The Magazine

Terror at the 'Times'

When labor met anarchy, the result was explosive.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By WINSTON GROOM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

American Lightning

Terror, Mystery,
the Birth of Hollywood,
and the Crime of the Century

by Howard Blum

Crown, 339 pp., $30.95

Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century! Let's see what it's all about.

It might well have been the "Crime of the Century" at the time, since the century was only 10 years old. Subsequently, of course, it would be surpassed by serial killings, assassinations, stupendous acts of terrorism, and the O.J. Simpson case.

But by the summer of 1910, a series of labor union "terror wars" was convulsing America. This was the era of hard, violent strikes, of such creatures as "Big Bill" Haywood and the miners' unions, steelworkers, millworkers, dockworkers, and the American Federation of Labor; it was the age of Samuel Gompers, Eugene Debs, the Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies"), and the alarming rise of American socialism.

Everything and anything requiring more than half a dozen people--including butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers--was either unionized or being contested for unionization. And despite the rosy picture of that era later painted by movies such as Meet Me In St. Louis or On Moonlight Bay, America seethed. While anarchists, socialists, and other loonies were killing off the crowned heads of Europe, in the good ole U-S-of-A picket lines, billy clubs, riot guns, blackjacks, shivs, sabotage, boycott, assassination, and dynamite were the order of the day.

Dynamite--what a wonderful tool. Invented by Alfred Nobel, sponsor of the (of all things) Nobel Peace Prize, a single stick of dynamite was as powerful as a whole barrel of black powder, and almost immediately became the perfect weapon for surreptitiously blowing up buildings occupied by fat capitalist pigs. One of these was a bellicose tub-of-guts named Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times, a virulently anti-union newspaper.

At the beginning of that long, angry summer, an organization called the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers of America initiated an especially nasty walkout. Strikebreakers were brutally beaten by union thugs, and goons (toughs hired by management) returned the favor. There soon began a series of violent explosions, hundreds of them, all over the West and Midwest at nonunion plants and projects, or at industries where the ironworkers were on strike--a form of what we now call terrorism.

Even the homes of management officers were bombed and the situation threatened to get out of hand--until it finally did get out of hand, at 1 A.M. on the morning of October 1, 1910, when somebody planted scores of sticks of dynamite, complete with timing devices, at the new four-story Times building, and blew it into a smoking heap of brickbats and charcoal.

It brought the building down from the inside out; floors buckled, and the mammoth linotype machines crashed down on terrified workers in the office floors below. A gigantic fireball, fueled by burning printer's ink, exploded upwards into the newsroom, incinerating desks, typewriters, telegraph apparatus, and people.

Since the Times was a morning paper, many workers were still there: reporters, editors, printers, composers, engravers, linotypers, and assorted minions. Twenty-one of them were killed, and scores injured. The building was a total loss. Harrison Gray Otis was somewhere beyond furious.

As it happened, the most famous detective of the era was in Los Angeles that day. William J. Burns, a former Secret Service agent who owned one of the two largest private detective agencies in the world. Burns had been in the city to address the National Association of Bankers, whose 11,000 banks he had been hired to protect.

Otis and the mayor of Los Angeles immediately asked Burns to find the killers. Burns agreed on the condition that he would be accountable to no one until the culprits were caught, and the agreement was sealed, along with a $100,000 reward (more than $2 million today) for bringing the perpetrators to justice.

As it happened, two other dynamite bombs had been planted that day, one at the home of Otis himself, and another at one of his associates', but the latter bomb had been defused before it went off. Burns said he wanted to see it. In the meantime, he ordered his operatives in Illinois to send him another unexploded bomb they had found at a nonunion railroad yard in Peoria. When he compared it with the Los Angeles bomb, it was obvious they had been made by the same person: Not only were the alarm clock timing devices made by the same New England clock company, but the soldering and wiring were identical. He concluded that a considerable conspiracy was afoot.