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The Great Dynamite Conspiracy: Murder and mayhem on Monument Circle

In the early morning hours of October 25, 1909, four dynamite explosions tore through Indianapolis buildings linked to a general contractor named Albert von Spreckelson. Two of the blasts occurred at construction sites where von Spreckleson had hired non-union workers: the new Carnegie Library at Mount and Ohio Streets, and the Central Union Telephone Exchange in Irvington. Explosions also damaged von Spreckelson’s planing-mill at 1200 East North Street, and his barn at 1220 East Michigan.

Library of Congress

A few days later, Mayor Charles Bookwalter found himself riding a streetcar with John (J.J.) McNamara, a local attorney who was secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. As Bookwalter later told the story, McNamara leaned over and asked him “in a taunting way” if he knew who had blown up the four buildings. Bookwalter looked straight at McNamara and said, “Yes, and I could put my hand on one of them without leaving this car.”


Despite Bookwalter’s suspicions, another 18 months would elapse before McNamara was hauled away in handcuffs from his Monument Circle office. By then, there would be dozens more dynamite blasts in multiple states linked to McNamara and the ironworkers.


The Indianapolis Star, April 23, 1911

Although the family who rented a room to McNamara in their Meridian Park home expressed surprise at their quiet boarder’s arrest, detectives had long suspected that the bombings had an Indianapolis connection. During the early years of the last century, Indianapolis was a stronghold of organized labor with nine international unions headquartered in the city. It was also home to virulent labor opponent David M. Parry, who led the nation’s “open shop” movement as president of the National Association of Manufacturers. The clash of Parry’s ideas with organized labor’s “union shop” ideals proved an explosive combination.


In the fall of 1910, labor was waging a bitter battle in Los Angeles over the Llewellyn Iron Works’ decision to have an open shop that included non-union employees. The Los Angeles Times was one of the most vocal supporters of the open shop concept. Shortly after 1 a.m. on the morning of October 1, 16 sticks of dynamite exploded beneath  The Los Angeles Times building.


The blast hit a natural gas line, sparking a blaze that engulfed the building and caused the second story to collapse into the first. Workers who had been putting the paper to press just minutes before were now trapped in rubble and engulfed in flames. 21 persons died and another 100 were injured. When another blast leveled the Llewellyn Iron Works on Christmas Day, suspicions quickly arose that labor unions were behind both attacks.


The Indianapolis Star, April 24, 1911

William J. Burns, a celebrated private detective and former Secret Service agent, was hired by the mayor of Los Angeles to solve the case. Donning disguises and working covertly, Burns followed a bizarre trail of evidence that led him from San Francisco to Indianapolis, with stops along the way at an anarchist colony near Seattle, a hunters’ camp in Wisconsin, and a Chicago fortune teller.


Burns soon realized that the Los Angeles bombings were not isolated incidents, but were part of a nationwide bombing war waged by the same group of people. Since 1906, nearly 100 different sites had been blasted with dynamite. The sites of the explosions had two things in common: the owners used nonunion workers and the construction used iron. All evidence pointed to the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, headquartered on Monument Circle in the American Central Life Insurance building.


Stacks of dynamite stored beneath Monument Circle building (left); piano box hiding explosives. McClure's Magazine, August 1911.

In April 1911, Burns showed up at McNamara’s Monument Circle office and had him arrested for orchestrating a nationwide terror campaign aimed at employers who hired non-union workers. Five hours later, police found 17 sticks of dynamite and two quarts of nitroglycerine hidden in a piano box on the dirt floor of a barn a mile and half west of Indianapolis. More than 100 pounds of dynamite were also found hidden in a secret passageway in the basement of the American Central Life Insurance building – enough to obliterate Monument Circle.


Barn at the intersection of Rockville Road and U.S. 40 where the dynamite was found. The Indianapolis News, April 24, 1911.

Meanwhile, Burns was concerned that the unions would find a way to spring McNamara from jail if he remained in Indianapolis. The accused bomber was forcibly loaded into a car and driven to Illinois at breakneck speed. At Burns’ direction, McNamara was then put on a train headed to California where he would later stand trial for the bombings alongside his brother, Jim, who was charged with placing the dynamite that blew up the Los Angeles Times building.


American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs quickly rallied to the McNamaras’ defense, claiming that the brothers were innocent of the bombings and had been kidnapped instead of arrested. Gompers persuaded Clarence Darrow, the already legendary populist attorney, to defend the McNamara brothers. Labor unions throughout the country rallied to raise money for a “McNamara Defense Fund.”


Numerous participants of the scheme to get J.J. McNamara out of Indiana and into California were soon arrested on kidnapping charges, including Burns and Frank Fox, the driver of the car that whisked McNamara out of state. Burns later claimed that the grand jury and prosecutor had been bribed. The indictments were eventually dropped.


On the first day of what everyone believed would be the “greatest trial of modern times,” the nation was astounded when Jim McNamara pleaded guilty to murder in the Times bombing and J.J. McNamara pleaded guilty to placing the dynamite bomb that destroyed the iron works in Los Angeles. Afterwards, a visibly fatigued Darrow told reporters, “I did the best that I could.”


In February 1912, a federal grand jury in Indianapolis indicted 54 union men for conspiracy to commit a nationwide dynamite sabotage campaign. The subsequent trial was considered the “largest criminal conspiracy trial” in American history up to that time and consisted of 499 witnesses for the prosecution, 188 witnesses for the defense, 5,000 pages of documentary exhibits, and 21,000 pages of testimony. John Worth Kern, the United States senator from Indiana, was one of the main defense attorneys in the trial, which resulted in 38 convictions.


During the grand jury proceedings, one of McNamara's boyhood chums testified that McNamara had offered to pay him to murder his former secretary, Mary Dye, because "she knew too much." The two men conspired to blow up the Pullman sleeping car carrying Dye home to her family for Christmas in December 1910. The plan went awry, however, and Dye - described in various news reports as McNamara's spurned sweetheart - went on to serve as a key witness in the trial, indentifying hundreds of incriminating letters that were critical to the prosecution's case.


The Boston Globe, December 17, 1911

Shortly after the McNamara brothers began serving time in San Quentin, Clarence Darrow was indicted for bribing a juror. He defended himself in the three-month trial and won, weeping as he told jurors about his crusading life. Darrow later fought against the death penalty in the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case, and then went on to fight for John Scopes’ right to teach evolution in Tennessee.


Burns, who had earned a reputation as the “American Sherlock Holmes,” was appointed the first director of the Bureau of Investigation, the agency that would become known as the FBI. He came under scrutiny for “investigating” jurors during the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1927, and resigned under fire. His young assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, was appointed to head the agency. Hoover served as director until his death in 1972.

With kidnapping charges still pending against him, driver Frank Fox participated in the first 500-Mile Race on May 30, 1911. He finished 22nd, becoming the first driver with a wooden leg to start the race.


After J.J. McNamara pleaded guilty to bombings, his fellow union members continued to defend his actions, claiming that the attorney – a former ironworker himself – had literally gone insane from the daily stress of crusading to protect the life and limb of ironworkers. Structural iron work was among the most dangerous of union trades, with members losing one of their brethren to a violent workplace accident almost every day.McNamara was released after serving 10 years in San Quentin, and rejoined the ironworkers union. He continued to have minor brushes with the law, and in 1928, he was expelled from the union for allegedly stealing $200. McNamara died in 1941.


A version of this article was originally posted in HistoricIndianapolis.com on September 1, 2012


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