World War 1 History: July 1915—Immigrant Bombs US Capitol, Shoots J. P. Morgan Jr.
US Capitol Building
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 had 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 as well. 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.
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 was no blockade.
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 and 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 was witnessing it's 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 to do: 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 US 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.
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 were allowed to freely enter the Capitol. 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 in order 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.
JP Morgan Jr.
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.
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.
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
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