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Extra! Extra! Unionist Bombs Wreck The 'Times'

In turbulent times such as we've been experiencing lately, it can be bracing to read about earlier turbulent times in our nation's history. After all, as the renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow was reportedly fond of saying: "History repeats itself. ... That's one of the things that's wrong with history."

The fact that Howard Blum studs his new book, American Lightning, with quote gems like that is reason enough to read it. But the true story is pretty gripping, too. American Lightning describes the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building and the fierce struggle between the forces of labor and capital — particularly in Los Angeles — during that era that motivated the bombing.

Maybe the quotes that adorn Blum's book are so entertaining because, in addition to the alpha male cast of famous characters here — all of them verbally adept at tending to their own legends — it was also an age of hyperbole. The bombing, for example, was dubbed "The Crime of The Century," which seems a tad premature since the 20th century had barely begun.

Be forewarned: There's popular narrative history and then there's really popular history, which is the category American Lightning falls into. Blum, a former reporter for The New York Times and currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has been infected by the spirit of the age he writes about. American Lightning is replete with melodramatic chapter breaks and whopping claims that lack footnoted evidence. But if you can tolerate the gee-whiz style of writing here, the book tells a doozy of a tale, starring not only Darrow but also the period's Greatest Detective, Greatest Filmmaker and Greatest Unionbuster — or at least one of the chief contenders.

The bombing that catalyzed the events chronicled here took place early on the morning of Oct. 1, 1910. There were six explosions in the Los Angeles Times building, caused by dynamite bombs. Twenty-one people — editors, engravers, machinists — died. On presses borrowed from a rival paper, the Times quickly ran off a one-page special edition with the headline "Unionist Bombs Wreck the Times."

It was a premature but accurate headline fueled by the anti-union hatred of the Times' owner and publisher, Harrison Gray Otis — a man publicly dubbed "depraved, corrupt, crooked, and putrescent" by one labor supporter.

Otis, who had had a cannon mounted on the hood of his steel-lined limousine, was determined to drive the labor movement out of L.A., a city then torn by strikes and hand-to-hand combat on its streets involving union members, paid strikebreakers and even the U.S. infantry. The city hired the famous detective Billy Burns, "The American Sherlock Holmes," to crack the case. Some of the most absorbing chapters in American Lightning are those that chronicle how Burns, through sawdust trails and fortunetellers' testimony, traced the Los Angeles Times bombings, along with many others, to the McNamara brothers, who were connected to the Structural Ironworkers Union.

Once, on an earlier case, Burns had enlisted the help of D.W. Griffith, which provides Blum with an excuse to work the filmmaker into this book. Ultimately, Blum claims that the vision of Griffith's Birth of a Nation was shaped by the class warfare in L.A. at this time. Could be.

But the flawed colossus who steals the spotlight of this story — who doubtless steals the spotlight of most every story he strolls into — is Clarence Darrow, who was hired by labor to defend the McNamaras. (It's a banner season, by the way, for Darrow in popular nonfiction: He also steals the spotlight from his clients Leopold and Loeb in Simon Baatz's recent, very good reconsideration of that case, For the Thrill of It.)

The patron saint of lost causes almost became a lost cause himself by the end of the McNamara trial. But Darrow lived to fight another day — to defend Scopes as well as sociopaths — and to prove, throughout his long career, that words can be just as efficacious in their way as dynamite.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.

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