The LA Times Terrorist Attack

On October 1, 1910, at 1:07 am, a suitcase bomb packed with 16 sticks of dynamite went off outside the Los Angeles Times’ building on 1st and Broadway. The explosive was actually supposed to have been triggered at 4:00 am, when the building was empty, but the timing mechanism had failed, and the bomb went off early, while there were still 115 people inside working. Making matters worse was the presence, unbeknownst to the bombers, of a natural gas line under the building.

The resulting blast could be heard from 15 miles away. Printers’ metal became shrapnel; the entire building was soon engulfed in flames. 21 employees died, most of them burned to death.

General Harrison Gray Otis, the owner of the Times, and the head of LA’s powerful business elite, had no doubt as to who the perpetrators of the attack were: unions.  He wrote this in his paper:

O you anarchic scum, you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins, you whose hands are dripping with the innocent blood of your victims, you against whom the wails of poor widows and the cries of fatherless children are ascending to the Great White Throne, go, mingle with the crowd on those street corners, look upon the crumbled and blackened walls, look at the ruins wherin are buried the calcined remains of those whom you murdered…

General Otis loved a good fight.

The bombing of the LA Times was but the latest incident in an all-out war for the soul of Los Angeles between capital and labor. First, there was a typographers strike. Then, in 1894, a railroad strike brought all inter-city commerce to a halt. Six infantry companies were called in to restore law and order.

General Harrison Gray Otis

General Otis (he was technically a brigadier general, but more of a self-styled general) led the fight on the side of capital. As David Halberstam writes in his absolutely majestic book, The Powers That Be:

After the railroad strike ended in 1896, he united all the town’s business and industrial leadership in one group, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, or M&M as it was known, whose basic pledge was to employ no union man, to break all unions, and to make Los Angeles the greatest open-shop city in the world. Any employer who dealt in any way with labor, eho employed union men, or who seemed even partially sympathetic to labor’s cause, came under total pressure. Owners were first urged and then threatened; the banks, who were of course central to M&M, cut off crdit. All of this was the work of Harrison Gray Otis. He loved it; this was battle; this was life. From 1907 to 1910 a state of war existed in the city. At the heigh of the struggle Otis took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it.

When Otis’ headquarters was obliterated by terrorists, he immediately accused the unions. The unions said it was a gas leak, or perhaps the work of Otis himself – a frame-up job. The crime gained national attention, and Otis went on a country-wide lecture tour.

William J. Burns

Seven months after the attack, a private detective named William J. Burns (working on the promise of a $75,000 reward – $25,000 from the city and $50,000 from the M&M) and his son tracked down Iron Workers union member Ortie McManigal and J.B. McNamara to the Oxford Hotel in Detroit, where they were arrested under false pretenses. Unfortunately for them, police found dynamite, blasting caps and alarm clocks in their hotel room.

Burns took the two of them to the home of a Chicago Police Sergeant proceeded to put the screws to them. McManigal broke first, and in exchange for a lighter prison sentence accused McNamara of the bombing and McNamara’s brother J.J. of supplying the equipment. J.J., who just so happened to be the secretary-treasurer of the Iron Workers. J.J. was arrested, and the McNamara brothers were taken by train to Los Angeles to stands trial.

The national labor movement was galvanized in defense of the brothers, who had been, after all, illegally arrested and, in the mind of many union leaders (including Eugene Debs) framed by Otis. American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers convinced the greatest labor attorney in the country, Clarence Darrow, to defend the McNamara brothers, for which he was promised $350,000 (or $7.4 million in 2007 money).

Clarence Darrow

There was just one problem. The McNamaras were guilty. Halberstam writes:

Darrow had a spy in the prosecution camp and became intimately knowledgable about the case that was building against his clients. He sent his own hired investigators to check out the prosecution’s evidence and each time he did he was appalled by how well the prosecution case stood up; there was evidence and it was very strong. The Burns detectvies had been trailing McManigal and McNamara long before the Times explosion. One day Darrow, dejected and dispirited, walked into the McNamaras’ cell and said, ‘My God, you left a trail behind you a mile wide.’

But Harrison Gray Otis had a problem too. This was an election year. Mayor George Alexander was being challenged by a socialist – a socialist! – named Job Harriman, who just so happened to be Darrow’s assistant in the upcoming trial. The average working man was starting to think the whole mess was Otis’ dark plot to destroy the labor movement; public opinion was undeniably tilting towards Harriman. Dangers abounded– Darrow, after all, was a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom. But even if Darrow lost and the brothers were hanged, they could become martyrs, rousing the labor movement and throwing the election to the socialists – the socialists!

Enter Lincoln Steffens, the legendary muckraking journalist, author of The Shame of the Cities, in town to cover the trial. Steffens spoke with the McNamara brothers and became convinced they were guilty. Steffens then began to broker peace talks between Clarence Darrow and General Otis’ son-in-law, Harry Chandler.

Harry Chandler, left

Whereas Otis was an angry, spiteful man, always looking for a fight, Harry Chandler was a businessman, “a pirate visionary,” in the words of Halberstam. He writes:

He had come to the General first as a young circulation distributor, quietly taking over the General’s circulation lists without the latter knowing it, until he had one made the General an offer he could not refuse, at which point he became the business manager of the paper. Thus a dynasty, conceived in no small way, in a kind of commercial blackmail. Shortly afterward, in the way that these things are sometimes done, Harry Chandler also became the General’s son-in-law.

Darrow, convinced of his clients’ guilt, wanted to spare them the death penalty. Harry Chandler, worried about the election of an actual socialist as mayor, wanted the whole thing to go away quickly. Through Steffens, Chandler and Darrow worked out a deal: the brothers would plead guilty – before the election. J.B. would get life and J.J. would get 15 years. To sweeten the pot, the AFL would agree to end their strike against Los Angeles employers.

When Chandler told Otis of the grand bargain, the old man was apoplectic. “Over his dead body would there be a deal,” writes Halberstam. “He would see those sons of bitches hanged for what they did.” But Chandler calmed him down, convinced him that the plea bargain would paint the labor movement as terrorists, would turn the public’s sympathies away from labor and away from Harriman. Otis relented – a kind of passing of the torch, the beginning of a new business elite in LA, softer, shrewder, and more powerful than ever.

Halberstam writes:

On December 1, 911, four days before the election, Darrow, never telling his deputy Harriman of what was happening, pleaded the McNamaras guilty in court. Overnight Harriman’s campaign ended; the next day the streets of Los Angeles were littered with Harriman buttons and badges; he was beaten by 30,00 votes.

Job Harriman’s political career was over. The labor movement in Los Angeles did not recover until the 1950s.

Clarence Darrow was pilloried by labor as a sellout. Even worse, he was indicted on charges of jury tampering for allegedly trying to bribe a juror in the McNamara trial before the plea deal was struck. When Darrow asked Samuel Gompers for financial assistance, Gompers turned him down. Darrow was eventually acquitted, and would later reinvent himself as a criminal attorney, going on to become the most famous lawyer in America defending Leopold and Loeb, and later John T. Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Another 55 members of the Iron Workers were arrested on conspiracy charges for helping to transport the dynamite used by the McNamara brothers. 38 of them were convicted, including President Frank Ryan.

J.B. McNamara was sentenced to life in prison at San Quentin. After the trial he was quoted as saying, “You see?… The whole damn world believes in dynamite.” He never filed a single request for parole, and died on March 9, 1941. His brother, who did 15 years in San Quentin with him, died almost exactly two months later on May 8. He had rejoined the Iron Workers as an international organizer.

Otis Chandler died in 1917, at the home of his son-in-law.

As for Harry Chandler, he established a dynasty that would rule over Los Angeles for the next half century. He played a central role in the plot to bring water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, as dramatized in the film Chinatown. He built an empire of unimaginable wealth that included investments in almost every sector of the L.A. economy — banks, tires, aerospace, oil, agriculture, shipping, railroads and the largest land holdings in Southern California. His daughter-in-law, Dorothy, became the feudal lord of LA culture, while his grandson, Otis, turned the LA Times into one of the top national newspapers.


  • brilliantmistake

    This was great! I think the sentence “The labor movement in Los Angeles did not recover until the 1950s” while perhaps true, gives the impression that the union movement wasn’t active. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that during that time, union organizers were losing a very intense and brutal battle? I’m thinking of things like the the San Pedro waterfront strikes in the 1920s. I’m certainly no expert though.

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