Category: Archive

87 years ago: the Preparedness Day bombing

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The “Preparedness Day” parade bombing killed 10 bystanders and seriously injured 40 more. In the aftermath, several well-known Bay-area labor radicals were arrested. Chief among them was Tom Mooney, an Irish-American labor activist who would spend 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Tom Mooney was born to Irish immigrant parents in Chicago in December 1882. He grew up in poverty (his father died of tuberculosis at age 36) and left school at age 14 to work. He became an iron molder and by his early 20s became a committed socialist. Joining the Socialist Party of America, Mooney campaigned on behalf of its candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs, in 1908. Two years later, he represented the party at the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen. He moved to San Francisco, joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World, and started a socialist newspaper, The Revolt, activities that led him to befriend many of the era’s leading radicals, including Irish Americans Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mary “Mother” Jones.
Even though socialists and radicals like Mooney were outspoken advocates of the rights of workers, they often drew the ire of local trade unionists. The latter tended to be a good deal more conservative when it came to assessing the nation?s capitalist economy. Far from wanting to overthrow it, they simply demanded a fair share of the wealth their labor produced and focused almost exclusively on basic issues like higher wages, shorter hours, and safer conditions. To their minds, radicals who spoke of employers as slave drivers and talked about dismantling the capitalist system brought nothing but scorn upon the mainstream labor movement.
In San Francisco, local trade unionists considered Mooney a dangerous troublemaker and tried on several occasions to discredit him. They succeeded in 1913 when one of their number planted explosives in his luggage and then tipped off the police. Mooney spent two years in jail before gaining release on appeal, but found himself blacklisted by all foundries. He took the setback in stride and went into union organizing full time, an effort that put him at the center of some of California’s biggest strikes over the next few years.
By then Europe was engulfed in World War I, a conflict President Woodrow Wilson vowed to keep the U.S. out of. Most Americans supported this stance, some because they were traditional isolationists, others because they belonged to ethnic groups (Irish and German in particular) that had a particular nationalist interest in the war’s outcome, and still others who denounced the war for ideological reasons. This last group included socialists and radicals like Tom Mooney who condemned the war as one where the proletariat did all the fighting and dying while capitalists on both sides of the Atlantic grew rich.
They were the ones who protested loudest when San Francisco’s business leaders announced plans for a massive “Preparedness Day” parade for July 22, an event intended to boost patriotism and compel leaders in Washington, D.C., to increase defense spending. Few San Franciscans heeded the call of the radicals to boycott the parade, which turned out to be the largest in the city’s history, a fact that ensured the deadly results of the bomb when it exploded at 2:06 p.m.
Mooney and his wife, along with other labor radicals Warren Billings, Israel Weinberg, and Edward Nolan were arrested four days later. By that time District Attorney Charles Fickert had lined up dozens of “witnesses.” That most were clearly attracted to the prospect of getting a share of the $17,000 in reward offered by the city?s business and political leaders became clear when none was able to identify the defendants in police lineups.
In the ensuing trial, the prosecution based its case on the testimony of only two of these witnesses, John McDonald and Frank Oxman. Both declared they’d seen Billings plant the bomb at 1:50 p.m. and soon thereafter saw him confer with Mooney and his wife. The defense produced a photograph of the Mooneys at the parade, but at a location far from the bombing site and the alleged meeting with Billings. A clocktower in the background of the photo showed the time as 1:58 p.m., proving that the alleged Mooney-Billings meeting never took place as claimed — it was physically impossible for them to have met Billings near the bomb site shortly after 1:50 p.m. and then reach the place where the photograph was taken in under 8 minutes. Other witnesses came forward to state that they saw two men with dark skin — possibly Italian or Mexican ? plant the bomb.
But the hysterical atmosphere at the time, coupled with a jury stacked with wealthy businessmen and professionals, led to convictions and death sentences for both Billings and Mooney (the rest were acquitted). Only a last-minute commutation of the sentences to life imprisonment by the governor ? prodded by a growing public cry to reopen the cases — saved them from the gallows.
Over the next few years, the details of the politically-ambitious District Attorney Fickert’s frame up of Mooney and Billings came to light. Key witness McDonald confessed that he saw two men plant the bomb, but never saw their faces. Only relentless pressure from Fickert, he said, caused him to implicate Billings and Mooney. Two associates of witness Frank Oxman came forward with concrete evidence that he was 200 miles away from the city when the bomb went off and thus could never have seen Billings and Mooney that day. The foreman of the jury, William MacNevin, was discovered to have been a close friend of the chief prosecutor.
Despite this mounting evidence calling into question the case against Mooney and Billings, 22 years (and five consecutive Republican governors) passed before the two men were set free. Their supporters, a group that included many well-known labor activists and liberal politicians, never gave up the fight to gain their release. That day finally arrived in early 1939 when Culbert Olson took office as the state’s first Democratic governor in 44 years. Days later he ordered Mooney and Billings freed and in the coming years both men were exonerated of any wrongdoing related to the bombing.
For Mooney, the good news came too late. Released in 1939 in failing health, he died at age 56 three years later. Billings fared somewhat better. He married a woman he met during his trial and lived a quiet life until his death in 1972.
The persons responsible for the Preparedness Day bombing have never been found.

July 18, 1969: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s car skids off a bridge and into a river on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy escapes unharmed but his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne drowns.
July 21, 1873: Jesse James and his gang stage the first train robbery in America, nabbing $3,000 from the Rock Island Express at Adair, Iowa.

July 18, 1874: Revolutionary Cathal Brugha is born in Dublin.
July 22, 1890: Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy, mother of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General and U. S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, is born in Boston.

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