It was an unusually hot July day in San Francisco. There was a parade on that day in 1916 — a “Preparedness Day” parade organized by local Republican businessmen. It was intended to drum up support for U.S. entry into World War I and embarrass Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who was running for re-election on a platform that stressed, “He kept us out of war!”
A lot of people supported neither the war nor the parade, however. The opponents particularly included the union organizers who were the radicals of that period — “reds” who were trying to establish the right of unionization in the face of often violent opposition from the business interests who controlled the city and who most assuredly supported the war.
Many thousands of spectators, as many as 100,000 by some accounts, lined the parade route down Market Street, cheering and enthusiastically waving American flags. At precisely 2:06, less than a half-hour after the parade of more than 25,000 marchers had begun, just as contingents from the Grand Army of the Republic and Sons of the American Revolution were passing the crowded corner of Steuart and Market streets… Boom!
It was the thunderous blast of a bomb that had either been thrown into the crowd or planted there. The horrific explosion killed 10 bystanders and seriously wounded 40 others.
Within a few hours, the authorities had their culprits. Not surprisingly, all of those arrested as suspects were union organizers. Among them were two men who were especially despised by the city’s virulently anti-labor business establishment -- Tom Mooney, 34, a burly Irish-American organizer for the International Molders Union who was one of San Francisco’s most prominent labor activists, and his close friend, slim, short, boyish Warren Billings, a 23-year-old shoe factory worker.
Mooney and Billings were San Francisco’s “most notorious reds,” declared the SF Chamber of Commerce in one of its typically frenzied assessments of those who dared challenge the status quo in which workers were treated as mere chattel.
The others who were arrested were soon freed, but Mooney and Billings were put on trial and eventually found guilty. Mooney was sentenced to death by hanging, Billings to life imprisonment.
There’s absolutely no doubt Mooney and Billings were framed. Federal investigators, investigative newspaper reporters and others proved that beyond any doubt. The city’s famously corrupt district attorney, Charles Frickert, was found to have suppressed evidence that proved the pair’s innocence, joining with corrupt policemen to fabricate evidence that supposedly proved their guilt, and failing to call witnesses who, as he knew, had solid evidence that they were not guilty. Frickert hired other witnesses and coached them to give perjured testimony implicating Mooney and Billings.
Eventually, every major witness confessed to lying to the juries at both the Mooney and Billings trials. Some of them claimed to have seen the men plant the bomb on the day of the explosion, although it turned out the supposed eye-witnesses hadn’t even been in the city at the time.
Some gave their perjured testimony in exchange for such favors as the parole of relatives who were serving prison sentences, others for the pay District Attorney Frickert offered them. All were after the $17,500 reward posted for evidence leading to the conviction of Mooney and Billings.
The judge who presided over Mooney’s trial told California’s governor he had determined through personal investigation that “every single witness who testified against Mooney had lied.” Mooney’s lawyer declared them “the weirdest collection of God-damned liars” he’d ever seen.
A federal fact-finding commission concluded that “there was never any scientific attempt made by either the police or the prosecution to discover the perpetrators of the crime. The investigation was in reality turned over to a private detective, who used his position to cause the arrest of the defendants.”
Fremont Older, the crusading editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, concluded that the authorities “conspired to murder a man with the instruments that the people have provided for bringing about justice. There isn’t a scrap of testimony that wasn’t perjured.”
The cases quickly drew widespread national attention, right up to the White House. President Wilson argued against Mooney’s hanging on grounds that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support his guilt.
It was obvious that the Chamber of Commerce’s so-called Law and Order Committee had played a major role in framing Mooney and Billings as part of the chamber’s drive to change San Francisco’s status as one of the country’s most heavily unionized cities.
Mooney and Billings, of course, had been attempting to enhance that status, in part by helping wage major organizing drives among the city’s vital transit workers and the equally vital employees of the company that supplied the city’s gas and electricity. Which was a very good reason the utility company — Pacific Gas & Electric - hired the private detective cited by federal fact-finders to help District Attorney Frickert and the police fabricate evidence against Mooney and Billings. Not incidentally, Frickert was backed financially by Pacific Gas & Electric in his election campaigns for district attorney.
The convictions prompted protests across the United States and worldwide, much like those raised five years later in behalf of two other union radicals, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vinzetti, who were executed in Massachusetts for a murder they clearly did not commit.
The Mooney and Billings case was dubbed internationally as “America’s Dreyfus Case,” a comparison to the famous French case that also drew worldwide protests. The protests stemmed from the rigged conviction of Jewish French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 for allegedly attempting to turn over secret military documents to the German government. Although the “Dreyfus Affair,” as it was called, was based on another issue — anti-Semitism — it similarly involved the use of false evidence against an innocent man by powerful authorities.
Protestors in the United States and abroad quickly formed a network of defense committees in behalf of Mooney and Billings, and mounted rallies and other noisy and highly visible public demonstrations.
Freeing the two men became labor’s cause célèbre. Unions everywhere voiced loud and frequent protests, as did all other segments of the left, ranging from liberal to Communist. Eventually, they helped force California authorities to reduce Mooney’s death sentence to life imprisonment, ironically on the basis of evidence that should have freed him.
President Wilson’s request that Mooney be spared was probably the main reason his sentence was commutated, but the heavy pressures of the Mooney-Billings defense committees and the American Federation of Labor, which Wilson most certainly felt, also had much to do with it.
Mooney finally was freed in 1939, twenty-one years later. Culbert Olson, California’s first Democratic governor in 44 years, granted him a full and unconditional pardon. Mooney, said Gov. Olson, was “wholly innocent,” and his conviction “wholly based on perjured testimony.”
Mooney’s release sparked great celebration among his supporters, who had fought so long for his freedom. Thousands paraded up Market Street behind Mooney shortly after his release, the street cleared for them by police, past the site of the explosion 23 years earlier that had sent Mooney to prison.
The next day, Mooney joined a picket line of striking department store employees on Market Street and donated to their cause half of the $10 the state had given him on his release from San Quentin Prison. Mooney sent the other half to Newspaper Guild members who were waging a major strike in Chicago.
Tom Mooney hadn’t much time to enjoy his freedom. His health had been broken in prison and he soon was hospitalized with a serious stomach ailment. He remained in a hospital bed until his death at age 60, less than two years later.
Billings got his freedom a few months after Mooney left San Quentin. Gov. Olson commutated his life sentence to time served — 23 years for a crime that no one really believed he or Mooney had committed. Finally, in 1961, Gov. Edmund G. Brown granted Billings a full pardon. But, as Billings complained, it was granted on grounds that he had been “rehabilitated” rather than because he was innocent.
After leaving prison, Billings married and settled down in San Mateo, working in San Francisco as a watch repairman, a trade he had learned in prison, and later set up his own repair business at home. Billings quickly resumed his labor activism, as a member of the Watchmakers Union executive board and delegate to the San Mateo Labor Council. He was active as well in the anti-Vietnam War movement and various other political, economic and social causes.
I interviewed Billings just before his death in 1972 at age 79. I expected to encounter a bitter, angry old man. Yes, he was old, but his spritely manner belied that basic fact of his life, and he showed absolutely no bitterness over the great injustice that had been done him — none! He talked instead of injustices that were being done to others, and of joining in efforts to help overcome them.
“I don’t have anything against anybody about anything,” Billings told me. “The people who testified against me were after that reward, but it all went to the police who arrested me. I’ve never felt any bitterness, but the fact that the witnesses against me didn’t get any of the reward money should make them bitter.”
Warren K. Billings was a great inspiration to me and others who knew him, and to many who just knew of him. He was a man possessing a spirit that could not be broken by circumstances far more severe than most of us have ever had to endure. A man who would not even raise his voice in anger or bitterness against the terrible injustice that was done him. A man who maintained his convictions through it all. A strong and courageous man, but kind and gentle, and possessed of an incredible measure of tolerance and understanding.
The Preparedness Day bombing has never been solved. ¥¥
(Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based columnist, has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com. NOTE: For more details on the Mooney-Billings case, see “Frame-up” by Curt Gentry, an extraordinary book covering all aspects of the case.)