lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Nov 1 11:59:51 MST 1999
Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1999, Sunday, Home Edition
L.A. THEN AND NOW: A SOCIALIST WHO ALMOST WAS MAYOR
by CECILIA RASMUSSEN
Long a decaying reminder of a former age's optimistic elegance, the Higgins
Building on the southwest corner of 2nd and Main streets, currently being
renovated, stands as one of downtown Los Angeles' temples of triumph and
When copper magnate Thomas Higgins built his 10-story showpiece in 1910,
Main Street was an avenue of fine hotels, the city's best social clubs and
theaters. The Higgins Building towered above all with its marble-lined
hallways, high ceilings and wrought-iron elevator doors.
In those years, it numbered many local notables among its tenants, but none
was more memorable than the tubercular preacher- turned-socialist labor
attorney, Job Harriman.
Nine floors above the street, in an office with a fine view of St.
Vibiana's Cathedral, Harriman laid out mayoral campaigns, planned the
McNamara brothers' defense in the bombing of The Times with famed attorney
Clarence Darrow, and envisioned and developed a personal paradise, Llano
del Rio Cooperative Colony--one of the most important nonreligious utopian
colonies in Western American history.
Born in 1861, Harriman was a farmer's son from Indiana, an ordained
minister and a compelling speaker. Heading west to San Francisco in 1886,
he entered the world of Progressive Party politics. Inspired the following
year by Edward Bellamy's utopian novel "Looking Backward," he founded the
Pacific Nationalist Club, devoted to reading, discussing and promoting
cooperative ideas of economic and racial equality.
Harriman soon became smitten with 27-year-old Mary Theodosia Gray, the
sister of a college roommate who was in turn swayed by his handsome looks,
wit, oratorical intensity and charisma. They married five years later, and
"Theo" gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in 1895. Before the family
moved south to Los Angeles, the daughter died and Harriman's own health
By 1898, Harriman was the Socialist Labor Party's California gubernatorial
candidate. He was labor leader Eugene Debs' running mate on the Socialist
Party presidential ticket two years later. Despite his unsuccessful
election attempts, his eloquent and powerful pleas on behalf of the working
masses moved the nation.
In the next decade, Harriman traveled the country, increasing his influence
while building a strong base of socialist and labor union support in Los
Angeles. He ultimately settled in Highland Park, a neighborhood popular
with the city's "progressive" element.
In 1907, Harriman achieved even more fame when he successfully defended
writer and anarchist hero Ricardo Flores Magon against trumped-up charges
of murder and treason.
When Magon helped launch the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Harriman personified
the enemy in the eyes of Los Angeles Times Editor Gen. Harrison Gray Otis,
who had political connections with Mexico's dictatorial president, Porfirio
That same year, nearly every trade in Los Angeles had gone on
strike--butchers, trolley car operators, painters, printers, brewers and
The anti-union Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., led by Otis, won passage
of an anti-picketing ordinance--written by attorney Earl
Rogers--restricting free speech. About 500 workers were arrested for
violating the law.
Harriman came to their rescue and few were convicted.
After sympathetic juries acquitted his clients, Harriman decided to try for
a home run against the establishment and run for mayor. But flooding the
city with 20,000 copies of Darrow's pamphlet against the open shop and
doubling the Socialist Party membership only made the anti-union group more
determined to rid the city of Harriman.
Disaster struck early on the morning of Oct. 1, 1910, when a huge explosion
tore apart the Los Angeles Times building on the northeast corner of 1st
Street and Broadway, setting off a roaring fire that killed 20 men. The
paper immediately blamed the fire on organized labor's leaders in a
makeshift edition that screamed "Unionist Bombs Wreck the Times."
Public opinion ran strongly against Otis for letting The Times become a
firetrap with its antiquated gas lighting system.
But after a six-month manhunt--financed by Otis--the perpetrators, John and
Jim McNamara, a pair of labor activists, were arrested for planting the
bomb in "Ink Alley" at The Times. For Otis and the Merchants and
Manufacturers Assn., it was justice realized. For labor and socialism, it
was an outrage. A frame-up.
As the national labor movement mobilized to defend the McNamara brothers,
the slogan in L.A. was "Fight Otis, organize the city and elect a Socialist
Even as Harriman was among the lawyers planning the McNamara brothers'
defense, he was also busy with his mayoral campaign, promoting the Owens
Valley-to-Los Angeles aqueduct and arguing that the citizens of Los Angeles
who were paying for it should profit from it, rather than Otis, who was
busy buying up the San Fernando Valley, which would blossom with the
Winning the primary election, Harriman appeared headed toward a mayoral
victory until his two clients in the bombing case entered 11th-hour guilty
pleas; voters deserted the Socialist cause in droves. Harriman lost the
election by 34,000 votes.
Despite that, Harriman, determined to become mayor, ran again and came
within 800 votes of victory in 1913.
Defeated again, but optimistic, Harriman and five partners purchased 2,000
acres of flat scrubland near Big Rock Creek for $ 80,000 and founded the
"gateway to the future."
By 1914, his personal magnetism had attracted a collection of 1,000
left-wing activists to make the arduous trek to the Antelope Valley.
Participants contributed about $ 500 each for equipment and tools and then
built a sawmill, lime kiln, dairy, cannery, bakery, printing plant, hotel,
offices, barns and houses.
While Harriman was spending half his time in a tent with colonist Mildred
Buxton and the other half at his office in the Higgins Building fighting
lawsuits over water rights, the Llano experiment began to falter amid
squabbling about money and work assignments.
In 1918, Harriman found a new site for utopia in Leesville, La. That
community endured into the mid-1930s, but Harriman could withstand only a
few years in the damp location because of his tuberculosis, which had
improved in the dry climes of the Antelope Valley. Leaving Buxton behind,
he returned to Los Angeles, patched up his marriage and lived with his wife
at the Melrose Hotel on Bunker Hill until his death in 1925.
Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights
(ps to Sol: I got the MR submission, thanks.)
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