by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead’s History Book Club met this morning for the third and final installment of the Crime series of books focusing on Howard Blum’s American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood and the Crime of the Century.
Much of the work is centered on the October 1910 terrorist bombing of the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times by James B. McNamara and related attempts at bombings by his brother John J., radicalized members of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers.
Because the owner and publisher of the paper, Harrison Gray Otis, and his son-in-law and Times general manager Harry Chandler were long-time exponents of anti-union and pro-business views, they were an obvious target for the McNamaras and those who supported them.
For context, there had been many union-generated attacks throughout the country in the preceding few years, but Los Angeles was an “open shop” town, meaning that organized labor, with very few exceptions (including some typographers), was essentially kept out of the city’s business and manufacturing sectors.
In the early morning hours of the 1st, bombs were set off in the building which was then engulfed in a massive fire and the result was the deaths of 21 persons in what some union members and supporters insisted was an explosion from a gas leak or claimed that the McNamaras were framed. At the same time, bombs were planted in a package delivered to the secretary of a local business association and in a suitcase left at Otis’ home.
It was the contents of the package that led to the trail of the perpetrators after Los Angeles Mayor George Alexander hired noted private detective William J. Burns to ferret out those who carried out the terrorist act. It took a half a year, but, in April 1911, Burns arrested the McNamaras and a confederate, Ortie McManigal and charges were filed in relation to the bombing of the Times and other locations.
Powerful union boss Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor hired the famed attorney Clarence Darrow, who frequently worked for labor organizations, to represent the McNamaras. The evidence against the brothers was overwhelming and Darrow was later tried twice of trying to bribe a couple of the jurors in the trial.
The proceedings ended when Darrow negotiated a plea deal and the McNamaras admitted guilt. John got a 15-year sentence at San Quentin for ordering the Times attack and another one in the city, while James escaped the death penalty by being handed a life sentence at San Quentin State Prison. The latter showed no regrets for what he felt was a necessary act of violence for a noble cause of helping oppressed workers.
As for Darrow, he was acquitted in the first bribery trial and there was a hung jury in the second, but the blot on his reputation lasted for almost fifteen years. His defense of the accused murderers Leopold and Loeb (another “crime of the century” case) and the famed “Scopes Monkey Trial” case in the mid-1920s resurrected his fortunes.
Whatever toehold organized labor had in a Los Angeles emerging as a business and industrial powerhouse in the first years of the 20th century was hacked away by the Times bombing. Job Harriman, who worked on the McNamara defense team and was a Socialist Party candidate for mayor with a good chance of winning the 1911 campaign held a little over a year after the bombings, but just months after the McNamara trial ended.
Though Harriman won a Halloween day primary over the incumbent Alexander, a run-off between the two brought the latter a resounding victory of nearly 25 percentage points over the former. For many observers, the Times bombing and the resulting backlash against labor and left-leaning politics doomed Harriman’s candidacy.
In any case, organized labor, which always faced a difficult struggle in “open shop” Los Angeles prior to 1910, lost whatever gains it had made after the terrorist attack. Otis, Chandler, the Times, and their business and manufacturing allies and friends gained significantly in the fight to keep unions down and the situation remained that way for decades.
The photographs shown here from the Homestead’s collection of the shattered ruins of the Times building come mainly, it appears, from snapshots but printed on postcards, which was very common at the time. One came with part of a photo album mounting paper and caption reading “Times Explosion [distinct from ‘Bombing’].” Another is a press photograph from the New York Herald syndicate that appeared in newspaper articles and later books, including Blum’s, on the subject.
There is also a real photo postcard that has a postmark from September 1911 and the correspondent wrote, “This is evidently one taken after the accident or explosion, it is the Times bldg. on 1st & Broadway.” If the note was written months after the guilty pleas in the McNamara trial, was the writer thinking that it was still unclear what happened?
Today, the terrorism bombing of the Los Angeles Times building has largely been forgotten, but, in our age of frequent attacks, it should be better remembered, especially as it appears to be the first of its kind in the City of the Angels.