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American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century Hardcover – September 16, 2008
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In 1911, Iron Workers Union leaders James and Joseph McNamara plea-bargained in exchange for prison sentences instead of death after bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times—killing 21 people and wounding many more. The bombing had been part of a bungled assault on some 100 American cities. After the McNamaras went to jail, Clarence Darrow, their defense attorney, wound up indicted for attempting to bribe the jury, but won acquittal after a defense staged by the brilliant Earl Rogers. The McNamaras were investigated by William J. Burns—near legendary former Secret Service agent and proprietor of a detective agency. Surprisingly, Burns's collaborator in the investigation was silent film director D.W. Griffith. This tangled and fascinating tale is the stuff of novels, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Blum (The Brigade) tells it with a novelist's flair. In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Blum paints his characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them—and their era—come alive. Blum's prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive—all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative. (Sept.) ""
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."
From Bookmarks Magazine
Most critics were eager to learn more about this neglected event in American history and were glad to have Blum as their teacher. They were most impressed by the first half of the book, which covers the attacks and investigation and which was several times compared to a Hollywood thriller or an episode of the television show 24. Reviewers were less thrilled by the second part of the book, where Blum introduces Darrow and Griffith into the story. Several felt that these great American personalities were presented superficially, perhaps because Blum attempted too great a scope in the book. But on the whole, critics found American Lightning to be a satisfying work of narrative history.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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Howard Blum is the author of eight previous books. He is a contributing editor at ‘Vanity Fair’ and was a former reporter for the ‘New York Times’ (where was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting). This book tells about the bombing of the ‘Los Angeles Times’ building on October 1, 1910. This true crime book has no ‘Contents’ or ‘Index’ or ‘Bibliography’; its like a long magazine article. This 2008 book has forty-five chapters in its 339 pages. The ‘Cast of Characters’ describes the important persons. The ‘Prologue’ introduces William J. Burns, David W. Griffith, and Clarence Darrow. This story tells about the culture of that era and this nearly forgotten crime. It is very interesting.
Chapter 2 tells about the class struggles across the country. Harrison Gray Otis became owner of the ‘LA Times’ and fought the unions. The Merchants and Manufacturer’s Association (M&M) refused to hire any union man and attacked those businesses who did. San Francisco was a union town, workers earned 30% more than in Los Angeles. D. W. Griffith produced “A Corner in Wheat”, a movie about economic injustices (Chapter 3). Biograph movies produced two films each week. Griffith was inspired by the great painters. This movie was loosely based on a short story by Frank Norris, which was inspired by a market manipulator. Biograph moved to sunny California for the winter months. M&M tried to ruin the businesses that hired union men (Chapter 4). San Francisco labor leaders went to aid the LA Labor Council. Unions struck in June 1910 for higher wages. A bomb was planted, the police were informed before it could explode.
On October 1, 1910 dynamite bombs destroyed the ‘LA Times’ building and killed 21 men. Was the obvious cause too obvious (Chapter 7)? Mayor George Alexander hired William J. Burns to investigate the bombing (Chapter 9). [Police are restricted to their jurisdictions, private detectives are not limited, but have lesser powers.] The Llewellyn Iron Works in LA was bombed in January 1911 (Chapter 12). J. B. Lippincott talked to residents of the Owens Valley into turning their rights and claims to a front corporation for the city of Los Angeles. Could this be a motive for murder? It made a few people very rich after the Mulholland Canal was built. Otis and others bought land in the San Fernando Valley, its value would increase once the aqueduct brought water to Los Angeles (Chapter 13). Burns’ operatives located the seller of nitroglycerine in Portland Indiana and a description of the buyer (Chapter 14).
Burns located the seller and a description of the buyers and their boat’s name (Chapter 16). Burns found the place that rented the boat; they gave a false address (Chapter 18). Burns’ persistence traced the men to Chicago (Chapter 21). Two men were arrested (Chapter 25). McManigal made a confession (Chapter 27). A ruse led to J. J. McNamara and he was arrested. Samuel Gompers supported the McNamara brothers. [There was an earlier case where the Pinkertons framed Big Bill Haywood.] D. W. Griffith produced “A Martyr to His Cause” to support the McNamara defense. [While a movie can record reality most movies create a reality.] An audience rejected a movie known to be false (Chapter 33). Burns invented the first “bug” to record conversations (Chapter 36). Threats and bribes were offered to get witnesses to change their testimony. Burn’s men countered these offers. Double agents were used, jurors were offered bribes.
Lincoln Steffens came to report on the trial and was used as a negotiator (Chapter 39). Chapter 40 lists the events that made a settlement possible. The news was shocking, the cause of labor damaged. Darrow hired Earl Rogers to defend him from the bribery charge(Chapter 43). Darrow took over for his defense; the jury quickly said “not guilty” (Chapter 44). Woodrow Wilson, the progressive idealist, was elected President (Chapter 45). America began to change. Charges against Darrow were dropped when he promised not to practice law in California (‘Epilogue’). President Warren Harding appointed Burns as the first director of the Bureau of Investigation until the Teapot Dome scandal forced his resignation. The Burns Detective Agency continued his work. D. W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation”, a huge success and the high point of his career. [You will find “The Final Verdict” by Adele Rogers St. John an interesting biography of Earl Rogers and those times.]
The author recognizes that labor-capital relations in the US were highly contested in that era, but hardly captures the depth of that conflict or even the main issues. The labor history in the US is one of considerable violence, dating back decades before this incident. The Great Railway Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Affair of 1886, the Homestead Strike of 1892, and the Pullman Strike of 1894 are only major markers along the way. Several labor organizations including the huge Knights of Labor, the International Workers of the World, and unions associated with the Socialist Party advocated for significantly different structuring of workplace relations, primarily revolving around control of work processes and the distribution of earnings. Readers of this book will not understand the intensity of this conflict and measures taken by employers aided by local police, federal officials, the judiciary, and even the military in suppressing worker organizations and actions over those years. Business leaders in Los Angeles were in the midst of a determined campaign to de-unionize the city that the author does not spell out.
Beyond Burns, the author devotes considerable time to Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney for the McNamara brothers, the Time's bombers, and D.W. Griffith, the innovative director and producer of hundreds of movies for the emerging cheap movie market, and who produced the first blockbuster movie, the Southern apologist film, The Birth of a Nation, in 1915. While Griffith may be important, and interesting in his discovery of Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, he is an irrelevancy to this story. Darrow, a defender of unionists for years, most notably Eugene Debs, the driving force of the Pullman Strike, was practically dragged out of semi-retirement to come to Los Angeles. The case was essentially unwinnable and with the assistance of muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens a plea deal was negotiated. Again, the author focuses on too many lesser aspects of Darrow's life, although he had a luminous legal career in the next two decades.
The author notes that the movers and shakers of Los Angeles, including the publisher of the Times, Harrison Gray Otis, signed off on the plea deal to discredit the candidacy of the Socialist running for mayor (given the tie between labor and socialism), which had the added benefit of preserving a huge real estate scam whereby water from a public water aqueduct would be diverted to their real estate development in the middle of the California desert.
The author suggests that the resolution of this case seems to represent a turning of labor relations in the US - a most dubious holding. The decade of the 1910's was filled with huge, deadly labor actions - who could forget the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC in 1911 where the owners locked the doors of their sweatshop on the top floors preventing the escape of 146 young women when fire started in scrap material; the strike wave following WWI resulted in the breaking of many unions. Only the National Relations Act in 1935 legalized labor relations in the US and brought a modicum of peace in industrial relations. Also, the author's suggestion that the violence/terrorism in the labor struggles in the US one hundred years ago has a lot to do with the terrorism of religious fundamentalism in the 21st century is overstated.
This book really has no clear focus. The trial itself and the perpetrators recede into the background. The general labor situation is inadequately covered and understood. The book is mostly three mini-biographies, which are either insufficient or not terribly relevant or both. Those individuals hardly have the import that the author suggests. The book reads like historical fiction with the author frequently speculating on the thinking of main characters. Despite the book's rather inadequate conception, it is interesting and entertaining. It is not a difficult read. However, in the end, the author acknowledges that his book is not "academic history." Is that an apology for its shortcomings? The absence of an index, fundamental to serious history, should be noted.