The Magazine

Terror at the 'Times'

When labor met anarchy, the result was explosive.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By WINSTON GROOM
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Burns managed to trace the dynamite in the Los Angeles bomb to a San Francisco explosives dealer and, armed with a description of the buyer, track him to a thousand-strong colony of socialist-anarchists who had encamped in a remote forest on Puget Sound. From there, Burns discovered that the culprit had connections to the headquarters of the Structural Ironworkers union in Indianapolis, where there had recently been a half dozen more bombings.

It was sterling detective work, and before long, Burns was able to finger a high officer of the Ironworkers, as well as his brother, and another accomplice, as conspirators in the Times bombing, and Burns carted them back to Los Angeles on his own. He also managed to link another 55 high-ranking members of the ironworkers' union as being mixed up, one way or another, in all of the bombings.

Big Labor, infuriated, struck back with everything it had. It claimed Burns had "kidnapped" the suspects to California, and managed to get Burns indicted for it. It also played liberal newspapers for all they were worth. Most important, however, it hired a man to defend the accused who was the most famous leftist mouthpiece of the day.

Clarence Darrow, who had just got the socialist labor leader Big Bill Haywood off the hook for murdering the governor of Idaho during a mineworkers strike, looms large in this tale. He was broke, lovelorn, jaded, and hapless to overcome the overwhelming body of evidence that Burns had assembled against his clients.

In desperation, and with nearly limitless resources (nearly $9 million in today's money) provided by Samuel Gompers' AFL, Darrow ordered his staff to bribe a half dozen of Burns' witnesses, along with two jurors, one of whom, in the end, provided state's evidence against Darrow, resulting in his indictment for witness/juror tampering.

The evidence against the bombing conspirators was devastating. Witnesses could finger them purchasing the dynamite in San Francisco. Dynamite was found by Burns in the vaults at union headquarters in Indianapolis, and more was stored in a barn to which the accomplice who turned states evidence led Burns. Keys found on a union official's desk fit the locks on the dynamite cases. Clocks were also found exactly like the ones used as timers on the unexploded bombs. Not least, the accomplice had made a full written confession--although Darrow said he only did so to save his neck.

In the meantime, a thorny problem brewed up that kept the bombing culprits from the hangman's noose. It was composed of two seemingly unrelated parts. The first is the easier to understand: Los Angeles's merchants became fearful that, with all the dynamite floating around, if the two conspirators were convicted and the death sentence handed down, all their businesses might be targeted by enraged union workers. It probably wasn't an idle fear: Around the same time, some nut planted a dynamite bomb on a railroad trestle near Santa Barbara, set to go off when President William Howard Taft's train rolled over it.

Lincoln Steffens, usually described as a muckraking journalist but who was no better than a common socialist, came to Los Angeles to "blow the trial apart," so to speak. He declared in his newspaper column that dynamiting people was not only justifiable but acceptable behavior, since labor/socialists were engaged in a legitimate war against capitalists. Steffens argued that Darrow should persuade the men to confess to their crime and defend them on the grounds that they were no more guilty than soldiers who kill the enemy.

The second part of the problem was that there was an upcoming mayoral election in Los Angeles, and the socialist candidate appeared to be winning. Again, the merchants and businessmen were fearful of that eventuality, and believed that, if the bombers were hanged, there would be a backlash and the socialist candidate would take office. If, however, the men agreed to plead guilty, a deal could be struck to keep them from the gallows while casting the labor/socialist candidate's party in a bad light.

That was what came about. One of the men received life in prison, and the other 15 years. The accomplice was spared because of his singing. The other 55 back in Indianapolis were tried in a federal court, and 38 were convicted. The bombings stopped. The socialist was defeated for mayor of Los Angeles.