California framing – An Irishman’s Diary on Tom Mooney and the San Francisco bombing

Tom Mooney: Nobody now seriously doubts that his trial for the 1916 bombing was an elaborate sham

Tom Mooney: Nobody now seriously doubts that his trial for the 1916 bombing was an elaborate sham


The Chicago-born son of Irish parents, Tom Mooney is not much remembered now outside of the US, and may be largely forgotten there too.

But in the 1930s, he was among the world’s most famous Americans. One survey put him in the top four, with Franklin D Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh. The difference is that, in Mooney’s case, the celebrity was entirely uninvited.

For its origins, we have to go back to a notorious incident 100 years ago today, in San Francisco. The US was edging towards involvement in the European war at the time. And supporting intervention, the Californian city hosted a huge, jingoistic “Preparedness Day Parade”, with tens of thousands marching.

Half an hour into the event, a bomb exploded, killing ten and injuring 40. A century later, the true perpetrators remain unidentified. But in the immediate rush for scapegoats, it was decided that Tom Mooney and his friend Warren K Billings fitted the part.

Both were militant labour and anti-war activists. Indeed Mooney had inherited radicalism from his father, a coal miner who died of lung disease at 36, but who had previously been almost beaten to death for union activities.

Mooney jnr was well known to many top labour campaigners of his time, including the Cork-born Mary “Mother” Jones (née Harris). Just before the bombing, he had been visited by another well-known trouble-maker with Irish connections, “Big Jim” Larkin.

Crucially, Mooney was also suspected of dynamiting expertise, having already faced charges relating to an attack on power lines during a 1913 strike. But nobody now seriously doubts that his trial for the 1916 bombing was an elaborate sham. On the contrary, no sooner had convictions been secured than the conspiracy began to unravel.

Rewards for information, totalling $17,000, had produced what one commentator called a “sweepstakes of perjury”. Even the judge was forced to conclude, in a letter written within weeks, that the case had been “one of the dirtiest jobs ever put over”.

Mooney’s innocence was also presumed in another 1917 letter, by George Bernard Shaw, who in the process paid the US justice system a very back-handed compliment.

“I have no illusions about the Golden West,” Shaw wrote, “probably, however, it only appears to be the worst place in the world, politically and judicially, because there is less hushing up [...] among the governing class than in England or Russia.”

Framed as he was, however, Mooney may also have been fortunate in two respects. One is that there were even rougher kinds of justice being dispensed to such as he then.

The same year, a man named Frank Little (an organiser with the “Wobblies”, the Industrial Workers of the World, of which Mooney had formerly been a member) was roused from a guesthouse bed in Butte, Montana, dragged through the streets behind a car, and hanged from a railway trestle.

The other mercy for Mooney is that among those doubting his guilt was President Woodrow Wilson, who lobbied the governor of California for a review.

This and the general notoriety of the convictions led, two weeks before scheduled executions, to the sentences being commuted. Even so, it took another 22 years before first Mooney and then Billings, the man purported to have been his junior partner in the atrocity, were released.

In was 1939 by then, with another war looming. At a hearing that attracted enormous media coverage, a new Californian governor – the fifth since the original trial – invited anyone with information as to why the prisoner should remain in jail to come forward.

Seven seconds of silence followed, after which the governor gave the defence attorney an opportunity to excoriate the system. Then Mooney was at last free.

Billings had to wait longer, although he also enjoyed a lengthier liberation. He could be said to have served time twice because, in his quiet old age, he owned a watch repair shop. He also lived to enjoy the formal pardons granted in 1961. These, by contrast, came much too late for his more famous fellow convict, who had died in 1942.

Mooney’s mother was a Mary Heffernan, from Mayo. His father Bernard was a first-generation Irish-American, born on a railway camp. And where exactly his Irish roots are, I am not sure.

Perhaps someone will be able to shed more light at a labour-history event in Cork next week. It’s the latest annual festival celebrating the aforementioned “Mother Jones”, which opens in her native city on July 28th. Full details are at