McNamara Brothers Trial: 1911

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McNamara Brothers Trial: 1911

Defendants: James B. McNamara and John J. McNamara
Crimes Charged: Murder, for James; dynamiting the Llewellyn Iron Works, for John
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, LeCompte Davis, Job Harriman, Cyrus McNutt, and Joseph Scott
Chief Prosecutors: W. Joseph Ford and John D. Fredericks
Judge: Walter Bordwell
Place: Los Angeles, California
Date of Trial: December 1, 1911
Verdict: Guilty
Sentences: Life imprisonment for James B. McNamara and 15 years imprisonment for John J. McNamara

SIGNIFICANCE: The McNamara brothers trial, which ended just as it began with confessions of guilt by the McNamaras, set the cause of organized labor on the West Coast back by decades. It also nearly ruined the career of Clarence Darrow, one of America's leading criminal defense lawyers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the issue of labor relations divided America. The unions were fighting to organize the industrial work force and for legitimacy in the face of entrenched corporate and government opposition. Both sides frequently resorted to violence to advance their interests.

Two brothers, James B. McNamara and John J. McNamara, were active in the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. Both men were in their late 20s. The union represented workers in the construction industry, and was particularly active on the West Coast. Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was the Union's arch enemy. Otis used his newspaper as a public platform for his tirades against the unions and to promote the interests of the pro-management Merchants and Manufacturers Association. On the morning of October 1, 1910, a bomb exploded in the Los Angeles Times building, killing 20 people and causing considerable damage to the building. Shortly thereafter, there was another bombing at the Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles.

The bombings drew immediate, nationwide attention. Private detectives hired by the mayor of Los Angeles found evidence that incriminated the McNamaras. In April 1911, the detectives forcibly brought the McNamaras from Indianapolis to Los Angeles for trial by means that were legally questionable at best. Unions and labor sympathizers across the country put together a $250,000 defense fund and hired the famous criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow to represent the McNamaras. The pro-McNamara forces claimed that escaping gas, not a bomb, had destroyed the Times building. More extremist labor sympathizers charged that Otis himself had arranged the explosion.

Darrow was assisted by LeCompte Davis, Job Harriman, Cyrus McNutt, and Joseph Scott. Harriman was, in fact, the Socialist candidate for mayor in the upcoming city elections, and he joined the defense team for publicity's sake. The prosecutors were W. Joseph Ford and District Attorney John D. Fredericks, and the judge was Walter Bordwell. The trial began on December 1, 1911.

The trial lasted for one short but memorable day. When Bordwell called the case of People v. James B. McNamara, Davis rose to his feet and said:

Your Honor, the defendant is in court. We have concluded to withdraw the plea of not guilty, and have the defendant enter in this case a plea of guilty. A like course we intend to pursue with reference to J.J. McNamara.

Before a stunned courtroom audience, James McNamara stood and pleaded guilty to the charge of murder for bombing the Times building. John McNamara then confessed to dynamiting the Llewellyn Iron Works. On December 5, 1911, Bordwell sentenced James to life imprisonment and John to 15 years imprisonment.

Darrow Tried for Bribing Jurors

Darrow had suffered a humiliating defeat by being unable to rescue his clients in the face of the evidence against them. Worse was yet to come, however.

One of the people on Darrow's payroll was Bert Franklin, a former investigator for the U.S. Marshal's office. District Attorney Fredericks had learned that Franklin was trying to bribe jurors to acquit the McNamaras and had approached at least two jurors, namely Robert Bain and George Lockwood. Fredericks arranged a "sting" operation, and on November 28, 1911, three days before the McNamara trial, arrested Franklin in the act of handing money to Lockwood. In January 1912, Franklin pleaded guilty to charges of jury tampering, and on January 29, he testified that Darrow had known and approved of the bribery efforts.

Fredericks arrested Darrow and put him on trial before Judge George Howard Hutton on May 15, 1912. Fredericks was assisted by W. Joseph Ford and Arthur Keetch, while Darrow's defense attorneys were Horace Appel, Harry Dehm, Jerry Giesler and Earl Rogers. When organized labor turned its back on Darrow's request for financial assistance, Darrow had to pay all the legal costs of the 13-week trial out of his own pocket. Darrow denied the charges, and on August 14 and 15, 1912, gave an impassioned closing speech to the jurors, in which he claimed that:

I am not on trial for having sought to bribe a man named Lockwood. I am on trial because I have been a lover of the poor, a friend of the oppressed, because I have stood by Labor for all these years.

On August 15, 1912, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty after deliberating for less than an hour. Fredericks, Otis and the anti-union forces hadn't given up, however.

In October 1912, 50 members of the McNamaras' International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, primarily senior officers including the union's president, were put on trial in Indianapolis for illegally transporting dynamite. Thirty-nine of the defendants were eventually found guilty. In November 1912, Darrow was put on trial for a second time, this time for an alleged bribery attempt involving juror Robert Bain.

The jury couldn't reach a unanimous decision, although eight of the 12 jurors thought Darrow was guilty, and therefore Darrow was found not guilty a second time. The prosecutors continued to pursue Darrow, although somewhat halfheartedly after two trials, but decided to drop plans for a third trial in December 1913. Darrow returned to his practice in Chicago, and after several years of difficulty was able to revive his reputation as a great criminal defense lawyer. When Darrow died on March 13, 1938, few people remembered his disgrace at the McNamara trials.

Nevertheless, the McNamara case represented a serious defeat for Clarence Darrow. It also represented a serious defeat for organized labor on the West Coast and elsewhere in America, discredited as it was by the tactics of selfconfessed bombers and murderers. It took decades for the unions to recover the public trust and their former political influence.

Stephen C. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Burns, William J. The Masked War. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

"Clarence Darrow: the Lawyer Who Made the Case for Lost Causes." Life (Fall 1990): 86-87.

Jensen, Richard J. Clarence Darrow: the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Livingston, John Charles. Clarence Darrow: the Mind of a Sentimental Rebel. New York: Garland, 1988.

Robinson, W.W. Bombs and Bribery. Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1969.

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McNamara Brothers Trial: 1911

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