On this day, 104 years ago, an incident occurred that would have a massive impact on America’s labor “trade union” movement.
Shortly after one o’clock in the morning on October 1, 1910, a bomb exploded in an alleyway next to the Los Angeles Times building. The bomb itself was relatively crude; sixteen sticks of dynamite connected to a cheap wind-up clock, but the force of the detonation caused panic in the nearby streets, as people believed the city was being rocked by an earthquake.
The explosion destroyed the LA Times building, killing twenty and injuring many others. Two other bombs, one apparently intended for the newspaper publisher’s president Harrison Gray Otis and the other for business leader Felix Zeehandelaar, were discovered the following morning, hidden under bushes near their respective homes: the mechanisms had jammed.
The perpetrators were brothers; James (J.B.) and John (J.J.) McNamara (pictured below). The former had planted the bombs and the latter, an official with the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers union, had ordered the attack.
The brothers were arrested and, in order to spare the lives of the accused, the high-profile labor defender Clarence Darrow was hired. He tried to argue that the brothers had been framed, but when it became evident they were responsible, Darrow negotiated a deal with the District Attorney; the brothers pleaded guilty in return for prison sentences. Darrow’s reputation was all but ruined by the trial, and he had to face subsequent charges of attempting to bribe members of the jury.
During the McNamaras’ trial, evidence was given that revealed numerous union-funded terrorist bombings across America over the preceding three years. Many union leaders were investigated and arrested, with thirty-nine cases resulting in prison sentences.
It’s difficult to imagine the impact of the bombing – other than it has been quoted as the early twentieth century equivalent of September 11th. The response of the majority of American citizens was one of disgust at the actions of the McNamara brothers. Amongst the working class, they had been viewed almost as martyrs, who had been framed for the crime... only for public opinion to change completely once the guilty pleas were entered.
For his part J.B. McNamara never showed any remorse for his actions: “As far as my act on the industrial [battle]field is concerned,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, “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?”
It was left to former US President Theodore Roosevelt to sum up in just three words the death of working class people at the hands of those who were supposed to protect their interests: “Murder,” he simply said, “is murder.”