American Lightning

A riveting look at the 1910 bombing of the offices of the anti-union, anti-socialist L.A. Times.

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood and the Crime of the Century By Howard Blum Random House 352 pp. $24.95

Tourists who visit a cemetery in Hollywood may notice an unusual memorial as they stroll amid the graves of famous movie stars.

Atop a rough-hewn stone monument stands a sharp-beaked, fierce-looking eagle. Below is a plaque dedicated to “Our Martyred Men,” a score of workers at the Los Angeles Times who “fell at their posts ... on the awful morning of October first, 1910 – victims of conspiracy, dynamite and fire. – The Crime of the Century.”

The plaque goes on in overheated language, lauding the “Sons of Duty” and “defenders of Industrial Freedom under law” – in other words, anti-unionists – and finally ending with the number 30 (that’s newspaper shorthand for the end of a story).

In fact, there’s much more to be told about the bombing of the L.A. Times and its dramatic aftermath. American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood and the Crime of the Century revisits a fascinating and forgotten episode from a time when the forces of American capital and labor met on a field of violence.

In 1910, the city of Los Angeles, home to fewer people than Buffalo or Milwaukee, became a hotbed of political intrigue. Socialists were a significant political force, unions were in danger of being run out of town, and the reactionary L.A. Times – supported by industrialists – bitterly fought both movements.

Then, early one morning, sticks of dynamite attached to an alarm clock shattered the newspaper’s offices and left 20 men dead, including a telegraph officer right in the middle of a message to New York about coverage of a major automobile race.

Did union sympathizers plant the bomb to punish the paper? “By the God above, they cannot kill the Times,” the paper declared. Or was it a reverse conspiracy designed to frame the labor movement and finally drive unions from town for good?

The ultimate resolution had the potential to land a Socialist in the mayor’s office, ignite more strife between industry and unions nationwide, and lead to ever more violence.

“American Lightning” author Howard Blum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, follows the case by tracking three men – detective extraordinaire William J. Burns, filmmaker D.W. Griffith, and legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow. Burns is the most fascinating of the bunch, a brilliant investigator whose expert work could teach plenty to today’s cops.

Armed with clues as disparate as a nitroglycerine bomb at a Peoria, Ill., trainyard, a handful of sawdust, a snoopy landlady, and a boat with a new name, he manages to crack the case and bring the killers to justice, all while bending – and breaking – the law.

Even a Northwest camp of free-living anarchists and a Wisconsin hunting trip play major parts in the investigation. As the case goes forward, there’s plenty more professional wrongdoing, from blatant jury bribery to witness tampering, some courtesy of Darrow.

It turns out that Darrow didn’t have a close relationship with professional scruples either, and nearly lost his career as a result. (He’d triumphantly return, however, in the Scopes Monkey Trial and the trial of murderers Leopold and Loeb.)

There’s even more skullduggery lurking in the background of this story, including the infamous theft by Los Angeles capitalists of water from Northern California, a monumental scam famously profiled in the movie “Chinatown.”

On the personal front, Blum paints vivid portraits of the personal lives of Darrow and Griffith, both creative and accomplished men with extraordinary – and potentially dangerous – appetites for female admiration.

“American Lightning” succeeds in spite of its flaws. Blum’s prose is a bit too breathless at times, and the lack of detailed sourcing makes it difficult to trust his descriptions of the thoughts crossing the minds of the characters.

And while the escapades of D.W. “Birth of a Nation” Griffith are certainly a good read – especially his wife’s acid-tongued commentary on his foibles – the director actually has little to do with the main story.

Finally, Blum provides no evidence that Darrow, Griffith, and Burns “would help permanently transform the nature of American thought, politics, celebrity and culture.” Still, he is a fine storyteller and the story told in “American Lightning” is a remarkable one, tailormade for a bedside page-turner – or a Hollywood movie.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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