When Wall Street Exploded — in 1920
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because terrorism rocked the Big Apple’s streets long before anyone had heard of Osama bin Laden.
He was walking near the corner of Wall and William streets — the hub of New York’s financial district — when a violent roar made him turn around. Two walls of flames “seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street,” exporter Elwood M. Louer said, recalling how fire shot as high as the 10th story of nearby buildings. But Louer wasn’t there on September 11 or even this century. His close shave came almost a 100 years ago in one of America’s earliest terrorist attacks.
On September 16, 1920, a bomb planted on a red horse-drawn wagon exploded into the lunchtime crowd at Wall and Broad streets. This was just outside the House of Morgan (now known as J.P. Morgan), then the world’s most powerful financial institution. The force of the explosion, which killed 38 and wounded hundreds, was strong enough to lift people off the ground and fling the mangled horse halfway down the road.
He escaped, white-faced and dazed, along with hundreds of others, as the dead lay flattened “like tenpins.”
The wagon carried 100 pounds of TNT, with 500 pounds of cast-iron bolts packed around the explosives that detonated at 12:01 p.m., when the streets were teeming with lunch-hour traffic, according to the anthology Tools of Violence: Guns, Tanks and Dirty Bombs, by Chris McNab and Hunter Keeter. To this day, nobody knows who did it or why. And the mystery has been all but forgotten, apart from the deep gouges left in buildings by the blast.
Louer was lucky. He escaped, white-faced and dazed, as the dead lay flattened “like tenpins,” writes Beverly Gage, quoting articles from 1920 for her book, The Day Wall Street Exploded. Gage, a Yale professor, tells OZY that she’s amazed such an event has garnered so little attention in the annals of U.S. history. It was the first and deadliest of a spate of mail and suitcase bombs at the time that struck fear among thousands across America. So why was it so underplayed?
Had police taken anyone to court, the scene would’ve been one of the “great show trials” of its day, says Gage. But authorities were embarrassed because they couldn’t find their villain. Rumors of who planted the bomb swirled, with fingers pointing at anarchists, communists, socialists and Bolsheviks, who, many claimed, didn’t want to see America’s financial empire succeed. The Bureau of Investigation — precursor to the FBI — and the attorney general were quick to find a scapegoat in these “radicals,” often stereotyped as bomb-wielding bearded foreigners. At least 25 suspects were arrested, but none were charged. There was very little proof, aside from five copies of a flyer, printed by hand with rubber stamps and riddled with spelling mistakes, found in a mailbox near the explosion site. The note read, “Rimember, We will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoner or it will be sure death is all of you,” and was signed by “American Anarchist fighters.”
One lead came from an unlikely informant, a Pole named Wolf Lindenfeld (alias: William Linde). He had approached authorities months before the attack, predicting that Wall Street would be bombed, but nobody believed him. It wasn’t until after the bombing that he was hired as an informant, given $3,000 and sent to Europe to catch the culprits. But he vanished, along with the cash. His granddaughter, Livia Linden, who lives in California, tells OZY he was always known as a “bad apple” in the family. Newspaper headlines referred to how Linde had double-crossed the government and what a slippery character he was, but that was most obvious with his family: “He abandoned his young wife and children,” Linden explains.
Another theory came from historian Paul Avrich, who thought Mario Buda, a Croatian national and a Galleanist (a follower of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani), was responsible. Avrich believed Buda was avenging the imprisonment of his fellow Galleanists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. But police never got a chance to question Buda, who left for Italy, never to return.
The Wall Street attack came to symbolize the postwar social unrest, labor struggles and anti-capitalist sentiment in the U.S. while showcasing the authorities’ failures; what started as an investigation transformed into a cover-up. The newspapers stopped writing about it, and folks were encouraged not to egg on the radicals by talking about them.
No memorials commemorate that fateful day, but walk to the corner of Wall Street, and you can run your hands over the deep pockmarks left by the bombing. While the incident seems dated, it hits closer to home than we care to think, serving as a reminder of an early American brush with terror and of the near-daily vehicle bombs spreading mayhem to this day.