One hundred and three years ago today, on October 1, 1910, a bomb exploded at the offices of the Los Angeles Times on First and Broadway in downtown L.A. The bomb, which consisted of sticks of dynamite hidden in a suitcase, wasn’t that powerful and may not have been intended to cause mass casualties, but the Times building sat on top of a natural gas main. When it blew up the entire building was destroyed, killing 21 people and injuring more than 100 others. You would think a bomb going off in central L.A. would be an extremely well-known event, but surprisingly this act of terrorism is almost forgotten today.
The terrorists who blew up the Times building were brothers, J.J. and J.B. McNamara. They were members of a labor union called the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, or just Iron Workers for short. Incredible as it may seem today, when we’re used to terrorism being used to advance religious or political ideologies, the Iron Workers carried on a campaign of bombings in the 1900s and 1910s aimed at wringing concessions out of employers. Los Angeles was a heavily anti-union city, and employers there used all sort of dirty tactics–many of them violent–to prevent workers from unionizing. The Iron Workers felt that terrorism was an appropriate response to what they viewed as terrorism against them. The Times building was targeted because its editor, Harrison Gray Otis, not only frequently ran polemics in his paper against labor unions, but was active in organizing business interests in the city to stamp out unionization.
The terrorist attack of October 1, 1910 galvanized the city and the whole country. Other more “mainstream” labor unions, such as the AFL, condemned the bombing and said that a labor union couldn’t have done it. After another bomb went off at an L.A. iron plant on Christmas Day, 1910, a city-wide dragnet went out for those responsible. The bombing was traced to the McNamara brothers, who were arrested in April 1911.
Clarence Darrow, who defended the terrorists at their 1911 trial.
The trial of the McNamara brothers was a media circus. Their attorney was no less than legendary lawman Clarence Darrow, later of Leopold-Loeb and Scopes Monkey Trial fame, and organized labor all over the U.S. watched the case intently. Over the course of the pre-trial proceedings Darrow watched his case evaporate until he finally decided to try to convince the brothers to accept a plea bargain. Amazingly, the fate of the McNamara brothers became wrapped up in labor negotiations with Los Angeles employers, who had begun to fear the public relations backlash of the case. Ultimately a plea bargain deal collapsed. The brothers pled guilty and were given lengthy jail terms.
In the end the McNamara brothers’ campaign of terrorism ended up hurting, rather than helping, the cause of labor in Los Angeles. There were virtually no unions in the city from the 1910s until well into the 1950s. Somehow the Iron Workers didn’t quite appreciate that mass-casualty terrorism wasn’t very good leverage in labor negotiations.
The history of labor in the United States, particularly in this period, is fabulously complex. American labor strife has often descended into violence, and the L.A. Times bombing of 1910 is part of an ugly history that includes the Haymarket riots of 1886 and the traumatic Pullman strike of 1894. I’m amazed that this incident isn’t nearly as well-known as either of those two. Still, it’s a pretty fascinating story.