Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,500

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,500

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For this landmark number in the grave series, I went for one of my most hated Americans. Thus, this is the grave of Harrison Gray Otis.

Born in 1837 outside of Marietta, Ohio, Otis went to the common schools and left school at the age of 14 to become a printer’s apprentice. He moved to Kentucky for awhile and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention to support Abraham Lincoln in 1860, so he not only already had shown interest in politics but had enough chops to get attention as a young man. Otis enlisted immediately upon the Civil War beginning as a private. He was promoted consistently, which wasn’t so hard if you had a few political connections and were any good at soldiering. He was at Antietam, Lynchburg, Carnifex Ferry, and several other battles. He became a first lieutenant in March 1863 and made it all the way to lieutenant colonel by March 1865.

Otis decided to take his printer’s experience and his war record and move up in the world. He got a job as the Official Reporter for the Ohio House, which is the kind of thing you really did political connections for. He was good at fostering these and before long, he was in Washington, working in the Grant administration and for the Republican Party in various editing and writing gigs. But in 1876, he decided to move out to California and this is where Otis would become infamous. He bought a little newspaper in Santa Barbara. He briefly detoured when the Hayes administration offered him a job as the special treasury agent in what is today the Pribilof Islands, way off the southwest coast of Alaska, north of the Aleutians. I am trying to wrap my head about what a miserable place that would have been at the time, but that’s the kind of job Otis, a minor league guy at this point, was going to get, He stuck it out two years and returned to California in 1881.

In 1882, Otis struck a deal with the owners of the Los Angeles Times to edit their paper as a Republican rag. He was good at this and by 1886, was the president and general manager as well. As the man who ran the Times, he was the epitome of far right Gilded Age rich guy reactionary sentiments. I mean, this guy really sucked. By this time, while the Democratic Party was the prime race-baiting party in the United States, most of the Republicans had more or less adopted the racial ideas of Democrats, so they cared less and less about racial equality. The Republicans had moved headlong into a party of waving the bloody shirt to get votes and then supporting policies that made rich people even richer. Otis was a huge part of this.

Otis had one big vision for Los Angeles. He wanted to keep all unions out of it. This man hated unions. Despised them. Like other Gilded Age capitalists, he saw any combination to restrict the flow of capital as not only bad for his personal operations but un-American and therefore needed be crushed before this small union or protest movement became the Paris Commune. Otis used the pages of Times to attack unions left and right, fear-mongering like crazy. He also organized Los Angeles businessmen to resist unions as one.

In 1896, Otis took over the city’s Merchants Association and turned it to an virulently anti-union organization. Using his powerful newspaper as a mouthpiece for antiunionism, Otis spent the next two decades as the nation’s most important anti-union advocate. Some of this was ideology, some of it was LA boosters trying to undermine unionized San Francisco as the center of the California economy. San Francisco was a union town, at least for the time. LA….was not. Otis went all in for the rest of his life to keep it this way. His vision of Los Angeles was as a far-right paradise, at least by the meaning of that term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, if not today.

Otis was even too vile for the McKinley administration, which was not exactly a force of progressivism within the Republican Party. When the U.S. decided to invade Cuba and become an imperialist power, Otis was of course all in. He decided to cash in his favors and he sent a letter to McKinley basically demanding he be named Assistant Secretary of War. This was vetoed by Secretary of War Russell Alger, himself basically a rich right-wing Gilded Age capitalist (Michigan timber edition), who wanted noting to do with someone that reactionary and also egotistical jerk serving under him. So Otis volunteered for the Army and actually was in the Philippines as brigadier general of volunteers. By the time he got over there, the Spanish were defeated, but he got to lead troops in the genocidal actions to force the Filipinos to submit to American control.

By 1910, unionists were desperate to make some progress in Los Angeles. But Otis would publish any lie about them. He was so awful and said such horrendous things about union members that finally the Ironworkers decided to bomb the Los Angeles Times building. This was a very stupid idea. n 1910, the Iron Workers launched a major organizing campaign in Los Angeles. They wanted a minimum wage of 50 cents an hour and overtime pay. Otis led the opposition. He and his employers organization raised $350,000 to fight the strike. A court judge issued injunctions that banned picketing. The Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance banning picketing or “speaking in public streets in a loud or unusual tone.” The strikers refused to follow these absurd laws and 472 were arrested. The strike was going pretty well and the total number of union members went up by 60%.

Yet on October 1, a bomb went off under the LA Times building. It was supposed to explode at 4 a.m. in order to not hurt anyone but the faulty timing mechanism set it off just after 1, meaning people were still working, including a bunch of reporters finishing a story late. Most of the dead were killed by the fire caused by the explosion. The next day, unexploded bombs were found underneath Otis’ home, as well as other sites around the city, although many claim that these were probably planted by the police to frame the union, an entirely possible scenario regardless of who bombed the actual building.

Otis immediately claimed the unionists had blown up his building. He wrote in the Times, “You anarchic scum. You cowardly murderers, you midnight assassins, you whose hands are dripping with the innocent blood of your victims, have committed one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world.” Unionists on the other hand believed Otis dastardly enough to bomb his own building just to frame the union.

Unfortunately of course, it was Ironworkers leadership who had done the deed. This ended up setting the labor cause back in Los Angeles for a generation. Otis was absolutely a scumbag. And if anyone deserved to have his newspaper bombed, it was Otis. But the problem with political violence is not so much the act itself but the reality that most of the people who do this are going to fuck it up and cause a huge reaction, kill innocent people, etc. And boy did they fuck this up…..But this still doesn’t let Otis off the hook as one of the worst humans in American history.

Otis also was the worst kind of rapacious developer and he saw Mexico as the place to do it. He and his son-in-law and future successor, the equally loathsome Harry Chandler, formed the Colorado River Land Company that basically bought as much of Baja California as it could. This was the Porfiriato in Mexico, when its dictator Porfirio Diaz was in thrall for any kind of American development and would give enormous concessions to American capitalists to come in and “develop” his nation, which just meant despoiling it like you would a colonized nation. Not surprisingly, there was huge resentment in Mexico toward Otis and his like and this led to the Mexican Revolution. The massive agricultural operations Otis owned actually survived the initial revolution but did not survive the post-revolution land appropriations that served as a centerpiece of the revolutionary legacy there, as limited as it ended up being.

Otis kept his empire up until 1917, when he died, at the age of 80. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to die of a heart attack when he heard the Mexicans were expropriating his land. I could write a lot more, but this is almost 1,500 words, so let’s stop.

Harrison Gray Otis is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

Post 1,500!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What an accomplishment to the powers of obsessive-compulsive disorder channeled into production work. If you would like this series to visit another 1,500 graves, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. In the realm of terrible Americans I have not yet visited, Alexander Stephens is in Crawfordville, Georgia and Barry Goldwater is in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Time to donate specifically for profiling American scumbags! Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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