On July 22, 1916, the San Francisco Preparedness Day parade was to be the largest ever held in The City. Led by Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph, the parade began on Market Street at 1:30 p.m. Ten minutes later, a short, dark-complexioned man set a large tan suitcase down by the wall of the Ferry Exchange Saloon on the corner of Market and Steuart Street and walked away.
At 2:06 p.m., a time-bomb inside the suitcase exploded, shooting hundreds of pieces of shrapnel into the street at the speed of three thousand feet per second. Ten people were killed and 40 were wounded. The steel pipe bomb had been filled with metal slugs to make it more deadly. It was the worst terrorist act in San Francisco history.
Police Lieutenant Duncan Matheson began evacuating the wounded and left another officer in charge at the scene. When he returned an hour later, he found an officer spraying the street with a fire hose, washing vital evidence down the sewer.
A $17,000 reward — approximately $400,000 in today’s money — was offered. The editor of The New York Times correctly predicted that a reward of that size would be “a sweepstake for perjurers.” Police had no real clues, so the newly formed bomb squad made out a list of obvious suspects. Famous anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman led the list, but left-wing labor activists Tom Mooney and Warren Billings also appeared as possible suspects.
By July 26, the bomb squad had still not identified a suspect. But San Francisco District Attorney Charles Frickert didn’t care; he had already chosen the guilty parties.
Three days earlier, on the night of the bombing, Martin Swenson, a Pinkerton detective working for United Railroads, the city streetcar company, and PG&E met privately with Frickert and told him Mooney and Billings were the bombers. Swenson — who was to Mooney as Inspector Javert was to Jean Valjean — had been trying for months to frame Mooney for a previous PG&E bombing. Frickert, who had been elected with a secret $100,000 fund from United Railroads, agreed and put Swenson in charge of the investigation.
Their first step was to alter the facts to fit Mooney and Billings. To make the conspiracy more impressive, Tom’s wife Reena, labor organizer Edward Nolan, and cab driver Israel Weinberg were added as co-defendants.
Adjusting the description of the bombers was the first order of business. A number of witnesses had said the bombers were short swarthy men, a description that fit neither Billings nor Mooney. One of the witnesses, John MacDonald, was approached and convinced to identify Mooney and Billings in exchange for a large share of the reward money. Other witnesses were induced to change their stories to fit the new narrative.
Frickert planned three trials as a kind of banquet of injustice. Billings, in the first trial, would serve as the appetizer. Mooney was the main course. For dessert, Frickert intended to send Reena, Nolan and Weinberg to prison. Using perjured testimony and a stacked deck of prosecution-friendly jurors, Billings was convicted.
At Mooney’s trial, Frank Oxman, a cattle rancher, was the star witness. He identified Tom and Reena Mooney, Billings and Weinberg as being in a car and depositing the suitcase on the curb. During cross-examination, he produced a sheet of paper upon which he had written the license plate of Weinberg’s car.
Although the defense produced a photograph showing that Mooney was nowhere near the bomb site at the time of the bombing, Oxman’s testimony convinced the jury, which found Mooney guilty. On Feb. 24, 1917 Mooney was sentenced to hang.
Just weeks later, Fremont Older, managing editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, received a bombshell: a series of letters Frank Oxman had written to a friend. In the letters, Oxman asked his friend to perjure himself for the reward money and admitted that he had not even been in San Francisco at the time of the bombing. Older, who was San Francisco’s preeminent journalist for more than 40 years, made the Mooney case his personal crusade.
For weeks, the Bulletin ran stories exposing the evidence that Frickert had manufactured against Mooney and Billings. Rena Mooney and her co-defendants were quickly acquitted in their trial, but Mooney and Billings were not able to get a new trial and Mooney’s execution date, May 17, was coming closer.
Huge protest demonstrations were held around the world. The stench of the frame-up reached Washington, where Woodrow Wilson, afraid of the effect that the case would have internationally, convinced the Governor of California to commute Mooney’s sentence.
Despite the evidence of their innocence, Mooney and Billings remained in San Quentin. For the next 23 years, the Mooney case became the great international cause célèbre. “Free Tom Mooney!” screamed the banners in Moscow, New York, London and Paris. It was often referred to as the American Dreyfus Case.
Finally in 1939, a Democratic Governor, Culbert Olson, was elected. Mooney was pardoned, and the freed man paraded in triumph down Market Street. That was Mooney’s last hurrah: He out of touch with the labor movement and his attempt to divorce his loyal wife lost him a lot of sympathy. His health, weakened by his years in jail, worsened. By the time he died in 1942, he was a forgotten man.
Billings’ life had a different ending. In 1936, young Josephine Rudolph was about to write a letter to Tom Mooney. “Everyone writes to Mooney,” said her mother. “Why don’t you write to Warren Billings? Thus began a correspondence that led to romance, and Josephine and Warren were married in 1940, the year he was released.
Warren, who had learned watch-making in prison, opened a small shop on Market Street. Though he had every right to be bitter, he became a generous and forgiving man. He stayed active politically, demonstrating against McCarthy and the Vietnam War, and lived happily with Josephine for the next 32 years. He died on Sept. 5, 1972, beloved by all who knew him.
The Preparedness Day Bombing has never been solved.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. Drexler leads a Crooks Tour of Chinatown on Saturday, Sept. 24, at noon. For tickets, visit www.crookstour.com.