American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century
by Howard Blum
Crown, 339 pp., $24.95
During the half-century between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, class warfare in the United States was always robust, usually ferocious, and often homicidal. Since the moneyed class controlled most of the heavy weapons—courts, state militias, municipal police forces, banks, newspapers, governors, senators, and often even the presidency—it won most of the battles and naturally ended up owning the lion’s share of the national wealth.
Constantly triumphant, the rich became dangerously pleased with their own excellence and ostentatiously arrogant. Frederick Townsend Martin, who wrote as a contented specimen of “the idle rich,” ascribed their success to single-minded devotion to greed: “It matters not one iota what political party is in power or what President holds the reins of office,” he wrote.
We are not politicians or public thinkers; we are the rich; we own America; we got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it if we can by throwing all the tremendous weight of our support, our influence, our money, our political connections, our purchased senators, our hungry congressmen, our public-speaking demagogues into the scale against any legislature, any political platform, any presidential campaign that threatens the integrity of our estate.
What was threatening the integrity of Harrison Gray Otis’s estate in 1910 was union labor. As owner of the Los Angeles Times, Otis had “declared war” years earlier on the printers’ union, “then on all unions,” as David Halberstam tells it in The Powers That Be, his 1979 history of four newspaper giants, including the Times. Otis had been in constant combat with the printers’ union since 1890 and had lately united the city’s business leaders in an association pledged to crush labor in Los Angeles by refusing to hire union men of any variety.
With this threat to the unions’ very survival, events moved inexorably toward violence. Strikes broke out throughout the city in a variety of trades. “From 1907 to 1910 a state of war existed in the city,” Halberstam writes. Otis “took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it.” By 1910 he was seventy-three years old. He had fought for the Union in the Civil War, survived fifteen battles, been wounded twice, and discharged with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Now he liked people to call him Colonel.
In American Lightning, Howard Blum’s new telling of this famous tale of the class wars, he comes off as a spiteful ogre obsessed with hatred of labor unions: “A mountain of a man with a walrus mustache and a wild goatee, bristling with an instinctive aggressiveness,” Blum writes. He completes the portrait with Senator Hiram Johnson describing Otis to a labor rally:
He sits there in senile dementia, with gangrened heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent; frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going to his grave in snarling infamy.
Understatement was not the style of the class warrior. Otis, who seemed to exult in his …
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