thumbed one nose

Thomas Mooney

Thomas Joseph Mooney (December 8, 1882March 6, 1942) was an American labor leader in San Francisco, who was convicted with Warren K. Billings of the Preparedness Day Bombing of 1916, serving 22 years before being pardoned in 1939.


Early life

The son of Irish immigrants, Mooney was born in Chicago, Illinois. His father Bernard had been a coal miner and a militant organizer for the Knights of Labor in struggles so intense that in one fight he was left for dead by anti-union thugs. Bernard died of "miner's con" (now known as silicosis) at the age of 36, when Tom, the oldest of three surviving children, was ten years old. Mooney held many jobs as an industrial worker before developing a career as a labor leader, anarchist, and socialist activist.

As a young man, Mooney toured Europe, where he learned about socialism. After arriving in California, he met his wife Rena, and found a place in the Socialist Party of America and the presidential campaign of Eugene V. Debs. In 1910, Mooney won a trip to the Second International Conference in Copenhagen by selling a huge number of subscriptions to the socialist Wilshire Magazine. On his way home, he visited the British Trades Union Congress in Sheffield, England.

Suspected dynamiter

Upon his return, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, but quickly left, because of certain disagreements. Mooney had been tried but never convicted of transporting explosives for the purpose of blowing up transmission lines.

Tom was well known as a militant, a socialist, and a suspected dynamiter. He was tried and convicted for the Preparedness Day bombing, July 22, 1916 in San Francisco, known as the "the best damned union town in America". The bomb exploded at Steuart and Market Street near the Embarcadero. Mooney had been tipped off to threats that preceded the parade and pushed resolutions through his union, the Molders, and the San Francisco Central Labor Council and the Building Trades Council warning that agents provocateurs might attempt to blacken the labor movement by causing a disturbance at the parade. Ten deaths and forty injuries resulted from the explosion in the midst of the Preparedness Day parade. The bombing took place at the height of anarchist violence in the United States, especially the Galleanist anarcho-communist movement of Luigi Galleani.


Thomas Mooney, his wife Rena, and two associates, Warren K. Billings (1893-1972) and jitney driver Israel Weinberg, were arrested. The show trial that followed was conducted in a lynch mob atmosphere, and featured several witnesses whose testimony was allegedly coached by the prosecutors, D.A. Charles Fickert and deputy D.A. Eddie Cunha. It included one witness who claimed her "astral body" was at the scene. Mooney and Billings were convicted in separate trials and sentenced to be hanged. Rena Mooney and Weinberg were acquitted.

After Mooney was sentenced, the Socialist Party tried to expel him, but his local branch held out. Due to worldwide agitation, from Mexico City to Petrograd in the Soviet Union, US President Woodrow Wilson became involved. Without informing Mooney's defense committee, Wilson telegraphed California Governor William Stephens asking him to commute Mooney's sentence to life imprisonment, or at least stay the impending execution. Later, a commission set up by Wilson found little evidence of Mooney's guilt.

In prison

In 1918, Mooney's sentence was changed to life imprisonment, the same as Billings. Mooney, prisoner No. 31921, quickly became one of the most famous political prisoners in America. A world-wide campaign to free Tom Mooney followed. During that time his wife Rena, Bulletin editor Fremont Older, anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, Hollywood celebrities, international politicians, and many other well-known people campaigned for his release.

Release and later years

Mooney was pardoned in 1938 by liberal Democratic Governor Culbert Olson. The Sunday after his release, he visited the grave of his mother, one of his greatest supporters, on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County.

He then walked in a parade up Market Street from the Embarcadero to the San Francisco Civic Center, accompanied by an honor guard of one hundred husky longshoremen with their hooks, led by Mooney's own union, Local 164 of the International Molders' Union, in the vanguard. No police or politicians were invited; bosses of the big unions were unwelcome and stayed away. Mooney thumbed his nose at the Hearst building at Third and Market, a gesture against the local press editors who had railed against him for decades.

He was old from years in prison, sick with ulcers and jaundice. He had not worn his martyrdom well; he broke with modest Warren K. Billings, who was convicted with him and who somehow was never regarded as a martyr; he was estranged from his wife; his former colleagues in the labor movement often found him to be selfish and conceited.

Mooney then went to bat for Billings's release, although the two men had become estranged. He travelled around the country making speeches, and drew a full house at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Billings was pardoned in 1939.

After an attempt an a lecture tour, he collapsed from illness. The California Federation of Labor turned down a resolution to pay his bills, as his politics were deemed too radical. As he lay dying in a San Francisco hospital, Tom Mooney, at 59, had only a few visitors, only a few money letters from friends. From his bed he conducted a campaign to free Communist Earl Browder. Mooney died at Saint Luke's Hospital in San Francisco in 1942. A large funeral celebration was held at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. He was interred at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma.


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