Another Good Story Ruined: Gen. Otis’ ‘Death Car’ Rides Again

Harrison Gray Otis

Photo: Times President Gen. Harrison Gray Otis. Credit: Press Reference Library, 1912

Evidently the folks at Esotouric (nee “The Crime Bus”) have neglected their homework when it comes to the bombing of The Times, judging by a recent story. Which once again shows historians’ aversion to original research.

So here we go again on Gen. Harrison Gray Otis’ supposed death-mobile. Also known as the “horseless carriage of doom” and many other nicknames.

Spoiler: The “cannon” was a horn. Honk! Honk!

Also: Another Good Story Ruined: Gen. Otis’ Armored Car.

From a 2011 post:

Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the favorite pinata of Los Angeles historians, is the subject of a new biography by Mike “City of Quartz” Davis, now being serialized in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Based on the first installment, it seems Davis has some things right – that no decent biography exists. But I don’t expect much more than a thorough hatchet job in the Morrow Mayo-Louis Adamic school:

Here’s an excerpt:

Second, any biographer has to tackle the fact that Otis was probably the most hated man in Ragtime America. His enemies ecumenically spanned a spectrum from evangelists to citrus growers, socialists to robber barons. Although chiefly remembered for his relentless crusade to destroy the labor movement in Los Angeles, Otis waxed most savage in his attacks on reformers within his own Republican Party. Progressive Republicans, in turn, repaid his vitriol with eloquent interest.

And of course, Davis trots out the same old warhorse quote from Hiram Johnson, which has become boilerplate in anything written about the history of The Times. I think most people can recite it from memory, so I won’t quote it here.

Behold the fearsome war machine of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and INDVSTRIAL FREEDOM!  A 1910 Franklin Model H landaulet!


Abandon all hopes of nuance, folks, this is merely more slash and burn history. Recall that Davis is one of the writers who fell into the “Gen. Otis’ Death Car” nonsense. I’ll be watching to see how the 1910 bombing is handled – but I don’t expect much subtlety or original insight.

And here’s my post from the old Daily Mirror on Gen. Otis’ death machine, which rather painfully demonstrates historians’ aversion to original research.

May 21, 1910, Gen. Otis Car Let’s roll backward through a few examples and see who got it wrong. Ready?

“Otis began tooling around town in an armored car with machine guns mounted on the hood,” “Before the Storm,” Rick Perlstein, 2009. [Ooh! Machine guns! I like this one!]

“… Harrison Gray Otis “patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood,”  “Dominion From Sea to Sea” by Bruce Cummings, 2009.

[Update] “He mounted a cannon on the hood of his limousine and made sure his chauffeur was prepared to repel, at his command, any enemy attacks,” “American Lightning,” Howard Blum, 2008.

“…to emphasize his truculence, he later had a small, functional cannon installed on the hood of his Packard touring car,”  “American Urban Politics in a Global Age,” by Paul Kantor and Dennis R. Judd, 2008. [A Packard? Oops!]

Gen. Harrison Gray Otis “continued to live in a perpetual state of combat readiness, dressing for work in uniform and mounting a small cannon on the hood of his car,” “High Steel,” by Jim Rasenberger, 2004.

[Updated Aug. 29, 2010: “a small, functional cannon was installed on the hood of Otis’ touring car to intimidate onlookers,” “City of Quartz,” Mike Davis, 1992.]

“While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood…” “Water and Power,” William L. Kahrl, 1983.

“Otis took to riding around Los Angeles in a huge touring car with a cannon mounted on it,” “The Powers That Be,” David Halberstam, 1979. [Not the late David Halberstam! Nooooo!].

[Updated  Aug. 27, 2010: “Otis toured the city with a small cannon mounted on his car,” “Thinking Big,” Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolf, 1977.]

“While Harrison Gray Otis patrolled the streets in his private limousine with a cannon mounted on the hood…,” California Historical Quarterly, 1976.

Let’s skip a bit. I think we’re getting close to the roots here.

The story of the cannon appears in Morrow Mayo’s 1933 book “Los Angeles,” “Otis had a small cannon mounted on his automobile and went dashing about like a general at the front.”

And we find it in Louis Adamic’s 1931 book, “Dynamite,” “… while fighting the unions, he mounted a small cannon on the hood of his automobile!”

If anyone finds an earlier example, please send it along.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Another Good Story Ruined, Books and Authors, Downtown, History, Libraries and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Another Good Story Ruined: Gen. Otis’ ‘Death Car’ Rides Again

  1. Rick Perlstein says:

    Hanging my head in shame! In my case, my source was Halberstam’s The Power and the Glory. Not an excuse, just an explanation. Thanks for the correction.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Well, you have lots of company. 🙂 The Gen. Otis “Industrial Freedom Death-Mobile” is one of the most popular myths in L.A. history and there is a great lesson to be learned in why folks like it so much. I was sadly surprised that Halberstam fell for it (I met him once after a speech — he was an interesting fellow). Fortunately, we have much better access to original material with the internet, so we don’t need to depend exclusively on musty old books by questionable authors (and I would put Morrow Mayo and Louis Adamic in that category — though I’m an Adamic fan).

      Thanks for reading!


  2. mandymarie20 says:

    So the newspaper author was using a bit of flowery language to describe a new car since the man in question was a general and cars were still sort of a novelty at the time. After many years, no one remembered that it was sort of a joke and took it literally. At some point in history an author didn’t understand the quotation marks indicated the joke or thought it would be much more interesting if the story was real. This is a perfect example of how myths are made.


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