Yesterday’s Crimes: PG&E and the Preparedness Day Bombing

How PG&E’s private cops framed union organizers for the worst terrorist attack in San Francisco history.

Dynamite was popular with both sides of the Pacific Gas and Electric labor dispute that started in 1913. Striking workers used it to blow up power transformers on the outskirts of the Bay Area, and the private investigators hired by the power company — who were more concerned with union busting than solving crimes — used well-planted sticks of dynamite to frame the labor leaders.

Framing was the go-to strategy employed by Pinkerton detective Martin Swanson, but it didn’t really get results; a trio of union men in Berkeley sent to San Quentin for plotting to sabotage power lines were all pardoned by the governor after union officials recorded an ex-Pinkerton agent bragging about the frame-up. 

In January 1914, San Francisco union organizer and militant socialist Thomas Mooney and two other electrical workers were arrested in Contra Costa County, after a team of PG&E detectives found explosive devices and several pricey firearms on board a leaky skiff the workers used to travel around the Delta. Mooney was charged with plotting to blow up a pair of giant steel towers at the Carquinez Straights.

Unfortunately for Swanson and PG&E’s other hired guns, a local deputy sheriff had searched Mooney’s boat a short time earlier and found it empty. Mooney’s first two trials ended with hung juries. He was acquitted after the third when the jury couldn’t figure out how struggling strikers could afford the expensive guns preferred by corporate security agents.

Swanson was let go by the Pinkertons but was soon hired on as PG&E’s head detective with an office in the company’s HQ at 444 Sutter St. Humiliated in court, “Swanson tracked Mooney as intently as Javert followed Jean Valjean” according to Fremont Older, the rabblerousing editor of the San Francisco Bulletin.

Swanson’s attempt to pin the June 10 dynamiting of two electrical towers on San Bruno Mountain in Daly City on Mooney also came up empty. While railroad company spies reported that Mooney had left a union meeting that night, he had just called a recess and quickly returned to the hall to address some 200 Wobblies.

With Mooney being well-alibied for that night, Swanson offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who would implicate the labor leader in the bombing, but no one came forward despite that reward being worth today’s equivalent of $117,000. In the end, Mooney was able to enjoy an anarchist picnic in Colma on the 4 of July as if the biggest power company in Northern California wasn’t out to get him.

Having failed twice now to bust Mooney, Swanson couldn’t resist the opportunity to use the high number of casualties from a grisly bombing to realize his obsession.

The Preparedness Day Parade of July 22, 1916 was a jingoistic spectacle sponsored by the city’s Chamber of Commerce and other business interests to gin up enthusiasm for the U.S. entry into World War I. The parade started near Market and Steuart streets by the Embarcadero at 1:30 p.m. The bomb went off on that corner at 2:02 p.m., killing ten people and hospitalizing 40 more.

A 2015 Examiner article on the tragedy noted that “no other single act of violence” in San Francisco history “would match it in sheer body count.”

Suspects were many. Mexican patriots angry over the U.S. Army invasion of Mexico in March and German espionage agents trying to keep America out of the war were possible culprits. Witnesses described the man they saw leave a suspicious suitcase next to the brick wall of the Ferry Exchange Saloon at the scene as “a Mexican” and “dark complexioned.” The explosive itself was the nasty type of shrapnel bomb similar to ones used by the Germans on the European front.

None of these leads were investigated however after District Attorney Charles Fickert — who owed his political career to the largess of PG&E — put Martin Swanson in charge of the bombing investigation.

As with the San Bruno bombing, Mooney had an alibi during the tragedy. He was seen by several people watching the parade from his roof when the bomb went off. He was even photographed with a clock visible in the background, but it hardly mattered. After illegal searches and warrantless arrests, Mooney and his compatriot Charles Billings—who had served time for being caught with dynamite in Sacramento—were charged with the slaughter. Billings was sentenced to life and Mooney received the death penalty.

Swanson had finally won it seemed, but questions surrounding his investigation — or lack thereof — led President Woodrow Wilson to ask California’s governor to commute Mooney’s sentence to life in 1917.

In 1920, Draper Hand of the San Francisco Police admitted that he helped Swanson and Fickert to frame Mooney. John McDonald, one of Fickert’s star witnesses, confessed that police had forced him to commit perjury during the trial. Despite the revelations, Mooney and Billings rotted in prison for nearly 20 more years until liberal Gov. Culbert Olson pardoned Mooney and commuted Billings’ sentence to time served in 1939. Swanson died before he could see the undoing of his well-orchestrated miscarriage of justice. Mooney lived to stick it to the city by marching in a union parade up Market Street, but he died at St. Luke’s Hospital in 1942.

PG&E caught little or no blowback for their role in framing Mooney and allowing the real bomber to go unpunished, but now when the company blows up a swath of San Bruno or sparks the fires that ravaged Napa and Paradise, there just aren’t enough anarchists around to blame anymore.

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