Wednesday, January 27, 2010

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood by Howard Blum

To the rhythm of a time bomb ticking away
And the blare of the sirens combing the streets
Chased down like dogs we run from
Your grasp until the sun comes up

On October 1, 1910, a series of explosions wrecked the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-one died in the fiery wreckage. The tragedy was soon labelled an act of terrorism by the newspaper and its owner, the staunchly anti-union Harrison Gray Otis. The battle of capitalist versus union had divided the country and resulted in violence in several cities. It was considered to be a second civil war.

We toss and turn but don't sleep
Each breath we take makes us thieves
Like causes without rebels
Just talk but promise nothing else

American Lightning tells an interesting story about a little-known event in history. It was a simpler time, back before Facebook and women's liberation. Dames would be waiting to stab your back at every turn and concepts like constitutional rights were as flexible as a rubber band. The story was told on three different fronts with three different characters.

William J. Burns, touted as the American Sherlock Holmes, was the private detective hired to solve "the crime of the century." Burns investigated the bombing. He looked into all leads, capitalist and labor. In the end, he found that the Times bombing linked up with a previous bombing at a train yard in Illinois, then with several more bombings across the country, all at anti-union businesses. Everything pointed back to Jim McNamara, an unsavory type who had planted the bombs...and his brother J.J., an upstanding union leader. Burns sympathized with the union men trying to earn a decent wage, but could not let the slaughter of twenty-one men go unpunished.

D.W. Griffin was a struggling stage actor who decided to try his hand at movies and succeeded. He made many innovations in an age where any movie was groundbreaking and nobody complained if they received yet another silent movie. He helped Burns catch a murder suspect with one of his movies, and influenced unionists and the emerging socialist party to use movies as propaganda to influence the masses.

Clarence Darrow was the activist lawyer trying to quit after a near fatal illness. He is roped into the trial after he realizes that keeping out of it is as good as hanging the McNamara brothers. Darrow soon realizes that there is no way to save his clients, except for a settlement.

In the end, it was a question of whether the cause, really any cause, was great enough to justify the taking of human life. Twenty-one men could either be victims to a misguided cause or casualties in an unjust war.

As Darrow himself said at his own trial for buying jury members,

You may hang these men to the highest tree; you may hang everybody suspected; you may send me to the penitentiary if you will; you may convict the fifty-four men indicted in Indianapolis; but until you go down to fundamental causes, these things will happen over and over again. They will come as the earthquake comes. They will come as lightning comes to destroy the poisonous miasmas that fill the air. We are people responsible for these conditions and we must look results squarely in the face.

We sow the seeds to see us through
Our days are precious and so few
We all reap what we are due