Shortly after 1 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1910, 100 years ago Friday, a time bomb constructed of 16 sticks of 80% dynamite connected to a cheap windup alarm clock exploded in an alley next to the Los Angeles Times. It detonated with such violence that for blocks around, people ran panic-stricken into the streets, believing that an intense earthquake had hit the city.
The explosion destroyed the Times building, taking the lives of 20 employees, including the night city editor and the principal telegraph operator, and maiming dozens of others. Two other time bombs — intended to kill Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the newspaper, and Felix J. Zeehandelaar, the head of a Los Angeles business organization — were discovered later that morning hidden in the bushes next to their homes. Their mechanisms had jammed.
Eventually, two brothers, J.B. McNamara, who planted the bombs, and J.J. McNamara, an official of the International Assn. of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers union who ordered the attacks, were arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
In its day, the Times bombing was equivalent to the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. It was called “the crime of the century,” and it remains the deadliest crime to go to trial in California history. It would lead to investigations, arrests and trials of union leaders across the country who, it turned out, funded hundreds of terrorist bombings at mostly nonunion construction projects between 1907 and 1911. They included officials of the California Building Trades Council in San Francisco, the ironworkers union and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in Indianapolis, the Machinists Union in Syracuse, N.Y., and the Building Trades Council in Detroit. Hirelings of the union involved in executing the bombings were also brought to trial — 46 members of the ironworkers union alone. In addition to the McNamaras, who were sentenced in 1911, 39 men were convicted and sent to prison in 1912; five others received suspended sentences.
The testimony during their trials and their convictions devastated the American labor movement, virtually paralyzing it until the New Deal. The McNamaras’ case in particular wrecked the career and tainted the reputation of the most prominent defender of labor of the day, Clarence Darrow, who was hired by the American Federation of Labor to defend the brothers.
To save the lives of his clients, Darrow negotiated a deal with the district attorney and the brothers pleaded guilty. Afterward, Darrow was arrested and was twice forced to defend himself against charges of attempting to bribe two prospective jurors. He was acquitted in the first trial; the second ended in a hung jury. Darrow would not return to the public spotlight until 1924, when he rescued his reputation as the defender of thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb and as the hero of the Scopes “monkey trial” the next year.
The terrorism that gripped America 100 years ago is barely mentioned in California history books today. The Times long ago resigned itself to making at least a modicum of peace with the unions. The attack on the newspaper is now regarded as an embarrassment to organized labor, which has never gotten around to an unequivocal denunciation of it. A 1996 history of the Ironworkers Union says that “the dynamite conspiracy and the bombings are neither a point of pride nor a reason for guilt. The Iron Worker leadership had no real option other than to succumb in the open shop battle, which was unacceptable to them.... And despite other consequences of the dynamite campaign, they did save the union. The international officers stretched the limits of zeal in a righteous cause.”
J.B. McNamara, his guilty plea notwithstanding, remained unrepentant for the rest of his life. In a letter sent from his San Quentin prison cell to his mother, he wrote that in all great battles, men must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good.
“As far as my act on the industrial [battle]field is concerned, I have never gave it a second thought, and I never intend to. Why should I? Does a soldier worry about his act if it happens in the line of duty?” he wrote. In another letter, the devout Roman Catholic wrote that he had dared “to carry out the precepts of the Creator.”
America’s response to the unions’ terrorism was nearly universal revulsion. The McNamaras, at first regarded as martyrs by most workers, who were convinced they had been framed, were vilified after the guilty pleas. Los Angeles had been on the verge of electing a socialist candidate, Job Harriman, as mayor. Harriman was also Darrow’s co-counsel in the McNamara case.
As Darrow left the courthouse after the guilty pleas, an angry crowd pressed in around him. A man spat in his face. The courthouse lawn was littered with badges that read “Harriman for Mayor” and “McNamaras Innocent — Vote Harriman,” which had been torn from the lapels of thousands of McNamara supporters. Thousands.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt reacted against those “foolish sentimentalists” who urged that the McNamaras be regarded with sympathy because they were struggling in a war on behalf of their class, pointed out that all of their victims had been “laboring people.” “Murder,” Roosevelt said succinctly, “is murder.”
There is no question that American industry engaged in often ruthless and inhumane practices during the early decades of this century. And industry’s standard-bearer in California was the Los Angeles Times. But evil, as they say, begets evil, and the bombing at the Times, along with the revelations of union terrorism that followed, set back labor’s cause for a generation.
In the end, the lesson was painfully obvious to Clarence Darrow. Fourteen years after the Times bombing, Darrow, ailing and subdued, spoke the words that he might have delivered to the jury in the McNamara trial if it had been allowed to run its course. Instead, he spoke them at the trial of Leopold and Loeb, imploring his listeners to end the cycle of evil.
“I am pleading for the future,” he said. “I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”
Lew Irwin’s book on the McNamara bombing, “Deadly Times,” is due out in 2011.