Detective William J. Burns and the Los Angeles Times Case Part 2

About the famous detective William J. Burns and the Los Angeles Times case, account of the crime, chase, and solution.


The Chase

Shortly after the newspaper plant had been turned into rubble, a suspicious suitcase was found in the home of the paper's owner, Harrison Gray Otis. When the police attempted to open it, they heard a whirring sound and dived into a ditch. The suitcase exploded, but the police escaped injury. Another suitcase was found and disarmed at the home of the secretary of the local Merchants and Manufacturers Association.

When Burns examined this unexploded bomb, he noticed similarities to a dud bomb discovered in East Peoria, Ill., several weeks earlier. The timing and detonating devices were identical; however, the Los Angeles bomb had been powered by 80% dynamite and the East Peoria bombs had been made with nitroglycerin.

Burns's men traced the explosives to their source and got the names and descriptions of the purchasers. The nitro had been purchased by a man calling himself J. W. McGraw. The dynamite had been sold to three men who had identified themselves as J. B. Bryson, Morris, and Leonard.

Next, the signatures used to obtain the explosives were compared with the handwriting on hotel registers. The Burns men soon caught up with some of their suspects, but they were far from having an airtight case to present in court. They knew that Morris was really an anarchist named David Caplan, and that Leonard was a confederate of Caplan's named Matt A. Schmidt; but J. B. Bryson had yet to be identified. J.W. McGraw of the East Peoria case was identified as an Indianapolis resident named Ortie McManigal.

The detective now had the difficult job of keeping his suspects under surveillance until positive identifications could be made by the explosives dealers. Moreover, because Burns had refused to tell the Los Angeles authorities all he had found out for fear of premature disclosure, he no longer had a client. The cost of the investigation was coming out of his own pocket.

The McManigal led Burns to the fourth man. J.B. Bryson turned out to be James B. McNamara, brother of John J. McNamara, who was secretary-treasurer of the International Union of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. What had looked like the work of a group of fanatic anarchists was instead quite obviously union-inspired.

A deal was made with McManigal. He agreed to be a witness against the others and gave the locations of hidden explosives. The McNamaras were indicted and put on trial. Unionists everywhere rallied to their cause, huge sums of money were raised for their defense, and the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow was hired to defend them.

But the evidence against the McNamaras was incontrovertible. And shortly before they were to go to trial, one of Darrow's men was caught trying to bribe two potential jurors. Now there was no hope of an acquittal, real or arranged. To save their necks, the McNamaras pleaded guilty.

The Solution

James McNamara was sentenced to life in prison. His brother received a 15-year sentence because he could not be linked to the Los Angeles bombings directly.

Clarence Darrow was tried on one count of bribery and acquitted. A second charge of bribery ended with a hung jury. Darrow promised to leave California and never again practice law in that state. His reputation, however, was not permanently scarred. Darrow was later involved in a number of celebrated cases, including the Scopes "Monkey" trial in 1925.

The anarchists Caplan and Schmidt managed to evade capture until 1915. Then they were each given a life sentence.

In 1921 Burns accepted an appointment as director of the Bureau of Investigation (now the Federal Bureau of Investigation). One of his young assistants was J. Edgar Hoover. Much of Burns's style, particularly his love of personal publicity and his inclination to make a story improve with age, was used to good effect by Hoover in later years.

Burns died of heart failure in 1932. At that time he was a detective of such stature that his only equals were found in fiction.

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