The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

Category: 1910 L.A. Times bombing

We’re Searching For …

Rise of the Organized Labor Movement in Los Angeles

I’m looking for Pauline Jacobson’s “Otis: Jehovah of Industrial Freedom,” which appeared in the Dec. 9, 1911, issue of the San Francisco Bulletin. It was also reprinted in “The Struggles of Organized Labor in Los Angeles.” Does anyone happen to have access to this little item? The citation, by the way, is from Grace Heilman Stimson’s “Rise of the Labor Movement in Los Angeles.”

Pages of History – Harrison Gray Otis and His Fight for the Open Shop

Most of the articles I have found dealing with Gen. Harrison Gray Otis were written after the 1910 bombing. Here’s a 1908 article that is shockingly positive given the current view of the old boy.

Otis is a polarizing figure. Few people are neutral about him and most are vehemently critical, responding to his polemics as if he hadn’t died in 1917 but were still writing them. With every new book,  he seems to get a bit more like the lost twin of Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam;  the  angry old walrus who died without a friend in the world except for his family.

I stumbled across this article in going through James Bassett’s citations for his ill-fated book. The Argonaut was a San Francisco weekly founded in 1877 and edited by Holman from 1907 to 1924. In its early days, the magazine featured Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Bret Harte.


Climbing Mt. Bassett

Sept. 27, 1978, James Bassett

Sept. 27, 1978: James Bassett dies.

dropcap_I_vadis am climbing Mount Bassett. It’s as if I’m halfway up and have come across the abandoned camp of an expedition that vanished many years ago while trying to conquer some snowy, fog-shrouded peak. Abandoned equipment and scattered tin cans surround the adventurers' hut.  Inside, on a crude table, the last pages of the logbook describe a harrowing plight before trailing off into infinity. 

Let me explain.

Not long after I joined The Times in 1988, I heard the legend of Jim Bassett’s book about the company.  Bassett, so the story went, was given carte blanche by Otis Chandler to write a “tell-all” book and after years of work delivered a manuscript that was locked in a closet because, indeed, it told all.

Last week, at the Huntington Library, I finally got to see Bassett’s manuscript, which is divided into two three-ring notebooks of about 400 pages each.  

My glee and delight faded as if I were a child who wants a bicycle for Christmas and is handed the keys to a bike factory. 

I knew Bassett was over his head by the second or third page, when he was still on Yang-na and the sandal-footed padres trudging wearily to the sleepy/dusty pueblo of Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Not until Page 25 does Harrison Gray Otis walk into the sleepy/dusty office of The Times (1882). It’s another 25 pages before Otis gets control of the company (1886) and 50 more pages before he buys his first Linotype (c. 1890).

And when Bassett finally gets to the 1910 bombing of The Times after 171 tedious, tiresome pages, does he use any of the original source material that he and two his assistants spent years gathering? No. He opens Louis Adamic’s 1931 book “Dynamite” and types in whole paragraphs without ever asking himself: “Is this book the least bit accurate or reliable?”

Bassett, poor fellow. So earnest and so lost. He and his two assistants did get carte blanche from Otis Chandler to write the history of the paper and they gathered a storehouse of information – enough interviews and documents for dozens of books on The Times. Memos, company reports, scholarly journals and men’s magazines that you’d find in a barbershop – they got everything they could find. In fact, the entire Times History Center was created to house the materials gathered for Bassett’s one  book.

In truth, not all of Bassett’s manuscript is like a stale old textbook on California history. Some of it – much of it,  in fact --  is even worse.  He meanders. He gets distracted by interesting but irrelevant stories in going through the old papers. He struggles to contrast Linotypes and the now-primitive technology The Times was using in the 1970s. Again and again, he ignores the actual news stories -- on microfilm and hard to access -- in favor of books that are readily available but wrong or at least questionable. He doesn't stick to a chronology but circles and backtracks through time, boxing the compass of history. He’s obsessed with old editorials.

Poor old fellow, he meant well -- and he worked so hard on his opus. 

Although Bassett had “In Harm’s Way” to his credit, there were much better – younger -- writers on the staff by this time who could have done justice to such an ambitious project. At this point, Bassett was nothing but the old guard; a reliable holdover from the drab, gray Norman Chandler years; a loyal drone in the Richard Nixon campaigns of  the 1950s, though not a zealot like Kyle Palmer.

Poor old Bassett. Correspondence shows that he sent chapters to retired Editor Nick B. Williams for critiques. Williams replied again and again: Cut. Don’t quote so many editorials. Cut.

But no matter how many times Bassett was advised to cut, he wrote even more. I am still on Volume One so I’m not sure whether he completed the book before he died in 1978. Although his outline concludes in the mid-1970s,  his chapter summary trails off after Chapter 24, which deals with President Kennedy’s assassination and the Watts riots.

There’s a lesson for writers in Mt. Bassett, named for the man who created a mountain of information so big that he couldn’t climb it. The good news is that he saved so much material for the researchers who followed. Like me.

Epilogue: In 1984, The Times published a bland but approved corporate history by Marshall Berges called “The Life and Times of Los Angeles,” the same title as Bassett’s ill-fated book. It, too, had a troubled history. But that’s another story.


Continue reading »

Pages of History – The Walrus of Moron-Land

Walrus of Moron Land

dropcap_I_vadis came across this article from the February 1928 issue of “The American Mercury” while researching the 1910 bombing of The Times. It’s a bit difficult to determine from ProQuest precisely when Louis Sherwin [Hugo Louis Sherwin Golitz] worked for The Times, but it was evidently early in his career. 

Sherwin is a skilled writer and, in keeping with the tone of H.L. Mencken’s “Mercury,” pricks the balloons of as many civic boosters, Babbitts and gods of the “booboisie” as possible. He portrays Gen. Harrison Gray Otis as the usual warlike buffoon and yet mourns the old boy: “If there had been even a mere dozen more Otises throughout the country, it would be a more agreeable place today.”

On Page 193, he also makes an interesting note of Otis’ fight over a union shop, which began in 1890:

“The demand that put the burr under his saddle was the rule that ties the competent fellow down to the pace of the blockhead. It is, as I suppose most people know, an implicit law of organized labor that, no matter how good a comrade is, he must not work so rapidly and efficiently as to throw his lazy and half-witted mates out of their jobs. This rule cripples the publishing business of America today, as it cripples other industries, and has driven more than one editor and proprietor out of the field altogether.”

By the way, the article begins with a quote from “Brann, the Iconoclast.” Those who consider Otis’ anti-union editorials to be the depth of venomous invective would do well to read a few pages. Warning: “Brann, the Iconoclast” is liberally sprinkled racist terms and the N-word. William Cowper Brann could give lessons to Andrew Breitbart, except that he and an irate reader shot each other to death in 1898. There’s something to offend just about everybody.

Explosions Destroy Nonunion Plant

Sept. 5, 1910, Peoria Explosion


Sept. 5, 1910: At 10:30 p.m., a series of blasts destroyed the Lucas Bridge and Iron Co. plant, a nonunion firm in Peoria, Ill. "Three explosions reduced the building to kindling wood and four buildings adjacent to the property were wrecked,” The Times said. And for the second time in several weeks, a bomb in the East Peoria rail yards destroyed carloads of steel girders intended for a Peoria and Pekin Union railroad bridge that was being built over the Illinois River.

Despite the devastation, this incident provided a crucial lead to the identity of the bombers. Several days later, investigators found a an unexploded time bomb hidden in the railway bridge. It too had been set for 10:30 p.m. but malfunctioned.

For the first time, investigators could examine the bomb components, and they began trying to trace the alarm clock and the unusual type of can used for the nitroglycerin.

Continue reading »

San Francisco Labor Leaders Accuse The Times of Libel

July 19, 1910, Editorial

July 19, 1910: "Jailbird" ... "pinhead" ...  A typical Times editorial about labor.

Sept. 4, 1910, Libel

Sept. 4, 1910: San Francisco labor leaders file a libel suit against Times Editor and General Manager Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and Assistant Manager Harry Chandler. It’s a bit difficult to determine precisely which stories were cited in the suit because The Times so often used caustic language in writing about unions.

The Times says:  “The complaints were based upon articles in The Times asserting that certain of the aforesaid bosses came to Los Angeles to foment industrial strife and civic disorder,” which sounds very much like this Aug. 25, 1910, story.

At the time the suit was filed, Otis was in Mexico on a goodwill trip at the request of President Taft. Chandler, who had just returned from a vacation trip to British Columbia, was freed on $200 bail, The Times said. The libel charges were dismissed by a judge because of errors in the form and substance of the complaints, The Times said. 

Continue reading »

The Well-Informed Public, 1911

1911, McNamara Trial
Los Angeles Times file photo

1911: James B. McNamara’s defense team leaves the courthouse. At left, Samuel Gompers, famous head of the American Federation of Labor, is eating a snack and holding a cigar. The fellow on the right is defense attorney Joe Scott. The man second from the right is defense attorney LeCompte Davis. 

The man second from the left is identified on the back of the photo as Clarence Darrow but someone crossed it out. Let’s get a closer look. I think it could be Darrow.

1911, McNamara Trial
Los Angeles Times file photo

Looks like Clarence Darrow to me, I must say.

dropcap_I_vadis have been spending quite a bit of time with these men, reading the transcripts of jury selection in the trial of James B. McNamara for bombing The Times.

Remember in this era, there was no television, no  radio and certainly not the Internet. The only source of news – other than rumor and gossip -- was the daily papers, the weekly papers and magazines. You might assume people read them regularly. You would be wrong.

Here’s an extract of the voir dire of prospective juror Albert C. Robinson by LeCompte Davis:

Q. What papers do you read, Mr. Robinson?

A. Well, I haven’t read any for about four months. For about four months I did not see a paper.

Q. Just immediately preceding this time for four months you have not read any papers?
A. Not since the first of June.

Q. Prior to that time were you a regular subscriber for any paper?
A. No, sir.

Q. Did you take and read anything?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. What paper did you read at that time?
A. Well, I read the Express and the Examiner and the Sunday Times sometimes.



Q. Did you read also the statement of Mr. Chandler, the son-in-law of Colonel Otis, wherein he said that The Times had been destroyed by the enemies of industrial freedom and that no power on earth could prevent them from again assuming the position in the editorial world or in the newspaper world that they had theretofore held?
A. I don’t remember reading that article.

Q. You don’t remember reading that article?
A. No, sir.

Q. Well since that time you have read The Times pretty regularly, have you?
A. No, sir. I read the Sunday Times occasionally.

Q. You read the Sunday Times occasionally?
A. Yes, sir.

Q. When you have read The Times, Mr. Robinson, have you given considerable attention to the articles on the page that it devotes to the differences between capital and labor?
A. No, sir, I seldom ever look at it.

Q. You seldom ever look at those articles?
A. No, sir.

Q. Did you read the Express editorial on the day after the finding of the dynamite at General Otis’ house? There was a long editorial in the Express.
A. I don’t call it to mind.

Q. It came out the day after they found the dynamite, which I think would be on Monday.
A. I don’t call it to mind.

Q. You don’t call that to mind?
A. No, sir.

Q. Well, you read as many of the papers and got as much information on this subject as you could, and as every man did, did you not?
A. No, sir, I don’t think I did.

Robinson isn’t an exception. In fact, he’s fairly typical – more typical than I expected. Judging by what I have read so far (600 pages and counting), newspapers were not the powerful influence on public opinion that we often think they were.


Police Quell Labor Riot Over Body of Ironworker Killed at Alexandria Hotel

 Sept. 2, 1910, Riot

Sept. 2, 1910, Herald

Sept. 2, 1910, the Herald publishes its version of the incident.

Sept. 2, 1910: Louis Jeffries, a Baker Iron Works employee, is crushed by a steel girder during construction of the Alexandra Hotel Annex. Workers carrying his body to an ambulance on Spring Street are assaulted by union supporters who are picketing the building.

"Around the still warm body of the accident victim the frenzied ruffians swarmed. Vile invectives were hurled at the peaceable workmen who were trying to protect the corpse, and even the dead was not spared," The Times said.

The Herald didn’t devote as much space to the story but it certainly depicted the violence that erupted. This incident is often cited in later stories about The Times bombing, showing the acute tensions between the labor and open shop factions.

The next day, the Herald published an editorial about the incident. Notice how much more moderate it is than The Times and actually supports workers' right to organize. Nonetheless, it also condemns labor violence.


Continue reading »

Pages of History

August 1911, McClure's Magazine

Isn’t this a great cover? I love the lettering.

I’m going through the transcripts of jury selection in the McNamara trial, which is dull, tedious,  fascinating work. It’s difficult to convey the experience of having a 1911 typewritten manuscript – old and somewhat fragile -- next to a digitized 1911 magazine displayed on my laptop. Put them side by side and a century disappears, collapsing time in a way that I never expected.

I’m about halfway through the first of four volumes of transcripts and I have  discovered that in questioning prospective jurors, defense attorney Clarence Darrow usually asks whether they have seen the August 1911 issue of McClure’s Magazine. That year, McClure’s published a series of stories about detective William J. Burns, who investigated the explosion, and the story in this issue focused on The Times bombing. So far, only one juror said he was a McClure’s subscriber, but he didn’t like detective stories so he didn’t read the article.   

Harvey J. O’Higgins’ story in McClure’s is straightforward and a pretty good read, although I would have to fact-check it before relying on it very much. Burns gets ample opportunity to brag about himself, but he gives a fairly interesting account of investigating a large number of bombings, culminating  in the McNamara case. These days, Burns is often described as a fairly unsavory character, but at the time this story was published, "Never-Fail Burns"  was often called America’s Sherlock Holmes (though not “pale and penetrating” as Holmes was).

Burns’ 1913 book “The Masked War,” published after the McNamaras were sent to prison, is a bit more sensational. For example, it has a rather suspicious account of bribing a fortune teller in Chicago to feed false information to the wife of Ortie McManigal, one of the figures in the bombing. There’s none of that in the McClure’s article. It’s strictly detective work.  If you like police procedural stories, you’ll enjoy this.

The 1911 issues of McClure’s are here. [Warning: The pdf is 89 megabytes.]

On Assignment

Clarence Darrow
Los Angeles Times file photo

Clarence Darrow addresses jurors during his trial on charges of jury tampering.

Dropcap Vadis have spent the last few days at the Huntington Library going through transcripts of the trial of James B. McNamara in the 1910 bombing of The Times. They are typed on onionskin paper and bound in heavy leather volumes, but despite their age, they would be familiar to anyone who has ever been through jury selection. Here’s a sample:

Q. In other words, then, you stand indifferent between the people of the state of California on the one hand, don’t you, and the defendant on the other, in spite of any opinion that you have?

A. I couldn’t answer that question. I don’t understand it.

Much of the questioning is being done by Clarence Darrow. These are not the bravura set pieces of his career, the eloquent closing statements and pleas to the jury that are republished in books.  The transcripts show Darrow in the daily courtroom routine of questioning jurors, making objections and responding to challenges from the prosecution. It’s fascinating to get a feel for the man, not from a heroic oration but a mundane conversation.

As in any extended courtroom proceeding, there are long stretches of tedium. Pages and pages go by in which Darrow is focusing on the state of mind of a juror – until the defense finally objects that his point has been thoroughly covered.

But mixed into the grinding, repetitive interrogation are sudden flashes of drama. At one point, Darrow begins asking a prospective juror about whether he studied law. On the back of the opposite page, someone has written in pencil: “How did Darrow know?”

It’s a chilling question.

From our vantage point a century later, we know that Darrow had people on his defense team who were investigating prospective jurors, particularly detective Bert Franklin, who was eventually charged with attempting to bribe two of them.

How interesting it becomes, then, to read the transcript of Darrow and Robert Bain, one of the jurors in the attempted bribery,  and contrast that gentle questioning with the withering barrage Darrow delivered to another prospective juror.

And surprisingly enough, these transcripts offer an undiscovered time capsule of early 20th century Los Angeles. Most of the prospective jurors, so far, don’t regularly read the newspaper – any newspaper – even if they are subscribers. They also don’t read magazines on any consistent basis. They have only a vague knowledge of the case. Something about gas – or dynamite – exploding. 

In other words, the transcripts offer a glimpse into the stories of people who would otherwise be forgotten. They are not wealthy or powerful. They are janitors, carpenters, masons, wagon teamsters, ranchers, the retired and the unemployed. Seeing what a small, small role newspapers played in their lives is a humbling antidote to our notion that the papers of the day – especially The Times – shaped and molded public opinion with the efficiency of a factory machine.

Another Good Story Ruined: Gen. Otis' Armored Car [2nd Update]


Behold the war machine of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis! A 1910 Franklin Model H landaulet!

May 21, 1910, Franklin Virtually no one who writes about The Times and Gen. Harrison Gray Otis can resist referring to a cannon mounted on his car. Otis is “the man you love to hate” of Los Angeles history, and what could be more delicious than the armor-plated Otis-mobile with its fearsome artillery piece.

Sorry. It was an auto horn. Honk!

At right, a May 21, 1910, article in The Times describes the custom Franklin. Curiously enough, although Otis wasn’t a shy man, The Times was coy about who owned the new vehicle.  

It’s a bit difficult to tell from the photo, but the front of the car (which was air-cooled and had no radiator) resembled a large cannon – at least according to The Times. The bronze car horn was meant to emphasize this military appearance. Here’s a modern photo of a Franklin, which shows the rounded hood and front grille. And yes, it looks a bit like a cannon.

Let’s roll backward through a few examples and see who got it wrong. Ready? 

"Otis began tooling around town in an armored car with machine guns mounted on the hood," "Before the Storm," Rick Perlstein, 2009. [Ooh! Machine guns! I like this one!]

“... Harrison Gray Otis "patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood,"  “Dominion From Sea to Sea” by Bruce Cummings, 2009.

[Update] "He mounted a cannon on the hood of his limousine and made sure his chauffeur was prepared to repel, at his command, any enemy attacks," "American Lightning," Howard Blum, 2008.

“ emphasize his truculence, he later had a small, functional cannon installed on the hood of his Packard touring car,”  "American Urban Politics in a Global Age," by Paul Kantor and Dennis R. Judd, 2008. [A Packard? Oops!]

Gen. Harrison Gray Otis "continued to live in a perpetual state of combat readiness, dressing for work in uniform and mounting a small cannon on the hood of his car," "High Steel," by Jim Rasenberger, 2004.

[Updated Aug. 29, 2010: "a small, functional cannon was installed on the hood of Otis' touring car to intimidate onlookers," "City of Quartz," Mike Davis, 1992.]

"While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood..." "Water and Power," William L. Kahrl, 1983.

"Otis took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it," "The Powers That Be," David Halberstam, 1979. [Not the late David Halberstam! Nooooo!].

[Updated  Aug. 27, 2010: "Otis toured the city with a small cannon mounted on his car," "Thinking Big," Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolf, 1977.]

"While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood…," California Historical Quarterly, 1976.

Let’s skip a bit. I think we’re getting close to the roots here.

The story of the cannon appears in Morrow Mayo’s 1933 book “Los Angeles,” “Otis had a small cannon mounted on his automobile and went dashing about like a general at the front.”

And we find it in Louis Adamic’s 1931 book, “Dynamite,” “… while fighting the unions, he mounted a small cannon on the hood of his automobile!” 

If anyone finds an earlier example, please send it along.

Note: The mystery isn’t over. The “prominent citizen” who bought the car had this inscribed on it: 1G. 1B. 1R. Cal. SSA. GV WYB. Any guesses?
Continue reading »

San Francisco Labor Leaders Visit Los Angeles

Aug. 24, 1910, Tveitmoe

Aug. 24, 1910, Herald

Aug. 25, 1910: In vastly different ways, The Times and the Herald report the arrival of San Francisco labor leaders.

The Times said: "The worthies registered at the Hayward, and almost immediately the big boss who pulls the strings which make the deluded union puppets dance issued a call for a conference and a blanket order for beer. Last night the czar barred himself within his room and in reply to a telephoned inquiry concerning his business here, announced that he was "not talkin' to no reporters."

Coming up next month: San Francisco labor leaders file a libel suit against Times Editor and General Manager Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and Assistant General Manager Harry Chandler.

Continue reading »

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