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Attack on America: The Wall Street Bombing of 1920

Kristine has a BA in journalism from Penn State University and an MA in specializing in American history from the University of Michigan.

Firefighters, police, and civilians view damage in the aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing of 1920.

Firefighters, police, and civilians view damage in the aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing of 1920.

Wall Street Bombing 1920

On an overcast afternoon in September of 1920, a battered wagon pulled by an old horse parked in front of the Assay Office on Wall Street in New York City. The streets were crowded with workers on their lunch break, but no one paid attention when the driver jumped from the wagon and quickly disappeared.

Minutes later, an explosion rocked the financial district that would ultimately take 38 lives, injure 300 people, and cost an estimated $24.5 million in damages in today’s dollars. Those responsible for the blast remain a mystery today.

From Calm to Chaos

The southeast corner of Wall and Broad Streets was the heart of American capitalism in the 1920s. According to the History.com article “The Mysterious Wall Street Bombing, 95 Years Ago,” the area was dominated by the headquarters of J.P. Morgan and Co., the most influential financial company in the world following World War I. The building stood directly across the street from the U.S. Sub-Treasury and the Assay Office, a testing center for ores such as gold or silver. At the end of the block was the New York Stock Exchange.

The bells of nearby Trinity Church chimed the noon hour on September 16th as the street bustled with workers on their lunch hour. Shortly after the chimes stopped at 12:01 PM, a massive explosion rocked Wall Street as 100 pounds of dynamite concealed in the wagon detonated.

The blast was so powerful it derailed a streetcar a block away. Debris reached as high as the 34th floor of the Equitable building further down the block, and remains of the horse tethered to the wagon were found hundreds of yards away, according to History.com.

Scenes of Carnage

Joseph P. Kennedy, a stockbroker working on Wall Street and the father of future President John F. Kennedy, was lifted into the air by the blast. The Morgan building was hit especially hard. A 24-year-old clerk, William Joyce, was crushed by debris while he sat at his desk.

J.P. Morgan, Jr. himself was not in the building, but his son, Junius, was injured in the blast, according to the Brittanica.com article “Wall Street Bombing of 1920.”

Those closest to the wagon were killed instantly, either by the flames or the hundreds of pounds of iron fragments—likely sash weights used as counterbalances on windows—packed into the bomb. Seconds later, anyone who was lucky enough to survive the blast was pelted by glass raining down from shattered windows, according to History.com

“I saw the explosion, a column of smoke shoot up into the air and then saw people dropping all around me, some of them with their clothing afire,” a witness reported to the New York Sun newspaper.

George Weston, a reporter with the Associated Press who escaped injury by ducking into a doorway as debris rained down around him, wrote: “Almost in front of the steps leading up to the Morgan bank was the mutilated body of a man. Other bodies, most of them silent in death, lay nearby. As I gazed horror-stricken at the site, one of these forms, half-naked and seared with burns, started to rise. It struggled, then toppled and fell lifeless into the gutter.”

A Deadly Attack

The explosion would instantly kill 30 men and women. Eight more people would later succumb to their injuries, according to History.com. Hundreds were injured by flying glass and shrapnel. The Wall Street Bombing would go on record as the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil until the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 75 years later.

Within one minute of the blast, New York Stock Exchange President William H. Remick suspended all trading to prevent a panic, according to the article “Wall Street Bombing 1920” on Econowmics.com. Nurses from the Red Cross rushed to Wall Street to tend the wounded while thousands of New York City police officers searched the wreckage for clues.

Although police believed that the executives of the Morgan Bank were the intended targets, the dead and injured were mainly clerks and stenographers. J.P. Morgan himself was in Europe at the time of the explosion.

The Investigation

With the country in the midst of a “Red Scare” brought on by strong anti-communist sentiment, the immediate suspects were anti-capitalist and anarchist groups. The next day, postal workers found a stack of flyers in a mailbox near the Financial District that read “Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters.”

The language was similar to the propaganda circulated in several U.S. cities in 1919 following other explosions. Police had credited those earlier bombings to the Galleanists, a group of Italian anarchists led by anti-government activist and explosives expert Luigi Galleani, according to History.com.

Although U.S. officials had deported Galleani in 1919, the method used to plant the explosives and the construction of the bomb—particularly the iron weights used as shrapnel—matched the terroristic tactics previously employed by the group.

Following the Leads

The discovery of the fliers, however, would be the closest police would come to identify those who were responsible. New York City Police and agents from the Bureau of Investigation (which would later become the FBI) spent over three years investigating, but the case went cold. Dozens of leads were pursued, including the potential involvement of trade unionists, the American communist party, and Vladimir Lenin himself, according to History.com.

Police also investigated a man named Edward Fischer. Fischer, a mentally unstable champion tennis player, had warned people to stay away from Wall Street in the days leading up to the bombing. But Fischer had routinely issued Wall Street warnings which he claimed to receive “through God and the air.” He was removed from the suspect list and subsequently committed to a psychiatric ward.

Business Resumes

Wall Street reopened on the following day, September 17, “determined to show the world that business will proceed as usual despite bombs,” according to a report in the New York Sun. To get the area ready for business, glass and debris were swept away—along with much of the evidence that may have pointed to a suspect.

That same afternoon, thousands of New Yorkers gathered on Wall Street and sang “America the Beautiful” and the national anthem in a show of solidarity.

An Unsolved Crime

Over the years, a few promising leads were explored. In 1944, the FBI concluded the attack was most likely orchestrated by “Italian anarchists or Italian terrorists,” according to History.com.

Other investigations named Galleanist Mario Buda, an associate of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, as the likely perpetrator. Investigators concluded that Buda, who fled to Italy shortly after the bombing, may have planned the attack as revenge for Sacco and Vanzetti’s September 11, 1920 indictment for a murder committed during a robbery gone wrong, according to History.com.

Another possible motive was that the bombing was a distraction. Some investigators speculated that the bomb was set off to draw the attention of police in an attempt to rob the Sub-Treasury Building. Adjacent to the Morgan building, Sub-Treasury officials were moving $900 million in gold bars that day. However, no evidence of a robbery attempt was ever confirmed, according to Brittanica.com.

Detectives also investigated every sash-weight manufacturer and dealer in the United States, looking for clues as to who may have purchased or provided the shrapnel. They also visited 500 stables along the Atlantic coast searching for the owner of the unfortunate horse, according to Brittanica.com. Their efforts brought them no closer to finding the perpetrators. The case remains unsolved.

Today, the façade of the J.P. Morgan & Company building at No. 23 Wall Street is still marred by fist-deep holes from the blast. It stands as the lone monument to 38 lives lost in an unsolved terrorist attack that is largely forgotten today.

Sources:

Econowmics.com. “Wall Street Bombing 1920.” Econowmics. https://econowmics.com/wall-street-bombing-1920/

FBI.com. “Wall Street Bombing 1920.” FBI: History. https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/wall-street-bombing-1920

History.com (2014, September 14). “The Mysterious Wall Street Bombing, 95 Years Ago.” History Channel. https://www.history.com/news/the-mysterious-wall-street-bombing-95-years-ago

Kiriakova, Maria (2021, August 30). “Wall Street Bombing of 1920.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Wall-Street-bombing-of-1920

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