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Tom Chaney No. 256: American Lightning

Of Writers and Their Books, No. 256: 30 May 2010, a review of Howard Blum's American Lighting
The next earlier Tom Chaney column, a review of books on Rolling Down the Rivers

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Heat Lightning

Early in the morning of October 1, 1910, an explosion destroyed the building of the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-one people were killed. At first the blast was attributed to a careless match igniting a gas leak. Soon it became clear that a bomber had been at work.

Howard Blum, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, without a blush stretches this event into what some yellow journalists of the time labeled it: "The Crime of the Century." This name was given before Lee Harvey Oswald, the Mansons, the Watergate gang, Hitler, and James Earl Ray; and with only ninety years to go in the century. And I don't recall such 21st century appellations given to the West Virginia mine disaster or the current British Petroleum debacle off the oily coast of Louisiana.

Blum's account of the blast, the causes, the search for the guilty, and the trials is of that genre he calls "journalistic history." This seems to mean that he offers no careful documentation, especially -- heaven forefend! -- footnotes. And no plumbing the depths of historic movements. Were I to stock the book in the store, I would be tempted to put it with other accounts of murders in "True Crime" where grisly photographs take the place of documentation.

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood [Random House, 2008] follows three contemporary figures: William "Billy" Burns, head of the Burns Detective Agency headquartered in Chicago; Clarence Darrow, probably the nation's foremost defense attorney and "champion of populist (and often lost) causes"; and, oddly, D. W. Griffith the young director in the fledging movie business. The three men met for only a fleeting instant in the lobby of the Alexandria Hotel.

The mayor of Los Angeles hired Burns to find the culprits.

The detective had made his mark in the United States Secret Service where he fought mobsters and politicians on the take. By 1910 he had his own detective agency.

After an initial hint that the explosion was from a natural gas leak, the trail led pretty quickly to union sources. The "Times" was a "fiercely conservative" paper owned as Blum puts it by an "unpleasant mountain of a man" -- Harrison Otis whose editorial stance was aimed at making the city of angels into a non-union town.

Evidence led Burns right soon to the Indianapolis offices of the Structural Iron Workers and the secretary-treasurer of that union John J. McNamara and his brother Jim McNamara. Burns resorted to the full panoply of chicanery in his effort to bring the McNamara brothers to trial including primitive listening devices in the jailhouse and kidnapping in Indianapolis.

Clarence Darrow was brought in for the defense of the McNamaras. Blum spends a great deal of time on Darrow's romantic problems and less on his reputation for defending the common man in such trials.

Darrow was accused of involvement in a scheme to bribe a juror. Although tried in conjunction with this accusation, he was acquitted.

And then there is the filmmaker D. W. Griffith. He made a two-reel film about the dynamiting which Blum admits has little relation to reality. Perhaps he is there because this is about the time that the film industry was establishing itself in Los Angeles away from New York. Griffith's affection for teenaged girls adds an irrelevant salacious interest to the story.

One reviewer, historian David Oshinsky, correctly points out that Blum does a superficial job with his subject. "What is missing from the book is both a feeling for the pulse of everyday life in Los Angeles in 1910 and an understanding of the enormous industrial, technological and demographic changes that had ignited the violent impasse between labor and capital."

The bombing and its aftermath opened a crevice which vented the fumes of last days, of "a society on the brink." As Oshinsky points out, this is a story yet to be told.

The surface is fascinating, but as insubstantial as heat lightning on a summer's day.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2010-05-30 15:08:42
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