Charles Fickert

Charles Fickert

Charles Fickert, the son of a farmer, was born in 1873. He attended Stanford University where he studied for a law degree. A talented sportsman, Fickert was the star of the university football team.

In 1898 Fickert entered the law office of W. B. Kollmyer and Edward R. Taylor. However, two years later he returned to Stanford to become assistant varsity football coach under Fielding H. Yost. In 1901 Fickert replaced Yost as head coach. The following year, after a series of bad results Fickert resigned and resumed his career as a lawyer.

In March 1904 Fickert became Assistant United States District Attorney in San Francisco. The following year he began working as a freelance attorney.

Fickert, a member of the Republican Party, ran for the post of San Francisco's District Attorney in 1909. He fought a dirty campaign and the Governor of California, Hiram Johnson, stated: "Fickert has run riot with lies. I think he's gone stark, staring mad." Despite this Fickert defeated Francis Heney by 36,192 to 26,075.

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). 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 Fickert. Swanson told Fickert that despite the claims that it was the work of Mexicans, he was convinced that Tom Mooney and Warren Billings 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 Mooney, his wife Rena Mooney, Warren Billings, 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 Warren Billings plant the bomb at 1.50 p.m. Oxman saw Tom Mooney and his wife talking with 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 Mooney and his wife 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 and Israel Weinberg were found not guilty and Edward Nolan was never brought to trial.

Mooney's defence team complained about the method of selecting his jury. Bourke Cockran pointed out that in San Francisco "each Superior Court Judge places in the box from which the trial jurors are drawn the names of such persons as he may think proper. In theory he is supposed to choose persons peculiarly well qualified to decide issues of fact. In actual practice he places in the box the names of men who ask to be selected. The practical result is that a jury panel is a collection of the lame, the halt, the blind, and the incapable, with a few exceptions, and these are well known to the District Attorney who is thus enabled to pick a jury of his own choice."

Fickert ran for re-election as District Attorney in 1919. Discredited by the publication of the Densmore Report he was defeated by Judge Matthew Brady (47,000 votes to 40,000). Four years later he tried again but this time he was overwhelmed 71,000 to 27,000.

Fickert moved to Los Angeles where he established himself as a lawyer. In later life he became an alcoholic and was divorced by his wife for intemperance and habitual gambling.

Charles Fickert died of pneumonia in 1937.

Primary Sources

(1) Charles Fickert, during the trial of Warren Billings (September 1916)

Gentlemen, the case here is by far more serious than any other case that was ever submitted to any jury. It is not a question of this defendant against Mrs. Van Loo; that unhappy woman is at rest; those orphan children must go through life, thinking of the scenes that were enacted there. But here, gentlemen, was the offense: This American flag—this American flag was what they desired to offend. They offended that by killing the women and men that worshipped it. Here is another photograph of Mrs. Van Loo, dying on the streets of our city, and in a feeble hand she holds the American flag, and if that flag is to continue to wave, you men must put an end to such acts as these. So far as I am concerned, no personal consequences are going to swerve me one jot from my sworn duty. What are personal consequences, what are political consequences in a crisis like this? Gentlemen, the very life of the Nation is at stake. No foreign foes were on our land at this time, but some traitor, some murderous villain, who, with his associates, perpetrated this crime, and to disgrace the flag, they took the life of this unfortunate woman.

Now, we have here, gentlemen, enough evidence at 721 Market Street - and God only knows, if it had not been for the action of Estelle Smith, and those who saw him there. God only knows, there may have been three or four hundred children of the working class of San Francisco blown into eternity.

He (Billings) probably delighted in hearing the cries of these women and children. My God! You have heard it described here, and I have seen it afterwards - women with babes in their arms, their legs shot away, crawling away from the wreck of the cruel shell, and if you could have heard the cries of some of those children, if you could have seen, like I have seen, my friend Lawlor there blown beyond recognition, you could not have thought lightly of it.

(2) Charles Fickert, during the trial of Tom Mooney (January 1917)

This defendant and his fellow-anarchists, in the time of peace, murdered ten men and women because these anarchists were bent on destroying the very government which Lincoln preserved and defended. The question which concerns you, gentlemen, here, as well as every other citizen of this great republic, is either to destroy anarchy or the anarchists will destroy the State.

If the moral fibre of the people of this nation has been so weakened; if the seeds of anarchy have been so implanted in the body politic that we refuse or neglect to defend our citizens at home or abroad; when helpless women and children can be ruthlessly slain on the streets of our city, and those who murder them go unpunished, because those who have been sworn to enforce the laws have tailed through neglect or fear to do their duty - we can then say farewell to the greatness of our nation; our boasted civilization is then only a self-delusion resting on the edge of a political abyss.

(3) Judge Franklin Griffin, letter to Charles Fickert (26th April, 1917)

In the trial of Mooney, there was called as a witness by the people one Frank C. Oxman, whose testimony was most damaging and of the utmost consequences to the defendant. Indeed, in my opinion, the testimony of this witness was by far the most important adduced by the People at the trial of Mooney. In confirmation of these statements, I would respectfully call your attention to the transcript filed on the appeal. Within the past week there have been brought to my attention certain letters written by Oxman prior to his having been called to testify, which have come to the knowledge and into the possession of the defendant's counsel since the determination of the motion for new trial. The authorship and authenticity of these letters, photographic copies of which I transmit herewith, are undenied and undisputed. As you will at once see, they bear directly upon the credibility of the witness and go to the very foundation of the truth of the story told by Oxman on the witness stand. Had they been before me at the time of the hearing of the motion for new trial, I would unhesitatingly have granted it. Unfortunately, the matter is now out of my hands jurisdictionally, and I am therefore addressing you, as the representative of the People on the appeal, to urge upon you the necessity of such action on your part as will result in returning the case to this court for retrial. The letters of Oxman undoubtedly require explanation and so far as Mooney is concerned, unquestionably the explanation should be heard by a jury which passes upon the question of his guilt or innocence.

I fully appreciate the unusual character of such a request coming from the trial court in any case and I know of no precedent therefor. In the circumstances of this case, I believe that all of us who were participants in the trial concur that right and justice demand that a new trial of Mooney should be had in order that no possible mistake shall be made in a case where a human life is at stake.

(4) John Densmore's report on the Mooney and Billings Case was passed to the Secretary of Labor in November 1917.

As one reads the testimony and studies the way in which the cases were conducted one is apt to wonder at many things - at the apparent failure of the district attorney's office to conduct a real investigation at the scene of the crime; at the easy adaptability of some of the star witnesses; at the irregular methods pursued by the prosecution in identifying the various defendants; at the sorry type of men and women brought forward to prove essential matters of fact in a case of the gravest importance; at the seeming inefficacy of even a well-established alibi; at the sangfroid with which the prosecution occasionally discarded an untenable theory to adopt another not quite so preposterous; at the refusal of the public prosecutor to call as witnesses people who actually saw the falling of the bomb; in short, at the general flimsiness and improbability of the testimony adduced, together with a total absence of anything that looks like a genuine effort to arrive at the facts in the case.

These things, as one reads and studies the complete record, are calculated to cause in the minds of even the most blase a decided mental rebellion. The plain truth is, there is nothing about the cases to produce a feeling of confidence that the dignity and majesty of the law have been upheld. There is nowhere anything even remotely resembling consistency, the effect being that of patchwork, of incongruous makeshift, of clumsy and often desperate expediency.

It is not the purpose of this report to enter into a detailed analysis of the evidence presented in these cases - evidence which, in its general outlines at least, is already familiar to you in your capacity as president, ex officio, of the Mediation Commission. It will be enough to remind you that Billings was tried first; that in September 1916, he was found guilty, owing largely to the testimony of Estelle Smith, John McDonald, Mellie and Sadie Edeau, and Louis Rominger, all of whom have long since been thoroughly discredited; that when Mooney was placed on trial, in January of the year following, the prosecution decided, for reasons which were obvious, not to use Rominger or Estelle Smith, but to add to the list of witnesses a certain Frank C. Oxman, whose testimony, corroborative of the testimony of the two Edeau women, formed the strongest link in the chain of evidence against the defendant; that on the strength of this testimony Mooney was found guilty; that on February 24, 1917, he was sentenced to death; and that subsequently, to wit, in April of the same year, it was demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that Oxman, the prosecution's star witness, had attempted to suborn perjury and had thus in effect destroyed his own credibility.

The exposure of Oxman's perfidy, involving as it did the district attorney's office, seemed at first to promise that Mooney would be granted a new trial. The district attorney himself, Mr. Charles M. Fickert, when confronted with the facts, acknowledged in the presence of reputable witnesses that he would agree to a new trial. His principal assistant, Mr. Edward A. Cunha, made a virtual confession of guilty knowledge of the facts relating to Oxman, and promised, in a spirit of contrition, to see that justice should be done the man who had been convicted through Oxman's testimony. The trial judge, Franklin A. Griffin, one of the first to recognize the terrible significance of the expose, and keenly jealous of his own honor, lost no time in officially suggesting the propriety of a new trial. The attorney general of the state, Hon. Ulysses S. Webb, urged similar action in a request filed with the Supreme Court of California.

Matters thus seemed in a fair way to be rectified, when two things occurred to upset the hopes of the defense. The first was a sudden change of front on the part of Fickert, who now denied that he had ever agreed to a new trial, and whose efforts henceforth were devoted to a clumsy attempt to whitewash Oxman and justify his own motives and conduct throughout. The second was a decision of the Supreme Court to the effect that it could not go outside the record in the case - in other words, that judgment could not be set aside merely for the reason that it was predicated upon perjured testimony.

There are excellent grounds for believing that Fickert's sudden change of attitude was prompted by emissaries from some of the local corporate interests most bitterly opposed to union labor. It was charged by the Mooney defendants, with considerable plausibility, that Fickert was the creature and tool of these powerful interests, chief among which are the Chamber of Commerce and the principal public-service utilities of the city of San Francisco. In this connection it is of the utmost significance that Fickert should have entrusted the major portion of the investigating work necessary in these cases to Martin Swanson, a corporation detective, who for some time prior to the bomb explosion had been vainly attempting to connect these same defendants with other crimes of violence.

Since the Oxman exposure, the district attorney's case has melted steadily away until there is little left but an unsavory record of manipulation and perjury, further revelations having impeached the credibility of practically all the principal witnesses for the prosecution. And if any additional confirmation were needed of the inherent weakness of the cases against these codefendants, the acquittal of Mrs. Mooney on July 26, 1917, and of Israel Weinberg on the 27th of the following October would seem to supply it.

These acquittals were followed by the investigation of the Mediation Commission and its report to the President under date of January 16, 1918. The Commission's report, while disregarding entirely the question of the guilt or innocence of the accused, nevertheless found in the attendant circumstances sufficient grounds for uneasiness and doubt as to whether the two men convicted had received fair and impartial trials.

Ordinarily the relentless persecution of four or five defendants, even though it resulted in unmerited punishment for them all, would conceivably have but a local effect, which would soon be obliterated and forgotten. But in the Mooney case, which is nothing but a phase of the old war between capital and organized labor, a miscarriage of justice would inflame the passions of laboring men everywhere and add to a conviction, already too widespread, that workingmen can expect no justice from an orderly appeal to the established courts.

Yet this miscarriage of justice is in process of rapid consummation. One man is about to be hanged; another is in prison for life; the remaining defendants are still in peril of their liberty or lives, one or the other of which they will surely lose if some check is not given to the activities of this most amazing of district attorneys.

(5) Earl Hatcher was interviewed by Frank Oxman's attorney in October 1918.

Jim I lied to you in San Francisco last year when you asked me if Oxman was down there when that explosion took place. He was not there at that time any more than you was. He ate dinner at my house that day and never left Woodland until after a o'clock. He never got to San Francisco until after 5 o'clock that evening.

I have stood up for Oxman and been loyal to him because I considered him one of my best friends, but he has turned me down cold. It hurt me like the devil Jim to think he would treat me the way he has. Have written him several letters reminding him of his moral obligation to me. Some of them he doesn't even answer. He has made me lots of promises to help me out and every appeal I have made to him he has evaded. Jim I got my little wife to stand by the old man when he was in trouble. She lied to those attorneys when they came to Woodland, just to help Oxman.

Every thing has gone wrong with me this year and I could not make a dollar. When I asked Oxman for a loan to help feed and clothe my wife and babies he turned me down. Does that look right. If I had gone on the stand and told what I know, Oxman would be in the State Prison today.