On This Day

Los Angeles Times building, Los Angeles Times building explosion, la times building
Aftermath of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910.

On This Day: Iron Workers Bomb Los Angeles Times Building

October 01, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Oct. 1, 1910, dynamite set by union member J.B. McNamara exploded and set the Los Angeles Times building ablaze, killing 21 and injuring more than 100.

Explosion at Los Angeles Times Building

In the late 19th and early 20th century, employers and workers in all parts of the United States clashed violently over wages, hours and working conditions. In Los Angeles, unions had been successfully kept down by industrialists, led by Los Angeles Times owner Harrison Gray Otis.

Otis published anti-union editorials in the Times and formed the Merchants and Manufacturers Association (M&M), an organization of local bankers, manufacturers and other businessmen who intimidated local businesses from hiring union labor. Due to Otis’s anti-union campaigning and the work of the M&M, Southern California labor costs were 30 percent lower than elsewhere in the country.

The International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, a national union headquartered in Indianapolis, was determined to unionize the workers in Los Angeles. They often resorted to violent measures, bombing upward of 70 factories, bridges and railroad tracks between 1907 and 1911. The dynamite explosions were set off at times when people would not be in harm’s way, and there were no deaths and few injuries reported before 1910.

The Iron Workers in Los Angeles went on strike beginning June 1, 1910. The strike continued into the fall and the Iron Workers gained members and popularity despite criticism in the Times and resistance from the M&M.

Soon after 1:00 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1910, 16 sticks of dynamite went off in the Los Angeles Times building. They hit a natural gas line, creating a fire that engulfed the three-story building and caused the second story to collapse into the first.

“The newspaper was just going to press; the composing and press rooms were full of working men and women,” wrote The New York Times. “There came a crash and a burst of flame, and in five minutes twenty-one of the workers were dead, some mercifully at the first shock, but others only after the slow agony of burning alive.”

Similar bombs would be found under the beds of Otis and M&M secretary F.J. Zeehandelaar before they exploded. Times workers and authorities immediately blamed the unions. “The Times building was destroyed by dynamite this morning by the enemies of industrial freedom,” declared the Times’ managing editor Harry F. Andrews.

The Trial for the “Crime of the Century”

The city of Los Angeles hired famed anti-union private investigator William J. Burns to investigate the case. Burns learned from union informant Herbert S. Hockin, who had infiltrated the Iron Workers, that a man named Ortie McManigal had been setting dynamite explosives across the country. He also discovered that the bomb left under Zeehandelaar’s bed matched a bomb set up in Peoria, Ill., that was suspected to be the work of the Iron Workers.

Traveling undercover, Burns joined a hunting trip with McManigal and James B. McNamara, brother of Iron Workers secretary-treasurer John J. McNamara. During the trip, McNamara bragged of setting the three dynamite bombs in Los Angeles, but said he didn’t intend for them to kill anyone. The timer on the Times building explosive had been set for 4:00 a.m., when the building would be empty, and he had not considered the gas line.

McManigal and McNamara were arrested in Detroit by Burns, who had no authority to do so. Eventually, the two men and J.J. McNamara were taken to Los Angeles to face trial for what the Los Angeles Times termed the “Crime of the Century.”

The trial had wide implications for organized labor in the United States. The Iron Workers and American Federation of Labor hoped that the trial would help to grow union support by publicizing the plight of the working man and exposing the violent and unethical tactics of anti-union industrialists. AFL President Samuel Gompers and others believed the men had been framed by anti-union forces, and looked for a lawyer who could win the case.

The McNamaras were originally defended by Job Harriman, Socialist candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, but the Iron Workers and AFL hired renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow to work with Harriman. However, Darrow did not believe that the McNamaras were innocent and thought he had no chance to win the case. Desperately, he tried to bribe a juror on the street, and was caught.
Darrow convinced the McNamaras, who had originally plead not guilty, to reverse their plea to avoid the death penalty. On Dec. 1, 1911, the two pleaded guilty; J.B. was given a life sentence, while J.J. received 15 years. The guilty pleas were a devastating blow to the union movement in Southern California. It lost the support of many common residents, and Harriman, who was pegged to be the sure winner of the mayoral race, lost the election soon after the verdict was announced.

“December 1, 1911, marked the beginning of the end for organized labor in Los Angeles,” writes Dennis McDougal in “Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty.” “For a generation thereafter, the nation’s guilds and unions lost the hearts and the minds of an overwhelming majority of disillusioned workers in virtually every Southern California industry. Not until the Great Depression did union leader once again make any headway.”

Biography: McNamara Brothers

Many accounts of the two brothers often spoke of a ‘study in contrasts,’” writes Eira Tansey for the University of Cincinnati Libraries. “John J. was handsome, well-built, a devout Catholic, and apparently not prone to any bad habits. On the other hand, James B. was thin, moody, foul-mouthed, and sometimes described as a ‘ne’er-do-well.’”

Both brothers spent 30 years in prison before dying in 1931; J.B. died on March 9, while J.J. died on May 8.

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