In this episode of the podcast series Warfare, Professor Beverly Gage joins James Rogers to discuss America’s first so-called ‘Age of Terror’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which culminated in the 1920 Wall Street bombing.
The early 20th century was a period of social and political unrest across much of the world. Anarchist groups, intent on bringing down capitalism and authoritarian regimes, had begun to spring up, launching campaigns of bombings and assassinations in an attempt to bring about radical revolution.
Wall Street explodes
On 16 September 1920, a horse-drawn wagon drew up to the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street, stopping outside the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co, one of America’s biggest banks. The street was busy: the heart of New York’s financial district was the workplace of many of the educated upper-middle classes, as well as those running errands and taking messages from office to office.
At one minute past noon, the wagon exploded: it had been packed with 45kg of dynamite and 230kg of cast-iron sash weights. 38 people were killed in the blast, with several hundred more wounded. The explosion was heard across Lower Manhattan and many windows in the vicinity were shattered.
The event shook New York City. Trading was placed on hold at the New York Stock Exchange, which effectively shut down the financial markets across America.
Despite the considerable damage done, many were determined to carry on as normal, arguing that memorialising the event would simply encourage the anarchists to instigate repeat attacks. However, there was little popular support for these indiscriminate acts of terror from the public, and many believe the anarchists did more harm than good to their cause.
Finding the culprits
The New York Police Department, Bureau of Investigation (now known as the FBI) and assorted private investigators began painstakingly recreating events and searching for any potential clues as to who was behind the devastating bomb.
No culprits were ever identified with enough evidence to bring them to trial: assorted conspiracy theories developed in subsequent years, but it seems that it’s most likely that a group of Italian anarchists were responsible.
This is only the beginning of the story. Listen to the full podcast, The Day Wall Street Exploded, to uncover more of the mystery of the Wall Street Bombing.