Hero or Huckster: Harry Coyne the Dynamite Fiend

On the night of February 6 1896, an explosion rocked the slumbering West Adams neighborhood.  “Dynamite fiends” had apparently attempted to blow up the house of Thomas Douglas Stimson at 2421 Figueroa (figure 1). Neighbors George and Frank Sabichi ran to help with their guns drawn. They fired at a shadowy fleeing figure, but the man managed to escape unharmed by jumping on a passing street car. Initially, the motive was unknown. However, true to its anti-labor bias, the Los Angeles Times had a “theory of the crime” and rashly reasoned that “some Anarchist or enemy of capitalists” must have orchestrated the attack.[1]

Stimson_Mansion from LA Times Feb. 7, 1896, page 10

Figure 1: A view of the Stimson mansion from the Los Angeles Times story about the explosion

It was later revealed that greed, not politics had been the primary motive. On February 19th, a private detective named Harry Coyne was charged with “assault to commit murder.” Coyne had apparently attempted to buy his way into a night watchman’s job by telling Stimson that his family was “in danger from the machinations of a notorious Mexican crook.”[2] It was not the first time that Coyne had been involved in such a scheme.

Eighteen year old Harry “Jack” Coyne had arrived in Los Angeles in 1895 and set himself up as a private detective (figure 2). In July of that year, he was hired by another local detective to find two young men. Alex Burness and Sam Reddick were thought to be witnesses to the murder of “little Lou Suey” who was the leader of Chinatown’s Hop Sing community association. Suey had allegedly been shot by members of the rival Bing Kung association as he walked along Alameda Street. [3]

Coyne

Figure 2: Sketch of Coyne from the story by the San Francisco Call

Coyne did find the boys, but rather than bring them in, he appears to have encouraged them to extort money from the lawyer for the defense. Coyne and the boys sent a letter to the lawyer telling him that they would “absent themselves” from Los Angeles and the trial if the lawyer would euphemistically “pay their expenses at some summer resort.”[4]  It is not at all clear whether Coyne tricked or collaborated with Burness and Reddick in this plan. The Los Angeles Herald appears to have been convinced that Coyne was one of the police department’s “secret service men” and should be celebrated as a hero.[5]  The Times was less awed. While initially describing Coyne as the detective who “successfully decoyed” Burness and Reddick, writers for the Times noted that Coyne was jailed for a number of days along with the two boys.[6]  Later that month, the Times even printed a warning about Coyne. The paper had received an anonymous letter suggesting that Coyne had killed one of the Dalton gang in Kansas and another man in Leadville, Colorado.[7] Not surprisingly, Coyne vigorously denied these allegations, saying that he was “present at the shooting of Dalton and the man in Leadville, but asserts that he had no hand in the killing of either man.”[8]

Despite this notoriety, Thomas Stimson hired Coyne to accompany his son on a trip to Mexico City. When the group returned, Coyne informed Stimson about a “plot to do him injury.” For $60 Coyne would inform on the conspirators and “deliver them to the police.”[9] Stimson declined the offer, but found Coyne to be a very persistent bodyguard. The young man visited Stimson’s office daily to talk about the plot. He then staged a burglary attempt and finally used the dynamite to sustain the credibility of the story. At this point Coyne’s price for protection had increased to $250.

At his trial, Coyne’s plans were described as “clumsy and desperate.”[10] He was certainly not the brightest of criminal masterminds. When Stimson refused his offers, Coyne told his story to the police, even providing them with the name of the hardware store in Monrovia where the explosives had apparently been purchased by the Mexican banditos. Detectives visited the store where the owner told them that a young man fitting Coyne’s description had actually bought dynamite. From that point on, the police had apparently let Coyne keep talking until they “had enough evidence to hold him.”[11]

In June, Coyne was sentenced to five years in Folsom State Prison where perhaps the story should have ended. However, after less than two years in Folsom, Coyne was discovered counterfeiting nickels in the engine room of the prison’s rock crushing plant. While a number of the prisoners were able to get away, Harry was caught red-handed.[12]

The house survived the explosion with only minor damage. Thomas Stimson died in February 1898 but the house stayed in the family until 1904 when his widow also passed away. After her death, the house was purchased by a civil engineer and then by the owner of a brewing company. In 1940, it was sold to USC’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Carrie Estelle Doheny, widow of Edward Doheny later bought the house and deeded it to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet to be used as a convent (figure 3). The Stimson House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and was named a Historic-Cultural Monument (# 212) by the City of Los Angeles. (For more information about the house see Big Orange Landmarks: http://bigorangelandmarks.blogspot.com/2009/02/no-212-stimson-residence.html)

3264973959_441853b484

Figure 3: a contemporary view of the Stimson mansion from the Big Orange Landmarks blog


[1] “Dynamite Fiends: An Attempt to Blow-Up the Stimson Mansion”.  Los Angeles Times, Feb 7, 1896; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 10. Stimson had recently retired to Los Angeles after a long career as the head of a profitable lumber business in Michigan and Illinois.  In LA, he was warmly welcomed as part of the city’s new elite.  He was one of the largest shareholders in the Citizens Bank and was vice president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

[2] “Held To Answer: Harry Coyne Examined in Justice Young’s Court” Los Angeles Times; Feb 29, 1896; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 9

[3] “At the Courthouse: The Courts Examination of Bribe-takers in the Chinese Case”. Los Angeles Times; Jul 10, 1895; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 8

[4] “At the Courthouse: The Courts Examination of Bribe-takers in the Chinese Case”. Los Angeles Times; Jul 10, 1895; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 8

[5] “Echoes of the Lou Suey Murder” Los Angeles Herald, Volume 44, Number 83, 3 July 1895

[6] “At the Courthouse: The Courts. Witnesses Burness and Reddick Are Held to Answer.” Los Angeles Times; Jul 11, 1895; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: pg. 9

[7] “A Varied Record: Detective Jack Coyne and His Potential Graveyard”. Los Angeles Times (1886-1922); Jul 26, 1895; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 10

[8] “Detective Harry Coyne” Los Angeles Times; Jul 27, 1895; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 7

[9] “Coyne After Coin: Did He Try To Extort Money From T.D. Stimson?” Los Angeles Times; Feb 19, 1896; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 14

[10] “At the Court House: Coyne Found Guilty”. Los Angeles Times; Jun 5, 1896; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 9

[11] At the Court House: Last Hope Gone. Coyne Must Serve Five Years, Los Angeles Times, Mar 18, 1897; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 9

[12] “Bogus Money Is Made Right in Folsom Prison” The San Francisco Call, Vol. 83, No. 101, Mar 11, 1898, pg. 1

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