Detective William Burns

Detective William J. Burns was one of a handful of private investigators to become a household name during his career. Portrayed as a real-life Sherlock Holmes by his fans and accused of being a shameless self-promoter by his enemies, Burns relished his celebrity status. He was a publicity hound and cultivated his relationships with reporters by leaking information from his investigations. Equally important as his fame, the Burns Detective Agency provided guns, spies and agents provocateur for hire in the war between capital and labor.

Despite being headquartered in Darrow’s hometown of Chicago, Burns seemed to be everywhere. Purely by coincidence, before the sun set on the day following the Times bombing, Burns arrived in Los Angeles. He was there to speak before one of his major accounts, the American Bankers Association. Not long after his arrival in town, Burns was approached by Mayor Alexander who wanted Burns to investigate the bombing. That day, Burns and his detectives began to scour the trail of the bombers.

What Mayor Alexander didn’t know was that Burns had helpers in his investigation and knew more about the identity of the culprits than he let on. Burns had already been retained by the steel contractors. Several historians believe that Burns likely had an informant within the Iron Workers Union. Over the next several months, Burns and his agents pieced together key bits of evidence and by Saturday afternoon, April 22, 1911, Burns and his people, accompanied by the local police, invaded the Iron Workers national headquarters in Indianapolis.  J.J. was arrested and taken for an arraignment of charges before a local municipal court judge. At the arraignment hearing, documents signed by the governors of California and Indiana, requested the court to send J.J. to California to stand trial for dynamiting the Los Angeles Times. In short, he was wanted for murder.” J.J.’s request for a formal extradition hearing as guaranteed by Indiana law was denied and that evening, he was handcuffed to a detective from Los Angeles and began his journey west, by both car and train.

After J.J.’s court hearing, Burns returned to the Iron Workers headquarters where he was joined by local police and members of the press whom he had invited. One of the people who arrived with Burns was Walter Drew, lawyer for the steel contractors’ association. Drew searched through J.J.’s private desk, pouring over the union’s checkbook; rummaging through J.J.’s notes and papers; and scrutinizing duplicates of checks written the previous year. Despite lack of a search warrant, Drew proceeded with permission of the Indianapolis Police Department.

When Burns was finished in the headquarters’ offices, he went to the basement where there was a vault-like chamber linked to J.J.  Burns had his men force it open. Once the door was opened, they found a room packed with explosives. On the shelves were packages of dynamite, weighing nearly two hundred pounds, as well as a box of percussion caps and fuses. Most important, Burns found a box containing a dozen small alarm clocks that closely resembled one found in Los Angeles.

Moving swiftly and efficiently, with inside information from a union informant on his payroll, Burns had secured crucial evidence linking J.J. and his brother Jim to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, and the murder of twenty Times’ employees.

The McNamara Brothers

Like most Irish in America in the second half of the 19th century, John J. McNamara (“J.J.”) found himself engaged in work reserved for his kind, what this historian refers to as “the three Ds,” dirty, difficult and dangerous.

As the oldest child growing up in poverty in Cincinnati, J.J. left school for work while still in his teens to help support his family. J.J. was strong and agile, willing to take risks involved in structural iron work, climbing the scaffolding needed to construct skyscrapers and bridges. He was popular with his fellow workers and was successful in union politics, becoming the full-time secretary-treasurer at the age of twenty-eight. Smashing the stereotype of the roughneck union thug, J.J. was the shining star of the Iron Workers. He was articulate, handsome, built like an athlete, a dapper dresser, and a devout Roman Catholic with the smile of a choir boy. J.J. was downright charming and when he sat down at the negotiating table, it was hard for contractors to dislike him.

Not long after his election as the national union’s secretary-treasurer (essentially, chief operating officer), J.J. continued his education, starting with night courses at a “business school.” In that era, the course of study typically would have been finance, accounting, English composition and typing. J.J. then enrolled in the night school program of the Indiana School of Law, earning a law degree in 1909. By the age of 34, J.J. was the face the labor movement wanted to show to America.

J.J.’s younger brother, James B. McNamara (“Jim”) was six years his junior. Jim was a scrawny, anemic ne’er-do-well who had little use for education, work or church. The only trinity he worshipped were booze, broads and gambling. When he did work it was as a printer, but his combative personality usually led to him being fired. Eventually, Jim was hired by brother J.J. and the Iron Workers. Despite Jim’s general indifference to most things involving work, he admired J.J. and was prepared to be part of a special program: an undertaking J.J. hoped would force contractors to the bargaining table.

Shortly after taking command of the national office in 1904, J.J. McNamara concluded that his union had been targeted for destruction by the major steel contractors. In 1905, fearing the spread of unions in their industry, the steel contractors organized to create the National Erectors’ Association and set out to undermine the efforts of the Iron Workers Union. In the face of the contractors’ belligerence, J.J. grew convinced that the ordinary union methods, namely picketing, had no chance of success. Notwithstanding the courts on their side, plus, the local police and army reserve when strikes grew violent, such violence often instigated by management, the steel contractors made it clear that they weren’t going to bargain but rather wanted to destroy the Iron Workers Union, then J.J. turned to dynamite. From February, 1908 through April, 1911 agents of the Iron Workers union planted explosives at approximately 75 sites throughout the country. Only one caused fatalities. J.J. targeted contracting firms who refused to permit their workers to be organized.

Throughout this period, Jim was receiving training for his new career in explosives. Jim’s first solo mission as a bomber was in his home town of Cincinnati, where in May of 1909, he successfully detonated a bomb that caused minor damage to a new bridge across the Ohio River. Fortunately, no one was injured and the contractor got the message. The explosion in Cincinnati was the first of dozens which Jim and others were responsible for prior to going to Los Angeles. None of Jim’s bombings resulted in a fatality until October 1, 1910.

(Note: Featured photo from https://murderpedia.org/male.M/m/mcnamara-brothers-photos.htm)

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)