crossed lovers theme, see Johnson's MHF (50, 91).

6. In reference to the loss and reestablishment of trust, Johnson noted that the effects of the novel seemed "forced" to Foote because she had originally drafted the work as a play: "Thus in Foote's tale of Darcie and Faith, as in the parallel Hawthorne tale of Goodman Brown and Faith, the presentation of the heroine's trust which turns to doubt and of the hero's attempt to regain that faith is less powerful than the revelation of a darker evil. In 'Young Goodman Brown' the evil is a witches' sabbath; in Foote's version the devilish compact is the miners' union" (91-92).

7 Mary Ellen Williams Walsh traces Stegner's debt to Foote's writings in "Angle of Repose and the Writings of Mary Hallock Foote: A Source Study," published in Anthony Arthur, ed. Critical Essays on Wallace Stegner (184-209).

8 Mary Ellen Williams Walsh has been the most explicit and outspoken of those who have levelled this charge at Stegner. She came closest to accusing Stegner of defamation when she delivered a paper at the 1979 Western Literature Association meeting in Albuquerque. In Conversations with Wallace Stegner, Stegner responds to such criticism and defends his use of Foote's life and work as "raw material" in the construction of a novel, of fiction (86-87). In a prefatory note to Angle of Repose, Stegner writes: "My thanks to J. M. [Janet Micoleau} and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history." As Merrill Lewis has noted in his Fifty Western Writers essay on Stegner: "The argument turns on the question whether the novel is about Susan and Arthur, who are fictions, or Mary Hallock and Arthur De Wint Foote, who were not" (472).

9 For a discussion that finds a positive achievement in Angle of Repose, see the Robinsons' Wallace Stegner.

10The Viriginian (74-79,193, 216-20): Angle of Repose (219-20, 304, 262).

11 Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America (24-25) ; Max Westbrook presented his analysis of the Virginian's autocratic nature in "Bazarov, Prince Hal, and the Virginian," a paper presented at the 1988 meeting of the Western Literature Association in Eugene, Oregon.

12 Taylor (30-35); Pizer (300-02); Trachtenberg (89-92). Pizer, in presenting a selection from A Traveler from Altruria, points out that "To William Dean Howells, one of the deplorable characteristics of modern American life was the growth of an inflexible class system, a way of life which he associated with Europe and the past" (302). The narrator of Coeur d'Alene tries to appropriate Howells's moral authority by alluding to his novel when describing the expulsion of the nonunion miners: "There was no Traveler from Altruria to ask: Who are these decent poor men? . . . And what is their offense that they should be looked at askance and herded apart, like tainted cattle?" (194). Foote apparently read Howells selectively, agreeing with his view that a society must be fair and magnanimous, but overlooking or ignoring his criticisms of America's emerging inflexible class system.

13 The Boise Public Library copy of Coeur d'Alene lists the Foote titles published by Houghton Mifflin, and the list includes her Edith Bonham (1917).

14 Johnson agrees that "To modern tastes, the love story is strained and colorless and the antiunion sentiment outmoded, but the horror of the mission massacre remains utterly convincing" (92).



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-----. A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote. Ed. Rodman W. Paul. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1972.

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-----. "Bazarov, Prince Hal, and the Virginian." Paper presented at the twenty-third annual meeting of the Western Literature Association, Eugene, OR, 6 Oct. 1988. Published in Western American Literature 24 (1989): 103-11.

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