My wise old grandmother always told me that “those who don’t study history are bound to repeat it.” She also told me that “history is written by the victors.”
I have always loved history, so much so that as late as a graduating senior in high school I thought I wanted to be a history teacher. Then, after doing research and discovering that (1) teachers in Texas didn’t make enough money to get me out of the poor household that I was in, and (2) if I wanted to make enough money and be a history teacher, I probably would have to go to college and get a bachelor, master, and doctorate degree.
It wasn’t until the last decade or so that I came to agree firmly with what my wise old grandmother said as I watched the Texas State Board of Education remove any mention in their textbooks of history events like the KKK and Jim Crow laws. According to the social studies textbook, “United States Goverment,” Brown v. Board of Education only happened because sometimes “the buildings, buses, and teachers for the all-black schools were lower in quality.”
When I was at the public library a few weeks ago, there on the New Books display was one titled “Deadly Times—The 1910 Bombing of the Los Angeles Times and America’s Forgotten Decade of Terror” by Lee Irwin.
Since I live just 100 miles south of Los Angeles, the title intrigued me. With 55+ years of history reading and research under my pillow, I had never heard of this bombing, and certainly not “America’s Forgotten Decade of Terror.” Nothing about it in my Texas high school and college history books….
After reading the dust jacket, I checked out the book.
Between 1907 and 1911, there were more than 200 bombings carried out in the United States, East Coast, West Coast, and everywhere in between. It was the longest period of sustained terrorism in the nation’s history. The bombings were carried out by Union men against non-Union companies.
Although labor unions can be traced back to 1349 in England with the Ordinance of Labourers, the first effective nationwide labor organization in the United States was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in December 1869. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions began in 1881 and eventually morphed into the American Federation of Labor.
When reading Deadly Times, it is important to know—the book does not tell you directly—that Democrats in 1910 were pro-big business and against the working man. Republicans were mostly pro-working man, pro-union, anti-big business, anti-rich. Exactly the opposite of what the two parties stand for in today’s United States. In 1910, many newspapers actually WERE foes of the working class. Perhaps this is the time that the current U.S. President wants to take America back to.
In 1910, the Los Angeles Times was an open shop business, and the owner, General Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917) was so anti-union that he proposed making unions, strikes, and picketing illegal in San Francisco (a pro-union city, and the largest city in California at the time) and Los Angeles. General Gray’s proposal ultimately made the Los Angeles Times building a prime target, and early in the morning of October 1, 1910, a bomb exploded and killed 21 people (some accounts say 20; some accounts say that the number is not known because of the carnage the bombs created).
Lee Irwin’s research creates a fascinating story of the bombing, the search to identify and catch the bombers, a nation polarized by labor issues and the bombings, and the trials that ensued. The search for the bombers was conducted by William J. Burns (1861-1932), known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” and his William J. Burns International Detective Agency, acquired in August 2000 by Securitas AB of Sweden.
In April 1911, Burns, along with Los Angeles and Chicago police, arrested brothers John J. McNamara (1876-1941) and James B. McNamara (1882-1941). Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), eventually to become famous for defending John T. Scopes (1900-1970) in 1925 in the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” was hired by the labor unions to defend the McNamara brothers.
Before the case could go to trial, a plea bargain was reached in which both brothers would plead guilty. John, admitted to placing the bomb at the Los Angeles Times building, would serve life in prison. J.B. would serve 10 years albeit for a different bombing; the judge would modify the plea bargain so that J.B. would serve 15 years in prison. Interestingly, the plea bargain was first mentioned at the home of E.W. Scripps, a name well known here San Diego County where we have the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps Health, Scripps Research, Scripps Ranch housing subdivision, and more.
The Los Angeles Times trial ruined Clarence Darrow who himself was indicted and tried, twice, for attempting to bribe jurors. His first trial, a state trial where Darrow was defended by Earl Rogers, (1869-1922) ended in acquittal. The second trial, a federal trial, resulted in a hung jury. A plea bargain, in which Darrow agreed to leave California and never come back, was reached in order to avoid a third trial.
Darrow left public life for many years, returning in 1924 to defend Nathan Leopold Jr. (1904-1971) and Richard Loeb (1905-1936), teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families, accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks for the thrill of it (resulting in the term “thrill kill”). A year later was the Scopes Monkey Trial.
I have always been fascinated by people killing people, under the guise of religion, social progress, thrill, or whatever, and this book certainly brought to my attention lots of events where people killed people that I had not been aware of. I now have several other books, autobiographies and biographies, on my reading list.
Considering where the current U.S. President and his ilk are taking the nation, I would not be surprised if the common laborer ultimately rises up, perhaps again resorting to death and destruction….
More interesting facts I learned from “Deadly Times” and subsequent research:
- Ossian Sweet (1895-1960) trial. In September 1925, a white mob in Detroit tried to drive a black family out of the home they had purchased in a white neighborhood. During the melee, a white man was killed. The eleven black men in the house all were arrested and charged with murder. Darrow’s closing argument to the all-white jury:
“I insist that there is nothing but prejudice in this case; that if it was reversed and eleven white men had shot and killed a black man while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. They would have been given medals instead….”
The first trial of all 11 defendants was a mistrial.
The second trial involved Henry Sweet, Ossian’s brother, who had admitted firing the shot. Henry was found not guilty on grounds of self-defense. All charges were dropped against the other ten.
Darrow’s closing statement, lasting over seven hours, is considered a landmark in Civil Rights history and is included in the book, “Speeches that Changed the World.”
- The book, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, is about the Sweet trials. It became a bestseller, won the National Book Award for non-fiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It also is on my reading list now.
- The judge overseeing the Sweet Trials was a young Frank Murphy (1890-1949) who would go on to serve as the last Governor General of the Phillippine Islands, Mayor of Detroit, Governor of Michigan, and as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court. The court building in Detroit is the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.
- The television show “Perry Mason” is based on the life of Earl Rogers (1869-1922).
- There is a memorial in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery honoring 20 people killed in the Los Angeles Times bombing. General Otis also is interred at the Cemetery. It has 20 names on it, not 21.
- The labor movement in Los Angeles crashed after the guilty pleas of the McNamara brothers, languishing until the 1950s.
- The head of the American Federal of Labor at the time, Samuel Gompers, who approved tens of thousands of dollars of Union money to defend the McNamara brothers, was honored by the United States Post Office on a 3¢ postage stamp issued on January 27, 1950.
- The kidnapping and murder of Bobby Franks was the basis for Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play “Rope” as well as Alfred Hitchcock“s 1948 movie of the same name. Other film, theatre, and fiction works based on Bobby Franks include Meyer Levin’s 1956 novel Compulsion and the 1959 film adaptation; Nothing but the Night by James Yaffe; Little Brother Fate by Mary-Carter Roberts; Never the Sinner, a 1988 play by John Logan, which included an explicit portrayal of Leopold and Loeb’s gay relationship; Native Son by Richard Wright; Swoon, a 1992 film by Tom Kalin; Funny Games, a 1997 Austrian film by Michael Haneke, and its 2008 remake; R.S.V.P., a 2002 black comedy film; Murder by Numbers by Barbet Schroeder; and Stephen Dolginoff’s 2005 Off Broadway musical (muscial? really?) Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story.
- Leopold’s autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, published in 1958, is on my reading list now.
- In 1959, Leopold sued to block production of the film version of Compulsion on the grounds that Levin’s book invaded his privacy, profited from his life story, and defamed him. Eventually the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that Leopold, as the confessed perpetrator of the “crime of the century,” could not reasonably demonstrate that any book had injured his reputation.