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Lydia Beidel

Famous American Labor Trials

State of California versus Mooney and Billings

(18 October 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 42, 18 October 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Sentenced at San Francisco in Jan. 1917 to death for Mooney
and life imprisonment for Billings.

* * *

Background of the Case

In July 1916, the United States verged on war. Wilson had been re-elected to the presidency on a pacifist program, but the American invasion of Mexico to protect American oil interests indicated the actual tendencies of the administration. Feeling for and against war naturally expressed itself strongly in class terms: strikes and lockouts; open-shop drives; flourishing business for strike-breaking agencies. The “American Plan” – a fancy term for a national open-shop policy – was pushed by boss agencies.

San Francisco was the scene of a labor upsurge. Strikes tied up the waterfront,, restaurants, automobile machine shops. The Chamber of Commerce at once raised the “Red” issue and a howl went up for an assault upon labor unionism. This howl emanated loudest from the mouths of the owners of United Railroads – controllers of San Francisco traffic – and allied electric-power interests, among whose employees a campaign of union organization was going forward.

Charles M. Fickert, a profane, obscene, vicious ignoramus whose Stanford University associations had enabled him to advance from strike-breaking in the San Francisco trucking industry to the California bar, was put into office as public prosecutor by United Railroad money.

A 33-year-old left-wing labor organizer, Thomas J. Mooney, and his automobile-mechanic friend, Warren K. Billings, were militantly engaged in the organization of United Railroad’s street car employees. By July 1916, they had staged one abortive strike in their campaign.

On July 10, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce held a notorious meeting to lay out a strategy which would smash unionism in the city. Captain Robert Dollar here delivered himself of the guiding slogan to symbolize the “noble” work: “If a law-abiding working-man is beaten up, then beat up two strikers!”

Aroused to a fever of enthusiasm by such talk, the bosses at the meeting voted to raise $1,000,000 for the cause of anti-unionism. A spectacular aspect of the plan, was to be a “Preparedness Day Parade.”

Basis of the Frame-Up

July 22 was chosen for the great pro-war, anti-labor parade. The provocative nature of this demonstration was recognized by everyone in the city. Liberals condemned it for its “militaristic” import; the labor unions unanimously denounced it as air “open-shop parade.” Business clubs, veterans’ organizations; some non-union workers and the jingoistic public officials joined the Chamber of Commerce in support of it.

Great tension and feverish excitement were whooped up and developed to a point of mass hysteria by the day of the parade. In the two weeks preceding July 22, more than 200 notes – all written by the same obviously demented person – were received by various individuals, threatening disaster and violence if the parade were held. No attempt to find the writer was made by the police.

At 1:30 p.m. the parade swung out of the Embarcadero into Market Street. At 2:06, a bomb went off at Market and Steuart Streets, killing 10 people (6 outright) and injuring 40, including on-lookers as well as paraders. The bomb was evidently a homemade instrument, of relatively small force (as bombs go), but its actual composition could never be determined, for, at 3:30, the police turned a fire hose on the street and sluiced down the sewers every speck of material evidence experts might have used to establish the origin of the bomb.

The Arrests

A certain Martin Swanson, ex-Pinkerton man employed at the time of the bomb outrage as private detective for the United Railroads, had for some time had Mooney and Billings constantly shadowed. On the 23rd of July Swanson appeared at Fickert’s office and was hired, as a special investigator on the Preparedness Day case.

Immediately the tone of the horror stories about the bombing took on a new tone. “Anarchists,” “fanatics,” “labor terrorists” began to be featured. A huge reward was offered for the one who could do most to stop “anarchy.” After several days of well-planned anti-labor hysteria-rousing, three arrests were made and it was announced that Mooney and his wife, also sought for arrest, had fled.

The arrested were Edward Nolan and Israel Weinberg, both friends of Mooney and associates in his labor activities, and Warren K. Billings, who was arrested at Lane Hospital, where Swanson knew he had an appointment (for treatment for a minor ailment). None of the arrested offered any resistance. All were held incommunicado.

Mooney and his wife, on vacation at Montesano, California, read of their having “fled arrest” as they were rowing on a river. Still dressed in bathing suits, they walked to the nearest telegraph office and wired the San Francisco chief of police of their return by the first available train. Upon their arrival in the City they were arrested without warrants and also held incommunicado.

The Trials

On August 2, an indictment for nine murders each was brought against the prisoners. The trial was set for six weeks later. The newspapers increased their howl against “labor terrorists” and “anarchists,” remembering suddenly that Mooney had once written an article for an anarchist paper, The Blast.

Billings was brought to trial first. It was expected that conviction in his case would hasten conviction for Mooney. Billings had once before been put on trial for having allegedly transported explosives on a public conveyance and had been convicted; this record was held against him now. A string of “fixed” witnesses was brought to testify; but the prosecutor, mistrusting his own case, did not ask for death although the charge was serious enough to warrant his doing so. The jury, after a few hours’ deliberation, returned a verdict of guilty, ano Billings was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mooney’s trial began on January 3, 1917. The prosecutor, determined to get a death sentence for his prisoner, spent a good deal of time and energy building his case. A fantastic theory was concocted, involving the moving of Weinberg’s taxi loaded with five persons and a suitcase full of dynamite against the stream of the parade for three-quarters of a mile, the placing of the suitcase against a wall and the rapid escape of all five criminals through a dense mass of humanity.

Although it was obvious from the testimony presented by the prosecution that every move of the two important prisoners was known to Swanson and Fickert, not one single detective took the stand to testify to the whereabouts of the men on the day of the bomb outrage.

Not only was the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution mutually contradictory in many instances, but the people themselves who appeared to do their bit for Fickert and the Chamber of Commerce were an amazing lot: a prostitute, a convicted perjurer; the unbalanced inmate of a charity lodging house who died later with $83,000 on his person; two religious maniacs with a “gift-of-tongues”; a syphilitic convicted wife deserter; and a weak-minded derelict who was later condemned by another court as a “psychopathic liar.”

The cream of the crop, however, and the star witness for the state, was one Frank C. Oxman, an “honest Oregon cattleman” whose wide-open weather-beaten countenance and homely drawl seemed the very essence of unimpeachable integrity. He claimed he not only saw Mooney and Billings and the rest, get out of a taxi and place a suitcase against the wall of a building, but he even – with a foresight evidently peculiar to Oregon cattlemen – took the license number of the taxi; it was, “of course”, Weinberg’s car!

Oxman’s testimony cinched the ease. The jury took it and shortly returned with a verdict of guilty punishable by death by hanging.

Hardly had the echo of the sentence died when Oxman was disclosed as a perjurer of the highest order. Not only had he not seen the bombing, but he had been actually in Woodland, California until nine minutes after the explosion occurred. He had done his best to persuade a friend to perjure himself by substantiating his story but the friend had declined. It was this friend’s horror at the verdict that made him denounce Oxman. The labor unions of Illinois (where the friend lived) took up the fight to disclose Oxman’s criminality and led the fight to have the man tried and convicted of subornation of perjury and perjury.

Rena Mooney, Nolan and Weinberg were released finally after spending a year or more in prison without having been convicted.

World Protest

Now began the twenty-one-year straggle of organized labor in every part of the world to open the jail, door for Mooney and Billings. So loud and demonstrative a protest rose immediately upon the convictions that first the governor of California was forced to issue a reprieve of Mooney’s death sentence from October to December 13, 1918 and later to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

President Wilson was forced to intercede for clemency since the case had, as he put it, “assumed an international importance.” Two government commissions were appointed to review the case and each reported that the evidence did not warrant conviction. All attempts on the part of the defense to have the case reversed or to effect a pardon met with failure. As in the Sacco and Vanzetti cases to follow, the bourgeois state machine was stubborn in its determination not to permit labor to win a victory.

The Pardons

By 1938 the Mooney-Billings case had become so outstanding an issue that the gubernatorial elections in California featured promises made by the candidates concerning their behavior toward the two famous prisoners if they were elected. Culbert L. Olson, who was elected, had promised that the release of American labor’s two most famous living prisoners would be one of his first administrative acts. On January 7, 1939, Mooney left his prison cell, followed on October 17, by his fellow worker, Billings.

Thus did Mooney and Billings, victims of the anti-labor, pro-war bosses in World War I, finally gain their freedom on the eve of World War II.

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