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The McNamara Brothers

John and James McNamara, labor activists at the beginning of the 20th century, were from Cincinnati, Ohio. John J. was born in 1876, and his brother, James B., was born in 1882. Their family (the brothers had other siblings), lived at 4306 Quarry Street in the neighborhood of Cumminsville (Northside).

John J. McNamara served as the secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers (known today as the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers). James B. worked for a while as a printer; however, he was not as active in labor politics as his brother, John.

Between 1908 and 1911, the Iron Workers allegedly carried out 70 dynamite attacks on non-union businesses. The New York Times reported on several dynamite attacks, alledgedly carried out by union activists (whether all of the reported incidents were carried out by Iron Workers, or others, was not established when these reports were published). These attacks included an attempted bombing of a bridge in Perth Amboy, New Jersey (1908); pier work in New York City (1908); bridges under construction by the Lucius Construction Company in Cleveland; a steel viaduct connecting Hoboken and Jersey City (1909); and a bridge in the Bronx (1909). Although these were not done with the intention of killing anyone, they were certainly meant to intimidate bosses who had resisted organization campaigns by the Iron Workers. Under John J. and other union leaders’ supervision, James began carrying out many of the bombings. On May 9, 1909, James’ first attack was on a new bridge that was being built over the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

Many accounts of the two brothers often spoke of a “study in contrasts.” John J. was handsome, well-built, a devout Catholic, and apparently not prone to any bad habits. On the other hand, James B. was thin, moody, foul-mouthed, and sometimes described as a “ne’er-do-well.” Geoffrey Cowan, author of The People v. Clarence Darrow, notes that when James lost a printing job, he called the foreman “an old, grey-haired son of a bitch.” Newspaper reports of the trial often compared the brother’s appearances.

The brothers were sent to San Quentin following the conclusion of their trial. James spent the rest of his life in prison, and John J. served ten years. During his tenure in prison, James continued to stay in touch with his family, Clarence and Ruby Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, and many others. He maintained an interest in the leftist politics and news of the outside world, and took many pictures of prison life at San Quentin.

Both brothers died in 1941, thirty years after their sentencing. James died March 8; John died May 9.