The McNamara Brothers and American Terrorism

By Kevin Grace     

Cover of Terrorist Attacks on American SoilAdmittedly scatter-brained in many regards, it sometimes takes a few days for me to catch on to matters.  To wit, two weeks ago a book arrived on my desk from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers accompanied by no letter or other explanation, only the package with my name typed on the label.  I thought it was just another of the occasional books that find their way here, usually self-published religious or philosophical musings that are mailed wholesale to everyone and his brother.  The title was interesting, though: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War Era to the Present, and it was from a legitimate publisher.  But even so, I set it aside with barely a glance.

However, as I was looking for something a bit different to read over last weekend, I gave it a closer look.  Then it hit me.  Several years ago, the author, J. Michael Martinez, had used the archives here to do research on John and James McNamara, the Cincinnati born-and-bred labor activists.  The notorious brothers dynamited the Los Angeles Times building on October 1, 1910 as their protest against unfair labor practices and rapacious business practices.  The McNamaras were radical members of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Workers, and when metal workers in Los Angeles left their jobs to strike that autumn, Harrison Gray Otis, the owner and publisher of the Times, was a loudly-vocal opponent of the stoppage.  He saw the strikers – and people like the McNamaras – as violent agitators, and in that era, labor violence was not unusual in the least.

The McNamara BrothersUltimately arrested and tried, the McNamaras gained substantial notoriety around the country, boosted in no small measure by the fact that their attorney was the estimable Clarence Darrow.  John and James McNamara were found guilty and sentenced to San Quentin prison, where James spent the remainder of his life.  John McNamara served 10 years, and then returned home to Cincinnati and his mother in Northside.  Both of the brothers died in 1941.

As the decades passed, there were other important causes and other important happenings in American labor actions, and the McNamaras were forgotten for the most part.  But in the 1970s, the University of Cincinnati entered the case, as it were, in the person of history professor Herbert Shapiro.  Shapiro, who died just a few weeks ago at the age of 83, had a deep interest in labor history and in civil rights.  He was able to make contact with the McNamaras’ surviving relatives and due to his initiative and scholarly inquisitiveness, Professor Shapiro convinced the family to donate their records to the Archives & Rare Books Library.  For the past 35 years, these documents, which amount to 20 linear feet of materials, have been a mainstay of our Urban Studies archive.  The content of the collection is incredibly rich, full of correspondence from Darrow and notable labor activists and journalists of the day, including Mother Jones and Lincoln Steffens.  Scholars, documentary filmmakers, students, journalists, and fiction writers have heavily researched the McNamara Brothers Collection (Accession Number US-80-09) for four decades, and we have learned quite a bit through their expertise.

Another benefit we have had in making this collection more widely known and available was the excellent work done on it by Eira Tansey, who was a student assistant and intern in the Archives & Rare Books Library.  Eira was a wonderful friend and colleague (still is, as a matter of fact, though she has relocated to New Orleans where she is an archivist at Tulane University!), whom I taught in an Honors seminar on the culture of books & reading.  In her employment with us in ARB, she did an independent project to create a finding aid and a web exhibit of the McNamara documents.  Her work can be viewed here:

So with the recent passing of Professor Shapiro and the appearance of the Martinez book, we are reminded again how fortunate we are to have acquired this collection of historic American labor materials.  The McNamara case is chapter four in Terrorist Attacks on American Soil, which begins with the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857 and carries through our own lifetime with the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, and the tragedy of 9/11.  J. Michael Martinez is an attorney and the author of several other books on race and civil rights.

To learn more about John and James McNamara, the Urban Studies archive, the career of Herbert Shapiro, or other holdings of the Archives & Rare Books Library, please visit our website at, email us at, or call us at 513-556-1959.  To learn more about the Martinez book, see the listing in Amazon.