Why you should care
Because homegrown terror is scary – no matter what the cause.
No one noticed as the tall, thin man carried a package into the Capitol and left it in the Senate reception room. It was nearly July 4, 1915, and Congress hadn’t been in session since March, but many of the legislative buildings were open and thinly guarded. Frank Holt, 44, sneaked back out and made his way to Union Station. At 11.40 p.m., the package exploded, wrecking the ornately decorated room but hurting no one.
Around that time, a Washington newspaper received a note signed by “R. Pearce” that claimed responsibility, noting that the blast aimed “to make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war” and serve as an “exclamation point” for an appeal for peace. But that appeal was far from over: Upon hearing the explosion, Holt boarded a northbound train and headed to his next target.
In the space of a few days, he passed from deranged nut to lone-wolf terrorist and possible conspirator in the public’s mind.
The next morning, Holt reached the Long Island estate of J.P. Morgan Jr. The son of the iconic J.P. Morgan was following in his father’s footsteps and proving a strong supporter of the British, serving openly as Britain’s purchasing agent for munitions. Holt stormed into the house, and the two men fought until a butler knocked Holt out with a lump of coal to the head. Only after Holt was restrained did Morgan realize he’d been shot in the groin, albeit not seriously. At the police station, Holt calmly confessed to the D.C. bombing but said he’d only wanted to talk to Morgan and persuade him to stop financing and shipping munitions. He even claimed the shooting was accidental.
Holt was peddling a combination of lies and half-truths. He said he was a native-born American and pacifist who worked as a German professor at Cornell and had taught at other universities. But with his picture fronting newspapers nationwide, the lies soon caught up with him. He was really German-born Erich Muenter, wanted in Massachusetts for the murder of his wife 10 years earlier. His talent for languages had indeed landed him a job teaching German at Harvard. But 10 days after the birth of his second daughter, Muenter’s wife, Leona, died suspiciously; it was later determined that she had succumbed to arsenic poisoning. By the time Cambridge police issued an arrest warrant, Muenter had disappeared; a nationwide search and $1,000 reward failed to find any trace of him.
It turned out that Muenter had been hiding in plain sight. Under his new name he continued teaching German at colleges around the country and remarried. At the time of the attacks, his second wife was waiting for him in Dallas, where he had been hired to teach at Southern Methodist University. But after leaving Cornell, Muenter rented a house in New Jersey and began stockpiling dynamite. His former Cornell colleagues said Muenter had made strongly inflammatory pro-German comments. He’d also written to Kaiser Wilhelm, supposedly as part of his one-man campaign to keep America out of the war.
Police in New Jersey compared the purchase records of the dynamite with the small amount used in Washington and the sticks found in Muenter’s car and coat. Worryingly, some of the stockpile was missing. While Muenter sat in his cell, the headquarters of the New York City police were bombed on July 4, 1915. Three days later, a bomb exploded on the ship Minnehaha on the same day Muenter had written in a note that there would be attacks on two other ships carrying arms to England.
Other than that coincidence, there was no evidence that Muenter was part of a pro-German plot to bomb American targets. In the space of a few days, he passed from deranged nut to lone-wolf terrorist and possible conspirator in the public’s mind. Muenter reflected “many of the traits of the lone-wolf terrorists we are seeing today,” says Jeffrey D. Simon, visiting lecturer at UCLA and author of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat. “He was smart, dangerous, had access to explosives … and combined personal and emotional problems with the desire to commit violence in the name of some cause.”
The British and French governments leaped on the story as further evidence of German hostility, an accusation made easy to swallow by the recent sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat that May. “Muenter’s bombing undoubtedly lent credence to fears about German traitors and spies on American soil during World War I,” says University of Kansas professor Lorie Vanchena.
But Muenter never answered the conspiracy accusations. On July 6, the day before the ship bombing, Muenter climbed to the top of his cell block and threw himself down head first, breaking open his skull. A prominent New York psychiatrist asked for Muenter’s brain in order to examine it for criminal abnormalities. A jailer obligingly shoveled it into a bucket and sent it to the doctor.