9780307346957

American Lightning

by
  • ISBN13:

    9780307346957

  • ISBN10:

    0307346951

  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-10-06
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
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Summary

It was an explosion that reverberated across the country--and into the very heart of early-twentieth-century America. On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times Building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured. But as it turned out, this was just a prelude to the devastation that was to come. In American Lightning, acclaimed author Howard Blum masterfully evokes the incredible circumstances that led to the original "crime of the century"--and an aftermath more dramatic than even the crime itself. With smoke still wafting up from the charred ruins, the city's mayor reacts with undisguised excitement when he learns of the arrival, only that morning, of America's greatest detective, William J. Burns, a former Secret Service man who has been likened to Sherlock Holmes. Surely Burns, already world famous for cracking unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises, can run the perpetrators to ground. Through the work of many months, snowbound stakeouts, and brilliant forensic sleuthing, the great investigator finally identifies the men he believes are responsible for so much destruction. Stunningly, Burns accuses the men--labor activists with an apparent grudge against the Los Angeles Times' fiercely anti-union owner--of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings. While preparation is laid for America's highest profile trial ever--and the forces of labor and capital wage hand-to-hand combat in the streets--two other notable figures are swept into the drama: industry-shaping Filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who perceives in these events the possibility of great art and who will go on to alchemize his observations into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation; and crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow, committed to lend his eloquence to the defendants, though he will be driven to thoughts of suicide before events have fully played out. Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can't-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. From the Hardcover edition.

Author Biography

HOWARD BLUM is the author of eight previous books, including the national bestsellers Wanted!, The Gold of Exodus, and Gangland. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Blum was also a reporter at the New York Times, where he won numerous journalism awards and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpts

chapter one

It was nearly midnight on September 4, 1910, in Peoria, Illinois, when the dark sky above the train yard opened and a pelting rain suddenly poured down. Surprised, the night watchman ran to a boxcar for shelter. That decision saved his life. He was safely inside when the bomb exploded. It was a clock bomb, rather crudely made but fueled by ten gallons of nitroglycerin. It had been placed under a nearby railway car transporting an eighty-ton girder.

The force of the blast knocked the watchman to the boxcar’s wooden floor. Outside the girder shot high into the sky. Shards of metal showered down, spears falling like iron lightning bolts amid the hard, hammering rain.

Within hours the president of the McClintic-Marshall Iron Works, the company that had fabricated the girder for a bridge being built across the Illinois River, hired the Burns Detective Agency to investigate the blast. A local Burns operative left his bed and hurried to the scene. Under a freight car carrying a second huge girder, he discovered a clock bomb that had failed to explode; the battery had lost its voltage. The clock had also been set for 11 hours and 59 minutes and 59 seconds. This would’ve allowed sufficient time for any escape. The culprits would be long gone, and, he anticipated, difficult to trace.

Outside the yard he found an empty nitroglycerin can and a small, neatly piled hill of sawdust. He brought the can and the unexploded bomb to the attention of the Peoria police captain at the scene. The captain glanced at the device, shook his head in a gesture of disgust at the criminals who had planted it, and then walked off to interview the night watchman.

Later, after the police had left, the Burns man retrieved the can and the bomb. He also gathered up the sawdust particles. He put all the evidence—the nitroglycerin can, the unexploded bomb, and the sawdust— into a large box and sent it to the agency’s headquarters in Chicago.

For weeks the box sat on a shelf in the evidence room, ignored and unopened. It was only after the events in Los Angeles that Billy Burns began to suspect its significance.

chapter two

California, here we come! Over the hills and across the valleys of America, from the icy, windswept prairies and the snowbound farmlands of the Midwest, people flocked to Los Angeles. As the twentieth century began, the city’s chamber of commerce spread the word that sunshine would cure any illness, that ripe oranges hung from trees ready for the taking, and that fortunes could be made buying and selling parcels of land. The California Dream captured people’s imagination, and day after day Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroad cars filled with newcomers arrived at the Los Angeles station. In just a generation, this pueblo village dozing in the sunshine began to take shape as a city. By 1910 its population approached 900,000, and people were still pouring in. And as the city grew, as its inhabitants prospered, Los Angeles became a battleground.

It was a battle that was being fought all across America. In western mines, in New England mills, in New York sweatshops, in railroad cars traversing the nation, labor raged against capital. The nation was locked in a class struggle that threatened to erupt into the next civil war.

At one noncompromising extreme were unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They urged “direct action.” Sabotage, violence—these were acceptable, even necessary, political weapons. The goal was to place “the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.” For these radical unionists, “there can be no harmony between employer and employee.”

In opposition, capitalists formed militant associations, organizations that were empo

Excerpted from American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood by Howard Blum
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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