100 Years Ago Today

A History Of Events And Happenings From Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

Darrow Bribery Trial Closes In California

The LOS ANGELES TIMES newspaper was owned by fiercely anti-union Harrison Gray Otis. He led a 20 years campaign promoting open shops against unions in Los Angeles which allowed LA to undercut the prices of heavily unionized San Francisco. The iron workers led by the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union was the only strong union left in the city. Between 1906-1910 over 110 bombings had taken place at iron works but causing only a few thousand dollars worth of damage and no lives because care was taken to make sure the buildings were deserted. In June 1910, the IABSIWU struck against iron manufacturers for a minimum wage of fifty cents an hour and overtime pay. In July 1910, the Los Angeles City council past ordinances against “speaking in public streets in a loud or unusual tone” in hope to curtail union activities. 472 strikers were arrested. The situation was a powder keg.

In October 1910 a bomb made of 16 sticks of dynamite went off at the three-story Los Angeles Times building. It had been set for 4am when the building was supposed to be empty but the timing device was faulty and it went off at 1:14pm. The building collapsed and underground gas lines ignited. 21 people died. The next morning, unexploded bombs were discovered at the homes of Otis and the secretary of the M&M; the Hotel Alexandria; and the Los Angeles County Hall of Records (then under construction by the non-union Llewellyn Iron Works). In April 1911 IABSIWU leader James B McNamara, his brother John James McNamara and other union members were arrested for the bombings. American Federation of Labor (AFL) Samuel Gompers saw this as an anti-union plot and hired noted lawyer Clarence Darrow. The trial was set for October 1911. Darrow had learned that the prosecution had acquired masses of evidence to support 21 separate charges due to spies and informants within the union and that the U.S. Attorney General had obtained enough evidence on his own to secure a federal subpoena against the McNamaras.

The MacNamara brothers met with a journalist and defended there actions in print as “justifiable dynamiting” in the face of employer violence and state-sponsored repression of labor unions. Darrow was stunned that the brothers had admitted their guilt. Darrow has hired several investigators including an ex-deputy sheriff put in charge of investigating the jury. This investigator was caught trying to bribe a juror and arrested. With the possibility of Darrow being charged himself and the overwhelming amount of evidence against them, the MacNamara brothers changed their plea to Guilty in December 1911. In this deal they were spared from a death sentence. Darrow said : ” The prosecution showed the strength of its hand. It was the only way I could save James MacNamara’s life.” Labor leaders felt betrayed and outraged. Cal Wyatt, general organizer for the AF of L, said “Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold pale into insignificance before the MacNamaras. They have betrayed their best friends.” In January 1912 Clarence Darrow was indicted by a grand jury in Los Angeles, California on charges of attempted bribery of a juror in the McNamara case.

On August 15, 1912 the Darrow bribery trial went to the jury. Darrow acting as his own attorney gave this summation :

“The McNamara case came like a thunderclap upon the world. What was it? A building had been destroyed and twenty lives had been lost. It shocked the world. Whether it was destroyed by accident or by violence no one knew and yet everyone had an opinion. Everybody who sympathized with the corporations believed it was dynamite, everyone who sympathized with the workingman believed something else. Society was in open rupture, the weak and the poor and workers whom I had served were rallying to the defense of the unions and to the defense of their homes. They called on me. I did not want to go. I urged them to take someone else. But I had to lie down my own preferences and take the case. There was a direct cleavage in society. Those who hated unions, and those who loved them. The fight was growing fiercer and bitterer day by day. It was a class struggle, filled with all the venom and bitterness born of a class struggle. These two great contending armies were meeting in almost mortal combat. No one could see the end.”

Clarence Darrow


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