Meet General Otis & His Los Angeles Times

This portrait of Gen Otis is drawn from the book “Bread And Hyacinths: The Rise & Fall of Utopian Los Angeles.

Harrison Gray Otis, who would be Job Harriman’s nemesis in the drama which unfolded around the bombing of the Los Angeles Timesin 1910, was publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and the most primeval of robber barons. Otis’s self-adopted symbol was the eagle, which he used on his grave marker as well as on top of his Times building. Los Angeles at the turn of the century was run by General Harrison Gray Otis, owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. A broad man with a bristling mustache, he acted like the walrus he resembled. “…While the noble lion sneaks upon his foe and sometimes sneaks away, too, in cowardly fashion,” one journalist later wrote, “the walrus takes position on his rock of ice cake, defying all corners to the death for his principles and his property.”

His rise to power had begun inauspiciously enough. Named after his uncle, Senator Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts, a rock-ribbed Tory and outspoken foe of organized labor, the young Otis was born in Marietta, Ohio, in 1837. After whiling away a few desultory winters in a country schoolhouse, he became a “printer’s devil” at a newspaper owned by his older brother in Sarahsville, Ohio. Despite additional stints of study at an “academy” in Lowell, Ohio, and in a commercial institution in Columbus, in the words of one of his Los Angeles Times colleagues: “Otis never got very far beyond the Third Reader.” Otis was not illiterate. History, philosophy and literature weren’t his strengths, but he had attended a business school and become professionally adept at shorthand. His writing was always abundantly clear about what he believed, even if his hyperbole bordered on self-parody.

He was also a devoted follower of President Lincoln, and a foe of lynching. Some regarded him as a rabid abolitionist. After the Civil War began, despite the ill health of his young wife Eliza, he enlisted as a private in 1861 in an Ohio regiment. During his stint, he fought at Bull Run and Lynchburg and was wounded at Antietam. He suffered serious injuries at Kernestown in July, 1864, was brevetted by President Lincoln as major and lieutenant colonel, “for gallant and meritorious service during the war,” and was honorably discharged in August, 1865.

Happily, his distinguished war record and connection with his former commander, now President Rutherford B. Hayes, would serve Otis well in peacetime. He had no desire to remain a small-town printer, and after a spell as reporter in the Ohio House of Representatives, Otis accepted a post as proofreader in the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. He later edited the Grand Army Journal and found himself in the government employ between 1871 and 1875.

Toward the end of that period, in 1874, he first came to Southern California. Gazing at Los Angeles, then a small but bustling city of dirt

streets and adobe structures, he found it to his liking. He returned to Ohio, but not for long.

In 1876, a fellow Ohioan offered him the editorship of his new newspaper, the Santa Barbara Press, a position Otis accepted. But he soon managed to rub the citizenry the wrong way. Leaving his wife Eliza in Santa Barbara to run the declining business, he accepted a federal appointment as a treasury agent on Alaska’s Seal Islands, and on those bleak outposts in the Bering Straits he kept a vigilant eye upon seal poachers and native bootleggers. Tiring of sub-zero temperatures and non-Anglo-Saxon company, he next tried to obtain the post of Collector of the Port of San Diego, but was turned down.

Otis meanwhile had been watching the development of Los Angeles. In 1881, he and Eliza took over a one-fourth interest in the Los Angeles Times, a struggling daily sheet started by two partners who had given up after the first issue. One of the partners was desperate to unload it. Otis, now 44, eagerly sought a one-quarter interest in the Times. He suddenly found himself in a new situation with a great potential up until then, he had been something of a stranger to free enterprise, having mostly worn a uniform of one sort or another between fitful bouts in the Fourth Estate. When the first big Los Angeles real estate boom came along in 1886, Otis found himself in the novel situation of being a prosperous and influential businessman. In short order, he had accumulated enough money to buy out his former Times partners.

As was his choleric wont, editor Otis soon established himself as a flinger of invective, albeit rather oblivious to the caliber of his weapons in relation to his perceived opponents’ size. An early target was Henry Boyce, one of his former Times partners, whom Otis described as “a coarse and vulgar criminal”  because Boyce, following his ouster, had the temerity to start a rival newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune, in March 1886.

Unlike the Times, the Tribune had been strongly pro-labor, and it irked Otis when it became apparent that the upstart was giving him some stiff competition. As fond as he was of singing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism, Otis never cottoned much to the notion of competition. He raged and thundered over Boyce’s traitorous behavior, and in testy editorials referred to the Tribune as the Daily Morning Metropolitan Bellyache, “the silly trombone, that pipes its feeble way.” But despite these salvoes from Otis, the Bellyache continued smugly along, and would likely have kept up its annoying tooting forever had not Harry Chandler suddenly come into Otis’s life.

Chandler, a son of New England, was, like Job Harriman, tubercular. Unlike Harriman, he had permanently damaged his lungs by jumping into a barrel of freezing starch on a dare during his university days. After a variegated life as an aimless drifter, he had arrived in Los Angeles seeking a healthful climate and subsequently worked his way up from newsboy to the position of circulation strongman for Los Angeles’s several newspapers. He bought the Tribune’s printing plant, then approached the Times’s volatile chief with a proposal to choke off the Tribune’s circulation and bankrupt Boyce. Otis had no objection to subterranean strong-arm tactics, and so the Bellyache was duly rubbed out. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Otis and Chandler. In 1894 Chandler would cement the bond by marrying the boss’s daughter, Marian.

The dynamic that would drive the town ever after was the General’s hatred of one thing: labor unions. To Otis, that meant the whole city should hate unions. Not that Otis hadn’t catered to unions when there was a possibility he might profit thereby. Upton Sinclair recounted how one day in the 1890s, Otis ran across Gaylord Wilshire out for a walk on a downtown street, and the two of them fell to talking.

The General became highly solicitous about a newspaper that Wilshire and others were publishing that was based on the utopian socialist ideas of Edward Bellamy. (The impact of Bellamy’s ideas on Los Angeles can be judged by the fact that the Bradbury Building, a landmark in downtown Los Angeles today, was designed based on Bellamy’s esthetic principles.)

“I see you people have got a weekly paper,” the General said. Wilshire nodded affirmatively.

“Well now,” said the General without a trace of irony, “the Times has a new and modern printing plant. We would like very much to do that work for you. Suppose you give us a trial.”

The Nationalist was being printed in the union print shop of the Express. Wilshire said he personally wouldn’t object if it were printed at the Times, but he was sure that some of his associates would probably say that the General didn’t treat their ideas fairly in the Times.

To this the General replied, “Oh, now, now, you don’t mind a thing like that. Surely, now, you ought to understand a joke.” Whereupon for the next several days the Times carried cordial editorials upon the idea of Edward Bellamy’s socialism. This went on for two or three weeks, but when the Nationalist kept on being printed at the Express, the General “shifted back to his old method of sneering and abuse.”

By the time of Wilshire’s encounter with the General, Otis’s hatred of labor unions was already legendary. Although he himself had started out as a union typographer, his espousal of an open-shop ethic seems to have actively begun in 1890 when members of the International Typographers Union walked out of three Los Angeles newspapers. Although the other two papers rehired the strikers, Otis vowed that he would never allow treacherous union scum in his building again. He was as good as his word. Otis crushed the typesetters by importing scab printers from Kansas City at great expense.

In the late 1880s and 90s, the Times building was often at the center of the great capital-labor wars that frequently tore the city asunder. Throughout the “Gay Nineties,” which were gayer for some than for others, there were boycotts and counter-boycotts, with loyal union men and women refusing to shop at stores that advertised in the Times. The Times in turn called those who stopped advertising in the Times “cowards and cravens,” and worse.

Indeed, Otis suffered from a siege mentality. He called his staff the “phalanx” and projects “strategies” and “maneuvers.” When labor tension grew severe, which it often did, he conducted military drills in the offices. At the height of labor strife in Los Angeles, he drove through the streets with a cannon mounted on the hood of his automobile. Fifty rifles were kept at the ready in a tower room; near the managing editor’s desk was a case of loaded shotguns. Otis called his main home the Bivouac, and he called another residence the Outpost.

In 1893 Otis, flushed with his first victories against the unions, called for the construction of a new and more majestic Times headquarters. When it was completed, the square brown building at the northeast corner of First and Fort (later Broadway) streets became his pride and joy. With its menacing battlements and rapacious eagle perched on the uppermost tower, the structure resembled a fortress.

As he became more powerful, Otis grew increasingly obsessed with the “enemy.” During Eugene Debs’s national railway strike of 1894, the mood was black on both sides. There had already been two bad years in the spring fruit crop, and now there was a bumper crop waiting to get to market. But it never arrived there. Instead, the fruit rotted in the railroad cars. By the end of June, Los Angeles was completely cut off from the world, not a train could get in or out of town. There was rioting in the streets. Although this was not a strike against the newspaper, the union sympathizers gathered at the Times building to assault the Times paper carriers, and tear their papers into pieces. The street fights got bloodier day by day. Finally, on July 2, six companies of the First Regiment, U.S. Infantry, were sent in.

By the end of the ’90s, Otis was pining for the military life again. He accepted an appointment from another old Army confidante, now President William McKinley, in 1898. McKinley tried to appoint Otis Brigadier General of the United States Volunteers, but the proposed appointment was met with a great outcry. Opponents tried to defeat the appointment on the floor of the Senate, but the opposition was stifled or ignored and a few days later, Brigadier General Otis was sent off to the Philippines to join the first brigade of the Second Division of the Eighth Army Corps in the Spanish-American War.

Otis’s orders were to disarm the Spanish soldiers, and to pave the way for permanent U.S. occupation of the Philippines. When a hundred of Otis’s own men were killed in an early battle, Otis proudly wrote McKinley that “The dead fell like soldiers at their posts of duty defending the laws of the Republic, and the wounded suffer that the flag may continue to float triumphant over territory fairly won by the national arms from a foreign foe.”

This was merely the beginning of Otis’s military glory in the Philippines. He led the main force in the decisive battle of Caloocan, where according to eyewitness accounts, his troops “frighteningly” slaughtered

Filipino civilians, mostly women and children. Following the fall of the insurgent capital of Manila, Otis returned triumphant in 1899 to the United States, and was nominated by President McKinley as Major General of Volunteers by brevet for “meritorious conduct at the Battle of Caloocan.” Curiously, the nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

By 1896, as the Times’s influence grew, Otis’s word was close to law. He called together the city’s captains of industry that year and announced the formation of the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association, in essence, an anti-union union. The Merchants Association had been formed two years earlier to promote La Fiesta de Los Angeles, a local pageant. Now, under Otis’s orders, the Merchants’ Association merged with the newly-formed Manufacturers Association. In a scant number of years, and bucking the growing national trend toward political progressivism, Otis and the “M&M” transformed Los Angeles into a labor-capital war zone of major proportions. Merchants and manufacturers were given no choice about belonging to this virulently open-shop combine. Said the San Francisco Bulletin at the time: “The Merchants and Manufacturers Association has one confession of faith, one creed: ‘We will employ no union man.’ The M and M has also one command: ‘You shall employ no union man.’ The penalty for disobedience is financial coercion, boycott, and ruin. `You hire union men and we’ll put you out of business,’ says the M and M, and the businessman knows that the oracle speaks. ‘You declare an eight-hour day and we’ll stop your credit at the banks,’ and the M and M does what it says… . The merchant who disobeys the M and M command runs into something which robs him of his business, hampers him in securing raw material for manufacture, holds up his payment for work when it is completed, and frightens him out of speech to rebel.”

Morrow Mayo observed in his book Los Angeles, published early in the Depression: “For forty years the smiling, booming sunshine City of the Angels has been the bloodiest arena in the Western world for capital and labor.” All this he attributed to General Otis. “Through the mouthpiece of the Times, and from its power base, Otis delivered the Word: Thou shalt have no organized labor in the City of the Angels. If thou art foolish enough to persist in trying to unionize, thou shalt be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.” He backed this attitude up by force as well. The Los Angeles police ceased to distinguish between economic dissenters, strikers, pickets, and the criminal and the general atmosphere of Los Angeles. According to Jerome Hopkins in Our Lawless Police, Otis provided the general atmosphere by “hysterical propaganda”, which resulted in “assistance in strikebreaking, espionage upon labor-union organizations, suppression of free speech, unlawful beatings, false arrests, brutality with arrest, unlawful detention, incommunicado, and the third degree.”

About Lionel Rolfe