Preparedness Day Bombing
The Preparedness Day Bombing was a bombing in San Francisco, California on July 22, 1916, when the city held a parade in honor of Preparedness Day, in anticipation of the United States' imminent entry into World War I. During the parade a suitcase bomb was detonated, killing ten and wounding forty in the worst such attack in San Francisco's history. Two labor leaders, Thomas Mooney and Warren K Billings, were convicted in separate trials and sentenced to be hanged. Rena Mooney and Israel Weinberg were acquitted.
By mid-1916, after viewing the carnage in Europe, the United States saw itself poised on the edge of participation in World War I. Isolationism remained strong in San Francisco, not only among radicals such as the Industrial Workers of the World ("the Wobblies"), but also among mainstream labor leaders. At the same time, with the rise of Bolshevism and labor unrest, San Francisco's business community was nervous. The Chamber of Commerce organized a Law and Order Committee, despite the diminishing influence and political clout of local labor organizations.
The huge Preparedness Day parade of Saturday, July 22, 1916, was a target of radicals. An unsigned antiwar pamphlet issued throughout the city in mid-July read in part, "We are going to use a little direct action on the 22nd to show that militarism can't be forced on us and our children without a violent protest." Mooney had been tipped off to threats that preceded the parade and pushed resolutions through his union, the Molders, and the San Francisco Central Labor Council and the Building Trades Council warning that provocateurs might attempt to blacken the labor movement by causing a disturbance at the parade.
The San Francisco Preparedness Day parade of 1916 was the largest parade ever held in the city. The 3.5 hour procession had 51,329 marchers, including 2,134 organizations and 52 bands. Ironically, perhaps, the starting signals were "the crash of a bomb and the shriek of a siren." Military, civic, judicial, state, and municipal divisions were followed by newspaper, telephone, telegraph and streetcar trade unions. Many of the following divisions came from other cities of the San Francisco Bay Area. At 2:06pm, about half an hour into the parade, a time bomb in the form of a cast steel pipe filled with explosives exploded on the west side of Steuart Street, just south of Market Street, near the Ferry Building.
Before capping the steel pipe containing the explosive (believed by police to have been either TNT or dynamite), the bomb-maker had filled the pipe with metal slugs designed to act as shrapnel, greatly increasing the bomb's lethality. Ten bystanders were killed and forty wounded, including a young girl who had her legs blown off. The bombing was the worst terrorist act in San Francisco history. Witnesses differed on where the bomb was located. Some witnesses stated that they saw a man leaving a suitcase against the corner of a building at Market and Steuart streets that contained the bomb, while others, such as Dr. Mora Moss, testified he saw the bomb being hurled or dropped from the roof of a nearby building, rather than being left at the scene.
Trials and Convictions
Led by the San Francisco District Attorney, Charles Fickert, authorities initially focused their attention on several well-known radicals and anarchists in the city, among them Alexander Berkman, who was well known to the government for his radical politics and prior conviction as an attempted assassin. He had only recently relocated to San Francisco after being implicated in yet another bombing conspiracy, the Lexington Avenue bombing in New York City, which resulted in the deaths of several anarchists and at least one innocent bystander. Once in San Francisco, Berkman had begun his own anarchist journal, which he named The Blast. After the Preparedness Day bombing, Berkman abruptly abandoned The Blast and returned to New York, rejoining Emma Goldman to work on the Mother Earth Bulletin. The San Francisco District Attorney attempted to have Berkman extradited back to San Francisco on conspiracy allegations related to the bombing, but was unsuccessful.
Two known radical labor leaders – Thomas Mooney (ca. 1882–1942) and his assistant, Warren K. Billings (1893–1972) – were eventually arrested. Billings, convicted previously for carrying dynamite on a passenger train, had a reputation for enjoying direct action, and Mooney, a militant socialist, had been arrested but never convicted of conspiring to dynamite power lines during the 1913 Pacific Gas and Electric Company strike. Mooney and his wife had also previously been arrested for unsuccessfully attempting to stop streetcar operations during a planned streetcar motorman strike, and was known for being on the 'radical' side of labor activists.
The conservative leaders of local trade unions and editors of labor trade papers in the San Francisco area disliked Mooney intensely, believing him to be a "dangerous troublemaker" whose methods "never produced anything but trouble." Mooney and especially Billings both had prior knowledge of how to use dynamite (Billings was also familiar with clockwork timing mechanisms, and became a watch repairman after his release from prison).
Police held Mooney incommunicado and without counsel for six days, during which time they attempted to interrogate him. Mooney declined to speak, invoking his right to counsel some forty-one times. At the grand jury proceedings, the suspects were still without counsel, and were not permitted to shave or clean up before appearing before the grand jury. The defendants refused to testify in protest of having been denied counsel. After the grand jury returned an indictment, Tom and Rena Mooney, Warren Billings, Israel Weinberg, and Ed Nolan were charged with murder.
Charles M. Fickert, the District Attorney, alleged that Mooney had planted the suitcase at the bomb scene, which contained a dynamite bomb with a clock as a timing mechanism. Fickert and the police discounted the testimony of witnesses whose descriptions did not fit Mooney and Billings, or whose description of the bombing did not support the District Attorney's theory that Mooney had planted the suitcase bomb. Mooney and Billings eventually retained a well-known San Francisco criminal attorney, Maxwell McNutt, as their defense counsel.
In a set of trials, Billings was tried first in September 1916 and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Tom Mooney was tried in January 1917 and was convicted and sentenced to hang. Rena Mooney and Israel Weinberg were both acquitted, and Ed Nolan was never brought to trial but released two months after Tom Mooney's conviction.
Years later, a Mediation Commission set up by President Woodrow Wilson found no clear evidence of his guilt, and his death sentence was commuted. In 1918 Billings' sentence was also commuted to life imprisonment. By 1939, evidence of perjury and false testimony at the trial had become overwhelming. California Governor Culbert Olson pardoned both men. Ansel Adams wrote about meeting Thomas Mooney in his autobiography. Adams was a young boy at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, where Mooney was working. Adams later wrote, "In my memory he is a kind and gentle man."
Although the identity of the bomber (or bombers) has never been precisely determined, it has been attributed by several historians to anarchists espousing direct action or propaganda by the deed. In addition to the language of the unsigned July warning leaflet, the Preparedness Day Parade event had been organized by the Chamber of Commerce and the anti-union conservative business establishment to inspire patriotism and support for U.S. entry into the world war, a development that could hardly fail to infuriate anarchists. Besides Mooney and Billings, several persons are thought to have been capable of carrying out such a violent attack, all of them anarchists and advocates of direct action.
Postwar research has led some historians to suspect involvement at some level in the bombing conspiracy by the anarchist Alexander Berkman, given his knowledge of the Lexington Avenue bombing conspiracy, his enthusiasm for revolutionary violence while editor of The Blast, and his hasty departure from San Francisco immediately following the Preparedness Day bombing. However, whether he was involved in the conspiracy or not, Berkman was almost certainly not the person who constructed the actual bomb, since he was known to have little or no technical skills with explosives.
Another suspect group included the Galleanists, radical anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani, particularly the elusive Mario Buda. Buda, who was a bomb-maker of deadly repute, fit at least one witness' physical description of the bomber, and the Galleanists were known to utilize time bombs consisting of cast steel or iron pipes packed with dynamite and metal slugs or other types of shrapnel to increase maiming and overall casualties. While the Galleanists conducted most of their bomb attacks on the East Coast, there was a large and restive Italian anarchist community in San Francisco at the time, and many of them subscribed to Galleani's journal, Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), which openly called for direct action via propaganda of the deed while glorifying the assassination of 'militarists' and 'capitalists'.
The Galleanist group was known for their ruthlessness in choosing targets, had avidly participated in successful bomb attacks as far west as Milwaukee and Chicago, and in 1919 had unleashed a campaign of mail bombings to victims all over the country, including two booby-trap bombs sent to District Attorney Fickert and his assistant Edward A. Cunha in San Francisco, the men who had prosecuted Mooney and Billings. Luigi Galleani himself wrote that police had not arrested "the right criminal", later telling investigators that he was "positively sure" with "mathematical certitude" that Mooney was not the bomber.
The Galleanist group would go on to utilize bomb designs nearly identical to that of the Preparedness Day Bomb in several subsequent bombings during 1918 and 1919, while Mario Buda was the prime suspect in the later and very similar Wall Street bombing in New York City in 1920. Additionally, in an apparent oblique reference to an event in February 1916 in which a Galleanist operative in Chicago, Nestor Dondoglio, served poisoned soup to a host of political, religious and business leaders, San Francisco police recovered two unsigned letters urging the headwaiter at the St. Francis Hotel to serve poisoned soup to Police Commissioner James Woods, one of the organizers of the Preparedness Day march, when Woods next came to dine there.
Yet another possible suspect is Celsten Eklund, a well-known San Francisco radical orator, unemployed laborer, and passionate anarchist who had been previously involved in a series of labor demonstrations and altercations with police, and who was believed to have strong ties to the Italian anarchist community. On March 6, 1927, Eklund and another man known only as 'Ricca' were shot by police as they attempted to light the fuse of a large dynamite bomb in front of the Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in San Francisco. Ricca died at the scene and Eklund was seriously wounded. The church, which had been the target of four previous bombings in the space of one year, had been a magnet for anarchist anti-Catholic sentiment in the city. Eklund later died of his wounds without revealing anything to police save for the Italian last name of his fellow bomber.
A film about the events was made shortly after the bombings. The film, with its animated propagandistic prologue, was clearly aimed at local audiences. Perhaps it was thought that the film might help to "flush out" the bomber. The Hearst-Pathe film of the bombing scene was filmed after most of the bodies had been removed.
- ACLU, The Story of Mooney and Billings. New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 1928.
- William Bourke Cockran, A Heinous Plot: An Expose of the Frame-up System in the San Francisco Bomb Cases Against Billings,Mooney, Mrs. Mooney, Weinberg and Nolan. Chicago: Chicago Federation of Labor, 1917.
- Robert Minor, Fickert Has Ravished Justice: Story of So-Called Bomb Trials in San Francisco. San Francisco, CA: Tom Mooney Molders Defense Committee, n.d. .
- "San Francisco Newspaper Man," Tom Mooney, a Miner's Son. San Francisco, CA: Tom Mooney Molders Defense Committee, n.d. [c. 1918].
- Estolv E. Ward, The Gentle Dynamiter, Ramparts Press, Palo Alto, California: 1983.
- Curt Gentry, Frame-up: The Incredible Case of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, W.W. Norton & Co., New York: 1967.
- John C Ralston, Fremont Older & the 1916 San Francisco Bombing, A Tireless Crusade for Justice, The History Press Charleston, SC: 2013.
- Crime: Mooney & Billings, Time Magazine, 14 July 1930
- A Timeline of San Francisco History: 1900-1950, retrieved 23 July 2011
- Bomb Hurled Through Air Says Physician Who Was Witness to Saturday Outrage, Reno Evening Gazette, 24 July 1916, pp. 1-2
- The Pittsburgh Press April 27,1929
- Bomb Hurled Through Air, Reno Evening Gazette, p. 2: Dr. Mora Moss, one of the Preparedness Day marchers in the parade, stated that "I happened to turn and saw a black object surrounded by smoke falling through the air...it fell among the crowd and the explosion followed...I am sure that it was hurled into the mass of people and the theory that the suitcase was placed against the corner building is incorrect."
- Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1996)
- Carlsson, Chris, Tom Mooney: Historical Essay, Found SF, retrieved 23 July 2011
- Knight, Robert, Industrial Relations in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1900-1918, London, Cambridge University Press (1960), pp. 301, 307-309
- McCann, Joseph T., Terrorism on American Soil, Boulder, CO: First Sentient Publications, ISBN 1-59181-049-3 (2006), pp. 48-49
- Time Magazine, Mooney & Billings, New York: July 14, 1930
- Frost, Richard H., The Mooney Case, Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-0651-4, ISBN 978-0-8047-0651-3 (1968), pp. 106-108, 112-118
- Mooney Freed; Governor Tells of New Evidence, The Milwaukee Sunday News-Sentinel, Vol. II No. 16, January 8, 1939, pp. 1-A, 2-A: Some witnesses at the bomb scene stated that a man of dark, swarthy complexion in a cheap brown suit left the suitcase at the bomb scene, a description that could have easily fit one of the Galleanists
- Rapoport, David C., Terrorism, Volume I: The First or Anarchist Wave, London: MPG Books Ltd., ISBN 0-415-31651-0 (2006), pp. 201-203
- Feldman, Noah, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court justices, Twelve Publishers, ISBN 0-446-58057-0, ISBN 978-0-446-58057-1 (2010), p. 17
- Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), p. 97, 150-152
- Galleani, Luigi, Faccia a Faccia col Nemico, Boston, MA: Gruppo Autonomo, (1914)
- Wilkinson, Paul, Conflict Studies: Terrorism versus Liberal Democracy: the Problems of Response, London: Institute for the Study of Conflict, Current Affairs Research Services Centre, Issues 67-68 (1976), p. 3
- Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-02604-1 (1991), pp. 140-143: The package bombs sent to Fickert and Cunha were identical in packaging and design to other Galleanist mail bombs mailed at the same time.
- Find More Bombs Sent in the Mails: One To Overman, The New York Times, 2 May 1919
- Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), p. 142: The package bombs sent to Cunha and Fickert were both actually delivered to their intended recipients; Cunha recognized the bomb packaging from news stories and had it removed, while Fickert's bomb was discovered and removed several days later, after it began to leak acid from its detonating mechanism.
- Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton University Press (1991), p. 138: Galleani told an investigator at his deportation hearing that he was absolutely certain that Mooney was not the Preparedness Day bomber. When asked how he knew this, Galleani replied that "It is a very ticklish affair upon which I do not wish to comment; I am positively sure that it was not Mooney who threw the bomb."
- Bomb Hurled Through Air, Says Physician Who Was Witness to Saturday Outrage, Reno Evening Gazette, 24 July 1916, pp. 1-2
- Issel, William, For Both Cross and Flag: Catholic Action, Anti-Catholicism, and National Security Politics in World War II San Francisco, Philadelphia PA: Temple University Press, ISBN 978-1-4399-0028-4 (2010) pp. 24-27
- The film
- Photographs Regarding the 1916 Preparedness Day Parade Bombing online collection, The Bancroft Library