- Californians and the Military
- Major-General Harrison Gray Otis,
Publisher of the Los Angeles Times
- By WO1 Mark J. Denger
- California Center for Military
veteran of both the Civil War and Spanish-American War, Harrison
Gray Otis was publisher of the Los Angeles Times for more
than three decades, and a leader in the affairs of Southern California.
Harrison Gray Otis, the youngest of sixteen children of his father
Stephen Otis, was born on February 10, 1837, on a farm near Marietta,
Ohio. His parents, Stephen and Sarah Otis, were among the first
pioneers of Ohio. His father, in 1800, moved from Vermont and
settled in the "Ohio Company's purchase" at Marietta,
then emerging from the condition of a frontier "block-house"
settlement, made so by the Indian hostilities of that period.
Ohio was then a territory, and Marietta its first settlement.
His paternal grandfather, Barnabus Otis, served in the American
Revolution, and was a pensioner. (1) He and other Otis branches
in America are descendants from James Otis, who emigrated from
England and settled at Hingham, Massachusetts, at an early period
in Colonial history. This family has produced James Otis, another
famous Revolutionary patriot and orator; his namesake, Harrison
Gray Otis, a Senator of the United States from Massachusetts,
and others of the name distinguished in civil, political and
Otis received only a limited "log-schoolhouse" education.
He worked on the family farm and only attended school during
the three winter months, up to the age of 14, when he became
a printer's apprentice. His only subsequent school educated was
embraced in an academy term of five months at Lowell, Ohio, in
1856-67, and a commercial course at Granger's College at Columbus,
from which he graduated in 1857. He developed a fondness for
the printer's art, and subsequently worked as apprentice and
printer (1851-1861) in several companies.
He married the former Miss Eliza A. Wetherby, an amiable and
accomplished New England lady. The couple was married on September
11, 1859, and shortly afterwards established their home at Louisville,
Kentucky, where Harrison had received a position in the office
of the Louisville Journal, under the famous editor, George
While a resident of Louisville, Otis was elected as a delegate
to the Republican National Convention and nominated Abraham Lincoln
for the Presidency. He attended the convention, took part in
its proceedings, served as a member of the Kentucky Republican
State Executive Committee, and in the succeeding November voted
viva voce, under Kentucky law, for Mr. Lincoln.
With war-clouds appearing, Mr. and Mrs. Otis left Louisville
for Ohio, knowing that hostilities were inevitable, and feeling
that his proper place would be with the defenders of the Union
who would go out from his native State.
Harrison Gray Otis enlisted as a private in the 12th Regiment,
Ohio Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Colonel John W.
Lowe, at Camp Dennison, Ohio, on June 25, 1861, "for three
years or during the war." He was mustered in as a Sergeant
in Company I on June 29, and took the field with his regiment
on July 6 on the Western Virginia campaign. Promoted to First
Sergeant on March 1, 1862, he was mustered into service with
the 12th Ohio Infantry. Wounded twice in the Civil War, he fought
in 15 battles and received four more promotions and two brevets
to Major and Lieutenant Colonel for "gallant and meritorious
service". He was mustered out of service at Cumberland,
Maryland, on July 26, 1865, where he was discharged as a lieutenant
colonel. For the rest of his life, he liked to be referred to
in military terms, first as Colonel, and later General.
After his discharge from the Union army he rejoined his family
at Marietta, Ohio, where he was subsequently a small proprietor
and publisher for the next eighteen months.
At the session of the Ohio Legislature of 1866-67, he became
the official Reporter of the House, having been elected to that
position after a sharp contest. At the close of the session he
went to Washington, D.C. where he subsequently received an appointment
as Second Lieutenant in the Regular Army. From 1867 to 1870 he
served in the Government Printing Office, first as a compositor,
next as a proof-reader, and later as Foreman of Printing, which
he held from May 1869 to January 1870.
During this period, he also served as a Washington correspondent
for the Ohio State Journal; and managing editor of the
Grand Army Journal, the first Union soldiers' paper established
in Washington after the war. He took an active part in the preliminary
conference, held in February 1868, which called the Soldiers
and Sailors' National Convention of that year that first nominated
Gen. U.S. Grant for the Presidency, and was a delegate to that
In 1871, Otis entered the U.S. Patent office and served therein
for five years, as a chief of a division. He resigned in February
1876, receiving a commendatory letter from the head of the office,
and on February 22 moved with his family to California. On March
5, Col. Otis established his residence in Santa Barbara, and
on March 11, took charge of the Santa Barbara Press, the
principal daily and weekly journal of that place, which he continued
to publish for the four succeeding years, though absent a portion
of that period.
Otis received an appointment in 1878 by President Hayes as collector
of the Port of San Diego, but his confirmation was opposed by
Senator Sergent. Sergent was able to "Hang up" the
appointment in the Senate, until Col. Otis notified the President
of his withdrawal. In 1879 he was offered by the State Department,
through Senator John F. Miller, the appointment of U.S. Consul
at the Samoan Islands, and in 1884 a similar appointment at Tien
Tsin, China, but he declined both offers.
Col. Otis came to Los Angeles when he heard that its newest paper,
the Los Angeles Daily Times, was for sale. The first four-page
issue of the Times had appeared on December 4, 1881, but
the owners faced financial problems. Scraping together $6,000,
Otis bought a quarter interest in the paper in 1882 and became
its editor, as well as editor of a sister weekly publication,
the Mirror. In October 1882, he and his family moved from Santa
Barbara and established a home in Los Angeles. For a weekly salary
of $15, Otis wrote the editorials and much of the local news.
His wife Eliza contributed columns about women, morals and religion.
In 1883, Otis and entrepreneur H. H. Boyce became co-owners of
the Times, now grown to eight pages, and formed the Times
Mirror Company. Otis set about transforming the newspaper. As
John Weaver writes in Los Angeles: The Enormous Village:
"He dropped Daily' from the Times masthead,
ordered up livelier headlines, doubled the telegraphic news coverage,
made room for letters to the editor and added a column, Political
Points' which collected editorial barbs aimed at Democrats by
other Republican journals."
In 1885, to ease his workload, Otis hired Charles Fletcher Lummis
as the Times' first city editor. The flamboyant Lummis,
Harvard drop out and editor of a small-town weekly in Ohio, had
walked 3,507 miles from Ohio to Los Angeles in 143 days, writing
a weekly series of letters about his journey for the Times.
Otis met Lummis at Mission San Gabriel on February 1, 1885, and
walked with him the last eleven miles into the city. Lummis became
city editor the next day. "Col. Otis and I hit it off from
the start," he later wrote. "He hated anybody who was
afraid of him. Because of his dominant and overbearing way a
great many good people were afraid of him. One of the reasons
he liked me was that I wasn't."
In 1886, Otis bought H.H. Boyce's half-interest in the paper
and named himself president, general manager and editor-in-chief.
In his 1932 book Los Angeles, writer Morrow Mayo had this
to say of Otis:
- "He was a large, aggressive man,
with a walrus mustache, a goatee, and a warlike demeanor. He
resembled Buffalo Bill, General Custer and Henry Watterson. The
military bee buzzed incessantly in his bonnet. He was a holy
terror in his newspaper plant; his natural voice was that of
a game-warden roaring at seal poachers. He was politically ambitious
all his life; though he never ran for an office, he asked for
When McKinley, his former army commander, was elected President
he asked to be appointed an Assistant Secretary of War, but Secretary
Alger would not have him.
When the Spanish-American War broke out, Otis, then in his early
60s, volunteered for service in the United States Volunteers
and was assigned to the Philippines, at which time he was made
brigadier-general, on May 27, 1898. Brigadier-General Otis was
placed in command of the First Brigade, 2d Division, Eighth Army
Corp, under Major-General Arthur MacArthur. Narrating the operations
of his division, in his report dated February 28, 1899, Gen.
MacArthur described the composition of the First Brigade as follows:
"First Brigade, Brigadier-General H. G. Otis, commanding;
Third United States Artillery, Major W. A. Kobbe, 14 officers
and 650 men; First Montana Infantry, Colonel H. C. Kessler, 48
officers, 846 men; Tenth Pennsylvania Infantry, Colonel A. L.
Hawkins, 28 officers, 713 men; Twentieth Kansas Infantry, Colonel
F. Funston, 37 officers, 976 men total First Brigade,
127 officers and 3,185 men."
Referring to the battle of Caloocan (fought mainly by the First
Brigade), Gen. MacArthur made the following comment:
"The tactical scheme, which was carefully explained to
the brigade and regimental commanders, was to the following effect,
. . . The combined artillery preparation commenced at 3:09 p.m.,
and the infantry advanced at 3:59 p.m., after which the program
as prescribed was executed with almost exact precision, and the
American flag was raised in the town at 5:15 p.m. The tactical
execution of the necessary movement was exemplary, and the resistance
was such as to require the best efforts of all concerned."
Touching on the general operations of his command in the earlier
movements of his command, Gen. MacArthur made the following comment:
"The difficulties attending the execution of the tactical
operations on an extended line, such as that occupied by the
division during the month, involved great presence of mind and
endless exertion on the part of brigade and regimental commanders.
The decision and sustained vigor of these officers insured such
unity and strength throughout the command that every obstacle
was quickly overcome and every prearranged scheme carried out
precisely as planned."
From the night of the outbreak to the close of the campaign which
resulted in the fall of Malolos, the Filipino capital, Otis was
in constant command of his brigade, which occupied an advanced
position at all times night and day, as part of the division
line holding the country to the northward of Manila and the river
Pasig. The official reports show that the brigade lost in the
earlier operations (those included within the month of February
alone), 137 officers and men killed and wounded; and that the
aggregate losses of the brigade up to the fall of Malolos, reached
the number of 285 officers and men killed and wounded a
percentage of casualties as high as the highest of any brigade
in the Eighth Army Corps, with casualties inflicted upon the
enemy in the estimated proportion of five to one.
For meritorious conduct, Otis was breveted to Major-General on
March 25, 1899. Following the war, Major-General Otis was elected
a Companion of the First Class, Military Order of the Loyal Legion,
through its California Commandery, on February 16, 1890. He served
as the Order's Junior Vice Commander in 1904 and twice as President
of its Southern California Association, in 1903 and 1917. General
Otis was also a member of the Military Order of Foreign Wars;
Society of the Army of the Patomac; United Spanish War Veterans;
Society of the Army of the Philippines; and Veteran Army of the
Shortly after his return, Mrs. Otis became ill and in November
1904, she died. General Otis' focus turned to his business. Under
his leadership, the Los Angeles Times became a powerful
conservative force in turn-of-the-century Southern California,
and an unrivaled promoter of regional growth. The Times
also became the region's leading business promoter and its most
strident Republican, conservative and anti-union voice. For years,
the banner of the front page of the Times included the
phrase, "True Industrial Freedom," while editorials
and news stories reflected Otis' uncompromising opposition to
the union shop.
Otis claimed that he never objected to "lawful or legitimate
organizations formed and maintained by laborers in any branch
of industry," only to "gross and mischievous abuse
in the management of the organizations by the leaders of them."
In fact, he'd even been a member of the typesetters union --
briefly. Nevertheless, the Times' position as an anti-labor
lightning rod led to the bombing of the Times' building
on Oct. 1, 1910. Twenty people were killed and 17 injured. The
Times labeled the bombing "The Crime of the Century"
and blamed it on "unionists," even though labor leaders
vehemently denounced the bombing. Two brothers, John and James
McNamara (John was a labor union official), represented by legendary
lawyer Clarence Darrow, later confessed to the crime.
Over the years, Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler became
the city's unrivaled power brokers, "the single most important
force in Los Angeles aside from government itself" at
least according to historian Andrew Rolle.
Harry Chandler joined the Times in 1885 as a circulation department
clerk. He soon became circulation manager and, in 1894, husband
of Otis' daughter, Marian. Chandler went on to become vice president
and general manager of the Times before succeeding Otis
as publisher. (2) Together, Otis and Chandler shaped the growth
of the city and region.
In the historic struggle over federal funds to build a breakwater
at San Pedro harbor in the late 1890s, a move opposed by the
powerful Southern Pacific railway which favored building a new
harbor in Santa Monica where the Souther Pacific had waterfront
interests, the Times vigorously supported San Pedro. Its backing
was instrumental in carrying the day for San Pedro, making Los
Angeles a major west coast port, now the busiest in the United
Otis, Chandler and the Times were also early backers of
a $23 million bond issue, approved in 1907, to build an aqueduct
that would carry Owens River water to Los Angeles. The 225-mile
aqueduct, built under the supervision of William Mulholland,
delivered its first water in 1913.
Otis died on July 30, 1917, at the age of 80. He bequeathed his
Wilshire Boulevard home to the city for use in "the advancement
of the arts." Until 1997, the site housed the Otis Art Institute,
now re-located to the westside of Los Angeles, and known as the
Otis College of Art and Design.
Directly across Wilshire Boulevard from the site of Otis' former
home, in a corner outside MacArthur Park, stands an imposing
but often overlooked bronze statue of Harrison Gray Otis in his
army uniform. Next to him is the statue of a young boy selling
newspapers, presumably copies of the Los Angeles Times,
which remains the region's most powerful and internationally
respected journalistic voice.
- (1) As a descendant of Barnabus Otis,
who served in the American Revolution as a private in Captain
Keyes' Company, Colonel Durkee's Regiment, of the Connecticut
Line, he was admitted to membership in December 1913 in the Sons
of the Revolution in the State of California, Member No. 221;
He was also admitted to membership in the Society of Colonial
Wars in the State of California by descent from John Otis, an
early colonist in Massachusetts.
- (2) After Harry Chandler's death, his
son Norman became the newspaper's publisher.
R. D. Hunt, California and Californians (1926), Vol. III
- Circular No. 17,
California Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion
- J. M. Lee, History of American Journalism
- F. B. Heitman, Historical Register
of the U.S. Army (1903), Vol. I;
- W. A. Otis, A Genealogical and Historical
Memoir of the Otis Family in America (1924);
- Who's Who in America, 1916-17;
- Los Angeles Examiner; San Francisco
Chronicle and Los Angeles Times