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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,396

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This is the grave of Tom Mooney.

Born in Chicago in 1882, Mooney grew up in an Irish immigrant working class family. His father was a Knights of Labor organizer and coal miner who was engaged in some pretty hard core stuff, at least according to family legends. Supposedly, he was once beaten so badly that he nearly died. In any case, he did in fact die in 1892, but it was from silicosis from the mining. Or maybe it was tuberculosis. In any case, he was dead. Mooney was the oldest boy in the family and he dropped out of school to help support the family.

Now, Mooney was a different cat even back as a young man. The idea of travel for working class men was not something that anyone really did, especially international travel. But he slowly saved money to go to Europe and he managed to actually do it, taking a very long trip through Europe (I assume he worked his way across it). He was always interested in working class movements and so he met a lot of radicals on his trip and became a socialist.

When he came back to America, Mooney moved to California. He became an active member of the Socialist Party there and worked hard for Eugene Debs in his 1912 presidential campaign. He took a second trip to Europe representing the Socialists at the Second International in Copenhagen and visited Britain too, meeting with various radicals.

But as a radical, Mooney was vulnerable to being set up and this was a problem for him. Some of it was the authorities hated these people and would stop at nothing to eliminate them, even if it meant breaking the law themselves. What was the law if you were the law? But also, Mooney might not have been that bright or savvy. In 1913, he was set up by the Pinkertons to carry a briefcase filled with explosives from Oakland to Sacramento. He didn’t know what was in the case and didn’t ask. But he was arrested upon arrival and sent to Folsom for two years. He was released on appeal the next year and got involved in the case to free the IWW radical Joe Hill, about to be executed in Utah for a murder he certainly didn’t commit. Mooney and Alexander Berkman then started a newspaper together called Blast, which was probably not a great name for an anarchist paper given what Americans already thought about this ideology.

In 1916, streetcar workers in San Francisco struck. Some radical blew up a high voltage tower that belonged to the Sierra and San Francisco Power Company, which supplied the electricity to the trains and was involved in opposing the workers. A ex-Pinkerton now working for the utilities in San Francisco named Martin Swanson believed Mooney did it. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But Swanson was determined to pin it on him anyway and started bribing people to put him away. One of those people was a man named Warren Billings. But Billings rejected the bribe offer and told Mooney about it. Swanson would have his revenge.

On July 22, 1916, San Francisco employers decided to go full militarism and had a parade they called the Preparedness Day March. This was a combination of pro-intervention in World War I and anti-union repression. It was criticized by William Jennings Bryan, presently Secretary of State for Wilson. During the parade, a bomb went off. Six people died. Witnesses suggested they were likely Mexicans and given the sizable anarchist movement in Mexico and Mexican-American communities during the Mexican Revolution, this is by no means impossible. The Chamber of Commerce saw an opportunity. They offered a huge reward, one so big that even that hack paper of the employer class, The New York Times, publicly condemned it as incentivizing lying.

Swanson immediately decided to use this bombing to get Mooney and Billings. It worked. He had them and others arrested. The evidence was non-existent. But the forces of order didn’t care. They railroaded Mooney into a death sentence and Billings to life imprisonment. It was total injustice. Mooney might have been an idiot in some ways, but it is very unlikely that he did this and even if he did, there was no actual evidence.

Now, Mooney almost certainly was set up in this bombing. But the authorities in California didn’t care. What got interesting was how much other authorities very much did care, all the way up to the Wilson administration. Wilson was hardly a friend of radicals. He did more for organized labor than any other president in history up to that point and would bring the American Federation of Labor into the government in unprecedented ways during World War I, but as for radicals, he was happy to let authorities do whatever they wanted to them. But here, this was too far for Wilson. Even he thought this was ridiculous. Secretary of Labor William Wilson, a good trade unionist but no radical, got the authority to install a dictaphone in the office of the District Attorney. It provided incontrovertible evidence that they had pinned this on Mooney and Billings through nefarious means. Then a cop admitted to the mayor that he was part of the set-up. By 1921, another man had confessed that he was paid to lie about seeing them plant the bomb.

The pressure forced California to commute his sentence to life in prison. This made Tom Mooney probably the most famous political prisoner over the next twenty years. There were others of course–Sacco and Vanzetti most notably, Debs during his time in prison, and then slightly lesser known cases such as those railroaded into prison after the Centralia Massacre. But no one was more famous for longer as a political prisoner than Mooney. The Free Tom Mooney Committee (Billings was decidedly a secondary figure in all this, just a less charismatic guy I guess) attracted all sorts of people, from anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to Hollywood stars to New York mayor Jimmy Walker.

Mooney spent all those years working on his case and being an orderly in the San Quentin hospital. He was very good at self-promotion, no question about that. It was a global cause. In 1935, someone did a survey of Europeans about which Americans they could name. Mooney was 4th on that list, behind only FDR, Charles Lindbergh, and Henry Ford.

The problem with Mooney’s case was that the California Republican Party was a pretty far right party for Republicans at this time and they all hated Mooney and everything he stood for. But for 44 years, Republicans controlled the statehouse in Sacramento. None of them were going to do a thing for a radical.

In 1937, Mooney filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court. The Court refused to consider it on procedural grounds–it needed to be filed at the state level. However, this was the most thorough documentation on how he was railroaded into prison based on false evidence. This, plus the growing liberalism of California, created the conditions for Mooney’s release. In 1938, the state elected a pretty liberal governor named Cuthbert Olson, breaking that nearly half-century Republican control over the state. Olson pardoned Mooney and Billings in 1939 after twenty-two years in prison.

Out of prison, Mooney was significantly less romantic than he was in prison. He was a man with a very large ego at this point. I guess two decades of having to justify your existence on the planet against great evil will do that. His wife had left him finally by this point and even his comrades in the labor movement realized he was a big pain in the butt. Mooney traveled around making big speeches, including a real big one at Madison Square Garden. Billings fell into obscurity.

Mooney was still a radical and he pushed this hard on his speaking tour. But all those years in prison had been pretty bad on his health. He collapsed during the tour and had to end it. He faced serious medical problems. He appealed to the California Federation of Labor to pay his medical bills, but it refused. Organized labor didn’t want anything to do with such a radical. While on his death bed, he led a campaign to free Earl Browder from prison, where the Communist was thrown after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, theoretically based on passport fraud, but really just another Red Scare moment. But he had his gallbladder removed in an emergency surgery and never really recovered. He lived another two years but died almost forgotten in 1942. He was 59 years old.

Tom Mooney is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other American leftists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Morris Hillquit is in Queens and so is Adolph Douai. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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