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 power to make his enemies hate him, could cry out with a fine Shakespearean howl himself when denouncing union men, socialists, and anarchists. The new century was giving him a lot to howl about.
The working classes were no longer as easy to crush as they had been when Carnegie, Frick, Rockefeller, and the Pennsylvania Railroad were served by governments eager to see corporate wealth compounded. For one thing, Theodore Roosevelt’s recent presidency had exposed alarming public hostility toward “the trusts.” For another, the success of the Populists, party and movement, spoke of a potential political upheaval that might shatter the present power structure.
Then there was Alfred Nobel’s discovery of how to tame nitroglycerin and produce dynamite. It had armed workingmen with a terrifying new weapon. Dynamite was cheap, easy to store, and could be transported without danger. Workers, especially in mining and construction jobs, were highly skilled in its uses. In Big Trouble, his 1997 book about the murderous struggle between labor and the mining interests in Idaho, J. Anthony Lukas speaks of “a cult of dynamite” developing in the western states:
Just as gunpowder had helped the bourgeoisie topple feudalism, so dynamite was seen as offering the working class a potent weapon against capitalism; it would equalize the disparity of force in modern society, permitting the worker to hold his own against the might of the state or corporate hired guns.
The destruction of the Los Angeles Times building, which housed the paper’s offices and production plant, occurred shortly after one o’clock on an October morning in 1910. Its interior was leveled by a series of explosions that set off a devastating fire. Twenty-one people were killed and many others injured. This was mass murder, not so commonplace as it became later in the new century, but shocking and monstrous for 1910, and it was sensational news nationwide. Given Otis’s campaign to break the unions, labor inevitably became the prime suspect. Otis did not wait for confirmation, however. He addressed the unions with a cry of hatred:
O you anarchic scum, you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins, you whose hands are dripping with the innocent blood of your victims, you against whom the wails of poor widows and the cries of fatherless children are ascending to the Great White Throne….
The bombing and its aftermath have provided rich material for writers over the years and an important part of the plot of the 1974 movie Chinatown. As told by Blum, the story has a cast of strong characters and several tales of greed, vengeance, and personal corruption. There is a political story involving colossal amounts of money. There is a great detective, William J. Burns, destined to become the first director of the FBI, and there is a great lawyer, Clarence Darrow, sainted legal champion of the downtrodden.
Like a primitive CIA man pioneering “extraordinary rendition,” Burns kidnaps murder suspects in the Middle West and ships them secretly to California for interrogation. Lincoln Steffens, one of the era’s acclaimed “muckraker” journalists, is here, too, preparing an article to be titled “Justifiable Dynamiting.” What he will do, quite by happenstance, is destroy labor’s chance of electing a socialist mayor of Los Angeles and make Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler exceedingly rich.
Blum presents all this in a rapidly paced cinematic style that makes American Lightning seem at times more like a screenwriter’s movie treatment than a messy slice of history. This is popular history, written to be as entertaining as fiction. Blum creates a fictional effect by omitting the dull stuff, and never pausing to explain where his information comes from. This creates a sense of certainty about material that, on reflection, sometimes seems doubtable, but it keeps the story moving fast.
The sense of reading a film treatment in search of a director is heightened by Blum’s constant cutting to a story line about D.W. Griffith, the celebrated maker of early movies, learning the movie business. All this about Griffith, his early movies, and his love life is interesting enough, but it seems to belong in another book, not in a tale of class warfare at its ugliest.
Is Blum trying to suggest that it was an age when history itself was turning into cinema? In an epilogue he describes American Lightning as a kind of journalism. It is “more a narrative, an expansive and…resonating story about the past, than a historian’s narrow, fact-laden tome,” he says. “It’s a reporter’s story.”
Movie material or reconstituted news, or both, it is a fascinating story, and Blum’s approach makes it lively reading without sacrificing its many ironies. His leading character is Burns, whom he often calls “Billy.” As a private detective in charge of a big company operating in several states, Burns was a younger version of Allan Pinkerton, whose agency had prospered by serving as business’s private police force and occasional rental army in the labor wars. Pinkerton’s agency supplied the several hundred “detectives” who helped overpower the steel strikers in armed battle at Carnegie’s Homestead steel plant in 1892.
“Billy” brings to mind that romantic nineteenth-century figure, the private detective, largely vanished now that crime detection has become a bureaucratic government job. Anthony Lukas’s Big Trouble contains a brief history of the age of the private detective, including his emergence as a fictional hero, Sherlock Holmes, the “private detective as exquisite gentleman.” Crime detection, Lukas notes, had become a mainly private business in the late nineteenth century. A few municipalities had set up public detective bureaus before the Civil War, but often the detectives “were little more than ‘bagmen,’ collecting payoffs from amiable felons and arresting those who failed to render tribute.”
Burns’s agency was large, sophisticated, and competent, as their work on the Times case illustrated. Much of Blum’s book is devoted to an elaborate account of the detective work that broke the case and led to the trial of two brothers, Jim and John J. McNamara. John was secretary-treasurer of the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers union, Jim was his younger brother. It was fairly easy to make the case against Jim. He was one of the men who placed the explosives. The case against John was harder. Burns believed that he was behind a series of bombings of buildings and bridges put up by companies affiliated with the National Erectors Association, an industry group dedicated to destroying the ironworkers union, but the evidence was not good enough for a jury.
When one of his men arrested Jim McNamara prematurely, however, Burns decided he had to seize his brother as well before he could learn that Jim had been “grabbed” and bring union lawyers into action. Burns “was certain he had solved ‘the crime of the century,’” but he needed a confession to convince a jury, and there would be no chance of that once union lawyers became involved:
They’d make sure that no one would talk. There’d be no possibility of any confessions.
Unless—Billy had a sudden idea.
He would keep the arrests secret.
The detectives who were holding Jim had also arrested a man named Ortie McManigal, one of Jim’s partners in the bombing. Burns correctly sensed that McManigal was “the weakest link in the chain of conspirators”—not a committed union man, a married man with children. When Burns’s interview with McManigal ended, he had McManigal’s confession and the testimony needed to convict both McNamaras. Burns had John arrested in Indianapolis; Jim, who had been taken in Detroit, was secretly tucked away in a private house in suburban Chicago while Burns pondered the problem of how to get the two McNamaras out of the midwestern legal thickets and deliver them in Los Angeles.
Burns’s conduct from the time of the McNamara arrests in Detroit and Indianapolis to their delivery in California showed a pronounced insouciance toward such matters as habeas corpus and kidnapping prohibitions. “Billy felt he could act with his own natural authority,” Blum says.