It was an unusually hot July day in San Francisco. There was a parade on that day in 1916 – a “Preparedness Day” parade to drum up support for U.S. entry into World War I.
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 San Francisco.
At precisely 2:06, less than a half-hour after the parade of more than 25,000 marchers had begun, just as a contingent from the Sons of the Revolution was passing a particularly crowed street corner . . .
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, all of them union organizers, including two men who were especially despised by the city’s 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.
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 notoriously 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 Mooney and Billings 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 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 said he had determined through personal investigation later that “every single witness who testified against Mooney had lied.”
The cases quickly drew widespread national attention, right up to the White House. President Woodrow 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 diminish 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 transit workers and employees of the company – Pacific Gas & Electric – that supplied the city’s gas and electricity. Which was a very good reason the utility company hired a private detective to help District Attorney Frickert and the police fabricate evidence.
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. 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 commuted, 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. Gov. Culbert Olson granted him a full and unconditional pardon. The governor said Mooney was "wholly innocent" and his conviction "wholly based on perjured testimony."
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 commuted 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. Pat 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 began working as a watch repairman, a trade he had learned in prison. Billings quickly resumed his labor activism, as a member of the Watchmakers Union executive board. 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. 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.”
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 on the Mooney-Billings case, see the book "Frame-up" by Curt Gentry, an extraordinary work of investigative journalism covering all aspects of the case.