A Brief History
On September 16, 1920, years before the great stock market crashes of 1929 and 2008, some unknown, disaffected malcontents showed the fat cats of Wall Street some serious financial terrorism of their own by setting off a bomb in a horse-drawn wagon in front of J.P. Morgan Bank in New York’s financial district.
The perpetrators were never caught, and anarchists to members of various revolutionary and anti-capitalist groups were suspected of committing the crime. Investigation showed that the bomb consisted of 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of metal sash weights meant to act as projectiles. The bomb was set off with a timer, and, of course, the wagon’s driver was not around when it went off.
The massive explosion killed 38 people as well as the poor horse and seriously injured at least 143 more people. 200 to 300 more victims suffered lesser injuries but were still stunned and bleeding. The blast caused massive property damage as well, with estimated damages of $2 million (or at least $23 million in today’s dollars).
One quick-thinking 17-year-old messenger stole a car and shuttled 30 injured people to the hospital, while others tended likewise to the injured and dying. To avoid a panic, trading on the New York Stock Exchange was quickly shut down.
The Wall Street Bombing had been the worst terrorist act in the history of the United States to that point, and the Bureau of Investigation branch of the Justice Department, forerunner to the FBI, was baffled by the crime. The possibility of an accidental explosion was initially surmised, and the investigation was further foiled by the rapid and eager cleanup of the scene to allow business as usual the next day. Not only was no suspect ever tried for the crime, investigators were not even sure who the intended victim or victims were. Was the target merely random passersby? Or was the bomb meant to kill a particular person who usually walked down that street at noon?
One theory is that the bomb was retaliation for the miscarriage of justice when Sacco and Vanzetti had been arrested for robbery just a few months before. Another theory is that the bomb was left by Italian anarchists who were upset over the deportation of their leader, Luigi Galeani. President Harding’s administration even investigated the possibility of Soviet involvement. The leading theory, however, seems to center on the Italian anarchists who had been engaging in a bombing campaign throughout the U.S. for years before the Wall Street Bombing and would continue to do so for another 12 years after the Wall Street bombing. Still, if this group was truly responsible, it is not conclusively known.
Should people express their discontent with bombs? Apparently this form of expression has been going on for a long time, and is not just a recent development. Will it ever end? Let us know what you think.
Question for Students and subscribers: Who do you believe was responsible for the bombing? Let us know in the comments section below.
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For more information, please see…
Gage, Beverly and Pam Ward. The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror. Tantor Audio, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of the aftermath of the explosion (Federal Hall National Memorial is at the right), is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.