Note: this piece focuses on some of the national context surrounding the lynching of Will Brown in 1919 Omaha, with a particular focus on labor issues in early 20th century United States. For an understanding of the symbolism of the eagle and the Crystal Palace please read The Lynching of Will Brown Part 2
“True Industrial Freedom”
– slogan etched into the 1935 Los Angeles Times building
“Everything to Make Steel – Iron Ore, Coal, and Limestone – Are All Within Gunshot of This Building”
– sign displayed on the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce at the turn of the century
The last day of September in 1910 was exceptionally hot and sticky in the new, fledgling City of Angels, but occasional bursts of violent rains eventually made way for a cooling blanket of fog, allowing people to calm their nerves before turning in to rest for the evening. Employees working the night shift at the Los Angeles Times building on 1st and Broadway expected to grind away while the city around them slept peacefully, as usual. But tonight would be different.
On this night, staff at the L.A. Times would be asphyxiated, burnt, crushed and left mangled beyond recognition, some reduced to ashes and barely recognizable blackened limbs separated from the rest of the body, underneath layers of debris from the building they had lovingly called ‘The Fortress.’ An official body count would be difficult, because so many bodies had been so fully pulverized.
On this night, rather than sleep peacefully, citizens of Los Angeles would be awakened suddenly and kept awake for hours, following a catastrophic dynamite blast heard from miles away, the reverberations of which can be felt to this day. In all, twenty one lives were taken, giving the far political right all the ammunition it needed to help validate its campaign of anti-union propaganda. It was a turning point in the labor wars at the turn of the century in the United States, leaving the political left and thrust of the labor movement forever crippled by blowback from a blast created by their own ilk..
The carnage and mayhem that night in L.A. had not come from nowhere. In the era of American labor wars, in cities where unions held the keys to labor, otherwise known as ‘closed shop’ cities, businesses were not allowed to hire workers who were not signed up with a recognized union. In ‘open shop’ cities, businesses could hire and fire at will, a concept that remains a point of contention to this day. San Francisco was closed shop, but in L.A., one man and his descendants used their vast family newspaper empire to keep the city as free from unions as they possibly could throughout its first century in existence.
General Harrison Gray Otis, owner of The Times, was one of the most virulently anti-union men in the nation, and certainly the most powerful in the area. Under his guidance, The Times launched full scale assaults on the very core ideals upon which labor unions had been formed, mincing no words in its editorials, rallying the right and igniting the rage of working class people who envisioned a better future through worker solidarity and collective action. To top it off, he launched these attacks with a scornful smirk from underneath a mop of Colonel Sanders facial hair.
From his self-appointed position(s) as president, general manager, and editor-in-chief of L.A.’s most widely circulated newspaper, General Otis ranted about the infamous graft trials of San Francisco between 1905 and 1908, in which unionist men, including the mayor, were exposed for rampant corruption:
The hounds have acknowledged their guilt and should smart for it. They are the criminals who have kept San Francisco under this fiendish, tyrannical, labor-union yoke. They are the labor-union exponents of labor-union thievery, labor-union terror. Labor-union assassination. The blood of a hundred honest men is on their heads. The thought of their escape from justice is enough to make any fair-minded and patriotic man explode with righteous wrath.
It is noticeable that most of the newspapers in describing and commenting upon the frightful revelations in San Francisco, entirely disregard the salient fact that the reign of robbery, extortion and sand-bagging is synonymous with labor-union domination…
… The cycle of graft, blackmail and murder in San Francisco dates from the hour when the labor-union party elected Mayor Schmitz and a kindred Board of Supervisors and secured the control of all the departments of the city.
What Otis fails to mention is the reason other papers didn’t focus on San Francisco’s corrupt leaders being unionists is that their writers understood political inclinations played no role in causing the crime. Like other major cities of the time, its history of political corruption ran through its bones from its very birth. To claim corruption in San Francisco started with Schmitz’s election in 1902 was patently ridiculous, so unlike Otis and The Times, most newspapers focused on the crime itself, rather than the political leanings of those involved. In other words, they did the job of professional journalists.
Otis, on the other hand, foamed at the mouth. Hanging above his anti-union editorial tirade was this decidedly repetitive piece of prose that was likely written by his wife Eliza, an apparently accomplished and widely praised poet:
And on and on. Adjacent to this ‘poem’ was a cartoon mocking Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) strikers in the gold mining town of Goldfield, Nevada, who were engaged in a dispute with their employers at the time. Note the whiskey flask, the bindle, and the label ‘tyrant.’ In Otis’ confused world, leftists were simultaneously homeless, alcoholic beggars, and powerful, dangerous tyrants.
Union leaders launched their own verbal assaults in response to the consistent flood of lashings they took from The Times, and although it was impossible to drown out the Otis machine, labor was building up a reservoir of support in Southern California. A formidable socialist lawyer named Job Harriman, who ran for vice president with I.W.W. founder Eugene Debs in the 1900, was running for mayor of Los Angeles a decade later. The prospect of a socialist mayor sparked fear in the hearts of local capitalists whose bellies were full from their exploits in the wide open West. Otis, a man who was known to wear his military uniform into the office to remind people of his toughness, was particularly terrified.
General Otis built his warrior reputation during the Civil War as a Union soldier, where he served in the 23rd Ohio Infantry with future president William McKinley. Decades later when he was of retirement age, Otis eagerly jumped back into combat at the opportunity to crush Filipino rebels in the Philippine-American War, whom he certainly viewed as inferior beings undeserving of true autonomy following their ‘liberation’ from Spain. He was promoted to brigadier general only after his brigade slaughtered over a thousand Filipino freedom fighters. Otis therefore didn’t represent a feather on the American eagle’s wing so much as a scale on its talon, clutching its new territories tightly as it carried them where it pleased. He wore his warrior status on his sleeve like an insecure, washed up, former movie star might wear an old Oscar performance on theirs. It was he who dubbed his own building ‘The Fortress,’ and who referred to his own staff as his ‘phalanx.’
For The Times’ trademark symbols, Otis chose lady liberty and the eagle, the former representing his ideology of ‘true industrial freedom’ (which meant no unions), the latter representing his strength and military-like resolve to protect lady liberty and crush the enemies of the ‘true industrial freedom’ she channeled.
Early on in his leadership of The Times, he ruthlessly and efficiently crushed its one and only union. From there he gathered with other prominent industry men to form their own union against worker’s unions, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, also called the M & M. Otis and The Times operated under the false premise that contracts were between private, equal individuals entering into negotiation, completely failing to note the power dynamics that were actually in play between employer and employee. While denying workers the right to organize into unions, Otis organized his own union, and this hypocrisy was not lost on many of the working people of L.A. Many organized against the M & M but Otis and his peers held all the keys to power. City hall was located directly across the street from The Times building, offering the coziest of relationships between government and private enterprise, including the police force, which was deployed against worker’s unions any time they sought to consolidate their own power.
It is difficult for most people in the 21st century to truly grasp what conditions for working people were like in the United States a century ago. Working class people at this point in history still had not won some of the basic rights we take for granted today. The average American of 2019, from all ends of the political spectrum, would be horrified by the conditions workers faced at the turn of the century. By 1900, an annual average of 35,000 work related deaths were reported, with another 500,000 injured and maimed, and these workers and their families rarely received compensation for their distress. Capitalists forced people to work six days a week, often from sunup to sundown, and most still didn’t pay a high enough wage for a decent standard of living. People crowded into tenement slums, with slumlords who exploited them at every turn. To make up for starvation wages, families often put their children to work. Almost 2 million children under the age of 16 worked in factories alone. Even elementary school-aged children wound up doing back-breaking labor in grueling heat, potentially lethal freezing cold, and in fire trap mines and factories.
Many of the work related injuries and deaths could have been avoided, had conditions been more humane. It is now established fact that forcing people to work longer hours at faster paces with less breaks will inevitably increase the risk of worker error, and in factories and mines, those errors can lead to absolute horror. In Cherry, Illinois, just west of Chicago, the St. Paul coal mine was constructed using the newest technological advancements for maximum efficiency, including electric lighting which made the mine less prone to catch fire. However, an electrical outage in early November, 1909, left the miners with hastily placed kerosene lanterns and torches placed along the walls. When hay brought in to feed the mules caught fire, the place turned into a massive fire trap, killing 259 people, including several boys as young as ten.
The St. Paul Coal Company paid $1,800 to each victims’ family and pled guilty to breaking child labor laws, slapped with a whopping $630 fine for violating those laws. So if the powers to be in the United States were trying to send a message to industry that it was time to get serious about child labor, they failed miserably in their goal. Doing the math, corporations likely would have felt emboldened to risk employing even more children, since they could be paid less and didn’t have the mental capacity to organize for their civil rights the way adults did.
Workplace safety was the other glaring issue presented by the disaster in Cherry. Why had the workers been made to work in conditions that were known to be less safe than they had been before? If electrical lighting made the mine safer than mines without it, then by definition it was less safe for workers the moment miners continued working using kerosene. The company could have prioritized its workers’ safety above profit and either fixed the problem sooner or called work off until the electricity was restored, or both. Instead, these victims of industrial greed were forced to use makeshift kerosene lighting in a fire trap in order to keep the coal production moving, and lost their lives because of it.
The Cherry example is merely one of many where workers died unnecessarily in the name of maximum profit, and many unionists would have viewed it as an example of criminal negligence, manslaughter, or even murder. The stakes were literally life and death to these people. Union membership rose steadily as news of these accidents increased every year through the early 1900s.
If it wasn’t enough that laborers frequently died due to unsafe work environments, attempts by workers to organize into unions and demand humane treatment were met with hostility at every turn. Many industry titans threatened prison or even death to those who unionized and protested. They used labor spies, agents provocateurs, and strike breakers (called ‘scabs’ by unionists) to undermine their employees at every turn. Violence often broke out between strikers and strike breakers, creating a ripe environment for capitalists to justify their own violence, through police and even private mercenaries who did the dirty work of keeping workers voiceless.
Working in tandem with physical violence, capitalists engaged in legal warfare aimed at silencing unionists from even speaking. When Los Angeles metal workers went on strike for a higher minimum wage in 1910, Otis and his allies drafted an ordinance outlawing picketing, which was quickly signed by the mayor and then used to punish any and all union members who attempted to communicate with nonunion workers. It outlawed “loitering, picketing, carrying or displaying banners, signs or transparencies, or speaking in public streets in a loud or unusual tone, for certain purposes.” Roughly 500 people were arrested under the new law under punishment of 50 days in jail and a hefty fine.
Although mainstream progressives of the era weren’t outright unionists or socialists, they generally shared a loathing for Otis and his ilk, as well as for his fully organized anti-union militia. Otis had a habit of pissing lots of people off from all sides of the political spectrum. Teddy Roosevelt said, “the attitude of General Otis in his paper affords a curious instance of the anarchy of soul which comes to a man who, in conscienceless fashion, deifies property at the expense of human rights,” and called him “a violent opponent of organized labor, a consistent enemy of every movement for social and economic betterment, just as he has shown himself a consistent enemy of men in California who have dared resolutely to stand against corruption and in favor of honesty.”
The legendary trust busting Roosevelt’s fellow ‘Bull Moose’ progressive running mate in the 1912 presidential election, Hiram Johnson of Sacramento, said:
In the city of San Francisco we have drunk to the very dregs of infamy; we have had vile officials; we have had rotten newspapers. But we have nothing so vile, nothing so low, nothing so debased, nothing so infamous, in San Francisco as Harrison Gray Otis… . He sits there in senile dementia, with gangrened heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent; frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy.
While progressive politicians took their turns openly throwing shots at Otis and The Times, the anger and pure rage of unionists, with their backs against the wall, swelled. For them, harsh words alone simply would not suffice, and for some of them, the war would only be won through escalation and fighting fire with fire. Between 1906 and 1910, around 200 construction sites were blown to pieces, often days before their completion, and all of them had one thing in common – the targeted bridges and buildings were all built by nonunion labor.
The series of targeted explosions came on the heels of a worker-led revolution in St. Petersburg, Russia, started by iron workers demanding the right to unionize and other basic rights, including the eight hour work day, universal suffrage, freedom of assembly, separation of church and state, and other basic civil liberties that were still not granted in the land of the Tsar. The strikes spread far and wide, shutting down entire cities.
When The Tsar’s guards charged and opened fire on a massive crowd of protesters gathered outside his winter palace, mainstream Americans read newspaper headlines with a sense of wonder and dread; What if Marxist-inspired revolution spread to the United States through working class people, through class-conscious intellects who studied historical materialism, the Hegelian dialectic, and saw the value to gain from workers collectively seizing the means of production; or what if this revolution spread through nefarious foreign agents, those hell bent on destroying the American capitalist system from the inside, infiltrating unions, factories, mines, schools, mayoral races, senatorial races, and presidential races in order to spread pure chaos? These were the questions floating in the zeitgeist, and the questions one asked, as well as the ways one answered them, largely defined the political partisanship of the era.
While Marxian ideas peaked in popularity in the U.S. at the same time as they did around the world, progressive reformists and centrists largely viewed true leftism as a disease, a blight to be stamped out of existence, before it spread any further into the American psyche. Teddy Roosevelt’s full quote cited earlier is this:
The attitude of General Otis in his paper affords a curious instance of the anarchy of soul which comes to a man who, in conscienceless fashion, deifies property at the expense of human rights – no less surely than it comes to the man who in the name of human rights wars upon all men of property, good or bad.
Thus, even progressives who championed similar causes as unionists also viewed leftism as a very real threat to the capitalist/liberal democracy stronghold that is the United States. In this context, leftists had their hands tied to a large degree politically, feeling that bourgeoisie reformists like Roosevelt would take too long to bring about meaningful change, if they brought it at all. They felt the need to put the pressure on, so when their strikes were crushed, they felt their hands had been tied behind their backs. It was war, and they felt cornered so lashed out. Times management and their employees all knew they were engaged in a class war of sorts as well. Some even said it would come as no big surprise if an attack of some type was launched against them.
Tension was in the air, and the writing was on the wall…
In 1905, five years before The Times building was reduced to rubble, the same year as the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre outside the Tsar’s winter palace, and just before a pattern of construction site bombings set the nation on edge, Vulcan’s iron body was left in pieces on the side of the Birmingham Mineral Railroad. The ancient god of fire and metallurgy, the mighty creator of weapons and armor, had finally been shipped back to his home in the Deep South from St. Louis, where he had won the grand prize at the world’s fair the year before.Vulcan had served his designed purpose and yet there he lay in the dirt, figuratively and physically torn. The capitalists and government figures who commissioned his creation as one of the world’s great statues, a cast iron behemoth meant to represent the great natural resources and industry of Birmingham, had also failed to plan what would be done with him following his role at the fair. As a result, he ended up in the middle of a custody battle between various cities, none of which seemed to know exactly what to do with him once they got him.
The immediate plans for Vulcan had been grand. One Birmingham editorial read, “The Iron Man will indeed stand for Birmingham, the massiveness and solidarity of our statue typifying the great industrial city of the South, a city destined, in time, to be the foremost in the United States in all that pertains to iron and steel making.” Another stated, “The colossus of Birmingham iron will be a fine work of art and will be a credit to Birmingham for all time to come. Vulcan represents the genius of the liberal arts, and is especially the patron of the workers in metals.”
If Vulcan represented solidarity as the patron of metal workers, then it is perhaps fitting that he was disassembled and sent back to his home in Birmingham, where his body parts were promptly discarded beside the railroad tracks, due to unpaid freight bills. His capitalist fathers saw short term value in him, but only through exploitation and the selling-point optics of faux holiness, with little to no long term, sustainable plan for the future. His productive value no longer clear, the owners of his means of production left him dismembered until they could figure out what to do with him next.
To add insult to injury, Vulcan lost his iron spear tip somewhere between St. Louis and Birmingham, the fruits of his labor vanished into thin air. It isn’t difficult imagining some disillusioned freight workers hauling the giant iron spear back to their favorite pub as a form of vigilante justice, and who could truly blame them? The value of their labor was left unpaid and they felt violated, so they took a piece of bourgeoisie property in retaliation for the labor value that had been taken from them.
After 18 months in the dirt, Vulcan’s body was re-assembled without his spear, although he wouldn’t have been able to hold it anyways, due to the fact that his right arm was put on upside down, causing a bizarre contortion in which his fingers appeared to point towards the heavens, where he probably would like to have returned. Over the next few decades, he was exploited as a capitalist stooge, forced to hold an ice cream cone bearing the name of local favorite Weldon-Jenkins Ice Cream, followed by a series of nationally popular consumer products, including a bottle of Coca-Cola and a jar of Heinz pickles.
The mighty ancient Roman god whose origins can be traced back well before the Greeks in Athens, a statue whose grandiosity was second in the nation only to Lady Liberty herself, was thus reduced to a pawn of global capitalism’s mighty empire, a mockery of the ideals he was originally supposed to represent, alienated from his purpose like the legions of workers toiling in metal factories he was supposed to champion.
Vulcan’s own metal worker creators were subjected to exploitation in the name of productivity, given short notice to finish a job many didn’t think was possible to accomplish in the few months they had leading up to the fair. Like the Crystal Palace before him, Vulcan still came into existence seemingly as a miracle of Western ingenuity when in reality, both projects’ almost instantaneous completion was the result of overworked and underpaid labor. Two of Vulcan’s foremen worked 60 hours a week for 35 cents an hour, which translates to $10.00 in 2019. One of them reported working 6 weeks without going back to his home a single time, during the most demanding part of the job.
The contradictions within the American capitalist system and seeds of labor conflict thus ran through Vulcan himself, the product of capitalism’s awe-inspiring productive power, as well as its cold, brutal, profit-driven flaws. His very conception was based on short term gain, utilizing the exploited labor of metal workers, with little to no planning regarding his long term value and fate. He was birthed by American industrial might, placed on a pedestal as a holy man for half a year, then discarded and abused for decades to come. His sacred image was no longer revered as it was in ancient times, but rather objectified as a commodity and exploited for the benefit of Birmingham’s movers and shakers, the true holy ideal underneath it all revealed to be nothing more than profit and the expansion of industry.
Substandard working conditions such as those Vulcan’s creators faced were common in the metal industry at the time, and many workers became disillusioned. To fight back, the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers formed and organized strikes when capitalists refused to meet their demands. Leaders of this union must have watched the bizarre story of the iron giant with some sense of amusement, a welcome respite from the serious work of organizing against forces of private enterprise they saw as a threat to their livelihoods. In 1903, various pieces of a corporate giant were forged together into one massive body when U.S. Steel and the American Bridge Association formed into the National Erector’s Association, an alliance between iron and steel that immediately began crushing unions through an elaborate network of labor spies, agents provocateurs, and strike breakers. The International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers responded by nominating some of the more militant voices of their ranks into leadership positions, naming Frank Ryan president and John J. McNamara secretary treasurer.
As the U.S. moved into the 20th century, the growing iron workers union won concessions in areas dotted across the map, including from some nonunion companies whose construction projects had been all but completely destroyed by explosions set off in the night. Some speculated the iron workers union was behind the explosions, but there was no proof. The devices used to set off the dynamite were destroyed with each explosion, leaving behind little evidence for investigators to work with. Plus, the leadership of the iron workers union was not incompetent. They knew how to operate undetected, and because only a handful of people on the inside knew any details, investigators had a difficult time finding information of any kind tying the bombings and the union together. When asked about the Times tragedy, J.J. McNamara said, “such an act is anarchy, pure and simple,” and “no sane individual or organization would resort to anything of the kind under any circumstances.”
Although a man who took orders from J.J. McNamara named Ortie McManigal carried out the majority of the dynamite jobs over the years, it was J.J.’s younger brother, James B. McNamara, who eventually carried out the lethal attack on The Times building. The men learned how to construct time bombs using New Haven Junior Tattoo alarm clarks, complete with dry cell batteries, mercury fulminate, and fuses connected to 16 sticks of dynamite. For the Los Angeles job, J.B. carried three of these explosive devices, each carried in a suitcase. His targets that night would be the house of Felix Zeehandelaar, secretary of the M & M, General Otis’ own house, and The Times building.
With his three ‘infernal machines,’ as they were called, J.B. McNamara set out for his targets with a clean conscious. In his mind, he was engaged in warfare and this act of valor would earn him stripes, respect, clout. After setting the first two bombs at his enemies’ residences, he walked into a covered alleyway between The Times’ main office area and its printing press, where barrels of petroleum-based ink were stored. There he found an empty barrel, placed the last suitcase inside, and covered it with discarded newspapers. Then walked into the printing press where he opened up the natural gas valves with a pair of pliers, releasing invisible, highly flammable fumes into the air. Finally, he boarded a train for San Francisco, allowing him to gain sufficient distance from the site of the blast by the time it occurred.
At 1:07 am, the fuse lit and made its way to the 16 sticks of dynamite hidden in the empty ink barrel. The explosion lifted all six floors of the printing press building and sent massive chunks of plaster crumbling down onto human bodies below. The ink itself vaporized and shot into billions of microscopic droplets in the air, which ignited into fireballs that shot through the building, singeing and maiming all who came into contact with it. People tried to help their peers to the exits, some of whose skin melted off with touch.
All the lighting went out and in the pitch black hallways, people scrambled blindly hoping to find their way to the exits. Many found themselves at upper story windows, with a raging inferno behind them and a deadly fall in front of them. Some clung to windows until they no longer could, falling as human torches, their clothes lit and slowly burning them to death, until they splattered into heaps on the pavement. One man fell multiple stories down an elevator shaft, certain he was going to die, until a cluster of bodies broke his fall at the bottom. One man was found inside the building with a typewriter caved into his chest.
A crowd of thousands watched in horror. At least 21 people died that night, and approximately $500,000 of damage was done, equal to around $13 million today.
General Otis was out of town that night handling his political and economic interests in Mexico, so his son in law, Harry Chandler, was the man in charge of The Times following the blast. It was only by chance that he wasn’t the first to be annihilated by the explosion, since the bomb was practically adjacent to his personal desk – but his wife had coincidentally called him to come home early that night. He must have felt a divine hand influenced his fate.
When Chandler arrived at the grotesque scene in the early morning hours of October 1st, 1910, one of his first actions was to call for a team of his employees to rush to work at a secret auxiliary printing press in San Fernando, maintained by Otis in case of emergency. Another was to request the fire department aim some of its water to where the financial records were kept, indicating the leadership at The Times would practice what it preached in terms of its set of values. ‘True Industrial Freedom’ in this sense meant the freedom to continue working immediately following a terrorist attack in which you and/or your colleagues were burnt, mangled, crushed, incinerated in a mad inferno inside your place of employment. The freedom to treat your PTSD with a bandage around your burns and then produce the morning edition on time.
Within two hours, the paper was reporting on its own destruction. Underneath the protection of its trademark eagle, The Times headline left no room for skepticism about who was responsible:
This ‘guilty until proven innocent’ stance was validated by California Governor James Gillette in the very next issue, in which he was quoted saying:
Whether guilty or not, the labor unionists will have to be blamed for the crime, until shown they are not guilty, as everything points to a desire to wipe out property and lives of those who have been fighting organized labor for years.
The Times also boasted of its ability to continue printing immediately after the attack:
… and churned out its trademark anti-union propaganda:
General Otis himself seemed unable to mourn the loss of his employees without bathing his language in narcissistic descriptions of his own greatness, craftily slipping in an advertisement for his newspaper in the moment he is supposed to be displaying true empathy for those workers who lost their lives fighting his personal war against labor:
More than all else do I deplore the sad loss of life. I, with my co-owners in The Times property, can endure the physical loss which the destruction of the building involves, with its expensive plant of modern printing machinery and all necessary accessories of an up to date American newspaper.
The city acted just as swiftly as the paper in response to the attack. Self-made celebrity detective William J. Burns was quickly hired to go on the hunt for perpetrators of what until then was the largest terrorist plot in the nation’s history. Burns had already served as chief of the newly formed Secret Service following the assassination of President McKinley, and had spent his most recent years investigating the string of iron work-related explosions on behalf of the National Erectors Association. He was known for self-advertising, but could also back his claims up with action. He was a formidable detective with several movie script-like investigations under his belt, which led to an actual movie script and lead role in a silent film, starring as himself.
Following The Times blast, the best evidence Burns had came in the form of two infernal machines that hadn’t exploded, due to being wound too tight – one from a previous bombing in Illinois, and one that was left at Zeehandelaar’s house (the bomb at Otis’ house was taken out onto the street where it was allowed to explode safely.) The labels on both of the intact infernal machines matched, so when the press typed up and published the words found on the labels, a manufacturer contacted Burns to tell him the dynamite had come from his company. He gave descriptions of two men who fit J.B. McNamara and Ortie McManigal’s physical appearance. With this limited yet promising evidence and a well-paid team of experts, it didn’t take Burns long to track down his new primary suspects, whom they immediately began trailing.
As Burns set his scope on his targets, J.B. McNamara went into a tailspin of depression. He drank heavily and smoked cigarettes incessantly in San Francisco, growing out his beard while his face caved in from lack of food intake. His nerves were shot after realizing that after causing so many deaths, people in the labor movement weren’t going to view him as a hero so much as a villain. J.J. advised his brother to go stay with their sister and mother in Ballegh, Nebraska, where they would debrief and let things settle down before figuring out what to do next. The remote area of Ballegh functioned as a safe house between home base in Indianapolis and the bombers’ targets to the west of it. The McNamaras told people they were “hunting in Nebraska” when they were actually carrying out their industrial warfare campaign.
On the train ride from San Francisco to Nebraska, J.B.’s paranoia went into overdrive. He saw everyone reading about the bombing in the newspapers, talking about the perpetrators as murderous villains, and thought everyone was looking at him. While his paranoia was in overdrive, he had every reason to be terrified. With an unexploded bomb in his possession, Detective Burns was hot on his trail already.
Strategically, Burns played the long game and let the conspirators think he had no idea about them, so they wouldn’t tip off other conspirators above them. But he still had his men trail them everywhere they went. The McNamara brothers were scared at first, but after enough time passed and the men they thought were trailing them hadn’t made an arrest, they figured they were in the clear. However, J.B. was still struggling with crippling anxiety and self medicating with a steady diet of liquor and women to keep his mind off the fear of being caught and punished. In California, he could have been executed for his crime. As the midwestern states turned cold in late fall, the men planned a hunting trip in Wisconsin, out in the calm of nature, away from everything. It was to be a healing trip.
Learning of the winter retreat plans, Burns had some of his men trail the hunting team out into the woods on Pioneer Lake near Conover, Wisconsin, where they posed as fellow hunters. The sleuths quickly befriended the unionists, and it didn’t take long for J.B.’s alcoholism to kick in. Burns’ men were more than happy to fill him up with all he wanted, getting him inebriated to the point that he spilled sensitive information, which was quickly jotted down and sent back to Burns. As it turned out, J.B.’s paranoia was well founded, and Burns’ long game was working like a charm
From the iron union’s main office in Indianapolis, as his brother was getting hammered with the very men investigating them, J.J. felt emboldened to continue hatching schemes, setting his sights on several places, including Nebraska, for the next round of explosions. During the open vs closed shop battles of the early 1900s, Omaha was very much an open shop city. Early in 1910, months before the explosion at The Times, the nonunion Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company hired the nonunion Wisconsin Bridge Company to work on a new power station for its improved streetcars, putting it into the union bombers’ crosshairs. McManigal made a special trip to Omaha to do what he did best. The ensuing explosion caused some significant damage to the power plant, but like with the other bombings leading up to The Times, nobody was there to be hurt or killed. As a true believer and agent for his cause, McManigal felt morally clean throughout that period because he was merely destroying property created by what he viewed as immoral labor practices, not taking human lives. He never felt the hit J.B. made in Los Angeles was righteous.
As the winter of 1910 turned to spring of 1911, for their second attack on Omaha’s bourgeoisie, the iron men targeted Omaha’s new million dollar courthouse in the heart of its downtown area, built by nonunion labor under the direction of Caldwell & Drake. This Omaha job consisted of two blasts, the second of which was somewhat of a dud, likely due to poor quality of the dynamite itself. The basement of the courthouse was destroyed, but its stone walls remained unfazed. This time, J.J. threw in a twist to confuse investigators, and perhaps to toy with them. Only minutes after the Omaha courthouse attack, another series of explosions rocked the Caldwell & Drake offices in Columbus, Indiana, just south of Indianapolis. This double hit on the same night signaled the non-lethal explosions were not only being sustained, but even amplified in ways, following the the destruction of The Times building.
The Omaha courthouse explosion didn’t create the headline news the carnage in L.A. did, but it was a precursor to the disturbing headlines that would splash across the front pages around the nation only seven years later, of an unspeakable series of violent crimes inside and outside that very building. It was also a potent message from the unionists. If the courthouse symbolizes civil society and even civilization itself, or at least the one enshrined within the Crystal Palace, and is seen as the thing separating humans from the laws of the jungle, then the destruction of the courthouse represents rejection of that civilization and a return to the jungle, at least in the eyes of the majority of Americans who subscribe fully to capitalism.
But for the unionists, the courthouse was capitalist property which upheld an unjust society built on the laws of the jungle. It served as a conduit for the capitalist power structure that allowed corporations to exploit, neglect, and even kill their employees as they saw fit. The courthouse was where corporations like St. Paul Coal Company were given slaps on the wrists for criminal negligence that ended up widowing the wives of working men, so for those who wanted justice for working people, destruction of property would never seem to be equal to the destruction of working class lives. Like McManigal, they would never lose sleep over broken inanimate objects that amplified the immorality of a wicked system.
Only a month after the courthouse explosion, Burns decided to shoot his shot. He sent his son Raymond to Detroit, in order to lead Chicago police in arresting McManigal and J.B. McNamara on charges of safe-cracking from a crime the week before. That way the alarm bell wouldn’t signal for J.J. McNamara to start destroying evidence back in Indianapolis. The bombers were then whisked away to the police Sergeant’s house, where they were held captive while Burns attempted to get extradition papers from California. In strictly legal terms, Burns had them kidnapped, so that they would not, in his own words, “have to waste time in fighting habeas corpus proceedings and other obstables.”
Terrified at the prospect of never seeing his wife and children again and perhaps feeling more than a subtle pang of guilt over the lives taken at The Times, McManigal sang like a canary. He told investigators about hidden stashes of dynamite, named all the conspirators, and in return was promised his freedom after all the court proceedings were wrapped up. Although evidence against the union men was stacked a mile high, famed labor lawyer Clarence Darrow was unaware and agreed to take the case. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, the largest and most powerful union in the nation, bankrolled an enormous fee requested by Darrow, and unions across the world engaged in fundraising campaigns to support the men they felt had been framed by capitalists trying yet another one of their dirty tactics in crushing organized labor.
When Darrow dug into the case, however, he quickly realized the men were guilty. The question that bothered him most was whether or not the bombing at The Times was an act of premeditated murder, or if J.B. simply had not understood how ink inside its barrels would vaporize and turn into lethal balls of fire the way it did. However, the fact he had turned on the gas valves indicated fairly clearly that regardless of how humanistic McManigal remained, the McNamara brothers seemed willing to destroy more than mere property.
Upon the announcement that Darrow suggested a plea deal, unionists who had rallied behind the cause of men they said were framed, men they (correctly) said had been kidnapped, men they knew in their hearts couldn’t have possibly killed all those people in such grotesque fashion in L.A., felt shocked and betrayed. Could it be true? It couldn’t be true…. there is no way…. but they confessed…. Darrow wouldn’t betray labor…. it must be true… denial turned to bitter acceptance, the morale of American unionists crushed in the process. Perhaps more devastating, the entire concept of unionism was invalidated in the national psyche through their ill-fated campaign of support.
In the end, dozens of men were arrested and imprisoned for the bombing campaign, except for Ortie MgManigal, who lived the rest of his days under an assumed name. J.B. served life in San Quentin, while J.J. was released after 9 years. Job Harriman, the lawyer and socialist candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, who also served on the losing defense team, lost in a landslide election to his moderate rival, and the leftist cause in the United States never regained the same traction it had at the turn of the century. It was one thing to blame anarchists for deadly bombings and targeted assassinations, because unionists didn’t have to necessarily be tied to those things. But after the McNamara case, those who were on the fence about labor unions had all the information they needed to join in the chorus of anti-union rhetoric that claimed it was immoral, led by thugs who wanted to smuggle foreign ideas into the U.S. and destroy it from within.
Eugene Debs condemned the bombings, but also pointed out the double standards he saw at work in the American capitalist system:
If you want to judge McNamara you must first serve a month as a structural ironworker on a skyscraper, risking your life every minute to feed your wife and babies, then being discharged and blacklisted for joining a union. Every floor in every skyscraper represents a workingman killed in its erection. It is easy enough for a gentleman of education and refinement to sit at his typewriter and point out the crimes of the workers. But let him be one of them himself, reared in hard poverty, denied education, thrown into the brute struggle for existence from childhood, oppressed, exploited, forced to strike, clubbed by the police, jailed while his family is evicted, and his wife and children are hungry, and he will hesitate to condemn these as criminals who fight against the crimes of which they are victims of such savage methods as have been forced upon them by their masters.
Debs also pulled no punches in his words about mainstream progressives, whom he claimed represented the jungle rule mentioned earlier. In this view, capitalists have maimed and murdered exponentially more innocent people than unionists had, and he noted how complicit American society was in those crimes. Again, while not advocating for violence, Debs challenges us to redirect our attention to the conditions in which the bombing at The Times occurred. Implied in his words is the notion that the McNamaras were acting *in response* to the much more powerful structure of violence that worked against them every day, in open daylight for the whole world to see:
… Roosevelt, who morally is still in the jungle, says that “Murder is
Murder” in denouncing the McNamaras and congratulating Burns,
but murder is not murder when it is for capitalism, and killing is not
killing when it is for capitalist profit.
The capitalist owners of the St. Paul mine at Cherry, Ill., buried
nearly 300 miners two years ago, some of them surviving for over a
week. Compared with this heart-breaking catastrophe the Los Angeles
Times affair pales into insignificance, but this is not murder. The
coroner’s jury fixed the responsibility upon the capitalists, but they
are not guilty of crime.
The capitalist proprietors of the Bayless mill at Austin, Pa., as deliberately killed their employees in the dam disaster there, according
to the coroner’s inquest, as if they had placed dynamite under the
hovels, but this is not murder, and not one of them will be punished.
The capitalist mine owners of Pennsylvania had the sheriff and his
deputies massacre a body of miners who were marching peaceably
along the road near Latimer, with an American flag at the head of
their procession, but this is not murder.
Under the ethical code of capitalism the slaying of workingmen
who resist capitalism is not murder, and as a workingman I absolutely
refuse to condemn men as murderers under the moral code of the
capitalist state for fighting according to their light on the side of the
If the McNamara brothers had been corporation detectives and had shot dead 21 inoffensive union pickets, instead of placing dynamite under the Los Angeles Times, they would have been protected by the law and hailed by admiring capitalists as heroes.
Although Debs’ words were noted for their strength, they ultimately fell on deaf ears. General Otis and his peers had won, and the McNamara bombings had ensured it. Debs would later be arrested for speaking out against World War 1. Job Harriman’s mayoral campaign failed, and the leftist movement across the nation failed to take flight. It is important to note, however, that 1910 was the year young Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered politics in New York. Surely he would have been influenced by the events in L.A. as he crafted his views towards labor unions, and while he was opposed to public sector unions, his support for unions in the private sector indicated at least some level of sympathy for the cause the McNamaras fought for. Extremists often move the center, for better or worse, so it is possible to view the bombing campaign as being somewhat successful in its aims, if not immediately but in the long term.
As far as this particular battle, though, General Otis was the clear victor. Not long after the ordeal, Otis handed the keys to The Times to his son in law, Harry Chandler, a dedicated eugenicist, who continued peddling anti-union rhetoric as well as the type of racist propaganda that inspired a young Adolf Hitler. Chandler and his ilk led the charge in making California the foremost region in the U.S. for forced sterilization programs that worked in tandem with programs in Nazi Germany during the years leading up to World War II.
The L.A. Times therefore led the way in crushing unions as well as pushing the ideals presented in the Crystal Palace even further. Now, humans had the power to modify not only the world around them to their liking, but also the world within them, through selective breeding practices. The racial hierarchy presented at world fairs and the concept of ‘racial hygiene’ promoted globally as whiteness spread itself to the four corners was finally reaching its logical ending point, where new, even higher, levels of whiteness would be forged physically through the merging of its best stock into new healthy white bodies, and the destruction of its antithesis represented in the forms of Black and Brown bodies, those of people addicted to chemicals, and those of people with mental illness. Early proponents of eugenics included David Starr Jordan, founder of Stanford University, Lewis Terman, creator of the IQ test, Ulysses Sigel Webb, Attorney General of California from 1902 to 1939, and a slew of other prominent Californian academics, politicians, and businessmen.
If unionists and leadership at The Los Angeles Times couldn’t agree on matters related to labor, they could at least agree on the accuracy of the racial hierarchy. As will be explored in the next piece, capitalists across the nation played on the hierarchy like a harpsichord, pitting white unionists against Black laborers who were moving north and west during World War 1, fighting for any scraps they could get from the industry juggernaut created by the conflict. Aside from the magnetic pull of Vulcan in a handful of southern industrial giants like Birmingham and Houston, Black workers moved out of the Deep South for better work to feed their families, even if they had to be exploited as strike breakers, because the pay was still better than the sharecropping conditions back home. This phenomenon enraged white unionists and divided the working class when, under different circumstances, they might have united into one massive union and succeeded in bringing men like Otis to their knees.
As it stands, Harry Chandler and his dynastic family carried The Times on through the decades as a fiercely anti-union enterprise. In 1935 The Times constructed its new headquarters, a now iconic art deco building that won a gold medal at the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life) in Paris. The new building featured a massive bronze eagle on its roof, where it watched over and guarded “true industrial freedom” throughout the Chandler era. It now sits in the lobby, a cultural relic now that The Times has finally moved itself once again into a new headquarters for the new millennium.
The Chandler era lasted until the 1980s, when General Otis’ great grandson, Otis Chandler, a political moderate and professional journalist in comparison to his ruthless and racist forefathers, finally handed the keys over to people outside the family for the first time. The famous General had succeeded in keeping his hyper-capitalist ideology and physical progeny at the helm of his beloved newspaper for at least a few generations, a byproduct of the failed bombing campaign initiated by a few desperate union leaders in 1910. But recent history would have him rolling in his grave, and perhaps trying to hire private mercenaries to confront his own newspaper’s employees. The Los Angeles Times staff formed its first union, the L.A. Times Guild, in 2018.