Saturday, February 21, 2009

1920 Wall Street

Blood on the Street

Published: February 19, 2009

At the stroke of noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a bomb exploded along Wall
Street, killing 38 people and maiming hundreds more. It was the worst
terrorist bombing in the United States until the Oklahoma City attack
in 1995, the worst in New York until the 9/11 attack on the World
Trade Center.

The bomb was an immeasurably cruel device, most likely dynamite tied
to iron sash weights that acted as shrapnel. It blew people apart
where they walked out on a cool, late-summer day, tore arms and legs,
hands and feet and scalps off living human beings. Others were
beheaded or eviscerated, or found themselves suddenly engulfed in
flames. Still more injuries were caused by a cascade of broken glass
and the terrified stampede that followed.

The bomb's target was presumed to be the House of Morgan, which sat
like a blockhouse just across the street from where the explosive had
been left in a horse-drawn wagon. The Morgan bank had emerged from
World War I as the single most powerful financial institution in the
world, and both the firm and its principals had been under increasing
attack, rhetorical and otherwise, ever since it had arranged a huge
loan a few years before to help the Allies and keep the Great War
going. But the only fatality inside the firm was a 24-year-old clerk.
Nearly all the bank's employees were back at their desks the next
morning, some of them still bandaged and bruised. The explosion merely
pocked the firm's impenetrable, marble walls, the marks defiantly left
where they can be seen to this day: "the stigmata of capitalism."

As with all terrorist attacks, most of the victims were innocent
bystanders, "messengers, stenographers, clerks, salesmen, drivers,"
men and women for whom "Wall Street was not a grand symbol of American
capitalism" but "a place to make a modest living by selling milk,
driving a car, typing reports, recording sales." Only seven of the
dead were over the age of 40. Five of them were women, four of them

Who would do such a thing? A bevy of the nation's most prominent
lawmen and private detectives immediately descended on Wall Street,
blaming first anarchists, then paid agents from Lenin's new government
in Moscow. But years of investigation yielded nothing — no
indictments, no trials, no culprits. No one ever came forward to take
responsibility for the crime, or to state what it was supposed to
accomplish, and before long it had dropped from public view, lost
among the sensations of the racing, giddy '20s.

Beverly Gage, a writer and history teacher at Yale, has brought the
bombing to life again in her outstanding first book. "The Day Wall
Street Exploded" describes in detail both the bombing itself and the
hunt for the perpetrators, but Gage also does us the great good
service of placing it in the wider history of industrial warfare that
once proliferated in America. Like much of American history, these
battles have dropped out of mind because no one wanted to look at them
too closely. As Gage points out, the right was loath to discuss the
decades of brutal labor and political repression that preceded the
Wall Street bombing; the left, to admit that extremists really were
willing to resort to violence to overthrow the capitalist order.

Between 1881 and 1905 alone, there were more than 37,000 labor strikes
in the United States, many of them bloody, bitter struggles. Efforts
to unionize were routinely met with clubbings, shootings, jailings,
blacklistings and executions, perpetrated not only by well-armed
legions of company goons, but also by police officers, deputies,
National Guardsmen and even regular soldiers. Dozens of workers were
killed in these conflicts — at Ludlow in 1914, in the Homestead and
Pullman strikes of the 1890s, at Telluride and Cripple Creek and
Colorado Springs.

Some unionists, seeing the state aligned with the employers, struck
back with dynamite, invented in 1866 and readily available at American
construction sites. In Idaho in 1905, a bomb ripped the legs off Gov.
Frank Steunenberg in his own front yard, after he stuck a thousand
miners from the Coeur d'Alene strike in makeshift jails for months
without trial. Twenty-one men died when labor radicals blew up the
rabidly anti-union Los Angeles Times building in 1910. Relatively few
workers were involved in such outrages, but millions did turn to the
Socialist Party and the far-left Industrial Workers of the World (the
Wobblies), organizations that promised to sweep away the entire
capitalist system. "Far from being an era of placid reform," Gage
writes, "the turn of the century was a moment in which the entire
structure of American institutions — from the government to the
economy — seemed to be up for grabs, poised to be reshaped by new
movements and ideas."

A murky underworld developed, one in which some radicals —
particularly the small but implacable cells of anarchists — really did
plot assassinations and bombings, while companies tried to frame
strikers and their leaders with phony bomb plots and other

Things came to a head when America entered World War I and the
ostensibly progressive Wilson administration put aside the
Constitution, jailing thousands of dissidents and suppressing the
antiwar Socialists and Wobblies. On June 2, 1919, a new wave of bombs
hit in apparent retaliation, including one that wrecked the home of
Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, who
opportunistically used the incident to start the nation's first "Red
scare." It became one of the most shameful campaigns in the country's
history, with hundreds deported merely on suspicion of having radical
proclivities. In perhaps the worst episode, an anarchist named Andrea
Salsedo was found dead in his underwear on the sidewalk of Park Row in
New York, below a room where the Bureau of Investigation — predecessor
to the F.B.I. — had secretly held him for weeks.

The feds claimed suicide; Salsedo's family and friends saw murder.
Four months later came the Wall Street bomb. What few clues there were
pointed to Salsedo's comrades, members of a particularly ruthless
anarchist group called the Galleanisti, named after their founder,
Luigi Galleani. But the Red hunters had done their work too well,
having already deported Galleani and many other potential witnesses.

Even though the crime was never solved, it had other repercussions.
The bungled investigation and its wholesale violation of people's
civil liberties, as Gage shows, led to a major housecleaning at the
Bureau — which, paradoxically, enabled the rise of the biggest civil
liberties violator in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. And the
bombing contributed to an atmos­phere in which two other anarchists,
Sacco and Vanzetti, were convicted of murder in a case that would
become the great leftist cause of the decade.

Over time, the bombings petered out, though organized violence in
labor and other disputes continued. Even now, as Gage writes, "there
remains a tendency to think of violence as an anomaly, something
outside the American experience, rather than as one of the many ways
that Americans have long carried out their political disputes."

Kevin Baker is the author, most recently, of the novel "Strivers Row."

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