American Lightning by Howard Blum

by Heather West

3 February 2009


What was the crime of the century? Before the catastrophe of 9/11, the answer would probably differ from generation to generation. But the original “crime of the century”, not often remembered, roiled the nation in 1910. It was an act of public terrorism that took dozens of lives, wrought against Americans by Americans.

The bombing of the Los Angeles Times building buckled the walls and ignited gas mains with a thunderous explosion that brought workers and huge machines crashing to earth. When the dust settled, 21 were dead and 17 wounded. This unmentionable act took place during a unique confluence of events in American society and involved an intriguing cast of characters, from the father of American film, D.W. Griffith, to crusading attorney, Clarence Darrow, and detective Billy Burns, known as “the American Sherlock Holmes”.

cover art

American Lightning

Howard Blum

Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century


American Lightning weaves together some very big stories and public figures, illuminating their intersections in fascinating ways. Setting the stage for the book’s events is the vicious battle fought between labor unions and big business advocates. Labor strikes and violence heated up to a fever pitch preceding the bombing; this high-stakes struggle to define the future of the nation was most intense in the city of Los Angeles.

The publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Harrison Gray Otis was a hated figure in labor circles; his no-holds-barred tactics against workers were legendary and his end game was to drive labor unions out of the city entirely. Los Angeles in 1910 was very different place in scale and terrain; most of the lush landscape was undeveloped desert. A secretive group of businessmen, including Otis, schemed to scam water from the surrounding areas to further the development of suburbs on property owned by members of the group, this side plot paves the way for the creation of Hollywood.

The film industry at the time was based in New York, and operated under a veil of vague ill-repute, at odds with that of actors of the stage. D.W. Griffith was revolutionizing the way movies were made, and churning them out at great pace when he met and recruited Mary Pickford, the actress who would become the first screen star. In numerous films, Griffith came out on the side of Labor, depicting the frivolity of the Gilded Age’s high society as workers suffered, helping to turn public tide to their favor. His first salvo was called “A Corner in Wheat”, it illuminated the struggle of the average worker to put a loaf of bread on the table and forever changed culture, as a new ideological weapon was born in movies.

Billy Burns was the nation’s most famous detective, a man who used disguises, subterfuge and relentlessly focused investigations to capture suspects. Along the way, he ignored legal protections like habeas corpus, and employed kidnapping, wiretapping, and secret prisons to achieve his ends. These issues reverberate in modern post 9/11 society and are fiercely debated as we speak. Burns solved seemingly impossible criminal puzzles and would later become the director of the Bureau of Investigation, which became the FBI, an organization some feel has sanctioned identical violations of legal rights under various US and international laws.

The great crusading attorney Clarence Darrow is the third towering figure of the tale, morally conflicted, physically ill, and practically bankrupt at the time of the bombing, he had promised his wife that he was retired from criminal defense. He was lured back to defend the men accused of the bombing (one an upstanding member of a Midwestern labor union) and was nearly destroyed professionally in the process.

His world was one of some moral ambiguity (he had a long time affair with a journalist), but one of great intellectual fervor. His friends included Jane Addams,  Harold Ickes, and Williams Jennings Bryan. By the end of this period, he would be tried (and acquitted) of bribery and return to his home in Chicago in shambles. He rebounded to defend John Scopes in the so-called “Monkey Trial”, following Scopes’ arrest for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in a Tennessee schoolroom.

The twists and turns in American Lightning are mind-boggling in scale, and Blum, a veteran investigative journalist and author (New York Times, Vanity Fair) pulls a thousand details and tertiary facts together to depict the major aspects of America during the period, from politics and films to the backroom land grabs that created modern California and gave Hollywood a place to thrive.

The ways in which Burns, Griffith, and Darrow’s paths cross through the era are fascinating but the secondary characters, from Times owner Otis to the bombers are painted just as vividly. Blum takes on a project of dizzying proportions and delivers us the portrait of the Progressive Era through the prism of an act all too familiar to us all, elucidating the parallels between a forgotten bombing in 1910 and our current global state of affairs.

American Lightning


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