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American Lightning By: David Forsmark
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 05, 2009

American Lightning
Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century

By Howard Blum
Crown, $24.95, 339pp.
Review by David Forsmark

Despite its shrinking role in the American economy, Big Labor again is muscling its way to the front of the political debate. With the triumphant Democrats in control of Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama are hoping to take away the secret ballot in union elections in order to pay back the unions for their campaign largess. This, the Democrats claim, will protect workers from the thuggery of their employers when deciding whether they want a union to represent them.

Unionism has lived off its historical moral capital for decades. Even conservative Republicans tend to concede that unions once had their place in society while countering that the world has since moved on. Most of them no doubt are thinking back to their high school history textbooks that featured peaceful folks marching for better working conditions as they were beset by the robber barons' brutish strikebreakers.

But in American Lightning, a new book by bestselling author Howard Blum, a far different picture of "the war between labor and capital" in the early 20th century emerges.

Blum examines the original "Crime of the Century" -- the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building on Oct. 1, 1910, which killed 21 people. It was the most conspicuous and deadliest example of labor activists' nationwide campaign of terror bombings.

While the bombing was hardly the first American crime to become embroiled with the media and political manuevering, it was the first time celebrities involved the emerging technology of motion pictures in a direct attempt to influence a jury verdict.

On one side stood those who tried to excuse the terrorist act in order to protect the labor movement from public revulsion, including icons of American labor, liberal journalism, early Hollywood and, most prominently, Clarence Darrow, the patron saint of liberal legal activism.

In 1910, as now, California was dominated by two cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Business interests (who were about to scam Nevada out of the water necessary to make Southern California bloom) ruled the roost in L.A., while San Francisco was the fiefdom of unions and politicians, themselves corrupt in a whole other manner.

The most prominent L.A. business tycoon was Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, a Civil War veteran who owned the Los Angeles Times and was the nemesis of the labor movement. One way Otis fought the unions in San Francisco was by shipping his papers filled with anti-union editorials up to the north.

Los Angeles, however, was hardly a company town, and a Socialist Party candidate had a good chance of winning the next mayoral election.

Blum focuses on three men to tell his "American Lightning" story: Darrow, already a legendary lawyer; pioneering film director D.W. Griffith; and then-famed private detective Billy Burns, a former Secret Service agent known as "America's Sherlock Holmes."

Burns once had been to Teddy Roosevelt what Alan Pinkerton was to Lincoln. His large detective agency had a reach no other law enforcement agency could match in these pre-FBI days. Like his T.R., his most famous patron, Burns was patriotic, idealistic, moralistic and passionate.

Burns was hired by the city of Los Angeles to track down the culprit in the Times bombing. Through tireless legwork, brilliant deduction, ahead-of-his-time forensic science and a cross country surveillance, Burns's dogged investigation turned up far more than anyone imagined.

After Burns arrested brothers J.J. (John J.) and Jim McNamara of the International Bridge and Iron Workers union for the horrific act, organized labor and the Socialist Party, rather than distancing themselves from the terrorists, gambled on defending them

It wasn't surprising that socialist lion Eugene V. Debs would defend the McNamaras, but even "conservative" union patriarch Samuel L. Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, shouted the government had framed the brothers in the face of all logic and the facts. Unfortunately for the McNamaras' champions, Burns had secured the testimony of the bomb maker. In addition, the brothers were nabbed while possessing huge amounts of explosives and timers identical to those used in Los Angeles and other bombings.

But the investigation was only the beginning. The stakes for the Left were so high that even the supposedly upright Darrow was drawn into a web of witness intimidation, bribery and jury tampering. Before it was over, Darrow would find himself on trial and driven to thoughts of suicide.

If you're wondering why you've never heard of this story, why it's not presented as a balance to the bloody Matewan coal miners strike and similar examples of union victimhood, the reason is simple: The obviously guilty McNamaras did not have the good grace of Sacco and Vanzetti to go off to the gallows protesting their innocence. They made singularly poor martyrs for leftist legend spinners.

Chambers of commerce are not set up to pass down fables of martyrs or to rewrite history as agitprop. The L.A. Times 21 were not memorialized in such fashion. By the time the trial was over, the wind was taken from the sails of the Socialist Party in California, and Otis was off developing the San Fernando Valley, thanks to his inside track on the public works project bringing water to Los Angeles.

Blum's approach in American Lightning is similar to that employed to great effect by Erik Larson in his smash bestseller, The Devil in the White City. Larson's book contrasted the utopian optimism of the 1893 World's Fair Chicago with the fact that the crowds generated by architect Daniel Burnham's spectacle provided fodder for America's most prolific serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Blum similarly tells his story through the eyes and experiences of his chosen three characters.

However, some readers may feel Blum stretches a little to include filmmaker Griffith's story on the same level as Burns and Darrow. While Griffith did cross paths with both characters and met with Burns on an unrelated matter -- and his activist films probably did inspire the director of the propaganda film that defended the McNamara brothers and defamed Burns-- he is by no means a co-equal player in this drama.

On the other hand, Griffith's story does give a relevant context to the incipient popular culture of the time and the dynamic changes coming to Los Angeles.

Typical of Blum's work, American Lightning is superbly entertaining and reads with the immediacy of a thriller. His past books include I Pledge Allegiance, the best account of the Walker family spy ring, and The Brigade, the story of Jewish partisans in WWII who continue hunting Nazis after the war and come within a hair's breadth of committing mass murder themselves.

Blum writes with a novelist's pace and vividness and a journalist's nose for a great story. American Lightning is popular historical narrative at its best-- both relevatory and relevant.

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