The Los Angeles Times: An Astonishing Terror Bombing

From serial killer John Jourbet last week, this week we look at another bombing case. In 1910, labor unrest led to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times office building.

The Los Angeles Times is Bombed

At 1:07 a.m. on October 1, 1910, a powerful dynamite bomb blasted the three-story Los Angeles Times building at First Street and Broadway. The bomb consisted of a suitcase containing 16 sticks of dynamite and a windup alarm clock as a detonator. The bomber left the suitcase in an alleyway known as “Ink Alley” between the Times building and the Times annex. Nearby were barrels of flammable printer’s ink.

The Los Angeles Times building at First and Broadway in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Times building at First and Broadway in Los Angeles

Even with 16 sticks of dynamite, the bomb didn’t have the power to destroy the entire Times building. But the explosion ignited the natural gas piped into the building. As a result, the building was almost completely devastated. At least 20 Times employees working on an extra (the Times was a morning paper) lost their lives. Many more suffered injuries.

A second bomb was placed outside the homes of Harrison G. Otis and Felix Zeehandelaar. Otis owned the Times. Zeehandelaar was secretary of a company having a dispute with the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union.

Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1910
Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1910

The Los Angeles Times Investigates

Otis printed numerous anti-union editorials. He was also leader of the Merchants and Manufacturing Association, a well-connected group of business owners. Believing he was the intended target of the bomb, Otis hired detective William J. Burns to find the bombers. (Burns would later head a little-known bureau in the Justice Department called the Division of Investigation. At least he did, until J. Edgar Hoover replaced him.)

Detective William John Burns arrested the McNamara brothers for the Times bombing
Detective William John Burns arrested the McNamara brothers for the Times bombing

Burns’ investigation led straight to the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union and its treasurer, John J. McNamara. After wringing a confession out of one Ortie McManigal, Burns tracked down McNamara and his brother, James. Skipping the legal niceties of extradition, Burns got the two brothers to California where they faced prosecution for the bombing.

James (L) and John (R) McNamara, the Lost Angeles Times bombers
James (L) and John (R) McNamara, the Lost Angeles Times bombers

Union members and supporters raised a substantial defense fund. The union pleaded with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow to take the case for $50,000. Darrow reluctantly agreed.

The Los Angeles Times Bombers on Trial

Public opinion clearly supported the McNamara brothers. But Darrow’s own investigation kept turning up evidence that the brothers were guilty. Worse still, members of the defense team were trying to bribe the jury. But in all fairness, they were only trying to match the prosecution’s own bribery tactics.

Defense attorney Clarence Darrow
Defense attorney Clarence Darrow

Darrow managed to work out a deal where the brothers would avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty. Consequently, they did. As a result, James confessed to setting the explosives and received a life sentence. His brother, John, received 15 years in prison for an unrelated bombing.

Attorney Earl Rogers got a mistrial in Darrow's bribery trial
Attorney Earl Rogers got a mistrial in Darrow’s bribery trial

Epilogue

Nobody was truly happy with the compromise verdict. Otis arranged for Darrow’s prosecution on bribery charges. Earl Rogers, a notorious alcoholic but also a formidable defense attorney took Darrow’s case and won a mistrial. Later, a second trial acquitted him.

The Iron Workers union left Clarence Darrow in the lurch. It refused to pay his fee for the McNamara case and declined to help with is bribery case. Therefore, he had to fight the charges on his own.

A 2015 book by Lew Irwin, Deadly Times, discusses the case.

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