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World War 1 History: July 1915—Immigrant Bombs US Capitol, Shoots J. P. Morgan Jr.

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

US Capitol Building west front (2013)

US Capitol Building west front (2013)

Erich Muenter: Bomber, Shooter, Murder Suspect

On July 2, 1915, an explosion rocked the US Capitol building. The next day, John Pierpont Morgan Jr., the richest man in America, was shot by an intruder who was caught and taken into custody.

Morgan's assailant gave his name as Frank Holt and admitted to bombing the Capitol. It was soon discovered that his real name was Erich Muenter, who was also wanted for killing his first wife nine years earlier.

Muenter Reinvents Himself

Erich Muenter emigrated from Germany in the 1890s. Subsequently, he got married and gained a position at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teaching German and looking every bit the bearded German professor. After his wife died in 1906, he took her body and their two children back to Chicago to be with her family. When Boston authorities accused him of poisoning his wife, Erich disappeared.

Two years later, a clean-shaven Frank Holt, as Erich then called himself, resurfaced in Texas and, by 1910, had remarried. His new wife, Leona, and her family never knew him as anyone but Frank Holt. Erich seemed to find employment easily enough, and he and Leona moved several times between 1911 and 1915, still finding the time to have two children.

He taught at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, Emory and Henry College in Emory, Virginia and Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Before the summer of 1915, he sent Leona and the children back to Dallas, Texas, telling her he would follow once the school year ended.

Political cartoon showing how American war protesters hurt British feelings, while American ships, loaded with cargo, fill the harbor behind them (1915).

Political cartoon showing how American war protesters hurt British feelings, while American ships, loaded with cargo, fill the harbor behind them (1915).

US Neutrality in the War

By June 1915, the British Empire, France, the Russian Empire and others had been at war against the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire for ten months. The United States was determined to stay neutral and not be drawn into the conflict, despite the RMS Lusitania being sunk by a German submarine a month earlier, killing 128 Americans.

The US stated that neutrality meant they had the right to sell goods-- including armaments-- to any country, belligerent or not. This stance pleased the Allies immensely since Britain (mostly) ruled the waves and had successfully enforced a naval blockade of Germany. The Germans accused America of favoring the Allies, but the US replied that it wasn’t their fault US ships weren’t allowed through the blockade-- they would gladly trade with Germany if there were no blockades.

J.P. Morgan Jr. became Britain’s main purchasing agent for war supplies. He also put together a syndicate of banks and loaned the Allies $500 million (worth about $12 billion today).

Erich Muenter became obsessed with the hypocrisy of US neutrality. He decided to bring attention to the fact that the US was essentially backing the Allies and that people like Morgan were enriching themselves from the European slaughter. The term “military-industrial complex” was decades away, but the world witnessed its birthing pangs.

US Stance Defended by Sec. Of State William Jennings Bryan

... German and Austro-Hungarian naval power is thus far inferior to the British. It is the business of a belligerent operating on the high seas... to prevent contraband from reaching an enemy. No such obligation exists [for a neutral country].

... If Germany and Austria-Hungary cannot import [from the US], it is not … the duty of the [US] to close its markets to the allies. The markets of this country are open upon equal terms to all the world to every nation belligerent or neutral.

Chemical Fuses and Warnings

Muenter rented a cottage in Central Park, New York and proceeded to prepare his “protests”. He bought 120 pounds (55 kilos) of dynamite from the Aetna Explosives Company (baby boomers may be forgiven for the image this may evoke of Wile E. Coyote buying TNT from the Acme Corporation) and began experimenting. Using novelty matches that exploded when lit, he fashioned chemical fuses from glass vials filled with sulfuric acid and stoppered them with various lengths of cork. He meticulously measured and timed how long the acid took to eat through the cork and ignite the match heads, which would then explode and detonate the dynamite.

Satisfied his bombs would work, Muenter had one more task: using various aliases, he mailed letters to several officials in Washington D.C., including the President of the United States. The letters complained about the U.S. arming the Allies in violation of a neutral state and that, in response, a major explosion would soon occur. Muenter then packed a suitcase, including three sticks of dynamite taped together and the components of a carefully timed fuse, and took a train to Washington D.C.

The Senate Reception room in the US Capitol after Muenter's bomb exploded (July 2, 1915)

The Senate Reception room in the US Capitol after Muenter's bomb exploded (July 2, 1915)

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Muenter Visits the Capitol

On Friday, July 2, 1915, Muenter, suitcase and all, entered the Capitol building around 3:00 PM and roamed around like any other tourist without arousing suspicion. The Senate had been out of session since March and would not reconvene until December, and the public was allowed to enter the Capitol freely. Though total war meant that European governments were enacting draconian measures to control their populations, in the US, it was business as usual in a simpler time.

Finding the Senate Chamber locked, Muenter entered the Senate Reception Room, next to the Vice President's office, and quickly assembled his fuse to go off at midnight to minimize casualties. He hid his suitcase under the telephone switchboard and left the building.

As Muenter waited at Union Station for the midnight train back to New York, he heard the explosion. It was 11:40 PM. No one was hurt, though a Capitol policeman was knocked from his chair. Despite the Capitol being bombed, the midnight train departed on schedule.

On To Long Island

Arriving in New York later that morning, Saturday July 3, Muenter prepared for the next leg of his journey. With a briefcase containing three more sticks of dynamite and two pistols, he traveled to J.P. Morgan Jr.'s estate in Glen Cove on Long Island and knocked on the door. Ironically, the Morgans were breakfasting with British Ambassador Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice and his wife. The ambassador and Morgan were close personal friends.

John Pierpont "Jack" Morgan Jr. (1867-1943) taken around 1919 (4 years after he was shot by Muenter).

John Pierpont "Jack" Morgan Jr. (1867-1943) taken around 1919 (4 years after he was shot by Muenter).

Confronting the Bear in his Lair

Morgan's butler, Henry Physick, answered the door and Muenter said he had urgent business with Mr. Morgan. When refused entry, Muenter pulled out his two pistols and forced the butler to take him to his master. Physick led him to the library at the opposite end of the house before the butler managed to get away from him and raise the alarm. The Morgans and their guests fled upstairs, not sure what all the fuss was about, as Muenter followed the shouting and searched room by room for his quarry. Finally, he ascended the stairs to the second landing where he found Morgan, who charged at him. Muenter managed to get two shots off, striking Morgan twice in the groin, but the 220-pound Morgan still managed to pin the much smaller man to the floor until Physick knocked the attacker out with a lump of coal.

The Bomber/Shooter

Erich Muenter AKA Frank Holt (1871-1915) in custody

Erich Muenter AKA Frank Holt (1871-1915) in custody

Interrogation and Attempted Suicide

Under interrogation at the Mineola Nassau County jail, Muenter, who continued to go by the name Frank Holt, confessed to the Capitol bombing and shooting Morgan, but insisted he had not meant to hurt anyone. Morgan had surprised him, he said, and he had meant to fire two warning shots that had gone wild. All he wanted to do was convince Morgan to stop aiding the Allies. The dynamite was his insurance that no one would shoot at him for fear of setting it off with others nearby.

Monday evening, July 5, Muenter tried to cut an artery with the metal strip of a pencil eraser cap and was put on a 24-hour suicide watch. His cell was left unlocked because the warden didn't want to waste the time it took to open three separate locks and slide a large steel bar aside should the prisoner try again.

A Second Bomb?

On Tuesday, the 6th of July, investigators learned from Muenter's wife that she had just received a letter from her husband that claimed a ship headed to Liverpool would sink on July 7. Ominously, there were 60 pounds of dynamite from his trunk unaccounted for. This news was sent to New York detectives, the Secret Service and the Navy. The New York Police Commissioner sent his personal secretary to beg Muenter to tell them which ship the bomb was on.

Muenter Succeeds

That evening, the guard watching the prisoner went to investigate a noise. He forgot to lock the cell door and Muenter opened it, stepped outside and climbed twenty feet up the cell bars before diving head first into the concrete. The impact of his head shattering sounded like a gunshot. He died instantly. The Commissioner's secretary arrived ten minutes later.

Another Victim of the Bomber

SS Minnehaha (circa 1910-1915) in an American port.

SS Minnehaha (circa 1910-1915) in an American port.

SS Minnehaha

Warnings were sent to the two ships Muenter had hinted might be targets but the message was intercepted by a third ship, the 13,000 ton SS Minnehaha, whose captain ordered his crew to conduct a search. The Minnehaha was carrying tons of artillery shells and explosives bound for Liverpool, England. The search turned up nothing, but on the afternoon of July 7th, the bomb Muenter had mailed as general freight exploded and started a raging fire. As the crew fought the blaze, the Minnehaha changed course to Halifax, Nova Scotia, 500 miles away. By the time they reached Halifax, the blaze was under control.


Erich Meunter's remains were eventually returned to his wife's family in Dallas, Texas where he was buried in Grove Hill Cemetery under the name “Frank Holt”.

J. P. Morgan Jr.'s wounds turned out to be minor and he made a speedy recovery and Wall Street quickly recovered from it's panicked swoon. By the end of the war, Morgan was responsible for funneling $3 billion ($70 billion today) worth of war goods to the Allies, for which he received a commission of $30 million ($700 million today). This did not include interest on the money loaned to the Allies.

The SS Minnehaha continued to ferry munitions across the Atlantic until she was torpedoed in September 1917 and sank in four minutes.

Europe spent another three and a half years destroying itself.

© 2015 David Hunt


David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 12, 2015:

Me neither, emge. It was one of those "I never knew that, so I'm going to research this" and the more I dug the weirder it got.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on October 12, 2015:

A very interesting fact of which I was not aware

walibooks on May 10, 2015:


David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 10, 2015:

Great question, Eric. Morgan Jr's father (who established the family fortune) had died two years earlier in 1913. Morgan Jr himself was extremely connected in England. With both out of the picture, would the Allies have been able to tap so much American trade and loans?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 10, 2015:

What an interesting tale. For some reason it makes me wonder, what would have happened if the Morgan died. Would we see a totally different world as far as geopolitical makeup? Wow what an interesting article, thank you.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 05, 2015:

Robert, in 1906, shortly after his first wife (Leone-- very similar to his second wife's name "Leona") gave birth to their second child, she died. Even though Muenter received permission to take his wife's body back to her family in Chicago, some in authority were suspicious. When samples of her organs showed high levels of arsenic, a warrant for his arrest was issued, but he had already vanished.

His motive isn't clear, though at least one account claims his arrogance compelled him to kill her just to prove he could outwit inferior minds. In my opinion, this smacks of hindsight painting him as pure evil in light of future events.

Thanks for commenting and being curious.

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on May 05, 2015:

Fascinating. Is it known why Meunter killed his first wife?

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 30, 2015:

Hi, Larry. "Population control", in this context, wasn't the best phrase. I didn't mean anything to do with reproduction, etc. I meant that governments passed laws controlling their citizens during the war that had never been enacted before. The British enacted conscription, their economy was put under government control, etc. After the war, many were rescinded, but remnants remained and it wasn't 20 years later when a new set of laws came out for WW2. If I remember right, pub hours were still based on WW1 rules till about 2005.

Larry Fields from Northern California on April 30, 2015:

Hi David. You wrote:

"We are still dealing with its fallout (especially the MiddleEast, among so many other consequences) and it was the start of nations gearing up their economies for permanent, large scale military preparedness and population control."

Where are you coming from on population control question: Malthus or the modern Demographic Transition model? Either perspective would be consistent with the above quote.

I wrote a long, boring [unfeatured?] hub about the population bogeyman. However it would not be sporting to give a link.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 30, 2015:

I agree, frantisek78. We are still dealing with its fallout (especially the MiddleEast, among so many other consequences) and it was the start of nations gearing up their economies for permanent, large scale military preparedness and population control.

frantisek78 on April 30, 2015:

WWI should be given more attention, as it was the direct cause of WWII which gets far more attention. WWI shaped the modern world and geopolitics.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 28, 2015:

Flourish and Larry, I appreciate the feedback. HupPages has given me an outlet to indulge my interest in history and it's gratifying to hear that readers like yourself enjoy my scribblings.

Larry Fields from Northern California on April 28, 2015:

Hi David,

You've written another fascinating article on WW1 , a war, about which I know precious little. Voted up and interesting. Keep up the good work!

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 28, 2015:

What a fascinating and well-written hub, David. History can be every bit as compelling (and sometimes as unbelievable!) as literature. Wonderful topic!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 28, 2015:

Ron and Larry, thanks for the comments. In America, WW1 seems to have been greatly overshadowed by WW2, despite the fact that more Americans died in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (26,000+ killed) in 1918 than any other battle the US was ever involved in. By comparison, the second worst was the Battle of the Bulge in 1944/45 where 19,000+ Americans died,

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 28, 2015:

I had some brief understanding of these events before I read this. Thanks for the education.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 28, 2015:

This is a new story for me. I wonder why it's never mentioned as part of the history of WW1. It's certainly relevant to what's happening today. Great job of bringing forgotten history to light.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 28, 2015:

Thanks for reading and commenting, Jodah and Lee. I also hadn't heard of this before I stumbled across it researching another topic. It took me a while to research it, but I was surprised at the level of detail I was able to uncover. Unfortunately, I was not able to determine the rights of a lot of images that I would have liked to include. Thanks again.

Lee Cloak on April 28, 2015:

Very impressive hub David, this was extremly interesting, i had never heard of this episode in history, a really great read, very well done, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 28, 2015:

I found this a very interesting hub David. I knew nothing about Muenter or the bombing of the Capitol, or shooting of J P Morgan Jr in 1915. Thank you for the history lesson. Voted up.

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