Bombs & Bullshit

The bombing of the Los Angeles Times building shattered glass, bricks and many lives, and captured the nation’s attention. About an hour into the new day of October 1, 1910, as the newspaper was being “put to bed,” a deafening blast reverberated throughout a large sector of the sleeping city near the Times’ building located in Los Angeles’ business district. Some people thought it was an earthquake. The explosion was so powerful that it ruptured the ground in places and cracked walls in surrounding properties.

Sixteen sticks of dynamite smashed a hole in the first floor of the building, cratered a portion of the street, and ignited several barrels of printer’s ink stored in nearby Ink Alley. Moments later, a building in which nearly a hundred people were working became an inferno. As the fire consumed the wooden beams of the building, an enormous printing press crashed through the floor of the composing room, landing in the basement. The printing press was as large as a railroad boxcar and smashed everything in its path, including a gas main, igniting a second fire. In no time, the six-story building was engulfed in a blaze that lit up the night sky. Within minutes, men were jumping from the windows of the second and third floors.

Many hours later, the fire was subdued. Perched high above the smoldering rubble was a majestic stone eagle, the symbol of the Times and its indomitable owner. Days later, when the body count was tallied, it was announced that the lives of twenty-one employees of the Times had been lost – later reduced to twenty.  Dozens were seriously injured, many hospitalized for days afterward. They were all collateral damage in a battle becoming more bitter by the day. Many assumed the inferno was the work of organized labor. Workers murdering workers, it remains the most violent act of labor terrorism in U.S. history.

Six months later, following the arrest of the “McNamara Brothers,” the two primary suspects, the Darrows were headed to the City of Angeles. Despite the glad-handing and praise Clarence received from union leaders in Los Angeles and San Francisco, there was something that wasn’t so sincere. When looking at our story with a cold eye, we see a phenomenon most lawyers know all too well – their clients lie to them; it’s rare that they don’t, especially in criminal cases. They figure that if they can convince their lawyer that they are innocent, then maybe they can persuade a jury. At every step of the way in wooing Darrow to accept a case that Ruby feared and Clarence knew would be troublesome, people in the labor movement professed the brothers’ innocence. Yet they knew otherwise. Months later, it would be revealed to Darrow that his clients had been part of a large bombing campaign.

After all, a union organizer from San Francisco, working to develop unions in Los Angeles, had reached out to the Iron Workers Union in Indianapolis, asking for help with the resistance he was facing. Without a request by someone from organized labor, the Times building would not have been targeted. There are some who believe that Samuel Gompers himself, President of the American Federation of Labor (“A.F. of L.”) along with leaders in the California A. F. of L., knew that the Iron Workers union was responsible for dozens of bombings in the several years preceding the Times’ explosion. Though Gompers frequently spoke and editorialized on his opposition to violence by any of the unions affiliated with the A.F. of L., there was violence all around him.

Of the many unions within the A. F. of L., violence was most prevalent in the building trades, particularly ironworkers. When discussing the dynamiting operations and the Iron Workers’ bombing campaign preceding the Times building, one historian observed, “They conducted these operations with the full knowledge of the leaders in the union and most of the membership – to say nothing of the rest of the A. F. of L., with which the Iron Workers were affiliated. Union leaders insisted that a “frame-up” had occurred; it was deceitful, a fiction they peddled to the public, and to Darrow as well. For the people in the upper echelon of organized labor it was no surprise that the McNamara Brothers had been caught. The surprise was that the Iron Workers’ bombing campaign had continued as long as it did. The means by which the brothers were arrested, namely kidnapping, gave labor a potent grievance to exploit.

Many highly-placed leaders knew that J.J. McNamara had masterminded the bombings. Yet no one leveled with Darrow when he met with the union officials in Los Angeles. Everyone stayed on message.  All proclaimed that the charges against the brothers were part of a conspiracy by the robber barons to destroy the labor movement. They knew better and deliberately misled Darrow.

(Note: Featured photo from USC Digital Library uploaded by Fæ, California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960)

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