Rossi Post 6.0: Didn’t get quite as far as I’d hoped to today, folks. Sorry! Sometimes a “work in progress” just doesn’t make much.
— See Roster of Rossi posts
In an October 5th front page article in The Seattle Star, journalist L.D. Angevine recalled the famous trials of the Western Federation of Miners’ leadership for their alleged parts in the assassination of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905. “Not since the Moyer-Pettibone-Haywood case,” wrote Angevine, “has the interest of Idaho been so aroused as it is today…” Angevine’s remarks, it might be said, served both to reflect and to stimulate popular interest in the Rossi murder case.
More than a little of the Rossi trial’s attributed interest and notoriety derived from the defendant’s high standing in Wallace and statewide in Idaho. Angevine described Rossi as “one of the state’s most prominent men, twice mayor of Wallace, a statewide politician, interested extensively in several mines, and member of five fraternal organizations…” Angevine might have added more. Rossi was also a member of the State Board of Education (and president thereof in 1915), a regent of the University of Idaho, and a lieutenant colonel in the Idaho National Guard. He was a successful player in the region’s insurance and real estate businesses. His insurance territory, on behalf of the Aetna Affiliated Insurance Companies, encompassed both northern Idaho and western Montana. “He has extensive real estate holdings in Wallace,” wrote James Henry Hawley (History of Idaho, 1920, v. 4, p. 339), “and no man is more familiar with property values nor more thoroughly acquainted with the real estate market in every particular.” Rossi was wealthy – or so it appeared – and, by 1916, he’d been in the public eye for 20 years or more. As far back as 1903, Rossi’s biographical sketch in The Illustrated History of North Idaho, published in that year, began with fulsome praise of his personality and credit for his humble beginnings. “[This] genial, generous, and popular young man,” the Illustrated History’s cameo said,
…is doubtless as well and favorably known as any man in the entire Coeur d’Alene country and his friends are numbered by the scores from every walk in life. A stirring business man who made his way into the mining country without a penny, endured the hardships incident to such a position, and by sheer worth and sagacitv and deferential treatment of everybody he has won the esteem of all, gained a business standing of the best and is a social leader and a favorite.
All of which simply means, of course, that Herman J. Rossi was, at the time of the shooting and the trial, “a pillar of the community” – a pillar in Wallace, in Shoshone County, and in Idaho more broadly. And as such a pillar, his desperate act was destined to inherit the drama and public interest that seems so naturally and inevitably to attach to stories in which the mighty, as it is said, have fallen — as, for example, in the O.J. trial, Nixon’s impeachment, and the Madoff Ponzi-scheme scandal.
Yet it was the same stellar standing Rossi enjoyed that also drew the worried attentions of prosecutor H.J. Hull. Hull was concerned that the man he was prosecuting might be too well known, too well liked, too “wired-in” to community networks, and too influential for a guilty verdict ever to result.
Equally importantly, Hull was concerned that well known rumors of an intimate relationship between young Mrs. Rossi and Dahlquist might have irretrievably biased public opinion in Rossi’s favor. Enough was written in newspaper coverage before the trial about “the unwritten law” justifying Rossi’s act that it might be said such a “law” had become, by early October, more “written” than “unwritten.”
Hull addressed the problem of Rossi’s pillar-hood by filing a motion for a change of venue. For his part, Walter Hanson fought Hull’s motion very vigorously, as we will see. On the prosecution’s side, Hull laid out in detail, and at depth, the full reach of Rossi’s influence and ties in the local community; on the defense’s side, Hanson relatively minimized and contextualized Hull’s claims, in effect cutting his client down to human proportions.
We’ll take a close look at these interlocking but opposed arguments in the next post.