At 11:45 on the morning of September 16, 1920, it was a glorious time to be on Wall Street. The stock market ascended, the sun shined and elaborate business lunches beckoned. But at 12:01 p.m., everything changed in a flash as an explosion rocked the Financial District.
Parked in front of 23 Wall St., headquarters of the J.P. Morgan & Company bank, a horse-drawn cart was loaded with 100 pounds of explosives. The incendiary materials set off a blast so powerful that City Hall windows shattered. Flames enveloped sidewalks, a messenger boy reported “being lifted off the ground” and overturned Model Ts littered the asphalt.
For anyone within proximity of the banking dynasty’s stronghold, it must have seemed as if the world was coming to an end. “You would have seen people falling and dying all around you,” Beverly Gage, author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded,” told The Post of the event, which took place 100 years ago today. “If you were anywhere near the blast, you were no longer a complete person.”
In fact, according to an account in “The Great Game” by John Steele Gordon, the millionaire restaurateur Edward Sweet was “virtually vaporized. All that was found of him was one finger, encircled by his ring.”
Initially, investigators thought that the explosion could have been an accident. After all, downtown resembled a construction zone. Dynamite was routinely used at building sites, and horse-pulled carts transported the stuff. But, in short order, a devious detail proved otherwise. Scattered through the streets, mixed in with the explosion’s detritus — including remnants of the horse — were an estimated 500 pounds of metal window-sash weights.
“Most people who were killed or injured were hurt by shrapnel,” said Gage of the 38 dead and hundreds hurt. “The metal shards were packed in with the dynamite. It indicated that this was a deliberate bombing and not an accident. It was set off in front of J.P. Morgan to make a statement. They aimed at what J.P. Morgan stood for: capitalism in America.”
The incident was far from isolated. During the early 20th century, bombers were on a rampage in the United States. Violent groups of anarchists, socialists and communists were thought to be at the core of a movement to unsettle capitalist and government institutions. It was a time of social upheaval, with 25% of workers on strike in 1919 in search of higher pay and better working conditions.
Prior to this attack, bombs had been sent through the mail, addressed to the likes of Morgan himself, John Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson. Some of those elites were saved by the penny-pinching of radicals: Lacking sufficient postage, the packages never reached their targets.
In 1919, a coordinated attack had bombs going off in seven cities, including Washington, DC, where an explosive was supposed to land on the porch of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. But, said Gage, “it was set to a timer and went off prematurely. The guy carrying the bomb, an Italian anarchist, got killed. Pieces of his body were found all over Palmer’s neighborhood.”
Awful as past incidents had been, the Wall Street event was different. “Most of the bombings were not designed to cause mass casualty or to hurt a lot of innocent people,” said Gage. In this case, though, “most of those who were killed or injured were not the wealthy.”
Their remains were quickly disposed of. “Forensics were not well developed at the time,” said Gage. “Workers washed down the streets, cleared evidence, dumped it. There was a powerful sense that the market needed to reopen. Just one day after the bombing” — coincidentally, the same September 17 date on which the exchanges opened after 9/11 — “workers came back. They came in limping. They had arms in slings and bandages around their heads. Wall Street had to show that it was functioning.”
As the financiers regained their footing, the NYPD, the FBI and private detective firms such as Pinkerton and the William J. Burns International Detective Agency began investigations.
An immediate suspect was Edward Fischer, an investment-world gadfly and former employee of a well-regarded brokerage firm. Shortly before the bombing, he sent missives to two former bosses. They warned, “Get out of Wall Street as soon as the gong strikes at 3 o’clock Wednesday, ‘the fifteenth.’ Good luck.”
But Fischer, whom an ex-employer described as the victim of a “nervous breakdown which left him mentally deranged,” was in Toronto at the time of the bombing.
Authorities briefly held and questioned Fischer before cutting him loose and turning to a powerful tool created years earlier by J. Edgar Hoover.
“He made an early surveillance system by creating a database of all the radicals in America,” Susan Bellows, director of the “American Experience” documentary, “The Bombing of Wall Street,” told The Post. “It was the first example of peacetime surveillance.”
Known anarchists and communists were uncovered and questioned with the help of Hoover’s system. Additionally, hundreds of tips rolled in and there were loads of eyewitnesses — but their recollections were so contradictory that they couldn’t even agree on the color of the bomb’s smoke.
“A lead theory was that bombs were set by a prominent Italian anarchist, but investigators were unable to build a case,” said Bellows. “Hoover thought that the bombing was directed by forces in Russia. That didn’t go anywhere either. No arrests were ever made.”
It’s widely speculated that an Italian anarchist named Mario Buda did the deed in retaliation for the murder-robbery indictment of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (better known as Sacco and Vanzetti). Buda, who was thought to be involved in the 1919 bombings, was never brought in for questioning and fled to Italy soon after the Wall Street attack.
While the investigation trundled into the late 1930s, the bombing disappeared from the public’s memory. Around 1925, a Wall Street Journal reporter visited the site on the explosion’s anniversary. Financial District workers barely recalled a thing.
Today, nothing commemorates the site of the Wall Street bombing, although there are powerful remnants: grapefruit-sized pocks in the limestone exterior of the building that once symbolized capitalism in America.
“It’s easy to imagine that terrorist violence only began in the late 20th century,” Bellows said. “But this is a reminder that it’s always been in the system and, most likely, always will be.”
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