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Murder on Wall Street

July 8, 2009
The aftermath of the 1920 Wall Street bombing. The NY Stock Exchange is the columned building in the upper right. From the New York World-Telegram & Sun archives, now in the public domain.

The aftermath of the 1920 Wall Street bombing. The statue at the upper right is of George Washington, and commemorates the spot where he was sworn in as the first president of the US. The New York Stock Exchange is behind the camera to the right. From the New York World-Telegram & Sun archives, now in the public domain.

Before the Terrorist Menace, there was the Communist Menace. And before the Communists there were the anarchists. Well, strictly speaking it went Communists-Nazis-Communists-Anarchists thanks to the bizarre blip that was the WWII Allies’ profoundly practical “Bad ol’ Adolf and avuncular Uncle Joe” propaganda campaign, but fear of Germany wasn’t around as long as any of the other three.

Of them, its plausible to argue that the anarchists were the most problematic. The bad economic downturn of the 1870s to 1890s (it was called “The Great Depression” until the more-recent one of the 1930s came along) engendered a wave of violent unrest punctuated by assassination throughout Europe and North America. Among the victims were a Spanish Prime Minister, a highly popular French President, the Italian King Umberto I, and the American President William McKinley. Anarchy’s other signature move was bombing, and the random, terrifying nature of it captured public attention to the point that Joseph Conrad opened Under Western Eyes with an anarchist bomb going off in St. Petersburg. As it happens, a dynamite attack by anarchists is one of the worst instances of terrorism in American history, though it’s largely forgotten today.

It happened on September 16th, 1920 at almost exactly noon, just a little southwest of the New York Stock Exchange in front of what was then the J.P. Morgan Bank at 23 Wall Street. A battered horse-drawn wagon drew up in front of the building, its driver walked away, and then there was a devastating explosion.

The wagon had contained roughly 100 pounds of standard-issue industrial dynamite, which originally led investigators to assume that the disaster was an accident, but it quickly became clear that it was anything but. The bundle of explosives had been attached to a timer, and surrounded with cast iron window sash weights to make as much shrapnel as possible. Thirty people died (a toll that would eventually rise to 38) and hundreds were injured.

Hearing the news, Boston and San Francisco moved to protect their own financial districts. Thirty policemen were assigned to the Madison Avenue home of Jack Morgan, heir of J.P. Morgan and head of the family since his father had died, in case the attack was more personal than general—Morgan had survived an assassination attempt just five years before.

The first real suspect was Edwin P. Fischer, an American living in Hamilton, Ontario (and a former U.S. Open mixed doubles tennis champion) who had mailed warnings to his friends before the bomb went off. Unfortunately, after he travelled to New York to be questioned it became clear that he was mentally ill—during the interrogation he wore three suits, one over another, and attributed his warning to a premonition given to him by unseen spirits. Convinced that his prediction had been a coincidence, police released him to his family and he was institutionalized at the Amityville Insane Asylum (yes, that Amityville).

Even while that was going on, suspicion had fallen on the followers of Luigi Galleani. Galleani was an Italian immigrant with a long record of anarchist agitation in Europe before he came to the United States in 1901. In 1903 he’d founded the Cronaca Sovversiva (“The Subversive Chronicle”), an Italian-language anarchist newspaper that circulated among working-class immigrants in the US northeast. Galleani eventually built up a circle of compatriots who were willing to engage in propaganda by the deed, and embarked on a series of terrorist attacks starting in 1914. These were mostly bombings in New York City, but included a spectacular mass poisoning at a banquet for the Archbishop of Chicago, George Mundelein, that affected 200 people.

Beyond attacking the current order of things, the Galleanists’ hallmarks were conspiracy to protect those who committed attacks (the author of the banquet poisoning, Nestor Dondoglio alias Jean Crones, escaped to the east coast of the US and lived in hiding until he died in 1932), and retaliation if an anarchist was arrested. This last attitude was presumed to be the motive for the Wall Street bombing. The United States had entered WWI in 1917, and in response had passed the civil rights-battering Sedition Act of 1918. A series of much less deadly bombings in 1919 then provoked the Palmer Raids, which ultimately led to the deportation of eight Galleanists under the Act, including Luigi Galleani himself, and a whopping 249 Russian immigrants suspected of being connected to the Bolshevik Revolution (the raids also secured the directorship of the FBI for J. Edgar Hoover).

Furthermore, two of Galleani’s contributors to Cronaca Sovversiva were Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In what would become one of the eight or nine “Trials of the Century” to punctuate the 20th, Sacco and Vanzetti had been arrested for the murder of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli on May 5th, 1920, and indicted the day before the attack on Wall Street. A few minutes before the explosion a letter carrier found five sheets of paper, all printed with the same message, that had been deposited in a nearby mailbox: “Remember We will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters”. That the Wall Street bombing might have been revenge for the indictment was one of the key factors leading to Sacco and Vanzetti’s problematic trial (the two may have committed the murders, are even likely to have, but their civil rights were certainly trampled on). With Luigi Galleani now in Italy his followers came to focus on the trial of their two compatriots to the exclusion of all else.

As a result, the bombing was close to anarchism’s last hurrah as a political movement in the United States.  After Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution there were attempts on the life of various figures involved in the trial; Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial judge, Webster Thayer, survived a bombing attempt in 1931, and in 1927 a cigarette manufacturer was targeted for trying to capitalize on the publicity by naming a brand after the pair. The last notable anarchist attack not connected to Sacco and Vanzetti was when rogue anarchist (if that isn’t an oxymoron) Giuseppe Zangara tried to assassinate Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, but besides that the movement just faded away.

The general public’s attitude to the bombing was defiant. The stock exchange’s directors met in the afternoon of the day of the attack and decided to re-open for business in the morning. When they did, the Sons of the American Revolution held a patriotic rally in front of the damaged J.P. Morgan building which was attended by thousands. The New York Herald and New York Sun both ran articles full of quotes from stockbrokers and government officials working in the area, all saying they wouldn’t let events change their daily lives. The Dow Jones Industrial Average continued a dip that had begun before the attack, but eventually turned around and marched ever-upwards until 1929. The desire to seem unaffected spread to the point that the J.P. Morgan company even decided against replacing the shrapnel-scarred blocks at the base of their building. Visitors to 23 Wall Street can see the pockmarks even today.

The FBI closed the Wall Street bombing case, unsolved, in 1940. In the present day the best guess is that the man driving the horse wagon was Mario Buda, another Galleanist who immigrated back to Italy in the weeks following the attack. He would die of natural causes in Sicily in 1963.

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