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Terrorist Attack on the Los Angeles Times, 1910

Bombing, Terrorism, Los Angeles Times, 1910

Los Angeles Times Building on fire after being bombed, 1910.
In the Security Pacific National Bank Collection at Los Angeles Public Library.

At 1:07 a.m. on October 1, 1910, an explosion rocked the printing plant of the Los Angeles Times at First Street and Broadway. The explosion ignited gas lines in the building and, with several tons of stored flamable ink, the entire building was quickly engulfed in flames. Rescue workers tended to 17 injured people and later recovered 21 bodies from the wreckage. Most had died by fire. Amazingly, more than a hundred Times employees had been working in the plant on the morning edition. Those nearby the smoldering ruins marveled that so few injuries and deaths resulted from the blast and subsequent inferno.

Bombing, Terrorism, Los Angeles Times, 1910

Wreckage in day after bombing of Los Angeles Times building in 1910. Photograph by C.C. Tarter, in the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library.

Bombing, Terrorism, Los Angeles Times, 1910

Wreckage from bombing of Los Angeles Times building in 1910. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, at the Library of Congress.

Harrison Gray Otis, owner and publisher of the Times, immediately blamed union organizers for the blast. He was virulently opposed to unions and made that clear, not only to his own employees, but also in the newspaper's editorials. For some time prior, the Times had been one of the most vocal opponents of labor union activity in Los Angeles. During the previous summer, the city suffered from several waves of labor strikes. In response, Otis, along with local business leaders, pressured the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor George Alexander into imposing anti-picketing ordinances. Police were authorized to arrest picketers and persons "speaking in public streets in loud or unusual tones." The Los Angeles Police Department took this new task seriously, rounding up hundreds of labor activists.

Harrison Gray Otis, Los Angeles Times

Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of Los Angeles Times. From "A Letter From Harison Gray Otis," University of California, 1917, at University of Minnesota Law Library.

Labor leaders were furious. They felt that they had been making headway in Los Angeles until the appearance of these anti-labor ordinances. Prior to the Times building incident, Secretary-Treasurer John McNamara of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union (based in Indianapolis) dispatched his brother James and associate Ortie McManigal to Los Angeles to address the matter.

Within a month of the bombing incident, California labor released a report that attributed the explosion to a gas leak, not dynamite. However, evidence pointed in a criminal direction and, with the full support of the Times and local business leaders, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and L.A. City launched an aggressive investigation into the incident. Private investigator William J. Burns was hired, due to his experience at investigating bombings by labor activists, and he came to focus on the trip to Los Angeles by James McNamara and Ortie McManigal. The two suspects were tracked down and arrested in Detroit and taken to Chicago. There, McManigal, confronted by Burns with damning evidence of his involvement in the bombing, offered to tell all in exchange for leniency. James' brother, John McNamara, was then arrested in Indianapolis and, along with James and McManigal, extradited to Los Angeles. Both McNamaras pleaded not guilty.

The national labor movement rallied to the defense of the brothers. Labor insisted that the brothers were being framed in order to discredit the labor movement in Los Angeles. Famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, although suffering ill-health and unsure about the strength of the defense, was persuaded to take the case for the McNamaras.

Bombing, Terrorism, Los Angeles Times, 1910

McNamara Brothers, convicted of the Los Angeles Times bombing. 1911 photo. From the Washington Times, April 25, 1911 edition, at the Library of Congress.

It did not go well for the brothers. Darrow himself became convinced that they were indeed guilty. He believed that the prosecution had enough evidence to put his clients in line for the death penalty (Darrow was ardently opposed to capital punishment). Damaging the defense even further, an associate of Darrow was caught attempting to bribe prospective jurors. Darrow himself was indicted for jury tampering. He was later acquitted on one charge of bribery and, on the other, the jury failed to reach a verdict.

Clarence Darrow, Bombing, Terrorism, Los Angeles Times, 1910

Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow in 1900 Photo. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Bain News Service, at the Library of Congress.

Both Darrow and the prosecution agreed to sit down to negotiate a settlement. Darrow believed that his clients were as good as bound for death row. Prosecutors feared that the labor movement would make the McNamaras into martyrs. With the judge’s approval, the McNamaras agreed to change their pleas to guilty in exchange for avoiding a death penalty. James McNamara admitted that he had placed a dynamite-laden suitcase with a timer in an alleyway between two sections of the Los Angeles Times plant. John McNamara confessed to arranging the bombing of anti-labor Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles (having occurred two months after the Times bombing, but with no resulting deaths). Brother John was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy. Brother James was sentenced to life in prison.

Four days after the McNamaras entered their guilty pleas, a close mayoral campaign between socialist/labor candidate Job Harriman (who was also Clarence Darrow’s chief assistant on the McNamara case) and pro-business incumbent George Alexander came before Los Angeles voters. Harriman lost. Labor union efforts to turn Los Angeles into a union town fell apart as the city entered the 20th Century.

As part of the McNamaras' plea agreements, the L.A. District Attorney agreed not to pursue charges against any other labor activists. The U.S. Department of Justice, however, not being a party to the agreement, went forward to indict 54 other defendents on charges connected to labor-connected bombings across the country, including those that occurred in Los Angeles. Of these, 38 ended up convicted. Five had their convictions overturned upon appeal.

The 1910 bombing of the L.A. Times is noted as the tenth deadliest single-day terrorist attack in U.S. history.