Most of the turn-of-the-century true-crime story books have been quick to be branded “The Crime of the Century” if they happen to grip the public’s attention. Howard Blum’s chronicle of events takes a deep look into the 1910 bombing that flattened the Los Angeles Times Building, injuring many and killing 21. It is very possible that no other crime has been of as much confluence of colliding ideologies, societal factions, larger-than-life personalities and emerging American values. The murder trial reshaped the lives of the people involved and also transformed the culture and the politics of the nation. In American Lightning, the author, Howard Blum evokes the amazing circumstances that led to the description of the original “Crime of the Century” and included an aftermath that was ever more dramatic than the actual crime itself.
According to The New York Review of Books (2008), the half century between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson saw the rapid development and empowering of the class welfare system in the United States. The moneyed classes controlled most of the courts, militia, heavy weapons, banks, senators, governors and sometimes even the presidency itself. Frederick Townsend Martin once wrote a contented specimen, describing the success of the rich as a single minded devolution to greed (The passing of the Idle Rich, 1911). Howard Blum comes off as a spiteful ogre who is obsessed with the hatred of labor unions as he tells the tale of the class wars. As Blum writes, the labor unions are likened to a man with a walrus mustache and also a wild goatee and who is also bristling with an instinctive aggressiveness. Blum completes his portrait of labor unions with Senator Hiram Johnson, below and also describes Otis to a labor party. He describes the Senator as an isolationist, a contrast of what to expect from the book.
Senator Hiram Johnson
Blum’s aim is to educate, inform and entertain through his mastery of writing and improper regard for authority figures. For example, the Carnegie Steel incident that left many dead is highlighted in the book, also giving praise to the formation and the rise of the FBI. With a brief history of the evolution of violence towards union haters, Blum points towards Otis who had been involved in various battles such as the civil war and had retired a colonel which he instructed people to address him (Oldenburg, 2008). Blum also cites Townsend’s quote whereby the rich describe themselves neither as thinkers nor politicians, yet if they put the support of their money, power and influence, they can change legislations. The bombing had been a result of Otis’s refusal to hire union men at whatever cost, which was a move aimed at crippling the unions in Los Angeles.
Another subplot in American Lightning is the deceitful tax-plundering schemes set to detour aqueduct water from Los Angeles in order to create desert suburbs (Billington, 2008). The refusal to increase wages for the working class and the refusal to cover events that the rich did not want exposed led to a massive outcry. Workers saw what the rich were doing with their ill-gotten monies, sometimes blood money and decided to stand up for themselves, resulting stronger unionization and greater rebellion.
The novel does not shy from mentioning the concepts of dreams and realities and hard work. By citing D. W. Griffith, the pioneer of silent films who moved the movie scene from New York to Hollywood, believing that movies could be a source of both social and intellectual motivation, he proved that there the near 20th century was not just full of blood and chaos (Oshinski, 2009).
This essay seeks to identify with the reason behind the L.A Times bombing, the cause, how it could have been prevented or avoided. The novel, American Lightning is written as a narrative whereby the author dives deep into the intimate lives, as well as the intimate thoughts of both the personalities in the events as well as the burns of the bombing. For example, there is Clarence Darrow, an eloquent lawyer in the country who defended J.J McNamara, an official of the bombers Iron Workers Union and his brother who planned and carried out the L.A attack (Powel 2008). Their reason for the bombing was a retaliation of the belligerent anti-union tactics of Harry Gray Otis, the owner of the L.A Times.
The dedication of the author to digging up facts as well as gathering of journalistic principles in reporting have made American Lightning a worthwhile tale to tell 100 years after its occurrence (Baker, 2008). With Otis’s notable campaigns to crush the unions, Baker (2008) labor inevitably rose to the rank of prime suspect after the building was leveled on one October morning, making him to retaliate with a cry of hatred for the unions. The novel by Blum seeks to entertain without ignoring the many ironies attributed to the bomb blast. The novel also strives to tell the tale of different personalities, different times and different opinions voiced by people involved prior to the bombing and post-bombing times. With detectives such as Burns, commonly referred to as ‘Billy’ in the novel, the story remains educative, instigative and entertaining for both the casual readers and the scholars. In light of this event, Blum makes comparisons between that bombing and the September 11 2001, as well as the administrations present at the time of the bombing (Oldenburg 2008).
“American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century.” USA TODAY Life. N.p., 24 Sept. 2008. Web. 2 June 2014. <http://books.usatoday.com/book/howard-blum-american-lightning-terror-mystery-the-birth-of-hollywood-and-the-crime-of-the-century/r108066>.
“American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century.(Book review).” Bookmarks 1 Nov. 2008: 19-35. Print.
Blum, Howard. American lightning: terror, mystery, movie-making, and the crime of the century. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008. Print.
“Featured Bio Hiram Johnson.” Featured Bio Hiram Johnson. N.p., 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 2 June 2014. <http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Featured_Bio_Johnson_Hiram.htm>.
“Howard Blum’s American Lightning Book Being Adapted.” FirstShowingnet RSS. N.p., 20 Oct. 2008. Web. 2 June 2014. <http://www.firstshowing.net/2008/howard-blums-american-lightning-book-being-adapted/>.
Oshinsky, David. “Burns, Billy, Clarence Darrow, and D. W. Griffith: American Lightning: Terror, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century.(Brief article)(Book review).” Biography 1 Jan. 2009: 27-38. Print.
“Review-a-Day – American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum, reviewed by New York Review of Books – Powell’s Books.” Review-a-Day – American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum, reviewed by New York Review of Books – Powell’s Books. N.p., 17 Nov. 2008. Web. 2 June 2014. <http://www.powells.com/review/2008_11_17.html>.