The Great Ethics Train Wreck Of 1910

On this date, October 1, 110 years ago,  a massive explosion destroyed the Los Angeles Times building in the city’s downtown area, killing 21 employees and injuring many more. This obviously unethical act—though in the over-heated labor environment of the times, union activists would secretly defend it—set off a series of events in one of the great ethics train wrecks in U.S. history.

The explosion was a message to Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Otis, a powerful opponent of the burgeoning labor movement in general and unions in particular. Determined to exploit the tragedy to turn public opinion against organized labor, he hired the nation’s most famous private detective, William J. Burns, to crack the case while his paper supplied an avalanche of anti-labor editorials and slanted news stories.  Otis, the leader of the Merchants and Manufacturing Association, a powerful group of business owners with extensive political connections, seemed less interested in justice for the dead than a decisive knock-out of the union movement itself.

Burns’ investigation led to the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union and their treasurer, John J. McNamara. Burns got a confession out of  a sketchy character named Ortie McManigal who had allegedly been the intermediary between McNamara and two bomb experts, and personally arrested John McNamara and his brother James in Indiana. Then Burns supervised the kidnapping and transportation of the brothers to California, where they could be prosecuted.

Convinced that the the McNamara brothers were being framed—some labor supporters even suspected that Otis had bombed his own building—Samuel Gompers and Eugene V. Debs pressured Clarence Darrow, then the premier labor lawyer in the U.S.,  to take on the McNamaras’ defense. Darrow had been ill and seeking to retire, but a recent stock market crash had left him broke as well. He agreed to take the case for the then unprecedented sum of $50,000 (about $1,368,000 today). The unions literally had children collecting nickels and pennies to build the defense fund.

The unions were Darrow’s clients under the existing legal ethics rules, but the brothers were also his clients, and their lives were at stake. This became a serious conflict when Darrow learned, within minutes of meeting with the McNamaras, that they were guilty.

Gompers had told him that the brothers had to be acquitted or the entire labor movement might be destroyed forever. The clients paying his fee, therefore, demanded a plea of “not guilty.” Darrow, however, became convinced that only a guilty plea would save the brothers from execution. Meanwhile, he knew that there was no way the McNamaras could get a fair trial. The Times was poisoning the jury pool daily. The prosecution was engaging in outrageous tactics, like bugging Darrow’s offices in L.A. They even had Darrow followed, and got incriminating photographs of the lawyer leaving the apartment of his long-time, off-and-on mistress, a female journalist covering the trial. Then they used the photos to try to force Darrow to withdraw from the case, threatening to show them to his wife, Ruby.

“Go ahead,” he said. “She knows all about Mary.” Darrow’s hands were hardly clean either: his agents had located the supply of dynamite in Indiana that the fatal charge had been taken from, and he hired a lawyer to hide the evidence in a safe. Continue reading