Who Was The Real Hero Of The 1910 Bombing Of The Los Angeles Times?

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August 1, 2010 · Posted in Commentary 


Beginning in October, I will join with Lee Boek and Eric Vollmer of Public Works Improvisational Theater in presenting a series of salons and theatrical productions relating to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times and the almost successful candidacy of Job Harriman in becoming the socialist mayor of Los Angeles. He had already beaten the incumbent in a primary. Along with Nigey Lennon and Paul Greenstein, I penned the book “Bread And Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles” which documents the story. That book is now available for your iPhone, iPad, iPod, Kindle or computer from Amazon’s Kindle bookstore. The book was optioned by Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Paul Haggis.

The bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 whose centennial is in October is much more than a testament to an antiquarian piece of class warfare. It was a transitional period that ended a relatively radical period when Americans were increasingly electing socialist mayors and even a congressman or two, yet the bombing undercut the power of the American labor movement for decades.

Now Hollywood is preparing a film about this period in Los Angeles history, based on Howard Blum’s “American Lightning,” an historical pastiche and costume drama of figures like General Harrison Gray Otis, Harry Chandler, Clarence Darrow, Private Detective William J. Burns and the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building.

Blum makes Burns the hero of his piece because along with Pinkerton he specialized in fighting for management’s side in the great struggles accompanying the rise of modern cities like Los Angeles with sky-piercing buildings of steel early in the 20th century.

In Blum’s entire book, Job Harriman’s name only comes up on three pages. Blum speaks well of Harriman, but in his version you would hardly realize he was co-counsel for the McNamara brothers. On the other hand, Blum manages to weave Burns and Darrow throughout his manuscript with that of D.W. Griffith, the pioneer film maker.

It’s a cute way of making his story more “Hollywood,” but the inclusion of Griffith’s name seems forced at best—whereas Harriman, who truly was central to the events of 1910, is brushed off with nary a real mention. Yet Harriman was the main attorney for the McNamara brothers until Darrow came in.

The McNamara’s were the trade unionists accused of blowing up General Otis’ building and killing more than 20 people. Job Harriman was a truer and better character by which to tell the times than Burns ever was. Harriman’s dreams were not empty symbolism. They came out of the struggles of his times. Harriman was born in the year of Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address, which came at a time when the country was being torn asunder by the threat of secession from those who believed in black slavery. In that First Address, Lincoln assured Southerners he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the United States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” But his words did not prevent the Civl War.

Harriman looked somewhat like Lincoln, although he wasn’t nearly so tall. Lincoln was his mentor. It can be argued that the other great influences in Harriman’s life was religion and tuberculosis. Aldous Huxley who contemplated Harriman and then wrote an essay about him because he lived for a while on the land that had been  occupied by Harriman’s Llano Colony in the Mojave Desert described Harriman as “somewhere between a Revivalist and a Shakespearean Thespian.” But Harriman was never an intentional thespian. Trained in a seminary as a minister and preacher, he then threw in his lot with socialism and the law. He was a successful lawyer, and a formidable political candidate and later a utopian leader. His character was forged by adversity and it was not just symbolism. He took Lincoln’s words from the Inaugural Speech to heart. In that speech, Lincoln referred to “the better angels of our nature.”

You might say those angels were the demons that drove Harriman. They formed the vision, the dream, which drove the man when he first went to San Francisco in the 1890s. He opened a law office, lived in the Altruria cooperative colony, and later ran for Governor on the socialist ticket. Then as the new century rolled around, he ran for vice president on the socialist party ticket with Eugene Debs. And by 1911, he was making his bid to become mayor of Los Angeles. Those better angels of our nature caused him to do battle with General Otis, who built the Times building like a medieval fortress. Otis also built his house and called it “The Bivouac” and in case the point was missed, mounted a cannon on the side of his car.  Whereas Harriman represented liberation from the repression of the past, General Otis was a man who crushed other people’s aspirations if they contradicted his own. Harriman believed in the concepts of the Law and Justice. He was a first rate debater, and opponents said that once Harriman laid out the logic of his argument, he was almost unbeatable in the eyes of the juries.

Harriman was the man Blum should have made his hero, rather than Burns, who was villainous. He might have been persistent in his villainy, but his motivations weresimple–and venal. He lusted for money and power. He was heavily invested, emotionally and financially, in helping Otis triumph over labor. There was no nobility in the man’s story. Yet that is the story Blum is pushing. Blum may have hardly known Harriman, but he talked a great deal about Clarence Darrow, perhaps the greatest defense lawyer this country ever saw. When Darrow was brought in, Harriman turned over most of the legal duties to Darrow, who never had great sympathy with socialism or Harriman’s candidacy. Blum goes with the big names–Burns, Darrow and so forth, and makes Burns a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. To Blum, the McNamaras were guilty. He does not entertain any of the powerful evidence linking Otis himself to the bombing of his own building, or Otis and Burn’s role in agent provocateuring designed to bring the labor movement down, even if it cost Otis his building and more than 20 of his workers there.

The fact that Otis was conspicuously out of the building when the explosion occurred, or that he had raised his insurance on the building just days before the explosion, are not mentioned. But Blum does manage to drag in the filmmaker D.W. Griffth and was of the major characters of the drama, even if there is almost no basis for doing so. Born into a heavily religious Christian fundamentalist sect concerned with getting out the truth of The Word of the Bible, Harriman was a product of a fierce  midwestern frontier tradition. Suffering from weak lungs from the beginning, he became a bookish lad ill suited to hard labor who also read a lot. The tradition was an ideal one for developing utopianism–a utopianism that initially was Christian, and then moved into the camp of social justice and socialism.

He went to seminary, became an ordained minister, but moved to San Francisco where he became increasingly attracted to utopian socialism. He was not alone in this. Utopian socialism, sometimes known as Christian socialism, was part of the warp and woof of the times. Gaylord Wilshire, the man who founded Los Angeles’ grandest boulevard, was a Utopian socialist, inspired in great part by Edward Bellamy. After throwing off the cloak of religion, Harriman proclaimed:

“It is in doubt and not in faith that the salvation of the world is to be found. Faith is a delusion and a snare: a pitfall, a prison. It intimidates the intellect. With fear of eternal damnation religion crushes intellectual activity; with hero worship it destroys individuality; with hopes for the beyond it prevents the growth of ideals for the present. It makes of us a race of intellectual cowards; it changes but little if any our daily conduct toward each other. But doubt sets us free.”

Another factor in Harriman’s life was the fact that he was always fighting for his next breath. Many people in those days suffered from such lung troubles. Los Angeles was a mecca for many such people. One of them was Harriman. No doubt part of the reason he left San Francisco were his problems with drawing a reasonable breath.

At one point he went inland to Indio, south and east of Los Angeles, because his cough had suddenly got worse. For a while, the dry air seemed to help. But when things didn’t go so well, he and his wife pushed deeper into Colorado. For months, they wandered the desert in a horse-drawn wagon, looking for that place that had the right combination of sun and air so he could breathe more easily. All of this no doubt deeply influenced his personality, his choices and decisions.

I was joined in my hunt for Job Harriman’s “Rosebud” by my good friends Lee Boek and Eric Vollmer of Public Works Improvisational Theater. We speculated that perhaps people had stronger and more unshakeable convictions in those days because they came to their beliefs out of so much adversity. The tenacity with which Harriman pursued his dream of utopian socialism suggested this. When you’re always fighting for your next breath, life is a constant struggle. For the most part, where public health has been successfully instituted, tuberculosis has departed from the scene. So there was no wavering in the face of truth as he perceived it. Harriman was a compelling character, a sometimes volatile character, who could swing rapidly from judicious to vehement and even vituperativeness. People thought of him as “witty, but mostly found him gracious, accommodating and highly encouraging to those with whom he worked. He quickly grew to be in great demand at socialist gatherings, first in San Francisco, and then in Los Angeles, where the weather better suited him.

Thus we plan on marking this coming 100th anniversary of the bombing of the Times building by doing salons on the subject, based in part on “Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles,” which will be made available digitally for the event. And Boek and Vollmer plan to use Public Works Improvisational Theater as a vehicle to talk about those times as well. Given the considerable effort that can be expected to portray things in a way that vindicates General Otis–Blum’s account strongly suggests this–we felt that it was appropriate to respond. Perhaps many of those who were inspired by Lincoln were self educated because they were voracious readers. Harriman valued Lincoln in part because of the man’s honesty. In his progression from Christian minister to evangelical socialist, he could hold massive audiences spellbound for hours. In his personal life, he developed the patience and persistence of Job, in part because that was his name. He often thought about his name.

His parents were Christian, and discussed giving their son such an unusual name. The mark of Job was upon him. Job Harriman’s grandfather had also been named Job. As a lawyer, Harriman had a way of being incredibly eloquent and also sometimes slipping into those colloquialisms and even vulgarities that revealed his back woods rearing.  But that was perhaps not inappropriate for a man who voiced the concerns and beliefs of the common working man. For them, he had a way of making every thing they believed common sense. He could hold the rapt attention of 10,000 people assembled in downtown Los Angeles for hours. Hundreds of people from those audiences eventually followed him to Llano, the utopian colony he found on the Mojave Desert. He probably was a more eloquent speaker than Lincoln, although the content of Lincoln’s greatest speech is sometimes unrivaled literature.

More than that, Harriman was not just molded in the Lincoln tradition, he was his own kind of archetype. In part it was his name, for he was not only called Job, he lived the life of a Job.

There certainly were a number of euphonious moments in Harriman’s life stemming from the curse of his name, and the trials and tribulations he suffered from it. We do not know for sure this is the case, but perhaps Harriman knew the story of Job from the illustrations and narration of William Blake’s “Job,” since it probably would have had more resonance to his times than the original biblical version. On the other hand, Harriman’s trials and tribulations were on a par with Job of the Tenach.


There had to have been many epiphanies in the narrative of Harriman living among the web of characters he was centrally involved with—Gen. Otis, Clarence Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Detective Burns and Eugene Debs. No doubt the moment he lost the mayor’s race, unexpectedly, was such a moment. The exact moment when he moved from mayoral candidate to leader of an experiment in utopian living can only be surmised, but offers a fertile area of investigation. The last germain question to resolve is what was Harriman’s character really? Did he know, for instance, that the McNamara brothers were “guilty?” In his personal and political life, Harriman had consistently stood against those who advocated “direct action” or violence. The socialist movement was split between those who advocated direct action and those who advocated peaceful change. Harriman was most definitely in the latter camp.

Harriman argued that “whenever the masses of mankind abandon all hope of peaceful resolution of our social problems, we will have been presented with all the  elements that cause civil wars and open warfare will then commence.” Darrow said that Harriman had nothing to do with the decision to plead the McNamara’s guilty, but he also insisted that Harriman must have known on some level the brothers were guilty. Darrow also knew that the decision to plead the McNamaras guilty would end Harriman’s campaign, which otherwise was on the verge of success in just a few more days.

Darrow’s friend Lincoln Steffens, and J.W. Scripps, the left-wing newspaper publisher, argued that of course the McNamara planted bombs. They were, after all, trade unionists, not socialists. The bosses used violence, and they used violence. It wasn’t an academic argument. It was just fact. Steffens assumed “that organized labor has committed the dynamiting and other crimes charged against it” and for him the only interesting question was why? Although Harriman argued eloquently for non-violence, he was the attorney for Ricardo Flores Magon,who was living in Los Angeles in exile from the corrupt and brutal American-supported Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. Magon was like the trade unionists in the midst of battle. As a revolutionary, he clearly was dedicated to “direct action.” Magon did not trust most Gringo progressives. But he and Harriman seemed to respect each other and established a certain bond. By 1910, Magon was back in Mexico,where he was acknowledged as a leaders of the Mexican revolution. Ultimately, though, Magon died in a U.S. federal pen–Leavenworth–and only when he died was his body returned to his native Mexico.

So how naive was Harriman about those he represented? A friend and colleague, Le Compte Davis, proclaimed that “Not all the angels in heaven or all the devils in hell could ever convince me that job Harriman knew anything about the conniving and dynamiting.” Others argued that Harriman made a mistake trying to integrate trade unionists and socialists–the trade unionists are just thugs, they said. In the years after Llano was established in the Mojave, there would be lots of grinding moments. The thousand or so people who followed him into the desert tended to be strong-willed types–vegetarians, free lovers, socialists, mystics, actors and musicians. They did not prove to be effective legislators. Democracy with the “lid off” didn’t always work so well in day to day things.

So they asked Harriman to assume the title of dictator, which he reluctantly did. The commune itself lasted a surprising amount of time. It moved to Louisiana, where it survived until the bottom of the Great Depression—a period of nearly two decades. His connections with the key players of Los Angeles at the beginning of the century are rich and even ripe for our dissection of the man. His life as a potent force in Los Angeles municipal government rivaled that of him as a utopian. Progressive politics and utopianism were part of the woof and warp of the times. He also was a considerable man who historically played a role in shaping the alliance of the socialists and organized labor early in the last century. Surely, the disappointments of Job when he lost his campaign to be the city’s first socialist mayor must have been life-changing. He decided socialism could never win elections, because elections were rigged. So he would create a new city on the desert where socialists would live. It many ways, it was quite successful.

He also took on a mistress, leaving behind his wife Theo who had been to hell and back with him. A man’s nature can also be told by his relationship with the women in his life. His wife of so many eventful years burned her husband’s love letters written to the woman who accompanied him to Louisiana while she stayed behind. He met his mistress at Llano, and that was not uncommon. Many of those couples who came to Llano ended up divorcing their spouses and making new marriages–many of which lasted for years. Llano was most certainly a utopian colony with its bohemian charms. Even if it was not exactly a great financial success, it seemed to have a rich cultural and social life. No doubt, the relations of men and women there produced much emotional turmoil as well. It had a rich cultural and social life. There were plays and magazines that were published there that had impact far beyond its own borders. Bella Lewitzky, the great dancer, was born at Llano, and credited the colony for inspiring her.

During the two decades the colony survived, there were euphoric moments and times rife with conflicts and problems. And in the end, Harriman returned to his wife in Los Angeles a near invalid, who cared for him until he dies. She burns his love letters. If a man’s character can best be told by his lovers, even more can it be told by his enemies. Harriman clearly had one. His name was General Otis. To Otis, it was the struggle between the followers of the Red Flag, and the forces of Law and Order. Of course in the end, Otis and the law and order he represented, won. General Otis used the techniques of using crooked detectives and muscle and the power of the press to twist and lie, which he did. He perfected his techniques against another utopian socialist who came along a couple of decades later, who also nearly became governor during the Great Depression, Upton Sinclair. General Otis won. Yet 100 years later, the same story is still very much with us.

At the end of the life, perhaps Harriman had some doubts. Had his been a life spent in vain? He is known at the end of his life to have commented that building socialism was difficult in part because of the greed of those who joined up as well as opposition from outside. It’s only in retrospect that question can be answered. Harriman couldn’t have known that the movement he began with his campaign for mayor and his utopian colony led to Upton Sinclair’s nearly successful candidacy for governor two decades later in the middle of the Great Depression. The campaigns for unemployment insurance, for social security, for the eight hour day, these were very much the product of Harriman.

The crusade Harriman began should no longer remain unsung. Especially in light of the tributes that some want to pay the likes of General Otis and William Burns.


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