Two Radicals and Their Los Angeles: Harrison Gray Otis and Job Harriman

Article excerpt

Harrison Gray Otis and Job Harriman were part of the flood of Midwesterners who came to Los Angeles for health and wealth in the late nineteenth century. The two men rose to prominence in their adopted city, each pursuing very different visions of what kind of city it should be. Both men were radicals on opposite ends of the political spectrum-Otis on the far right and Harriman on the left. Otis was a hard-line Republican, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, a dedicated enemy of labor unions in any form, and the patriarch of a family dynasty that wielded enormous influence in the city for most of the twentieth century. Harriman was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America, an attorney who spent a lifetime defending the victims of capitalism, a steadfast champion of unionism, and the guiding spirit behind a utopian community that aspired to show how much better life could be in a Socialist society. Hundreds of mourners crowded into the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church at Otis's funeral in 1917. Harriman passed away nearly unnoticed in 1925, a forgotten man in a city that once nearly made him its mayor.

Los Angeles has long had a reputation as a place where the political far right has flourished as luxuriantly as the palm trees that line its streets. While it is true that the city has been a stronghold of conservatism, this is not the whole story. The conflict between Otis and Harriman reveals a long and vibrant progressive tradition that extends back to the beginning of the twentieth century.


Harrison Gray Otis arrived in Los Angeles in 1882, forty-five years old, with a long but not particularly distinguished newspaper career behind him. Born in Marietta, Ohio, he started out as a young apprentice at the Nobel County Courier and later worked for the Louisville Journal, a Whig paper that opposed slavery. An early supporter of the Republican Party, he was a delegate to the 1860 convention in Chicago that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted as a private in the Union army and served with distinction. Twice wounded, he mustered out in 1864 with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel.

Otis was inordinately proud of his wartime service and his devotion to flag and country was a hallmark of his subsequent public and private life. In 1898, despite his age, he volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War. President William McKinley, one of his Civil War subordinates, granted the newspaper publisher a commission as brigadier general in the United States volunteers. Otis never saw action against Spanish forces, but he played an important part in the bloody suppression of the Filipino insurrection after the war. Upon his return to Los Angeles, he insisted on being called General Otis, referred to his Los Angeles home as the Bivouac, his country house as the Outpost, and his staff on the Times as the Phalanx. (1)


After the Civil War, Otis returned briefly to his hometown in Ohio, where he edited a small newspaper. Dissatisfied with small town life, he soon moved to Washington, D.C., where he found work with the Government Printing Office and the U.S. Patent Office. In 1876, an offer to become editor of the Santa Barbara Press brought him to southern California. This was the year of the hotly contested presidential election between the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, one of Otis's superior officers during the Civil War, and the Democratic Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Otis vigorously supported Hayes in the bitter contest, expecting a lucrative office as a reward. The appointment he received, however-the Treasury Department's special agent for the Alaskan Seal Islands--was a cruel disappointment. His three years spent chasing poachers on the remote islands must have seemed more of a punishment than a prize. Following his stint in the north, he returned to Santa Barbara, but soon decided that he had had enough of that quiet town and moved to the comparatively booming city of Los Angeles. …