Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A blast that echoed through a century

On the morning of Oct. 1, 1910, shortly after 1 a.m., a series of explosions rocked the Los Angeles Times building. An entire six-floor wing of the stone structure was thrown free of its foundation. Then all at once the building's south wall, the Broadway Street side, cascaded to the ground.

There were six blasts in all. About 100 people had been at work, and now they were all trapped in flames, smoke and debris. Escape was a battle. Twenty-one people died.

What caused the explosion? Was it a gas leak? An anarchist bomb? An attack by union members who opposed the adamantly closed-shop policies of the paper's owner, Harrison Gray Otis? Or was it an insurance scam, a scheme to benefit from the $100,000policy the paper had recently taken on the structure?

William J. Burns, a celebrated private detective and former Secret Service agent -- a dapper man with a fondness for three-piece suits and bowler hats and a thick, bristly mustache -- was hired by Los Angeles Mayor George Alexander to solve the case. Donning a variety of disguises, working covertly, the investigation by this "American Sherlock Holmes" relentlessly followed a trail that led across turn-of-the-century America, from San Francisco boatyards, to an anarchist colony outside Seattle, to a hunters' camp in the snow-covered woods of Wisconsin, to a Chicago fortune teller and, finally, to the downtown streets of Indianapolis.

In the course of his dogged investigation, the detective came to realize that he had uncovered a large, previously unimaginable, conspiracy: The bombing of The Times, it seems, had been one of more than 100 bombings at nonunion sites throughout the country organized by the same group of people. "The war with dynamite," he decided, "was a war of anarchy against the established form of government of this country."

In the end, Burns got his men. He apprehended the three principals he was certain were directly responsible for The Times bombing -- including J.J. McNamara, an official of an Indianapolis-based ironworkers union, and his younger brother.

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