Friday, October 01, 2010

Pop History Moment: The LA Times Bombing


On this day in 1910 the Los Angeles Times Building - at the corner of First and Broadway in downtown LA - was destroyed by a bomb consisting of 16 sticks of dynamite planted in Ink Alley, which ran behind the building. Originally the bomb's timer had been set to go off at 4 AM - when the building would have been empty; instead, the bomb actually went off just after 1 AM, as many staff were finishing for the day. 21 employees were killed and 100 injured in the ill-timed blast, mostly in the ensuing fire caused by damage to a nearby gas main*, of which the bombers had seemingly been unaware. Not only was the Times Building destroyed but the neighbouring building which housed its printing press also went up in flames.

The next day unexploded bombs were discovered at the home of the Times' union-busting publisher Harrison Gray Otis, as well as at the home of F.J. Zeehandelaar (secretary of the pro-business Merchants and Manufacturers' Association), the Alexander Hotel, and the Los Angeles County Hall of Records (then under construction by the non-union Llewellyn Iron Works). All were thought to be related, and the work of a single bomber or group; in those days, and given the selected targets, unionists were the most likely suspects.

John J. ('J.J.') and James B. ('J.B.') McNamara of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers were arrested in April of the following year for their parts in the December bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works and put on trial for their role in both acts. Responsible for their capture was private detective William J. Burns, who would later become head of the Bureau of Investigation (before its mandate became federal); Burns was rabidly opposed to unions and their members. The manner of the capture of the McNamaras has also been the source of much controversy, as it involves more forcible confinement and possible torture than it does police procedure.

The brothers McNamara were defended in court by Clarence Darrow, who'd been hired by Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL); Darrow believed the men were guilty, but didn't believe it had been their intention to kill anyone, and so he had them plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens - who spoke to the men while in custody - also believed they were guilty, but that their crime was a form of justifiable homicide, given how strenuously the robber barons were working to deprive the working man of a decent livelihood.

J.B. dutifully confessed to setting the bomb at the Los Angeles Times and received a life sentence, while J.J. served ten years hard labour for the bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works. After his release J.J. became an organizer for the union. The entire story has been retold in the 2008 book American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum.

*Those who weren't were crushed when the building's second story collapsed onto the ground floor.

share on: facebook

No comments: