The Mooney–Billings Case

One hundred years ago, everyone knew who Tom Mooney was. Simply mentioning his name could start an argument. To many, he was a political prisoner, a labor martyr framed for a murder he didn’t commit. For others, he was a troublemaker, a violent revolutionary and a dangerous man. But there was one fact that everyone who knew him — from his most fervent supporters to his bitterest enemies — could agree upon: Tom Mooney was a real pain in the ass.

The son of an Irish immigrant coal miner and labor organizer, Mooney joined the Iron Molders Union at age 14. A man large in both stature and personality, Mooney became editor of the journal Revolt in 1911 and earned a reputation as a militant writer and speaker. He became friends with radical luminaries such as “Big Bill” Haywood and Mary “Mother” Jones. But there was a less attractive side to Mooney. He was very belligerent and intolerant of others, even those who shared his political views.

Still, his dynamism attracted followers. One was Rena Herrman, a young socialist and music teacher, whom he married in 1911. Another was Warren Billings, a slight boyish-looking man who became Mooney’s assistant. Mooney and Billings believed in direct action and worked with a radical wing of the Electrical Workers to sabotage PG&E transmission lines.

Billings was offered $25 to deliver a suitcase to Sacramento. When he arrived, he went to the Silver Cup Saloon and waited for his contact to arrive. Detectives, who had been tipped off, seized the suitcase, which was filled with dynamite, and arrested Billings. Mooney, who was to pick up the suitcase, was delayed in traffic and escaped, but Billings was convicted of possession of explosives and sent to prison.

There were those on the other side who also believed in direct action, especially Martin Swenson, a ruthless Pinkerton detective who worked for both PG&E and the railroads. In June 1916, after three PG&E utility towers were damaged by dynamite, Swenson approached Israel Weinberg, a cab driver who often drove Mooney, and offered him $5,000 to testify against him.

“It wouldn’t take much to convict Mooney,” Swenson said. “Just a little circumstantial evidence. It wouldn’t be necessary for you to say you remembered all the details.”

Weinberg turned him down.

But it wasn’t only large corporations that hated Mooney. With his radical calls for industrial unionism, Mooney had become a thorn in the side of the San Francisco Labor Council, which represented the more moderate trade unions of the American Federation of Labor.

Then came the Parade. It was the middle of World War I, and the drumbeats for America’s entry on the allied side were growing louder. Large corporations and manufacturers were sponsoring “Preparedness Day Parades” around the country, and participation in these parades was considered a test of patriotism.

One of the largest parades, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, was to be in San Francisco on July 22. For weeks in advance, the Hearst papers enthusiastically covered preparations and quoted parade supporters, including Defense League chairman Charles Hanlon, who proclaimed, “Every red-blooded American in San Francisco is aroused.”

Opposing the parade were organized labor, religious leaders and some of San Francisco’s most reform-minded citizens. Radicals and anarchists also targeted the parade. An unsigned leaflet warned: “We are going to use a little direct action on the 22nd to show that militarism can’t be forced on us and our children without a violent protest.”

Mooney had been tipped off to these threats and pushed resolutions through his union warning that provocateurs might attempt to blacken the labor movement by causing a disturbance at the parade.

The San Francisco Preparedness Day parade was to be the largest ever held in The City. The three-and-a-half-hour procession had 51,329 marchers, including 2,134 organizations and 52 bands. At 1:30 p.m., the parade began at Steuart and Market streets, led by Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph. At 1:40 p.m. a short, dark-complexioned man set a large tan suitcase down by the wall of the Ferry Exchange Saloon on the corner of Market Street and walked away.

At 2:06 p.m., all hell broke loose.

The next installment of Notorious Crooks will conclude the story of the San Francisco Preparednes Day parade.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco,

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