Punctuated by dynamite and death

American Lightning

Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood,

and the Crime of the Century

Howard Blum

Crown: 340 pp., $24.95

Just after 1 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1910, a series of explosions shook downtown Los Angeles. Soon, the fortress-like building that housed the offices and printing works of the Los Angeles Times was engulfed in flames. Although Harrison Gray Otis, whose anti-union stance as Times owner and city booster bordered on the rabid, and Harry Chandler, Otis's son-in-law and the general manager of the paper, were absent, about 100 people were in the building. Many jumped from windows to try to save themselves.

Either 20 or 21 people were killed (sources vary), and more were injured. The building was wrecked, but The Times came out the next morning after only a brief delay. In a time of epic struggle between labor and management, Otis was expecting to be dynamited and had built himself an auxiliary plant. "UNIONIST BOMBS WRECK THE TIMES," ran the paper's headline.

This was a landmark in the histories of Southern California and the American labor and socialist movements, but somehow it remains an underappreciated event. In the early 1930s, Louis Adamic, the Boswell of early L.A. history, planned a book on the subject; ultimately, his research, gutted by publishers who feared libel suits, formed the central plank in his book "Dynamite," an electric history of class violence in America.

Other writers, notably Geoffrey Cowan in "The People v. Clarence Darrow" and Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt in "Thinking Big," have swept the incident into the wider histories of, respectively, the sensational trials that followed or the key place of The Times in the growth of L.A. But astonishingly, "American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century" by Howard Blum, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of "The Brigade," is the first book devoted in its entirety to this seminal event.

So what have we got? The answer is a mixed bag, a swiftly paced and hugely engaging narrative that covers most of the bases, but from a limited point of view. Blum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, dives headlong into the perspective of Billy Burns, head of the William J. Burns Detective Agency and employer of more than 1,200 operatives. Burns, Blum writes, was "at a glance an improbable detective . . . short and rather stocky, a bit of a dandy with a fondness for three-piece suits and bowler hats, his hair and bristly moustache still crimson, a man with a banker's staid demeanor and a bartender's ready smile."

He too was the man hired (and seduced, no doubt, by the prospect of rewards totaling $300,000) to track down the perpetrators of the bombing, who turned out to be two Midwestern iron worker unionists, the McNamara brothers, James B. and John J. That this process took many months, and involved a trail of clues as winding and thrilling as anything out of Sherlock Holmes, provides Blum with the spine of his story.

Burns, fully aware of the legal and financial value of publicity, was by 1910 a famous man; McClure's magazine devoted book-length articles to his activities, and he handled reporters like so many chess pieces as he unraveled The Times case. The source material is rich indeed, and Blum uses it masterfully to create a complex and fascinating portrait of a man "prideful and vain," "a detective for hire . . . but no toady of the rich and powerful," dogged and inspired and an instinctive sympathizer with the labor cause that he'd been enlisted to help bring down.

Blum counterpoints Burns' story with that of two others: Darrow, to whom the American Federation of Labor turned to defend the McNamaras, and D.W. Griffith, the pioneering movie director who knew Burns and took his place in the management/labor battle by making a short film titled "A Corner in Wheat," loosely based on a Frank Norris book.

Because Darrow's involvement in the case, which came close to ruining him, is the most frequently recounted aspect of the whole affair (Cowan is excellent on this), much of the stuff about him seems familiar. As for Griffith, "American Lightning" labors to tie him into the main story almost as if Blum has decided, at some level, to substitute the story of early Hollywood for that of politics. In that lies a metaphor, perhaps, and a clue as to why the story of the bombing remains buried here.

Part of the problem is the complexity of the story Blum has taken on. So many intense yet discrete sequences were involved. There was the bombing, followed by the investigation and the seizing of the McNamaras; the run-up to the trial, during which half of Americans were convinced the brothers had been framed; the sensation of the deal brokered by Lincoln Steffens, in which the McNamaras switched their plea to guilty, causing lawyer Job Harriman, who was defense co-counsel, to fail in his bid for the mayoralty on the socialist ticket; and, of course, the trials of Darrow, who was accused of jury tampering.

Blum gets at all this, but in focusing so much on Burns, who became a national hero and a future director of the Bureau of Investigation (which later became the FBI), he shortchanges some of the subtler narratives, particularly the one about how capitalism won a mighty prize: Los Angeles, which, incredible as it now seems, really did briefly teeter on the brink on a definitive leftward turn. The future of the city, and perhaps even of the U.S., hung in the balance, and by ensuring that the McNamaras never came to trial -- and Harriman was not elected mayor -- Otis, Chandler and their allies inflicted a blow from which the labor and socialist movements never quite recovered.

Blum glances at this but leaves us with little sense of the struggle for the soul of Los Angeles that was going on in the early 1900s. Indeed, "American Lightning" lacks feeling for place; it's inaccurate to state, for instance -- as Blum does -- that L.A.'s population in 1910 was 900,000; it was about 310,000, with 500,000 residing in L.A. County.

But these are the sorts of mistakes that can creep into even the best of histories, and, despite its flaws and limitations, "American Lightning" has tremendous verve. It flies along, with Blum's fair-minded analysis of motive and a wide variety of memorable character snapshots. Otis is a "mountain of a man with a walrus moustache and a wild goatee."

That's excellent, and "American Lightning" throws valuable new light on an episode that seems, for us today, particularly pertinent. Terrorism happened here, conducted by Americans who had a reason, a notion whose uncomfortable edges this story forces us to confront.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°