Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle 89 Years Ago: L.A. Times bombed

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Eighty-nine years ago this week, on Dec. 1, 1911, the McNamara brothers came clean. John and James McNamara had been in jail for over a year, accused of committing the worst single act of violence in Los Angeles history, the bombing of the L.A. Times building.

The bombing shocked the nation and put organized labor on the defensive, since the McNamaras were labor leaders. Many prominent liberals and labor activists rushed to defend the brothers, accusing Los Angeles officials of anti-labor bias. But now on the eve of their trial, the McNamaras stunned their many supporters by pleading guilty.

The bombing of Los Angeles Times offices occurred on Oct. 1, 1910 and shocked the nation. The blast tore a huge hole in the side of the building and brought down the second floor on top of the workers below. Fire immediately broke out and filled the building with smoke. By the time the fire was extinguished and everyone accounted for, the death toll stood at 21.

The Los Angeles Police knew the blast had come from a bomb. That same day a bomb had gone off at the home of the Times’ owner, Harrison Gary Otis. Another bomb at the home of the secretary of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association (a business group) had been discovered and defused.

Although they initially lacked suspects, LAPD detectives had a pretty good idea what the bombing was about, for the city was in the midst of a bitter metal workers’ strike and Otis’s Times was staunchly anti-union. In fact, there had been a rash of bombings across the country since 1905 linked to labor struggles.

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But who set the deadly bombs in Los Angeles? The forensic team within the LAPD dismantled the defused bomb and managed to trace its dynamite to one James B. McNamara of the Typographical Union, his brother of John J. McNamara, the secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Workers, and one Ortie McManigal. They were promptly arrested and charged with 21 counts of murder.

Many within the labor movement refused to believe that workers had set the bombs and suggested that if the incident was a deliberate attempt to discredit the labor movement. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, said he thought this was the case and hired the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend the McNamaras and McManigal. Gompers chose Darrow because he had recently gained the acquittal of William "Big Bill" Haywood, leader of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, on charges that he conspired to murder the former governor of Idaho, Frank R. Steunenberg. Across the country workers held rallies and contributed to a legal defense fund.

Darrow took the case because he too believed the brothers to be innocent. But as the date of the trial approached and the evidence against them mounted, Darrow became convinced of their guilt. He encouraged them to plead guilty to avoid execution, for he realized that they had not intended to kill anyone. What was supposed to be an act of intimidation, they told him, had turned deadly when the dynamite accidentally caused nearby ink drums to explode and spread fire throughout the building.

The judge sentenced James McNamara, the one who admitted to planting the bomb, to life in prison. His brother John received a 15-year sentence, while Ortie McManigal walked free after turning state’s evidence.

The sentencing ended the story of the L.A. Times bombing, but not the struggle that produced it. The dynamite campaign waged by the McNamaras and others terrified anti-union employers but ultimately hurt the labor movement more than it helped. Opponents of organized labor had long accused it of fomenting violence and class warfare. After the L.A. Times bombing, it was a charge organized labor could no longer easily dismiss.


Nov. 30, 1864: Confederate General Patrick Cleburne killed in Tennessee.

Nov. 30, 1900: Playwright Oscar Wilde dies in Paris.

Dec. 1, 1917: Father Edward Flanagan opens Boys Town, in an area west of Omaha, Nebraska.

Dec. 2, 1954: The U.S. Senate votes to condemn Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy for conduct that tends to bring the Senate "into dishonor and disrepute."

Dec. 4, 1867: Oliver Hudson Kelley founds the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange, a farmer’s rights organization that grew to a membership of 800,000 by 1873.


Nov. 29, 1898: Writer C. S. Lewis born in Belfast.

Nov. 29, 1927: Broadcasting Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully born in New York City.

Nov. 30, 1667: Writer and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Jonathan Swift born in Dublin.

Nov. 30, 1931: Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Bill Walsh born in Los Angeles.

Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.

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