Rena Hermann, the daughter of a carpenter, was born in Missouri. Rena became a music teacher and married Tom Mooney in 1911. Over the next few years the couple were members of the Socialist Party of America and were active in local trade union activities.
In 1916 Rena and her husband became involved in a strike of streetcar workers employed by the United Railroads (URR). On 11th June a high-voltage tower of the Sierra and San Francisco Power Company, which served the URR, was dynamited in the San Bruno hills. Soon afterwards the URR offered a reward of $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the dynamiters.
Martin Swanson, who worked for the Public Utilities Protective Bureau, became convinced that Tom Mooney was the man responsible for the bombing. On 13th June 1916 Swanson interviewed Israel Weinberg, a jitney bus driver who had often taken Mooney to trade union meetings. Swanson offered Weinberg a share of the $5,000 reward if he could provide evidence that would convict Mooney of the San Bruno bombing.
Soon afterwards Swanson approached Billings. As well as a share of the $5,000 reward Billings was offered a job with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company if he could provide information connecting Mooney with the San Bruno bombing. Billings refused and reported the approach to Mooney and George Speed, the secretary of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
On 22nd July, 1916, employers in San Francisco organized a march through the streets in favour of an improvement in national defence. Critics of the march such as William Jennings Bryan, claimed that the Preparedness March was being organized by financiers and factory owners who would benefit from increased spending on munitions.
During the march a bomb went off in Steuart Street killing six people (four more died later) and 40 were badly wounded. Two witnesses described two dark-skinned men, probably Mexicans, carrying a heavy suitcase near to where the bomb exploded.
The Chamber of Commerce immediately offered a reward of $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the dynamiters. Other organizations and individuals added to this sum and the reward soon reached $17,000. Offering such a large reward was condemned by the editor of the New York Times claiming it was a "sweepstake for perjurers".
On the evening of the bombing Martin Swanson went to see the District Attorney, Charles Fickert. Swanson told Fickert that despite the claims that it was the work of Mexicans, he was convinced that Warren Billings and Tom Mooney were responsible for the explosion. The next day Swanson resigned from the Public Utilities Protective Bureau and began working for the District Attorney's office.
On 26th July 1916, Fickert ordered the arrest of Rena Mooney, Warren Billings, Tom Mooney, Israel Weinberg and Edward Nolan. None of the witnesses of the bombing identified the defendants in the lineup.
The prosecution case was instead based on the testimony of two men, an unemployed waiter, John McDonald and Frank Oxman, a cattleman from Oregon. They claimed that they saw Billings plant the bomb at 1.50 p.m. Oxman also said he saw Tom Mooney and his wife talking with Warren Billings a few minutes later. However, at the trial, a photograph showed that the couple were over a mile from the scene. A clock in the photograph clearly read 1.58 p.m. The heavy traffic at the time meant that it was impossible for Rena and her husband to have been at the scene of the bombing at 1.50 p.m. Despite this, Mooney was sentenced to death and Billings to life-imprisonment. Rena Mooney was found not guilty but was kept in prison until 30th March 1918 before being allowed home.
A large number of people believed that Billings and Mooney had been framed. Those involved in the campaign to get them released included Robert Minor, Fremont Older, George Bernard Shaw, Heywood Broun, Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, Roger Baldwin, John Dewey, John Haynes Holmes, Oswald Garrison Villard, Norman Hapgood, Crystal Eastman, Norman Thomas, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens, H. L. Mencken, Burton K. Wheeler, Sherwood Anderson, Abraham Muste, Harry Bridges, James Larkin, James Cannon, William Z. Foster, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, William Haywood, William A. White, Carl Sandburg, Arturo Giovannitti and Robert Lovett.
The American government also became concerned about the Mooney and Billings Case and the Secretary of Labor, William Bauchop Wilson, delegated John Densmore, the Director of General Employment, to investigate the case. By secretly installing a dictaphone in the private office of the District Attorney he was able to discover that Mooney and Billings had probably been framed by Charles Fickert. The report was leaked to Fremont Older who published it in the San Francisco Call on 23rd November 1917.
There were protests all over the world and President Woodrow Wilson called on William Stephens, the Governor of California, to look again at the case. Two weeks before Tom Mooney was scheduled to hang, Stephens commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in San Quentin. Soon afterwards Mooney wrote to Stephens: "I prefer a glorious death at the hands of my traducers, you included, to a living grave."
Over the next few years Rena Mooney worked hard for her husband's freedom. She addressed public meetings all over America in order to draw attention to the case and to help raise funds to pay for her husband's legal costs.
In November 1920, Draper Hand of the San Francisco Police Department, went to Mayor James Rolph and admitted that he had helped Charles Fickert and Martin Swanson to frame Mooney. Later two witnesses, Edgar Rigall and Earl K. Hatcher, came forward and provided evidence that Frank Oxman was 200 miles away during the bombing and could not have seen what he told the court at the trial of Mooney. In February 1921 John McDonald confessed that the police had forced him to lie about the planting of the bomb. Despite this new evidence the Californian authorities refused a retrial.
After the publication of this new evidence it was generally believed that Charles Fickert and Martin Swanson had framed Mooney and Billings. However, Republican governors over the next twenty years: William Stephens (1917-1923), Friend Richardson (1923-1927), Clement Young (1927-1931), James Rolph (1931-1934) and Frank Merriam (1934-39) all refused to order the release of the two men.
In 1937 a group of politicians led by Caroline O'Day, Nan Honeyman, Jerry O'Connell, Emanuel Celler, James E. Murray, Vito Marcantonio, Gerald Nye and Usher Burdick asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to intercede in the case. When Roosevelt declined Murray and O'Connell introduced a resolution in the Senate calling on Governor Frank Merriam to pardon Mooney and Billings.
In November 1938 Culbert Olson was elected as Governor of California. He was the first member of the Democratic Party to hold this office for forty-four years. Soon after gaining power Olson ordered that Mooney and Billings should be released from prison. Rena, who welcomed her husband as he left San Quentin, was quoted as saying: "These twenty-two long years have been moth-eaten. Life to me has been something like a cloak. There is little left but the tatters."
(1) Edward Nolan, a fellow defendant in the San Francisco bombing case, paid tribute to Rena Mooney in a letter he wrote to her on 24th January 1921.
Every time I have seen you so courageously hoping on, a most depressing feeling of sorrow has been with me for days. Dear woman if I might have one wish in this world satisfied, then it would be to know that your battle for right and justice and love was won and the terrible dragging uncertainty of hope deferred ended in a glorious reunion.
(2) Edward H. Hamilton, San Francisco Examiner (12th June 1923)
It can be said for Mrs. Rena Mooney that she has completely upset the dictum of former Warden Hoyle that the limit of a woman's constancy is three years.
(3) Rena Mooney, letter to Tom Mooney (6th August 1925)
It seems to me more than 9 years since we were together on the (Russian) river, I will never forget our happy times together and I hope it will not be long until we can have our 3rd honeymoon.
(4) Rena Mooney, on the release of Tom Mooney in January 1939.
These twenty-two long years have been moth-eaten. Life to me has been something like a cloak. There is little left but the tatters.
© John Simkin, March 2013