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Tom Mooney as a young socialist, 1910
Tom Mooney as a young socialist, 1910
Thomas Joseph "Tom" Mooney (December 8, 1882– March 6, 1942) was an American political activist and labor leader, who was convicted with Warren K. Billings of the San Francisco Preparedness Day Bombing of 1916. Believed by many to have been wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit, Mooney served 22 years in prison before finally being pardoned in 1939.
The son of Irish immigrants, Mooney was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 8, 1882. His father, Bernard, had been a coal miner and a militant organizer for the Knights of Labor in struggles so intense that after one fight he was left for dead. Bernard Mooney died of "miner's con" (now known as silicosis) at the age of 36, when Tom, the eldest of three surviving children, was ten years old. Tom's sister Anna told neighbors that the family had originated in Holyoke, Massachusetts, not Chicago.
Thomas held many jobs as an industrial worker before developing a career as a labor leader 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.
Mooney subsequently settled in San Francisco where he briefly became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) before resigning from that organization. Over the next few years Mooney became friendly with some of IWW's leading figures such as William "Bill" Haywood, Mary "Mother" Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. He married Rena Hermann in 1911, and became the publisher of The Revolt, a socialist newspaper in San Francisco. The paper was a modest success, with a circulation of 1,500 readers. Mooney later ran for sheriff as the Socialist Party of America candidate.
Mooney was later arrested and tried three times but never convicted of a charge of transporting explosives for the purpose of blowing up power transmission lines during a Pacific Gas & Electric strike in 1913.
He 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. 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 Iron 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.
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 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 worldwide campaign to free Tom Mooney followed. During that time his wife Rena, Bulletin editor Fremont Older, anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, heiress Aline Barnsdall, Hollywood celebrities, international politicians, and many other well-known people campaigned for his release. Caroline Decker, a labor activist who later became active in California agricultural unionism, first went to California as part of a "Free Tom Mooney" delegation.  While imprisoned, Mooney corresponded with fellow union leader Ned Cobb of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union.
During his time at San Quentin, Mooney was a highly dependable orderly in the prison hospital. His attempts to educate the prisoners in the benefits of socialism fell on deaf ears.[Source?]
In 1931, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker made a solidarity visit to Tom's sister Anna's house in San Francisco's Mission District. The neighbors greeted the charismatic Irish American politician graciously, but knew that if Tom was not directly responsible, then he had something to do with it.[Source?]
Mooney filed a writ of habeas corpus which was heard by the United States Supreme Court in 1937. Even though he presented evidence that his conviction was obtained through the use of perjured testimony and that the prosecution had suppressed favorable evidence, his writ was denied because he had not first filed a writ in state court. Nevertheless, his case is important because it helped establish that a conviction based upon false evidence violates due process. Mooney was pardoned in 1939 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 campaigned for Billings's release, although the two men had become estranged. He traveled around the country making speeches. He drew a full house at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Billings was also pardoned in 1939.
After attempting a lecture tour, Mooney collapsed from illness. The California Federation of Labor turned down a resolution to pay his bills, as his politics were deemed too radical. While dying in a San Francisco hospital, Mooney, at 59, had only a few visitors, only a few money letters from friends. From his bed he helped advance a campaign to free Communist Earl Browder as Chairman of the "Citizens' Committee to Free Earl Browder."
Mooney died at Saint Luke's Hospital in San Francisco on March 6, 1942. A large funeral celebration was held at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. He is interred at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California.