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About Tom Mooney

Dan Georgakas

mooney.jpg (47320 bytes)Thomas J. Mooney (1892-1942) was the central figure in the most notorious labor frame-up in the early half of the twentieth century. He and Warren K. Billings (1893-1972) served twenty-three years (1916-1939) in California prisons for the death of ten persons killed when a bomb exploded during the 1916 Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco. Mooney's actual offense was that he had been de facto leader of the left wing of the California Federation of Labor and his activities had alarmed some of the most powerful forces in the state. One of his closest associates was Warren Billings.

Mooney had been raised in a Socialist family. At age fifteen, he won a contest sponsored by a Socialist magazine and as his prize enjoyed a free trip to a conference of the Second International in Switzerland. He would soon be an active national campaigner for Eugene V. Debs and an ardent left-wing Socialist. He became editor of the journal Revolt in 1912 and won justice.jpg (150096 bytes)fame as a militant writer and speaker. He did not fear association with anarchists and was not adverse to the doctrine of 'propaganda of the deed.' At one point he was charged with dynamiting the property of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in San Francisco, but he was acquitted after three trials. By 1916 he was a dynamic force in San Francisco labor circles. His two major interests that year were opposition to U.S. participation in World War I and a drive to organize the car men of the United Railroads of San Francisco. The bitter unionizing drive, although unsuccessful, took up most of his energies that year as well as those of this wife, Rena, and Warren Billings.

When the fatal bomb went off on 22 July, the Mooneys were blocks away, but both Tom and Rena, Warren K. Billings, Israel Weinberg, and Edward D. Noland were arrested for the deed. The common link was association with Tom Mooney. Billings, convicted previously for carrying dynamite on a passenger train, had a reputation for enjoying direct action. Weinberg was a jitney driver who occasionally chauffered the Mooneys, and his son was a pupil of Rena Mooney, who earned a living as a music teacher. Nolan was a Mooney backer in the trade unions. Ultimately only Tom Mooney and Warren Billings were convicted, Mooney for first-degree murder and Billings for second-degree murder.

In less than a year, solid evidence began to surface that the testimony against Mooney and Billings had been perjured. Other evidence substantiated their own account of where they had been. One of the investigating bodies was the federal Wickersham Commission, composed mainly of conservatives. The commission concluded that the case's sole purpose was to put Mooney and Billingsmooney_jail.jpg (136764 bytes) behind bars. Even the trial judge and jurors eventually made public statements that they had erred. National protests flooded the statehouse, including a plea for mercy from President Woodrow Wilson. Mooney's death sentence was commuted to life but no other relief was given. In the two decades that followed, Mooney and Billings came to be viewed as labor martyrs. Their plight remained a major concern of labor, civil libertarians, liberals, and radicals. But it was not until 1939 that Governor Culbert Olson released them. Mooney was officially pardoned at that time, but Billings would not be formally pardoned until 1961.

Mooney tried to resume his activities but his health was gone. Eighteen months after his release, Mooney was bedridden, and on 6 March 1942 he died in San Francisco at age fifty. Billings went to work as a watchmaker after his release. He avoided radical politics but became vice president of the Watchmakers Union.


Frost, Richard H. The Mooney Case. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968.
Gentry, Curt. Frame-Up. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.
Hunt, Henry Thomas. The Case of Thomas J. Mooney and Warren K. Billings. New York. Da Capo Press, 1971.
Ward, Esolv Ethan. The Gentle Dynamiter. A Biography of Tom Mooney. Palo Alto, Calif.: Ramparts, 1983.


Mooney, Tom. Film (available at Tamiment Library, New York University) consisting of Mooney giving a résumé of his case, 1936.

from Encyclopedia of the American Left, Second Edition. Ed. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Copyright © 1990, 1998 by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas.

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