America’s 1st Terrorist Attack – the 1920 Wall Street Bombing

New York City Wall Street Bombing, 1920
New York City Wall Street Bombing, 1920

As clocks struck Noon and the bells of nearby Trinity Church rang out on September 16th, 1920, a massive bomb exploded, tearing through New York City’s Financial District. The blast killed 38 people and injured hundreds more.

The corner of Wall & Broad Streets was the epicenter of Manhattan’s Financial District, dominated by the headquarters of J.P. Morgan and Co., the most influential bank on the planet and the very symbol of American capitalism. The New York Stock Exchange was just a few steps down Wall Street.

Just like today, Wall Street at lunchtime was a busy hive of activity. Bank clerks and stockbrokers swarmed the sidewalks, and the street was clogged with Studebakers and delivery trucks. A red, battered horse-drawn wagon sat across from the bank at 23 Wall Street. At Noon, the capped driver dropped the reigns and ran off down the lane.

Inside the wagon were 500 pounds of cast iron bolts tightly packed around 100 pounds of TNT.

At 12:0pm, the dynamite detonated with an ear-splitting roar. A wall of flames enveloped the entire width of Wall Street. The explosion derailed a streetcar 2 blocks away and sent shrapnel flying as high as the 34th floor of surrounding skyscrapers. Bloodied chunks of the wagon’s horse landed over a hundred yards away. Young stockbroker Joseph Kennedy, father of future President Kennedy, was lifted off his feet by the shock wave and knocked to the ground.

Those unlucky to be near the wagon were consumed in flames or cut to pieces by iron shrapnel. A rain of shattered glass windows from the floors above, cut into survivors running on the streets below. Once the smoke lifted, dozens had been killed instantly, their bodies lying in the street. Others ran with their clothes afire. The JP Morgan Bank was raked by debris, blasting through the windows and injuring clerks at their desks inside.

Thirty people died instantly from the blast. Another 8 died later from sustained injuries.

Hundreds more were wounded. Much like the French battlefields of World War I, Wall Street had become a warzone of charred bodies and severed limbs. Witnesses said the dead lay “flattened like tenpins” in the gutters. Those still breathing did not live for long. Trading at the NY Stock Exchange stopped as New York City policemen and nurses swarmed to Wall Street.

In the aftermath, no-one person or group claimed responsibility for the attack. There seemed to be no objective, except to generate public terror. This lead many to think the villains were Communist infiltrators from Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Investigators had no clue as to who had carried it out or why. The obvious target was the Morgan bank, but J.P. Morgan himself had been in Europe, thousands of miles away.

Suspicions grew the next day when a postal worker found 5 copies of a flyer in a Financial District mailbox. Printed by hand and riddled with spelling errors, the note read:

Rimember, We will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death is all of you.”

signed: American Anarchist fighters

Rumors swirled, with fingers pointing at anarchists, unionists, or socialists – anyone who might not want to see America’s capitalist empire succeed. Some even blamed Russia’s Vladimir Lenin. The national Bureau of Investigation, precursor to the FBI, were quick to find scapegoats in stereotypical, dark-bearded foreigners.  This included a new, young division head by the soon to be famous name of J. Edgar Hoover.

At least 25 suspects were arrested, but all were released and none ever charged.

The mysterious fliers were the closest it came to anyone claiming responsibility for the attack. Investigators pointed at an Italian anarchist Mario Buda as the most likely culprit, seeking revenge for his compatriots held in prison. Buda fled to Italy, but he too was never charged.

Police and the BOI spent 3 years trying to identify the wagon’s driver with a cap, but the trail went cold.  What started as an investigation transformed into a cover-up of sorts after the lack of arrests became a public embarrassment. The newspapers were encouraged not to “egg on the radicals” by publicizing their cause.

The New York Stock Exchange reopened the day after the bombing.  J.P. Morgan returned and was determined to show the world that American business would proceed as usual. All signs of the blast were hastily collected and debris swept away—including crucial evidence from the wagon that might have helped in the investigation.

1920 Wall Street Bombing scars visible today
1920 Wall Street Bombing scars visible today

That afternoon, thousands of New Yorkers descended on Wall Street and sang the National Anthem and America the Beautiful. Looming behind them was the Morgan bank’s soot covered walls, pock-marked by fist-deep holes from the shrapnel blast. Those scars are still visible today, by the way, if you look close – the lone reminder of the bombing attack.  Unlike the 9/11 Memorial just down the street, no plaque or historical marker exists of the attack.

The Wall St. Bombing remained the deadliest US terror attack until the Oklahoma City bombing 75 years later in 1995. While the incident may seem antiquated today, it foretold of a future of terror attacks that would be committed upon cities around the world. One that sadly continues to this day with the 2001 9/11 World Trade Center attack and more.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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