By Anthony Mostrom
It's one of the biggest horror stories of old L.A., yet it never seems to get told by anyone (least of all by the Los Angeles Times): the 1910 midnight dynamite bombing of the newspaper's imposing stone building at First and Broadway. The blast killed 21 Times employees and injured 100 more. As detailed in Lew Irwin's exceptionally good new book, Deadly Times: The 1910 Bombing of the Los Angeles Times and America's Forgotten Decade of Terror, it was an act of American terrorism, carried out by a Midwestern labor union in retaliation for the paper's aggressively anti-union policies and practices.
In the age of 9/11 and the Boston bombing, it's weird to discover a previous era in which Americans got used to reading about bombings in many cities. But as Irwin notes, the Times atrocity climaxed a period (circa 1907 to 1911) of extreme class hatred and union radicalism, when heartless Gilded Age bosses fought organized labor as a threat to “industrial freedom” and some unions retaliated by bombing buildings and factories as one way to bring “the bosses” to the bargaining table.
Few were quite as hardcore as the Indianapolis-based Iron Workers Union. The function of the union's “entertainment committee” was to beat up non-union workers (“catch them …. as they were getting off the streetcar … jump onto them and beat them up”).
And then there was the Iron Workers' years-long policy of dynamiting buildings and construction sites, carried out by well-compensated bombers-for-hire like James B. McNamara.
Who was McNamara? Surprisingly, a rather aimless, alcoholic drifter with, as Irwin writes, a “surly smile and leering glint.” A streak of fanaticism and a love for dynamite (plus the fact that his brother was the union's powerful, bloody-minded secretary) made him the perfect instrument to carry out violence.
One can only imagine how an ideologically bent, academic writer would have treated such a subject. Fortunately Irwin, a veteran L.A. television journalist, is an artist in prose, blessed with a ready-made cast of “extreme” characters and a gift for the perfect word to convey the strange times and people he's describing
That includes Clarence Darrow, who defended both McNamaras in court. In the preface, Irwin writes that he was first inspired to write this book 50 years ago, when he interviewed Darrow's overly sympathetic first biographer, Irving Stone. Irwin found himself “astounded by the liberties Irving Stone had taken with the facts”: namely, whitewashing Clarence Darrow's attempts to bribe jurors in the McNamara trial.
While connoisseurs of atrocity porn surely will open this book and hunt for the description of the bombing itself, Irwin doesn't disappoint. “At precisely 1:07 a.m. on October 1, 1910, the pale fizzling incandescence reached the 16 sticks of dynamite stashed in the barrel…”
He paints a brilliant, appalling, pathetic picture of what happened inside the building: “And now, the noise of the first ear-shattering explosion blended into the screams of the just-injured … with the initial explosion, each of the building's six floors was lifted, heaving workers and their machines upward, much of which fell all the way to ground level as debris.” These eight pages will bring tears to your eyes.
Thus did ideology kill some of the very “masses” it claimed to champion, while the paper's union-hating publisher, General Harrison Gray Otis, roared in defiance, “They can kill our men and can wreck our buildings, but by the God above they cannot kill the Times!” (As it turned out, McNamara tried to bomb Otis' house, too, but a smart caretaker found a ticking suitcase and LAPD detectives defused that bomb on the spot.) Then as now, ideology produced idiotic statements from otherwise rational humans: Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs claimed that Otis himself did it. Then as now, it was a time for hotheads.
In the end, what did the Times bombing produce? Corpses, buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (you can see the impressive bronze plaque listing their names there today). And Lew Irwin, a fine humanist, does all of them and early L.A. history justice in Deadly Times.