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James & John McNAMARA






The Los Angeles Times bombing
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Irish-American trade unionists
Number of victims: 21
Date of murder: October 1, 1910
Date of arrest: April 1911
Date of birth: ????
Victim profile: Newspaper employees
Method of murder: Explosives (dynamite)
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Status: John, the older brother, served 15 years. James, who had actually planted the bomb, was sentenced to life on December 5, 1911, and died in prison on March 8, 1941
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James and John McNamara were Irish-American trade unionists who performed the Los Angeles Times bombing on October 1, 1910. Their bomb started a fire which killed 21 newspaper employees and injured a hundred more,


When the case came to trial in 1911, the unions hired Clarence Darrow to defend the brothers. Darrow initially planned to fight the case, but soon realized that both were guilty.

Although as a lawyer he had a duty of loyalty and due care to defend his clients to the best of his abilities, not inconsiderable in his case, he also could not lie for them or knowingly permit them to lie under oath in court.

Once he realized the overwhelming weight of evidence (including bomb-making materials found in the office of John McNamara) that would be offered by the prosecution, Darrow convinced the judge to allow the brothers to withdraw their not guilty pleas.

Their guilty pleas were entered before jury selection was completed. John, the older brother, served 15 years. James, who had actually planted the bomb, was sentenced to life, and died in prison on March 8, 1941, thirty years after his arrest. Jim was described as chewing gum indifferently as his sentence was being read.

Aside from Samuel Gompers' tearful disbelief, some of the brothers' supporters in the trade unions claimed to be stunned by their confessions (although possibly not by their actions), and were vastly disappointed that Darrow had not performed with his usual verve, although he did, in fact, save the men from execution, which was his mission.

This, combined with Darrow's subsequent arraignment on two charges of attempted bribery of jurors - although acquitted on both counts, he was ordered to leave California and never again practice law there - led to his refusal to ever represent labor unions again.

James McNamara's post-trial conclusion was: "You see? . . . The whole damn world believes in dynamite".

The outcome of the McNamara case similarly devastated the electoral chances of Socialist candidate Job Harriman, at that time considered likely to be the next Governor of California.


The Los Angeles Times bombing was the purposeful dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building in Los Angeles, California, on October 1, 1910 by a union member belonging to the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers.

The explosion started a fire which killed 21 newspaper employees and injured 100 more.

Termed the "crime of the century" by the Times, brothers John J. ("J.J.") and James B. ("J.B.") McNamara were arrested in April 1911 for the crime. Their trial became a cause célèbre for the American labor movement. J.B. admitted to setting the explosive, was convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. J.J. was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bombing a local iron manufacturing plant, and returned to the Iron Workers union as an organizer.


The Iron Workers union formed in 1886. The work was seasonal and most iron workers unskilled. The union remained weak and much of the industry unorganized until 1902. In that year, the union won a strike against the American Bridge Company, a subsidiary of the newly-formed U.S. Steel corporation. American Bridge was the dominant company in the iron industry, and within a year the Iron Workers had not only organized nearly every iron manufacturer in the United States but also won signed contracts which included union shop clauses.

The McNamara brothers were Irish American trade unionists. John (known as J.J.) and his younger brother James (known as J.B.) were both members of and active in the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers (the Iron Workers).

In 1903, officials of U.S. Steel and the American Bridge Company founded the National Erectors' Association, a coalition of steel and iron industry employers. The primary goal of the National Erectors' Association was to promote the open shop and assist employers in breaking unions in their respective industries. Employers used labor spies, agents provocateur, private detective agencies, and strike breakers, and engaged in a campaign of union busting. Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies cooperated in this campaign, which often employed violence against union members. Hard pressed by the open shop campaign, the Iron Workers reacted by electing the militant Frank M. Ryan president and John J. McNamara secretary-treasurer in 1905.

In 1906, the Iron Workers struck American Bridge in an attempt to retain their contract. The open shop movement was a significant success. By 1910, U.S. Steel had nearly succeeded in driving out of existence every union in its plants. Unions in other iron manufacturing companies also vanished. Only the Iron Workers held on (although the strike at American Bridge continued).

Desperate union officials turned to violence to counter the violence they had suffered. Beginning in late 1906, national and local officials of the Iron Workers launched a dynamiting campaign. The stated goal of the campaign was to bring companies to the bargaining table, not to destroy plants or kill people. Between 1906 and 1911, the Iron Workers blew up 110 iron works, although only a few thousand dollars' worth of damage was done. The National Erectors' Association was not unaware of who was responsible for the bombings. Herbert S. Hockin, a member of the Iron Workers' executive board, was a paid spy for the Association.

In Los Angeles, employers had been successfully resisting unionization for nearly half a century. Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was vehemently anti-union. Otis joined and then seized control of the local Merchants Association in 1896, renamed it the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association (colloquially known as the M&M), and used the M&M and his newspaper's large circulation to spearhead a 20-year campaign to rid the city of its few remaining unions.

Without unions to keep wages high, open shop employers in Los Angeles were able to undermine the wage standards set in heavily unionized San Francisco. Unions in San Francisco feared that employers in their city would soon begin pressing for wage cuts and institute an open shop drive of their own. The only solution would be to unionize Los Angeles again.

The bombing

The San Francisco unions relied heavily on the Iron Workers, which remained one of the few strong unions in Los Angeles. The unionization campaign began in the spring of 1910. On June 1, 1910, 1,500 Iron Workers struck iron manufacturers in the city to win a $0.50 an hour minimum wage ($10.52 in 2007 dollars) and overtime pay. The M&M raised $350,000 ($7.4 million in 2007 dollars) to break the strike. A superior court judge issued a series of injunctions which all but banned picketing. On July 15, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously enacted an ordinance banning picketing and "speaking in public streets in a loud or unusual tone", with a penalty of 50 days in jail or a $100 fine or both. Most union members refused to obey the injunctions or ordinance, and 472 strikers were arrested. The strike, however, proved effective: by September, 13 new unions had formed, increasing union membership in the city by almost 60 percent.

At 1:07 a.m. on October 1, 1910, a bomb went off in an alley outside the three-story Los Angeles Times building located at First Street and Broadway in Los Angeles. The bomb was supposed to go off at 4:00 a.m. when the building would have been empty, but the clock timing mechanism was faulty. The 16 sticks of dynamite in the suitcase bomb were not enough to destroy the whole building, but the bombers were not aware of the presence of natural gas main lines under the building.

The bomb collapsed the side of the building, and the ensuing fire destroyed the Times building and a second structure next door that housed the paper's printing press. Of the 115 people still in the building, 21 died (most of them burned alive in the fire).

The Times called the bombing the "crime of the century", and publisher Otis excoriated unions as "anarchist scum," "cowardly murderers", "midnight assassins", and "leeches". The next morning, unexploded bombs were discovered at the homes of Otis and F.J. Zeehandelaar, secretary of the M&M; the Hotel Alexandria; and the Los Angeles County Hall of Records (then under construction by the non-union Llewellyn Iron Works).

The Iron Workers strike committee in Los Angeles and Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), immediately condemned the bombing and claimed no labor union or individual could have been responsible.

Arrest of the bombers

The Times and law enforcement authorities announced that the perpetrators would be caught immediately. But weeks passed, and no arrests were made. The City of Los Angeles posted a $25,000 reward for the capture of the bombers, and the M&M raised another $50,000. On December 25, 1910, a bomb went off at the Llewellyn Iron Works, partially wrecking the plant.

The City hired private detective William J. Burns to catch the guilty parties. Burns had been investigating the nationwide wave of iron manufacturing plant bombings for the past four years on behalf of the National Erectors' Association, and took the City job as part of his investigation. From his paid Iron Workers spy, Hockin, Burns learned that Iron Workers union member Ortie McManigal had been handling the Iron Workers' bombing campaign on orders from union president Ryan and secretary-treasurer McNamara. McManigal and McNamara were borderline alcoholics who liked to drink and hunt at the same time. Burns infiltrated one of their late-winter hunting trips with a spy, and during the trip McNamara boasted of having blown up the Times building. The undercover private eye also surreptitiously took a photo of McNamara. Burns showed the photo to a hotel clerk in Los Angeles, who recognized McNamara as a "Mr. J.B. Bryce" who had checked in the day before the bombing and hurriedly checked out the following morning.

On April 14, 1911, Burns, Burns' son, Raymond, and police officers from Detroit and Chicago went to the Oxford Hotel in Detroit and arrested McManigal and James B. McNamara. Dynamite, blasting caps and alarm clocks were found in their suitcases. The men were told they were being arrested for robbing a bank in Chicago. Since they had watertight alibis for that alleged crime, both men agreed to accompany Burns and the police officers back to Chicago.

In Chicago, McManigal and McNamara were not taken to a police station, but to the private home of Chicago Police Sergeant William Reed and held from April 13 until April 20. Burns apparently convinced McManigal that he knew everything and that McManigal could save himself by cutting a deal with authorities. McManigal agreed to tell all he knew in order to secure a lighter prison sentence, and signed a confession directly implicating Ryan, J.J. McNamara, Hockin and other Iron Worker leaders.

Burns wired California officials and secured extradition papers for McManigal, J.B. McNamara and J.J. McNamara. Burns left for Indianapolis, Indiana, where the Iron Workers had their headquarters. With the assistance of officials of the National Erectors' Association, he convinced Governor Thomas R. Marshall to issue an arrest warrant for J.B. McNamara. On April 22, Burns and two local police detectives burst into an executive board meeting of the Iron Workers and arrested McNamara. J.J. McNamara was taken before a local circuit court. The judge refused McNamara's request for an attorney and, without legal authority to do so, released J.J. McNamara into the custody of Burns. Arrest to departure took 30 minutes. The same day, McManigal and J.B. McNamara were taken by Los Angeles police by train to California. All three men arrived in Los Angeles on April 26.

Trial and conviction

The national labor movement was outraged by the way the McNamaras had been treated, and labor leaders were quick to defend the brothers' innocence. From their point of view, Burns had clearly engaged in kidnapping, misrepresentation of his status as a law enforcement officer, unlawful imprisonment, and possibly torture in his handling of McManigal and J.B. McNamara. The local circuit judge had unlawfully denied J.J. McNamara access to legal representation and had no authority to approve his extradition. Both McNamaras had been arrested on the basis of a confession wrung from a third man who himself had been kidnapped and perhaps coerced into confessing. The case seemed too much like the kidnapping and trial of Industrial Workers of the World leader Bill Haywood and others in 1906.

Labor leaders were also convinced of the McNamara's innocence by other factors as well. The open shop movement and virulent hostility shown by Otis convinced many that the whole event was a frame-up (with some, including Eugene V. Debs, suggesting that Otis himself might have planted the bomb). Burns repeatedly implied that Gompers and other labor leaders were involved in the national bombing campaign, and AFL officials feared a national campaign of arrests designed to destroy the nascent labor movement might be in the works. Meanwhile, George Alexander, mayor of Los Angeles, was locked in a very close re-election battle against Job Harriman, a Socialist Party of America candidate. The bombing, some felt, might simply be a plot to keep Harriman out of City Hall.

Iron Workers president Frank Ryan asked Clarence Darrow to defend the McNamaras. But Darrow was in ill health. Ryan turned to Harriman, who agreed to be the brothers' defense attorney. Gompers, however, visited Darrow in Chicago and convinced him that the case required his expertise. Reluctantly, Darrow consented to be lead defense attorney. Harriman stayed on as his assistant. Darrow also recruited former Los Angeles county assistant district attorney Lecompte Davis, pro-union Indiana judge Cyrus F. McNutt, and president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Joseph Scott as co-counsel for the defense.

The McNamaras were arraigned on May 5, 1911. They pled not guilty. McManigal, who had turned state's evidence, was not charged at that time.

Darrow argued that he would need $350,000 ($7.4 million in 2007 dollars) for the defense. The AFL, who had already paid Darrow a $50,000 retainer, immediately began to raise the additional funds. The AFL Executive Council established a permanent "Ways and Means Committee" to seek money. The federation appealed to local, state, regional and national unions to donate 25 cents per capita to the defense fund, and set up defense committees in larger cities throughout the nation to take donations. Pins, buttons and other paraphernalia were sold to raise money, and a film — A Martyr to His Cause — was produced. It premiered in Cincinnati, Ohio and an estimated 50,000 people paid to see it. Labor Day throughout the nation was declared to be "McNamara Day", and mass marches were held in 13 major cities in support of the defendants.

Jury selection began on October 25. As voir dire continued, Darrow became increasingly concerned about the outcome of the trial. He felt J.B. could not be relied on as a witness and would break down under cross-examination. On October 15, he learned that the prosecution had acquired masses of evidence to support 21 separate charges. On October 18, he learned that U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham had obtained enough evidence on his own to secure, with President William Howard Taft's approval, a federal subpoena against the McNamaras. The first panel of jurors was exhausted on October 25, forcing the court to order an additional panel of jurors to appear. The jury was finally seated on November 7.

As jury selection continued, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens arrived in Los Angeles. Steffens, convinced the McNamaras were guilty, visited them in jail. Steffens proposed to defend their actions in print as "justifiable dynamiting" in the face of employer violence and state-sponsored repression of labor unions. J.B. was an eager proponent of Steffens' plans, but J.J. refused to cooperate unless Darrow agreed. Darrow was stunned by Steffens' report that the brothers had admitted their guilt to him, but with his health worsening and his pessimism about the defense growing, Darrow agreed to permit the McNamaras to cooperate with Steffens.

The weekend of November 19-20, Darrow and Steffens met with newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps. During their discussions of the trial, Darrow raised the possibility of pressuring the prosecution into accepting a plea bargain. In exchange for light prison terms for the McNamaras, the AFL would end its debilitating strike and organizing efforts against Los Angeles employers. Steffens met with Otis and Harry Chandler, Otis' son-in-law and assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Times.

Both men agreed to the plan. The success of the AFL's public opinion campaign had apparently worried both newspapermen, and the Iron Workers' success in maintaining (even widening) the strike had weakened the resolve of many in the Los Angeles business community. Chandler offered to open negotiations with the district attorney, John D. Fredericks.

Fredericks balked. Although a group of Los Angeles businessmen had endorsed the secret talks, Fredericks refused to sanction any plan which let the McNamaras go free. The National Erectors' Association had learned of the talks (both the defense and prosecution had their paid spies in the other's camp), and was pressing Fredericks to reject any plea bargain. As a compromise, Fredericks demanded that J.B. receive life in prison and J.J. receive a much shorter term.

The agreement was laid before the McNamara brothers. J.B. initially refused to agree to any plea bargain that did not set his brother free. But when Darrow told him that a settlement was possible only if both brothers pled guilty, J.B. gave his consent. Darrow sent for a representative of the AFL. The shocked labor leader refused to accept the agreement until Darrow convinced him that the defense had almost no chance.

Darrow had hoped that a plea bargain (rather than an admission of guilt in open court) would be all that was needed. But Los Angeles employers were worried that defense attorney Harriman would trounce Mayor Alexander on election day (December 5). Nothing short of an actual admission of guilt in open court would discredit Harriman and prevent his victory, and the employers were pressing hard for one.

The defense's position weakened further when, on November 28, Darrow was accused of attempted bribery of a juror. The defense team's chief investigator had been arrested for bribing a juror, and Darrow had been seen in public passing the investigator money. With Darrow himself on the verge of being discredited, the defense's hope for a simple plea agreement ended.

Conviction and aftermath

On December 1, 1911, the McNamara brothers changed their pleas in open court to guilty. James B. McNamara admitted to murder by having set the bomb that destroyed the Los Angeles Times building on October 1, 1910. John J. McNamara, setting foot for the first time in court, admitted to having set the bomb that destroyed the Llewellyn Iron Works on December 25.

J.J. McNamara later told an interviewer that Darrow had kept the McNamara brothers isolated from public opinion. Had they known how strongly the public was on their side, they would not have agreed to the plea deal, he claimed.

Samuel Gompers was traveling by rail in New Jersey when the change in plea was made. A reporter with the Associated Press boarded his train, woke him, and handed him the dispatch regarding the guilty verdicts. "I am astounded, I am astounded", he said. "The McNamaras have betrayed labor."

The Socialist Party, however, refused to condemn the McNamara brothers, arguing that their actions were justified in view of the employer- and state-sponsored terror their union had faced for the last 25 years. Haywood and Debs echoed that sentiment. Wrote Debs:

It is easy enough for a gentleman of education and refinement to sit at his typewriter and point out the crimes of the workers. But let him be one of them himself, reared in hard poverty, denied education, thrown into the brute struggle for existence from childhood, oppressed, exploited, forced to strike, clubbed by the police, jailed while his family is evicted, and his wife and children are hungry, and he will hesitate to condemn these as criminals who fight against the crimes of which they are the victims of such savage methods as have been forced upon them by their masters.

On December 5, the court sentenced J.B. McNamara to life in prison and J.J. McNamara to 15 years in prison. The two brothers entered San Quentin State Prison on December 9. J.B. McNamara's post-trial conclusion was: "You see? . . . The whole damn world believes in dynamite."

Harriman was narrowly defeated by Mayor Alexander in the race for mayor on December 5. Although Harriman had been mentioned as a possible governor, the verdict ended his political career.

The labor movement in Los Angeles collapsed. Employers refused to honor additional terms of the plea agreement, which required the convening of a meeting of labor union and employers and an end to the open shop campaign. Instead, employers redoubled their efforts to break the labor movement in Los Angeles. The Central Labor Council suffered severe membership losses in the early months of 1912, and the labor movement in the city did not begin to show signs of growth until the 1950s.

Another 55 members and officers of the Iron Workers were arrested on charges of conspiracy and the interstate transportation of explosives to conduct the dynamite campaign. Hockin testified against his colleagues in order to avoid prison himself. In all, 38 of the 55 were convicted, including President Frank Ryan (who served a 7-year prison term).

The Iron Workers suffered severe membership losses, and appealed to the AFL for funds. The AFL declined to offer financial assistance or permit Gompers to speak at the next Iron Workers convention. The heads of a number of AFL unions did speak, however, and Iron Worker delegates re-elected Ryan president.

Darrow was indicted on two charges of jury tampering. His chief investigator turned state's evidence, and even implicated Samuel Gompers in the bribery attempt. Darrow was in financial difficulty, and asked for AFL assistance in raising funds for his defense. Gompers declined to give it. When the presidents of the United Mine Workers of America and Western Federation of Miners issued an appeal for donations, the AFL Executive Council postponed consideration of a donation until the issue was moot. Darrow was acquitted in his first trial. When charges were brought in the second bribery case, the trial ended in a hung jury.

Steffens was so troubled by the vituperation heaped on the McNamara brothers that he began a campaign to ease economic and class differences in the United States. By mid-1912, a number of prominent individuals — including social workers Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, industrialist Henry Morgenthau, Sr., journalist Paul Kellogg, jurist Louis Brandeis, economist Irving Fisher, and pacifist minister John Haynes Holmes — had asked President Taft to appoint a commission on industrial relations to ease economic tensions in the country. Taft requested that Congress approve a commission, and it did so on August 23, 1912. The reports of the Commission on Industrial Relations, led by Frank P. Walsh, helped establish the eight-hour day and the World War I-era War Labor Board, and profoundly influenced most New Deal labor legislation.

Ortie McManigal served two and a half years in prison before being released on parole.

James B. "J.B." McNamara died of cancer in San Quentin on March 9, 1941. Despite repeated attempts by left-wing labor leaders and certain politicians to win his release, J.B. McNamara refused to file any parole requests. His brother John died in Butte, Montana on May 8, 1941. At the time, J.J. was an international organizer for the Iron Workers.



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