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.

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.

There remained the matter of Darrow's witness/juror tampering, the evidence of which was indisputable. Darrow was put on trial and, after his attorney proved to be a drunk, he took over his own defense. Darrow made a long (one-and-a-half day), rambling, emotional appeal, which left him and everyone else, including the jury, sobbing. Indeed, it so moved the panel that they performed a "jury nullification," of the sort seen in the O.J. Simpson case, and Darrow was acquitted--not once, but twice!

So there you have it. Well, not quite. While all these thing were going on, the author has decided to cram the classic filmmaker D.W. Griffith into a sort of shadow plot that has practically nothing to do with the story, except that it has recently become commercially popular in these kinds of histories to "compare and contrast" (or so they used to say in high school) simultaneous events or characters in order to flesh out the story.

Griffith's tenuous connection is that he had met the detective Burns many years earlier, and was making movies in California at the time of the trial. The irony here is that, since Griffith is today widely considered a racist because of his Birth of a Nation, the author is forced to climb all over himself excoriating the best known film of one of the heroes of his book, concluding in the end that Griffith somehow patterned the Klansmen in Birth of a Nation on the oppressed laborers who took to dynamite terrorism to settle their disputes!

The book itself? I shake my head. I shook it while reading the book. I am not familiar with Blum's earlier works, but it appears that, in this instance, he has created a new genre--the "docu-book." It is sort of like what docu-drama film people do when they give a historical character, or characters, lines to say where there is no evidence that they ever said them--in other words, made-up dialogue.

Blum is, I hope, a better historian than to crib up phony dialogue, but he apparently is not above assigning his characters all sorts of phony--or at least unprovable--thoughts and emotions. Thus, running throughout the story, you have sentences such as these: "He had never felt as vulnerable." Or: "He felt as if he were racing against a ticking clock." (My recently retired editor at Knopf, Ash Green, would cringe at such statements, and scribble a margin note: "How do you know this?")

These unfortunate moments of what might be called advanced schoolgirl writing serve to undermine the credibility, rather than enhance the tension or drama, of what is otherwise a very good story, and Blum's decision to refer to the main characters by their first names is annoying because it is confusing.

Likewise, he flings off adjectives like a wet dog shaking off drops of water. Tear open the book anywhere to facing pages and you might encounter, as I did, stillnesses that are terrible, flames that are inescapable, thoughts that seesaw, bearings that are gilded, attorneys who are relentless, operatives who are diligent, and so forth.

As I was writing this I bumped into an English professor friend who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with "Simplicity Is Everything." It's not a bad slogan, and reminded me of American Lightning. None of us is perfect, but it left me wondering: Where were the editors on this project? The sad truth is that there aren't many good editors anymore, the old-style craftsmen who would shape and cut and worry over every sentence until they made it as right as it was going to get. Today, editors are largely book-buyers--but that's another story.

That aside, it's a good read about an intriguing period in American history, and Howard Blum's analysis in most aspects is usefully penetrating. It's worth the price and time, which is how I judge books.

Winston Groom's new book, Vicksburg, 1863, will be published in April.

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