On 16 September 1920, throngs of brokers, clerks, and office workers poured from the buildings lining New York City’s Wall Street as a nearby church bell struck twelve o’clock. The narrow cobblestone street became a river of sputtering automobiles and scurrying pedestrians as the financial district employees set out to make the most of their mid-day break.
Traveling opposite the egressing crowds, an elderly bay horse plodded along Wall Street pulling a nondescript wagon and a driver. The cart came to a stop just around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), across the street from the imposing JP Morgan & Co. bank building. The wagon’s driver cast the reins aside, leaped from his perch, and fled from the street with conspicuous haste. As the lunch-going men and women shuffled past the parked wooden cart and its patiently waiting horse, a timer within the cargo compartment quietly counted off its final few seconds.
The intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street was locally known as “The Corner,” so-named for its collection of influential entities. JP Morgan at that time was the world’s most powerful financial institution, ruling over a significant portion of the global economy; just to the north was the US Assay office, where the purity of precious metals was tested many tons at a time; and around the corner stood the home of the NYSE. A US Sub-Treasury and Federal Reserve Bank also stood nearby, housed within the Federal Hall which had once been the site of the United States’ capitol building.
The mood was generally cheery on the warm Thursday afternoon— the sun was shining and the stock market was up. A celebration was scheduled to take place on Wall Street the following day to honor the 133rd anniversary of the adoption of the US Constitution. It was intended to be a small gathering alongside the statue of George Washington which had been erected at the site of America’s first presidential inauguration.
At approximately one minute after twelve o’clock, the abandoned wagon’s timer reached zero in the pleasant afternoon sun. A bomb consisting of one hundred pounds of dynamite packed with five hundred pounds of cast-iron slugs violently vomited red-hot shrapnel and destruction in every direction. A number of passers-by were instantly vaporized by the extreme heat and pressure. The blast sent a nearby automobile careening through the air as countless jagged iron fragments ripped through the crowd. The nearby structures trembled as the shock wave slammed into their outer walls with tremendous force, shattering windows and turning lobbies into lacerating hailstorms of glass. Many of the cloth awnings which overlooked the street burst into flames. Within a half-mile radius thousands of plate-glass windows burst in the city’s tall buildings, peppering the streets of Lower Manhattan with razor-sharp glass shards.
An Associated Press reporter named George Weston witnessed the blast from the protection of a doorway, and later described the scene:
“[It was] an unexpected, death-dealing bolt, which in a twinkling turned into a shamble the busiest corner of America’s financial center. […] 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 horrorstruck at the sight, one of these forms, half-naked and seared with burns, started to rise. It struggled, then toppled and fell lifeless to the gutter.”
One of the Stock Exchange’s messengers, Charles P. Dougherty, described the scene to a reporter for the Sun:
“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.”
The bustling Stock Exchange shook as its large windows burst inwards, however most of the occupants were spared injury due to the massive silk curtains which deflected much of the glass. Running was strictly forbidden on the trading floor, so the president of the Stock Exchange sauntered to the rostrum to sound the gong to halt the day’s trading as a yellow-green mushroom-shaped cloud stretched into the air.
Outside, pandemonium quickly set in. Those who heard blast from the surrounding blocks rushed into the area to see what had happened, trampling over the bodies of the dead and injured. The air was saturated with smoke and dust from the explosion and the ensuing fires. The cobblestone street was scattered with the twisted wreckage of cars, buildings, and humans as the echoes of the explosion slowly faded. A fatally wounded messenger boy pleaded for someone to deliver his securities, and a clerk, having lost his eyes and his feet in the blast, tried to blindly crawl towards safety. A woman’s severed head, still wearing a hat, was stuck to the facade of the JP Morgan building.
Thirty people had died in the first few moments, and ten were mortally wounded. Some 300 other men, women, and children were injured. Many staggered towards the Trinity Church to escape the choking smoke. Another wave of panic rippled through the crowd as word spread that another bomb was set to go off nearby, but the rumor proved untrue. News of the disaster spread quickly, and within thirty minutes the street was filled with hundreds of New York City policemen and Red Cross nurses who had rushed to the scene by horse, car, subway, and on foot. The rescue workers cleared the road for ambulances and lined up the multitude of corpses along the sidewalk. Meanwhile well-armed security officers guarded the US Assay office, where $900 million in gold bars were being stored. Within the hour troops from the 22nd Infantry arrived, marching down Wall Street with rifles and bayonets at the ready.
Little was left of the horse and wagon which brought the destruction upon Wall Street, though the FBI Bureau of Investigation agents found enough fragments to piece together many details. The shoe from a charred, disembodied hoof led the police to the farrier who had shod the offending horse. The blacksmith remembered the customer, and described him as a Sicilian man of 25-30 years old. Additionally, the cast-iron shrapnel slugs that had been packed with the explosives were identified as the weights used on window sashes, but the police were unable to determine their exact source despite visiting hundreds of manufacturers and distributors. The NYPD also gathered up fragments of wagon wheel spokes, leather straps, chunks of canvas, an axle, and a hub cap from the original wagon, and managed to piece together many details with the assistance of veterinarians and wagon builders:
HORSE–Dark bay mare, fifteen and three-quarters hands, fifteen years, about 1,050 pounds, long mane and stubby foretop, clipped a month before, scars on left shoulder and white hairs on forehead.
SHOES–Hind shoes marked JHU and NOA, about half an inch apart. Front shoes had pads, circle in center reading ‘Niagara Hoof Pad Co., BISON, Buffalo, N.Y.’
HARNESS–Single set of heavy wagon harness, old and worn and frequently repaired. Turret rings originally of brass, one broken; the other silver mounted and evidently belonging originally to coach harness.
WAGON–Single top, capacity one and one-half tons, red running gear, striped black with fine white lines. Three-foot wheels on front; four and one-half on back, of Sarvant patent. Body 5 feet 6 inches high, 53 inches wide, about eight feet from ground to top of wagon.
Investigators immediately suspected that the bombing was the work of Galleanist anarchists, a group of mostly Italian-born anti-government radicals who had previously used smaller explosives to draw attention to their cause. Moreover, a pair of Italian-American anarchists had been indicted five days earlier for bank robbery and murder. These suspicions were reinforced by a pile of leaflets found in a mailbox near the blast site, which read:
We will not tolerate
Free the political
prisoners or it will be
sure death for all of you
American Anarchist Fighters.
The Washington Post referred to the bombing as an “act of war,” though no one could be certain who the enemy was. The newspaper also wrote, “The bomb outrage in New York emphasizes the extent to which the alien scum from the cesspools and sewers of the Old World has polluted the clear spring of American democracy.” Though the anarchists had not been proven responsible, the US government’s ongoing anti-radical Palmer Raids were increased in intensity as a consequence of the bombing. Immigrants were aggressively targeted, especially Italians, Russians, and Jews. Thousands of citizens were detained in the name of national security, though most of them clearly had nothing to do with the Wall Street terror plot. Ultimately, the orgy of misguided justice resulted in the deportation of about 10,000 such “radicals.”
Investigators also became suspicious of a tennis champion named Edwin Fischer who had apparently predicted the attack with astonishing accuracy. Fischer had been warning his friends of an impending bomb attack on Wall Street, sending them post cards enjoining them to leave the area before 16 September. When interrogated by the police, he claimed to have received the messages “through the air.” He also claimed to be a sparring partner for the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, and he wore two business suits at once over a set of tennis clothes. Investigators decided that Fischer’s warnings were not particularly intriguing once they learned that he had made a regular habit of predicting explosive violence on Wall Street, having previously provided a wide variety of dates. Officials turned him over to the Amityville Asylum, where he was diagnosed as insane but harmless.
In a bid to allay fears of a stock market crash, the New York Stock Exchange reopened the day after the explosion under the guise of business-as-usual. When the workers arrived on Wall Street, the evidence of the previous day’s carnage was draped with cloths, and the somber mood was draped in patriotism. In spite of the attack, the Constitution Day celebration commenced as planned alongside the unscathed statue of George Washington. What had originally been intended as a small gathering grew into one of the largest crowds in Wall Street’s history. The assembled citizens sang The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful, followed by a rousing speech from World War I hero Brig. Gen. William J. Nicholson.
Wall Street soon became a symbol of patriotism in the eyes of the country, and stock trading came to be viewed as an act of defiance against the terrorists. Before the attack a number of outspoken citizens had decried the unchecked growth of power underway on Wall Street, but many of those voices fell silent in light of the new public sentiment. Those critics who continued to voice their concerns were denounced as supporters of violence and terror, a trend which rapidly smothered all public debate on the matter.
The New York Police vowed to apprehend the perpetrators of the terrible crime, yet no arrests were ever made in the case. The NYPD and FBI officially gave up on the case in 1940, having never identified any satisfactory suspects. No group or individual ever made a credible claim of responsibility. Some historians have suggested that the incident may have actually been a botched attempt to rob the gold-filled Assay Office nearby, yet no compelling evidence has been found which supports this notion.
No plaque marks the site of one of the deadliest terror attacks in US history— only pockmarked facades stand as a memorial to the loss of life and liberty that struck America in 1920. The owners of JP Morgan have repeatedly stated that they will never repair the superficial scars. “Replacing those great blocks would be inordinately and unnecessarily expensive,” one Morgan partner pointed out, “And besides, it’s right and proper that they should stay there.”
The event remained as New York’s deadliest terror attack until 11 September 2001.