Written by David Oshinsky and Originally Published in The New York Times on November 21, 2008
In the early-morning hours of Oct. 1, 1910, a huge explosion rocked the headquarters of The Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people and leaving the building in ruins. It soon became apparent that this was the work of a bomber, not the result of a match struck carelessly near leaking gas, and a national manhunt began. What followed — the arrests, the trial, the confessions — would grab headlines intermittently before sliding into the memory hole of history.
The more sensational press accounts from that era portrayed the bombing as “the crime of the century,” even though the century still had 90 years to run. Since that time, authors and headline writers have claimed this title for a host of other crimes (and trials) — think of Leopold and Loeb, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, the Manson family, the Watergate crowd and O.J. Simpson. “American Lightning” is the latest entry in this bloated field, and Howard Blum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, isn’t shy about stretching the relevance of his story. The 1910 bombing was a watershed event in our nation’s history, he insists, with dire consequences for the 20th century and a dark warning for the 21st.
Blum tells the story through the intersecting lives of three characters: Billy Burns, the detective who tracked down the bombers; Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who defended them; and D. W. Griffith, the filmmaker who had assisted the detective on an earlier murder case. Burns had built his career in the United States Secret Service, battling mobsters and corrupt politicians. By 1910, the year he formed his own detective agency, he was already a legend in the popular press, which called him “the American Sherlock Holmes.” With a knack for solving mysteries that baffled lesser men, Burns was hired by the mayor of Los Angeles to find the culprits.
The motive for the bombing seemed apparent from the start. The Los Angeles Times was a “fiercely conservative” newspaper, Blum says, and its publisher, an “unpleasant mountain of a man” named Harrison Gray Otis, had vowed to turn Los Angeles into “a bustling, nonunion metropolis.” Employing his army of detectives, Burns traced the conspiracy, as well as other terrorist acts, to the Indianapolis headquarters of the Structural Iron Workers union and its secretary-treasurer, John J. McNamara, whose accomplices included his brother Jim.
Business leaders praised Burns for saving capitalism from the clutches of working-class thuggery. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had fought hard to break up big corporations, congratulated the detective for his “signal service” to the nation. But the union movement rushed to the McNamara brothers’ defense. “I have investigated the whole case,” said Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. “Burns has lied!” Some went further, maintaining that the charges, if true, showed the desperation of working people in the face of capitalist greed: “Justifiable dynamiting,” the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens cried. With aid from the growing Socialist Party, organized labor raised the war chest needed to give the McNamara brothers the finest defense. Enter Clarence Darrow.
Blum spends more time on Darrow’s romantic failings than on his courtroom successes, though he does note that Darrow had previously defended labor leaders accused of violent acts. What made the Los Angeles case different, he adds, was the prosecution’s airtight case: the evidence against the McNamaras was overwhelming. So Darrow, attorney for the common man, seems to have taken part in a conspiracy to pay off a potential juror. (Charged with bribery after the trial, Darrow won himself an acquittal by delivering one of the more disingenuous summations of his career.) Meanwhile, Billy Burns was busily using the latest technology to illegally bug the jailhouse conversations of the defendants. In the end, the brothers pleaded guilty to murder in return for long sentences that spared their lives. Burns emerged as the hero, Darrow the beaten man. The blustering Harrison Gray Otis saw it all as further proof of organized labor’s villainy. Poor Samuel Gompers ran for cover, claiming to “have been cruelly deceived.”
And what of D. W. Griffith? In Blum’s hands he remains a transient figure, shoehorned into the story, one suspects, to tie the McNamara trial to the sexy culture of Hollywood. We learn a bit about Griffith’s moviemaking skills, his sympathy for the downtrodden and his influence on an awful two-reel film about the McNamara case, “A Martyr to His Cause,” which, Blum admits, had little “relation to reality.” But we also learn about Griffith’s weakness for teenage girls, especially the actress Mary Pickford, whose relationship with the filmmaker is described in turgid detail. (“D. W. . . . had left Mary seething with emotion. . . . His thoughts remained unarticulated, yet they were a torment. They pounded through his consciousness with the force of a compulsion.”)
“In the end,” Blum says, “the book I’ve written is more a narrative, an expansive and hopefully dramatic and resonating story about the past, than a historian’s narrow, fact-laden tome.” Fair enough. But the best stories are still the ones that go beyond the nuts-and-bolts narrative, no matter how dramatic, to explore larger meanings and ideas. Although Blum makes repeated claims for the importance of the Los Angeles Times bombing and casually compares it to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he adds no historical bedrock to support either assertion. What’s missing from the book is both a feeling for the pulse of everyday life in Los Angeles in 1910 and an understanding of the enormous industrial, technological and demographic changes that had ignited the violent impasse between labor and capital in California, and beyond.
For Americans a century ago, the bombing offered a brief whiff of Armageddon — a society on the brink. This alone makes it a memorable story, one that still begs to be told.