San Francisco’s Preparedness Day Bombing
Preparedness Day Bombing
July 22, 2016, is going to be the centennial of the first act of terrorism in American history. Exactly one hundred years earlier a bomb exploded on the route of the Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco. It instantly killed ten people at the scene of the crime and left more than 40 maimed for life. To this day, no one has claimed credit for the act and those who perpetrated the crime remain unknown.
Without a doubt the single most misused word in America today is terrorism. Rather to refer to a single violation of law and morality, it is used with a broad brush to describe crimes ranging from the mentally deranged individual who shoots a dozen people in a movie theater to suicidal Muslims who fly airplanes into public buildings. In reality, terrorism has a very specific meaning: an act of violence committed by faceless individuals specifically designed to terrorize a community. By that definition there have been very few terrorist acts in American history. The first true terrorist act of significance occurred a century ago, on July 22, 1916 in San Francisco.
In July of 1916 America was hurtling toward involvement in the First World War. But, in July, the United States was still neutral. In an effort to assume the American public that Americas was ready to go to war, Preparedness Day Parades were sponsored across the country.
One of the largest parades was in San Francisco. The three and a half hour procession was going to include more than 50,000 marchers — about 25% of the city’s population — and feature more than 2,000 organizations and 52 bands. But it was not going to include a single labor contingent. This was because San Francisco was in the midst of a number of city-wide strikes while, at the same time, the Chamber of Commerce was pushing for a city-wide open shop. The unions had held an Anti-Preparedness Day gathering the day before but there was an uneasy feeling that there might be violence at the parade. There was reason for concern. Quite quickly the Preparedness Day parade became a target for radicals which, at that time, meant extremists like Alexander Berkman. Berkman had spent 20 years in prison for the attempted murder of industrialist Henry Clay Frick and was in San Francisco editing the Anarchist journal The Blast whose logo was a bundle of dynamite sticks exploding. Tension surrounding the parade was heightened when an unsigned antiwar pamphlet appeared on the city’s streets stating that “a little direct action” was going to occur.
A pipe bomb filled with metal slugs went off at the corner of Market and Steuart streets — a corner that no longer exists. No one knew for sure who had set the bomb and no organization ever claimed credit.
What happened next was one of the greatest legal travesties in American history. The San Francisco District Attorney, a man with an adjustable value system, quickly accused and arrested two labor activists, Thomas J. Mooney and Warren K. Billings. While Billings was a minor figure in the San Francisco labor movement, Mooney could have been the poster child for the radicalism of the era. He had been a member of the IWW and was friendly with the leading radical figures of his day including “Big Bill” Haywood and Mother Jones. Mooney was fixture in San Francisco radical circles because of his newspaper, The Revolt. He had been tried three times for transporting explosives for the express purpose of dynamiting Pacific Gas & Electric lines during a strike in 1913 and had run for sheriff on the Socialist Party ticket.
In Mooney and Billings, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce saw the perfect stalking horse to generate an era of anti-union hysteria which would make the city — and California — an open shop city and state. To that end the trial was a travesty of justice that included perjured testimony, the manufacture of evidence and the dismissal of all evidence or testimony that proved the defendants innocent. In the hysteria of the moment, the two were convicted and sentenced to hang in January of 1917 — barely six months after the bombing.
The death sentences were set aside by a Presidential Commission a year later but it would not be until 1939 that it became crystal clear that the Mooney and Billings had nothing whatsoever to do with the bombing and they were released from prison. But the reverberations from the rush to judgement were coming and the hysteria generated by San Francisco’s District Attorney and Chamber of Commerce were to have far-reaching consequences.
There is an old adage which humorously states that no good deed ever goes unpunished. The tongue-in-cheek proverb actually means the reverse, usually stated as “what goes around comes around.” In the case of the Preparedness Day Bombing, “what came around” changed American history. Riding the anti-terrorism band wagon as far and as fast as it would carry them, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce decided to push the city-wide open shop up to the state level. It was their cause celebre and they were determined to take their campaign far beyond California. They had visions of a nationwide open shop. When they did, they changed America forever.
The next year was a Presidential election year and the odds on favorite to win the Presidency was Charles Evans Hughes. California looked to be a key state in the election so it was included on Hughes’ Western swing.
As soon as Hughes arrived in San Francisco he sent his personal manager to speak with the unions. Hughes was being sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce but he did not want to be associated with the city-wide open shop campaign. All politics is local and San Francisco had a lot of union votes. The unions figured Hughes was going to win the Presidency so it did not make any sense to antagonize the candidate. So the unions offered to let Hughes dine in an open shop restaurant as long as he was served by union men AND the city-wide open shop campaign plaque was taken out of the window the restaurant.
It was a good compromise but it left the next move to the San Francisco Commercial Club.
Why the plaque was not removed has not been recorded. It can be safely assumed that the Commercial Club conferred with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber undoubtedly realized that with Hughes in San Francisco there would be nationwide publicity for the open shop campaign which, in turn, could transform the open shop into a nationwide campaign. Not only would the publicity insure support for the open shop in San Francisco but it would make the Chamber of Commerce a celebrity with other management groups across the United States.
So the Commercial Club acquiesced and the city-wide open shop plaque remained in the window.
But the Commercial Club waited so long to tell Hughes that he was stuck with the location for the meal.
The news hit the Hughes’ campaign like an incoming mortar shell. When Hughes tried to move the banquet to another location he was told it was too late since all the arrangements had been made.
Hughes tried to play down the significance of the banquet at the Commercial Club but it was an unmitigated disaster. There was an inflamed protest by the labor community — not just the culinary workers. When the plaque was not removed from the window the culinary union refused to allow its cooks and waiters to serve the luncheon.
The next day the labor press skewered Hughes as the enemy of the closed shop, a supporter of the open shop and a cohort of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. With a single meal Hughes had labeled himself as a supporter of the open shop campaign not only in San Francisco but across the nation.
The bad press did not concern either the San Francisco business community or the national Republican leadership. In their minds the incident was unfortunate but not fatal. Wall Street was still betting on Charles Evans Hughes as the next President of the United States. Locally the sentiment of the San Francisco business community can best be summed up by quoting a letter by Rudolph Spreckles of Spreckles Sugar to James D. Phelan, Democratic Senator from California and a personal friend. Spreckles asked Phelan to “telegraph me if you [want to bet] a $2,500 against $4,000 on Hughes.” Even the San Francisco Chronicle seemed to concede that Hughes had the election in the bag. On August 20, the day after the fiasco at the Commercial Club, the paper printed a story entitled “Hughes Leaves San Francisco with Fall Ballot Won.”
The ironic epitaph to the Hughes visit to California was that the race for the Presidency was much closer than anyone had imagined. Though Wall Street continued to bank on Hughes, by the early morning hours of the day after the election it was clear that the Hughes tide had begun to ebb. California, in 1916, like Florida, in 2000, became the key state. It was, winner take all. When all of the votes had been counted, the Republicans — and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce — must have looked at the statistics in horror. The state had been lost by a mere 3,775 votes. But San Francisco had gone for Woodrow Wilson by 15,000 votes.
The historical irony of the Preparedness Day Bombing was that the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce won the battle in linking the unions to terrorism. But it lost the war for the open shop. Then, as now, San Francisco and California are union strongholds. No one will ever know what changes a Charles Evans Hughes Presidency would have brought to the United States. Hughes was a strong supporter of Women’s Suffrage — as opposed to Woodrow Wilson who was, at best, lukewarm as were the Democrats in Congress — and was in favor of a policy of strict national neutrality when it came to World War I. He was also a strong supporter of civil service reform as outlined in the Republic Party Platform of that year:
We favor vocational education, the enactment and rigid enforcement of a Federal child labor law; the enactment of a generous and comprehensive workmen’s compensation law, within the commerce power of Congress, and an accident compensation law covering all Government employees.
While you can rewrite history you cannot relive the past. What Charles Evans Hughes might have done in the White House is irrelevant. What is worth learning is that campaigns generated by hysteria are a poor substitute for reasonable, lasting legislation. All politics is local and what happens in a restaurant 3,000 miles from Washington D. C. could have a profound impact across the nation and around the world.
*Steve Levi has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle. He specializes in books on the Alaska Gold Rush and impossible crimes. An impossible crime is one in which the detective has to solve HOW the crime was committed before he can go after the perpetrators. In the MATTER OF THE DESERTED AIRLINER, an airplane with no pilot, crew or passengers lands at Anchorage International Airport. As the authorities are pondering the circumstances of the arrival, a ransom demand is made for $25 million in diamonds and precious stones. Chief of Detectives for the Sandersonville, North Carolina, Police Department, Captain Heinz Noonan, is visiting his in-laws in Anchorage when he is called onto the case. For the next 36 hours, he pieces together the puzzle of how the crime was committed. But can he solve the crime, free the hostages and locate the perpetrators before the ransom is paid? https://www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi.