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The Los Angeles Times Bombing

Harrison Gray Otis was the owner of the Los Angeles Times from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Otis was vehemently against unions, and was part of a local anti-union organization called the Merchants and Manufacturers Association. Newspaper Clipping

The Los Angeles Iron Workers strike began in June, 1910 – California labor activists felt this was needed, as the open shop (a place of employment that does not require union membership) policies of many LA industries were threatening the high wages and working conditions in heavily unionized San Francisco. The strike resulted in an anti-picketing ordinance, and Otis used both the Merchants and Manufacturers Association and the LA Times to espouse his anti-union views.

The bombing occurred on October 1, 1910, in an area outside the LA Times building known as “Ink Alley.” The dynamite was planted by James McNamara. A fire resulted, as natural gas lines were located beneath the bombing site, and the barrels of ink ignited. Twenty-one people were killed, and many more were injured.

Otis immediately suspected labor activists and anarchists were behind the bombings. Samuel Gompers and the AFL denied that labor activists would have had any part in the bombings.

The labor movement was shocked when the McNamara brothers were accused in the bombings. James B. and John J. McNamara received wide support from Samuel Gompers (leader of the American Federation of Labor), and the labor community, who believed the brothers had been framed. Adding to the outrage was the manner in which the McNamara brothers had been apprehended by police. In April of 1911, John J. was taken from Indiana to California under questionable legal circumstances. James was found in Detroit, along with his colleague Ortie McManigal (who was involved in other Iron Workers bombings). Detectives extracted a confession out of McManigal, which further implicated the McNamara brothers’ involvement in the LA Times bombing. The brothers were both on the same train on the last leg of the trip to Los Angeles. However, they did not realize that they were traveling together as they were held in separate cars.

The attorney, Clarence Darrow was hired by Samuel Gompers to defend the McNamara brothers (Job Harriman, who ran as a Socialist candidate for Los Angeles mayor, was also initially involved in the McNamara’s defense). The trial began October 11, 1911. Many in the labor community believed that the brothers had been framed for the crime, due to John’s union leadership position. However it was becoming clear to the defense that there was too much evidence against the brothers. With the realization that the brothers were guilty, Darrow began to plan an argument that would help the McNamara’s avoid the death sentence. During the trial, both the defense and the prosecution allegedly engaged in the threatening of witnesses, and tampering with evidence. The defense was accused of bribing a juror in the case, for which Darrow stood trial following the conclusion of the McNamara case. He was acquitted of the charges of bribery.

Lincoln Steffens, a famous muck-raking journalist interested in the trial, stepped in as a way to test his ideas about Christianity as well as improving labor relations – that if the prosecution and the judge let the McNamaras go free, it would be an example of Christian mercy, as well as setting up a favorable environment for improvement between labor and business. Furthermore, if the McNamara case were dragged out, it would only increase the tension between business and labor. According to Steffens’ autobiography, he met with Harrison Gray Otis, as well as Otis’ son-in-law (who worked at the LA Times), members of the business community, Clarence Darrow, and the defense team. The defense’s final terms for the plea agreement, according to Steffens, were “pleas of guilty with no confessions from J.J. and J.B. McNamara, a life sentence for J.B. McNamara, a very short sentence for J.J., the abandonment of the pursuit of all other suspects, and an agreement to a labor-capital conference afterward.” The brothers accepted the terms of the deal, though James remained cynical about the judge.

James and John entered guilty pleas – John for a separate charge on involvement in the bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works (which was carried out by Ortie McManigal). On the day of the sentencing, however, these high hopes were shattered when the judge handed down the jail sentences and abandoned the rhetoric about forgiveness and improving labor relations that Steffens’ had suggested. As the brothers were being led from the courtroom following their sentencing, James B. exclaimed to Steffens “You see? You were wrong, and I was right. The whole damn world believes in dynamite.”

John J. served fifteen years in prison, and James B. served a life sentence. Following their trial, they were sent to San Quentin. James B. was transferred to Folsom prison for a time, and then sent back to San Quentin for medical reasons, where he soon died on March 8, 1941. John died two months later.