Described by Doug McIntyre as “A cautionary tale for the polarised times in which we live today”, and for those who think that urban terrorism is a recent phenomenon, Lew Irwin’s incredible story about the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 acts as an eye-opener. Using deadly explosives, (dynamite) the McNamara brothers contrived to bring down their nemesis, the self-made media magnate General Harrison Gray Otis.
J.J. and J.B. McNamara attempted to force the construction industry into compliance with the demands of organised labour. These two were apprehended but not before a complex network of terrorist activity brought the construction industry to its knees. The success of the bombing campaigns may have convinced J.J. McNamara, the Secretary of the Iron Workers’ Union (IWU) that he was invincible.
In a battle that precedes the epic war between British industrialists and the Welsh miners by some 60 years, the IWU fought hard against the captains of industry in the first decade of 20th Century America. As McIntyre says, “It’s a part of our history that so few people know about”.
People don’t realise that the bombing of the LA Times was the deadliest crime ever committed in the state of California, to this day, and the deadliest crime ever committed in history against journalists – Lew Irwin, 2013
Irwin’s assertion that the LA Times bombing was the ‘deadliest crime ever committed in history against journalists’ does not alter the fact that the event was rooted in a time of debilitating economic and social inequality.
General Otis was rabidly anti-union and his prized LA Times building was the obvious focal point for the McNamara bombing campaign. Otis’ newspaper, The Los Angeles Times was the representative enemy of organised labour in the USA. Historians often point out that the city of Los Angeles thrived on cheap labour at a time when union members could find little or no employment. On the other hand, San Francisco was a hotbed of union activity. As Irwin points out in his book, the head of the Piano Tuners’ Union was the Mayor of San Francisco at that time, and Union Representatives controlled the board of supervisors in San Francisco. General H G Otis was determined to prevent organised labour getting a foothold in Los Angeles where labour costs were minimal by comparison with San Francisco.
J.J. McNamara employed his brother, J.B. McNamara to carry out the LA Times building attack. J.B worked in conjunction with explosives savant and prolific bomber, Ortie McManigle whose personal tragedy lay in the fact that he was not a willing participant. J.J. McNamara blackmailed and threatened McManigle into becoming an explosives expert for the IWU’s bombing campaign against Industrialists. At first, McManigle sought to wash his hands of the LA Times job, knowing that workers would certainly perish in the bombing. Undeterred, J.B. went ahead and planted sixteen sticks of 80 percent, grade-A dynamite in Ink Alley and opened the gas valves in the basement for maximum impact. There were over 100 employees working in the building at that time. Twenty workers burned or crushed to death
Owing to the frequent bombings of businesses throughout America, suspicion naturally fell upon organised labour and a sloppy trail of evidence led straight to the McNamaras.
Irwin captures the era exquisitely with his picaresque portraiture of the larger-than-life figure of Otis and the distinctive personality of famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, nicknamed ‘The Great Defender’. Darrow had the pitiless job of defending the J.J. McNamara and his less-than-able brother in court. The trial ended badly, with with Darrow himself being arrested on charges of attempting to bribe two prospective jurors. Subsequently, the two siblings entered San Quentin prison state prison.
As the aftermath from the bombing settled upon a stunned nation, the unions endured enormous losses in membership and organised labour became the enemy of society. In any case, financial and class inequalities in the United States gradually started to change. By mid-1912, US President Taft delegated a commission on industrial relations to ease monetary strains in the nation.
The reports of the Commission on Industrial Relations, led by Frank P. Walsh, helped set up the eight-hour day and the World War I-period War Labor Board, and significantly impacted the New Deal labour legislation.
The book is a remarkable feat of retrospective journalism; in Irwin’s vivid account, these labour radicals are strikingly familiar. Though peculiar to its era, the McNamara campaign might be regarded as the seedbed of 9’11 and the book is a reminder of our own deadly times.
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