At noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a carriage filled with dynamite exploded at the corner of Wall St. and Broad St.—the heart of America's newly confident financial capital. The attack, which was clearly aimed at the headquarters of the era's dominant financial institutions, J.P. Morgan & Co., killed dozens of people and has remained one of the greatest unsolved mysteries. In "The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror" (Oxford University Press), Yale historian Beverly Gage details the dramatic attack and the ultimately unsuccessful efforts to finds the culprits, and revives the frequently forgotten history of radical-inspired violence that was surprisingly common in a period generally remembered as a triumphant one for big business. A podcast of her conversation with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross, which is excerpted below, can be heard here.
NEWSWEEK: Visitors to Wall Street can still see evidence of the attack in the pockmarked walls of 23 Wall Street. What happened?
GAGE: On Sept. 16, 1920 at about 12:01, just as the lunch hour was beginning, a horse-drawn wagon exploded into the crowd at the corner of Wall and Broad Street. The corner of Wall and Broad streets was widely known as the epicenter of American capitalism. The New York Stock Exchange was there, and so was the Morgan bank— the most prominent bank in the world. It blew out windows throughout the financial district, injuring hundreds of people and killing a total of 38 people.
There was this sense in 1920 that New York and America were rising as global financial powers. And yet at the same time you write that "millions of people around the globe believed that capitalism was on the verge of collapse or at least of transformation." Take us back to these cross currents that were swirling in 1919 and 1920.
On one hand, this was a moment of incredible triumph and promise for Wall Street, New York and the U.S. as a whole. On the other hand, labor movements and revolutionary movements had been pushing back, and the firm of JP Morgan was the figurehead of everything they loved to hate. This all exploded during World War I when many people accused Morgan of single-handedly getting the U.S. into this bloody war just so that he could get a return on his investments. We have this perception that, in the U.S. compared to Europe, there weren't real revolutionary movements. But, in terms of the numbers of people killed in particular attacks, this is to my knowledge the worst attack of this sort that happened anywhere.
You talk about how this attack—which nobody really took credit for—didn't come out of nowhere. Violence had been directed at capitalism and businesses for 30 years. What inspired it?
What was striking to me is how the industry leaders, the robber barons—people like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and all of the other famous figures from this period, had to live with so much fear and instability—a fear of personal attack and also a persistent fear that you were going to see a proletarian revolution even in the U.S. In the book, I track back the history of "anti-capitalist terrorism" which involves two wings. One was anarchists committed to "propaganda by deed," which was a theory that targeted attacks—on capitalists or major political figures—could in fact deliver a revolutionary message to the world. So it was really terrorism. The other kind of violence took place in more mainstream but still militant labor movements, who often used dynamite to attack employers and blow up non-union worksites.
Do you think there's been a tendency by historians to romanticize the violence of the early left?
It's more a lack of willingness to talk about the violence and a tendency to romanticize the spokespeople for violence against capital. Think of figures like Emma Goldman, a prominent anarchist, or Bill Haywood, an early leader of the International Workers of the World union. Both of them were very open about their views of violence: when it was useful, when it wasn't. I think that aspect of their lives has been pushed into the background.
Did the bombing have any success in disrupting the markets and JP Morgan?
It immediately shut down the New York Stock Exchange and much of the business in the financial district. But the damage to the buildings was a lot less substantial than it first appeared. That night they set up lights throughout Wall Street, and cleaned everything up. The next morning, Wall Street was open for business as usual.
The law enforcement effort wasn't quite as coordinated as the private-sector response. Why?
This was a sort of funny moment for law because it was not clear what their jurisdiction was. Private detectives played a pretty big role in American law enforcement—in this case, a man named William J. Burns, who was known as America's Sherlock Holmes, was on the case. The New York Police Department had just founded its first bomb squad a few years earlier in response to anarchist violence. Then there was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, what we know today as the FBI, led by A. Mitchell Palmer, William J. Flynn and the very young J. Edgar Hoover. They all arrived and began to fight with each other over the investigation. But pretty quickly they all agreed, based on a small amount of material evidence, that it was probably anarchists or some sort of revolutionaries.
Several of the usual suspects were rounded up: labor agitators, Russians and men with Italian last names. What was their theory behind these arrests?
The main theory that eventually came out was that a group of Italian anarchists led by an man named Luigi Galleani was behind this. Sacco and Vanzetti were believed to have been a part of that group. And five days before the bombing, on Sept. 11th, they had been indicted for murder in Massachusetts. Investigators had a very poor ability to infiltrate these groups. In the 1920's, you find the federal detectives complaining that they didn't have anyone who could speak Italian, or who could move among these ethnic subcultures. They were having a lot of the same concerns that we've since seen in a different context.
The echoes of 9/11 are in many ways unavoidable. Were there temptations to make these parallels explicit?
I think in certain ways 9/11 makes it difficult to imagine another moment and another time of terrorism but at the same time I think it has provoked really important new questions. Historians hadn't really thought to think about terrorism and whether or not it had a history in this country.
For all of these people who were implicated in the bombing, the system seemed to work. Would you agree?
Although there were lots of people arrested, you didn't get someone brought up for a big-show political trial. Law enforcement was being pretty cautious about not wanting to create martyrs that could inflame conflict in some way. The system didn't work, because they didn't figure out who did it. But it did work in the sense that no one was railroaded.
There was very little evidence connecting any person to this attack. Do you have your own prime suspect?
The forensic evidence didn't lead anywhere terribly significant. They did manage to trace the horseshoes from the horse to an Italian blacksmith and they found a few other odds and ends—a flyer left near the bombsite that had been printed with stamps that said 'free the political prisoners or it will be death to all of you.' The main subject, not for investigators but for historians, has been a man named Mario Buda, who was a good friend of Sacco and Vanzetti, a militant anarchist, and a follower of the Galleani school. He's really the only person where there's been gossip evidence in revolutionary circles that he was the one that did it. But in essence it is still an unsolved mystery.