The Mooney-Billings frame-up - Louis Adamic

Worker demonstration to free Mooney and Billings
Worker demonstration to free Mooney and Billings

Louis Adamic's fascinating history of the framing of union organisers Tom Mooney and Warren Billings of the 1916 San Francisco Preparedness Day Bombing, and the subsequent campaign for their release, written in 1931.

Submitted by Steven. on June 14, 2014


The reaction to the blowing up of the anti-union Los Angeles Times offices by union officials and subsequent revelations about the "Dynamite Conspiracy", which sent the leader of the San Francisco Labor Party to prison, was - naturally - more intense in California than elsewhere in the United States.

The San Francisco industrialists proposed to take full and immediate advantage of it and "Los Angeles-ize" San Francisco, namely, make it an open-shop town.1

A savage "crush the unions" movement was already afoot in the city of the Golden Gate in 1912. It was headed by the big executives in the utility corporations. Because of the annoyances they had been compelled to suffer at the hands of the unions in the years following the earthquake, the San Francisco capitalists and employers now were an angry lot, giving free vent to their wrath. With the shame of the McNamara case upon the unions, they saw their chance of freeing themselves from labor domination and re-capturing the city economically and politically. They openly declared themselves in favor of the "American Plan" and General Harrison Gray Otis's methods in dealing with labor.

Their movement was very successful.

The unions' power declined rapidly. In 1912 they lost the city politically. Then they began to lose control of the jobs, and by 1915 the labor element, as such, was no longer of great importance in the political life of the city. The so-called "conservative" labor leaders, oppressed as they were by the guilt of the McNamaras and other "dynamite conspirators," were largely ineffectual against the onslaughts of organized capitalists, who now had the full support of the great moral mob in the community. Big industries became open-shop, and the wages dropped and the number of work-hours went up.

This collapse of conservative unionism, however, strengthened the left-wing faction in the labor organizations which believed in "direct action" and in "getting tough" with the capitalists. These scorned Gompers's pleas to the unions that they should steer clear of dynamite.

"To hell with the old fogy!" they said. "To hell with Gompers's polite trade-unionism, pure and simple!" Although members of trade unions, they called themselves Socialists and attended secret anarchist meetings.

In 1915 or thereabout, the foremost labor radical in San Francisco was Thomas J. Mooney, a moulder by trade and virtual leader of the considerable left-wing bloc in the California Federation of Labor. He was a gifted and energetic organizer and strike leader, sensational in his words and actions, which yielded him a good deal of publicity.

He associated with known anarchists, both of the philosophical and the "deed" varieties, and was violently against war. He raged against the European war and the efforts of American patriots and militarists to embroil the United States in the conflict. He was known to be a believer in dynamite, "the actual stuff," and had once been indicted for attempted dynamiting of property of a San Francisco utility, but after three trials was acquitted.

In the spring of 1916, Mooney and his wife were leaders in a bitter and unsuccessful fight to organize the ill-paid carmen of the United Railroads of San Francisco. They thereby brought upon themselves the wrath of the most powerful corporation in the city, whose managers were leaders of the local "crush the unions" campaign.

The United Railroads' money and their personal and moral support were behind the so-called Law and Order Committee of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, one of whose functions, along with cheering Old Glory and agitating for Preparedness, was to defend private gunmen when, in labor troubles, they slugged and killed union men. The United Railroads' money and moral support were also behind Charles M. Fickert, a leader in the "crush the unions" drive who, in 1914, had been elected county district attorney. On coming into office, Fickert began at once to hound labor leaders and radicals. Tom Mooney was his particular prey.


In 1916, with the European war two years old, the United States was suddenly afflicted with a high "get ready for war" fever. Ex-President Roosevelt and his crony, General Leonard Wood, advocated universal military training, for, to their minds, it was inevitable that the country eventually would be involved in the world conflict. Preparedness was an issue in the 1916 presidential campaign. In the larger cities parades were held, while radical soap-boxers fumed against militarism and imperialism and the American jingoes who were trying to drag the country into the frightful mess across the Atlantic. The preparedness movement was headed largely by high-powered Republicans and, in its political significance, was an attempt to rebuke President Wilson for being "too proud to fight" and doing nothing decisive about Germany's attacks upon American commerce.

In San Francisco, as elsewhere, the preparedness leaders, who were also the leading spirits of the Law and Order Committee, had a local reason for wanting to stage a great patriotic military demonstration. They wanted, as one of them was quoted, to "show the sons-of-bitches [that is, labor leaders like Mooney] where to get off." It was, in fact, intended to be a gesture of defiance to labor's efforts to improve its lot, or rather to retain the advantages it already had won, in San Francisco. It was to be a warning to laborites and radicals that, should they "start something," they would be dealt with in a manner no gentler than that of the aggressive employers in Colorado and New Jersey.

Early in July, after Mooney and his wife had already been defeated in their attempt to organize the United Railroads carmen, the city authorities were persuaded to proclaim the twenty-second of the month as Preparedness Day, and all civic, patriotic, military business, and fraternal organizations-except the labor unions-were invited to participate in the parade.

On the twenty-second, between noon and two o'clock, an immense mob of people in military and fraternal uniforms, with flags and bands, with all the symbols of their high standing in the community on display, assembled on the Embarcadero and in the side streets off lower Market Street. At six minutes past two, the head of the column, with the Governor of California and the Mayor of San Francisco prominently in view, swung up Market, while a detachment of Spanish War Veterans came in from Steuart Street to fall into the main line of march.

Then - suddenl y, while the band ahead played a martial Piece - a dynamite bomb exploded by a saloon wall on Steuart near Market, instantly killing six persons and injuring over forty, of whom four died within the next few days.


San Francisco, to say nothing of the rest of California and the United States as a whole, was deeply stirred. It was a terrible crime. Aggressive police activity was started at once and the press was filled with clues and theories for the solution of the tragic mystery. "The radicals did it!" The situation was a mild repetition of the immediate consequences of the Haymarket explosion in Chicago, thirty years before.

Five days after the explosion Tom Mooney and his wife, Rena Mooney, Warren K. Billings, Israel Weinberg, and Edward D. Nolan were arrested.

Billings, twenty-two years old, was a rising young leftwinger in the San Francisco labor unions, a friend of Mooney, a believer in "direct action." He had previously been convicted of carrying explosives on a passenger train.

Weinberg was a jitney-bus driver who had occasionally driven Tom and Rena Mooney. His son was a pupil of Mrs. Mooney, who was a music teacher. Nolan, too, was a radicallaborite.and a friend of Tom.

But Mooney, because of his prominence in the labor movement, was from the start the center of the case.

On the prosecution's side next to District Attorney Fickert, the most important character was a private detective named Martin Swanson, a secret operative in the "crush the unions" movement. He had formerly been employed by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which in its passion to kill the unions was second only to that of the United Railroads. While in the employ of the Gas and Electric, only a few months before, Swanson had tried to connect Mooney with the dynamiting of some property, but failed, it appears, because Billings and Weinberg refused his offers of "reward" to testify against their friend.

Now Swanson was appointed an "investigator" on District Attorney Fickert's staff, with the special duty to build up the case against Mooney and the others, or rather to help Fickert build it up.

Billings was tried first, in the fall of 1916. A jobless waiter, John McDonald, who since has stated that he had perjured himself under instructions from Fickert and Swanson, testified that at 1.50 p.m. on July 22 he had seen Billings place a suitcase against the saloon wall on the corner of Steuart and Market Streets and then confer for a few moments with Tom Mooney in the saloon doorway.

Several other witnesses more or less substantiated McDonald's tale. Billings protested his innocence, but in vain; he was convicted on the charge of manslaughter and, because of his youth, let off with a life term in Folsom Prison.

The Mooney trial was delayed until January 1917, but by this time the prosecution's case was considerably weakened. Photographs taken during the parade on the roof of the building where Mrs. Mooney had her music studio -a mile from the scene of the explosion-were developed and enlarged, showing by a clock in the picture that Mooney and his wife were on that roof at 1.58, which conflicted with McDonald's testimony that he had seen Mooney at Steuart and Market at 1.50. But then McDonald-obviously instructed anew by Fickert and Swanson-amended his story to the effect that he had seen Mooney and Billings together in the saloon doorway sometime between 1.30 and 1.45, which would have made it possible for Mooney to get to the roof of that building by 1.58.

But Fickert had other "witnesses." Among them, was one Frank C. Oxman, who seemed a "frank and honest" cattleman from Oregon, a typical product of the open spaces of the West. Oxman testified that he had arrived from Portland that morning and that he had stopped on the corner of Steuart and Market at about 1.30 in the afternoon to watch the parade, and there observed even more than McDonald. He described everything in great detail with a matter-of-fact simplicity, which made his story convincing to the jury and the judge. He said that Mooney and Billings had arrived on the corner in a Ford machine that looked like Weinberg's jitney, with three other passengers, including "a lady." With great foresight, Oxman had noted down the license number, which, it turned out, was the number of Weinberg's jitney.

Ever since his arrest Mooney had been called by the newspapers everything from an anarchist to a pro-German, while, in the courtroom, Fickert denounced him as a dynamiter, a dangerous man, a German agent.

The jury brought in a verdict of guilty, and Mooney, the arch-enemy of the "crush the unions" element, was sentenced to be hanged.

Weinberg and Mrs. Mooney, tried later in 1917, were acquitted. Nolan was kept in prison for nearly two years and finally released without trial, for lack of evidence.


Mooney was sent to San Quentin Prison.

But almost immediately after his conviction facts began to transpire which made the justice of both the Billings and the Mooney verdicts very questionable. Oxman's testimony was impeached. It was established beyond the shadow of a doubt that on July 22, instead of being in San Francisco, he was staying with his friends in W oodland, California, a town nearly 200 miles away. Oxman was later tried for perjury, but, with Fickert prosecuting him and the judge who presided over the case frankly stating his opinion that Mooney was "guilty anyhow," got off with a technical acquittal.

Subsequently other witnesses in the Billings and Mooney cases were completely discredited. By the middle of 1917 it was the American labor and liberal opinion that the men had unquestionably been "framed" and railroaded to prison in an atmosphere of patriotic, anti-labor hysteria, stirred up by reactionary newspapers and agents of large corporations, both in and out of public office.

In April 1917 President Wilson suppressed his aversion to fighting and plunged the country into the war "to make the world safe for democracy." The Mooney frame-up was apparently threatening to become a lively national issue that might deprive the government of some of the labor and liberal support in its war policy. Accordingly, in March 1918, the President addressed an open letter to Governor Stephens of California, urging either that Mooney be given a new trial at once or that his death sentence be commuted.

The "crush the unions" group in California resented the President's "interference with the orderly processes of California justice," as they called it, but Wilson's letter was effective none the less-first it postponed Mooney's execution and then, after the end of the war, prompted the Governor to grant him the commutation.

Mooney's life was saved, but as I write this-in the winter of 1930, fourteen years after the arrests-both Mooney and Billings are in prison despite twelve years of sustained and considerable efforts on the part of labor and liberal groups the country over to have them freed.

All the witnesses and members of the prosecution in the two cases have since been completely discredited. Judge Franklin A. Griffin, who presided at the Mooney trial, has appealed to three successive Governors of California for their pardon. Besides, all the living jurors in the Mooney case have appealed for clemency, and several police officials, prominent in the evidence-manufacturing activities of Fickert and Swanson, have declared themselves convinced that neither Mooney nor Billings had placed the bomb.

All this is to no avail. For political reasons, the executive and legal machinery of the State has been so manipulated all these years as to keep Mooney and Billings in prison. Governors William D. Stephens and Friend Richardson refused outright to consider Mooney's application for pardon. The State Supreme Court, basing its action on thin legalistic grounds, has refused to grant a new trial for Mooney or to pardon Billings.

In 1926 an obscure politician pretending to certain progressive principles, C. C. Young by name, was elected Governor of California with the support of labor and liberal groups, to whom he had promised, if elected, to give the Mooney pardon application “fair consideration." But when Young got into the governor's chair, he learned, as I think one is justified in assuming, that it would be political suicide on his part to pardon Mooney.

Such great organs of open-shop industrialism as the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle began to hint that if he freed the labor leader his career would end disastrously. Young was no Altgeld. In the first three years of his governorship he made an elaborate and hollow pretense of “studying" the case, whereupon-early in 1930, shortly before he became a candidate for re-election - he denied Mooney's application. It was his "final decision."

But, unwilling to shoulder the responsibility in the case alone, Governor Young turned the Billings case over to the Supreme Court of the State of California, indicating that, if that court should recommend the pardon of Billings, he would free both prisoners. The Supreme Court consisted for the most part of politicians of the mentality of Young, and on December I, 1930, six of the Justices sent a letter to the Governor, concurring in his original opinion that Billings's trial had been fair and just. One of the Justices issued a minority opinion, in which he practically stated that, to his mind, Billings was innocent, and accused his colleagues of treating testimony that had been proved false as facts. However, Young's Hfinal decision" stands upheld by the highest court in the State.

Behind this action of a group of servile politicians in office was the will of the big business interests in California.

For Mooney and Billings, in San Quentin and Folsom respectively, are living symbols of the open-shop employers' supremacy in the State. Behind the industrialists' determination to keep Mooney and Billings imprisoned is their old fear of labor unions. They fear that the unions, given the slightest chance, might again seize the power in San Francisco that they had in 1910, and might even capture Los Angeles. This would mean the end of the openshop status of the rising California industries. California go-getters need Eastern capital to develop their communities. Not a few big real-estate operators and bankers in Los Angeles and San Francisco believe that California's credit in the East would decline should Mooney and Billings be released. Their belief is not unsound, for, in the eyes of Eastern magnates, one of California's chief virtues is its open-shop status in industry.

Between 1920 and 1930 numerous Eastern industrialists started plants in California upon the assurances of civic and business leaders in the State that the open-shop status would be maintained in the future. The "big fellows" in such organizations as the local Chambers of Commerce, the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Associations and the Better America Federation, whose economic and political potency is enormous, not only in the State but nationally, are determined to maintain that status. In sending out circulars to large manufacturers in the East, inviting them to bring their industries to California, they stress the fact that in their communities "labor is unorganized, cheap."

And Mooney and Billings in prison are living advertisements of the California boosters' determination to keep California open-shop; a living proof to Eastern manufacturers and capitalists that they control the State utterly, from the Governor's mansion and the Supreme Court down; a living assurance to Eastern industrialists and financiers that they, using politics, the courts, the police, and every other means, fair and foul, intend to keep labor "cheap and unorganized" in California.

The American Federation of Labor, with the McNamara "stunt" as part of its past, is considered as dangerous and "un-American" in California, especially in Los Angeles, as are the I. W. W. and the Communists. Every effort to organize workers is nipped in the bud; the leaders are usually arrested and jailed. As I write this, scores of organizers and agitators, besides Mooney and Billings, are lodged in various California jails.

The general California public-the great democratic mob that goes to the polls every so often-has but the faintest conception of the Mooney-Billings case, and that conception is largely erroneous. More than half the present population of California consists of recent arrivals there, tired and retired people mostly from the Middle West. Their concern with politics is slight and superficial. The go-getters, the politicians, and the newspapers can do almost as they please.


It will perhaps never be established who placed the bomb.

No evidence exists that either Mooney or Billings had anything to do with it.

The idea, shared by many radicals in California and elsewhere, that the outrage was perpetrated by some one connected with the employers' "crush the union" movement, is not far-fetched. If the bomb was planted by some anarchist or member of the Mooney group, which also is not unlikely, the open-shop interests, in their savage efforts to keep down labor, in taking full advantage of the terrible incident and the public reaction thereto, have committed a worse crime than the bomb explosion.


In 1930 Governor Young was defeated for re-election despite the fact that he kept Mooney and Billings in prison; his defeat was due to other issues. And as this book appears, California will have a new Governor-James Rolph, for many years Mayor of San Francisco, a machine politician, yet somewhat of a "liberal," endowed with certain common decencies, which he has evinced on numerous occasions.

The small group of radicals and liberals engaged in the fight for Mooney's and Billings's release hope that Rolph may have sufficient courage to "do a John Altgeld" in their case.

Whether or not Rolph has the courage thus to pit himself against the most powerful element in the State of California, remains to be seen.

This text has been excerpted, and very slightly edited by to make sense as a stand-alone text, from Louis Adamic's excellent book, Dynamite: the story of class violence in America.

  • 1 libcom note: meaning make it a town where employers could employ non-union members



10 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on June 14, 2014

As a bit of an update to this, subsequent to its being written, Mooney was pardoned and released in 1939, and Billings released the same year, although the latter was not pardoned until 1961.

Mooney's health was destroyed by his imprisonment, and he died in 1942. Billings lived until 1972.


9 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by jaysgood888 on November 9, 2014

I actually have the signed pardon by culbert Olson. Was curious to know what it might be worth. My email is [email protected]. thank you