Wall Street Explodes
100 years ago a bomb blast shook New York, killing 38 people.
Shortly before noon, September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart rolled to a stop near the corner of New York’s Wall and Broad Streets. As lunch-time crowds hurried along the sidewalk, the driver of the innocuous vehicle stepped down from his wagon, and quietly slipped joined the lunchtime rush of people packing the sidewalk.
Left behind, in the shadow of the Wall Street Stock Exchange and the J. P. Morgan Bank — symbols of American prosperity and the spirit of capitalism — a timer quietly ticked off the minutes.
At 12:01 PM, a contact closed, a spark arced. One hundred pounds of dynamite detonated, shaking the earth and shattering windows blocks from the epicenter. Survivors of the blast reported a binding, blue-tinted flash, followed by a “deafening, bewildering roar of the explosion.” Pieces of cart and horse flew through the air. A parked car was overturned, another burst into flames.
In a moment of silence that followed the explosion, the living could hear the sharp sound of window glass falling from the buildings overhead and smashing on the pavement.
And then the screaming began.
The terrorists had packed 500 pounds of cast iron window weights around the dynamite. When the charge detonated, this metal was flung outward in a deadly sphere of shrapnel.
Thirty victims, those who had the misfortune of being too close to the blast, died instantly. Eight more succumbed in hospitals. More than 300 people received serious injuries. The flying iron sliced flesh and carved grooves in the stone faces of the nearby buildings.
The explosion raised a great cloud of smoke and dust that blanketed the street and obscured the view. A nightmarish scene greeted those who ran to offer assistance.
The pavement was covered with “hundreds of men and women,” reported The New York Times, “most of them prone on their faces. Some were dead. Some writhed in agony…Others screamed in pain or fright, some moaned, some cried for help for themselves. One little messenger, badly hurt, begged that someone would look after the little fortune of securities he clutched in an injured hand.”
It was the worst act of domestic terrorism since the 1910 bombing of The Los Angeles Times.
As the echoes of the explosion rolled away, thousands of people from across the city raced toward the scene.
Good Samaritans crowded Wall Street, desperate to render assistance. The first policemen to arrive drafted men who wore service ribbons from World War I, believing that they would know what to do in a crisis.
The veterans quickly organized transport, commandeering cars, trucks, and limousines to carry the victims to the hospitals. The flood of casualties overwhelmed nearby Broad Street Hospital, forcing the makeshift ambulance drivers to divert to other city hospitals.
By the time the fire department and a full complement of police reached the scene, volunteers had cleared the street of victims. The human disaster zone was quickly transformed into a crime scene.
The explosion’s proximity to the J. P. Morgan Bank led investigators to believe that the explosion was aimed at the powerful financier. Several of his staff were injured when the blast blew in the windows facing Broad Street. One employee, William Joyce, was killed immediately; others were slashed by the flying glass.
One of the employees, Mr. Markle, recounted his experience: “We were in Mr. Morgan’s private office talking with Mr. Junius Spencer Morgan and Mr. Joyce. After the roar of the explosion, glass fell in a shower upon all the office. On every side clerks were thrown to the floor and many of them were cut by glass. Mr. Morgan did not seem to be seriously injured, but Mr. Joyce was badly cut.”
The bank’s thick walls shielded the employees from the hail of flying sash weights. Nevertheless, the building did not escape unscathed. The New York Times reported, “Great iron grilles and doors were torn from the Morgan building and iron gratings protecting the cages of the tellers and clerks were twisted up as if they were made of wax. Metal window frames were torn loose and the vaulted dome was shaken so that for a time it was feared that it would fall, but it did not.”
Four hours after the explosion, workmen were repairing the damage, and the managers affirmed that the bank would be open for business the next day. J. P. Morgan Jr. was out of the country, enjoying a holiday in England. When contacted by reporters, he offered no expressions of condolence, consolation, or concern.
In fact, the best he could muster was a terse “no comment.” Even a short consolation message for the families of the dead or his injured employees appeared beyond him. Nevertheless, he did see that thirty private detectives were hired to guard his mansion back in the United States.
Almost as tone deaf as Morgan, was the insurance man who made certain an advertisement for his company appeared at the bottom of the Times’ front page: “Explosion insurance costs little. North British & Mercantile Insurance Company.” A phone number for an agent named John was supplied.
The earliest theory — that the explosion was an accident — was quickly discounted. An early rumor suggested that an automobile had collided with a cart carrying dynamite; another possibility was that a dynamite cart had simply exploded. But when the Fire Department scrutinized the explosives permits approved for the day, they discovered that no dynamite carts had been scheduled to pass through the Wall St. District.
Moreover, the fact that window sash weights had been added to the cart’s load, increasing the carnage and amplifying the destruction of the dynamite blast, made an accident unlikely.
Clearly, this was an act of terrorism but who was responsible?
The day after the blast, the New York Times reported that investigators were checking two possibilities.
George Ketchridge, an employee of B. F. Schwartz & Company, which maintained an office a half mile from the J. P. Morgan bank, had received a postcard two days before the explosion. Although reluctant to identify the author of the missive, Ketchridge finally revealed that the postcard had been sent by an old friend named Edward Fischer. The postcard, which had been mailed from Toronto read: “Greetings. Get out of Wall Street as soon as the gong strikes at 3:00 o’clock Wednesday, ‘the fifteenth.’ Good luck, Ed.”
Ketchridge paid no attention to the card, jamming it carelessly into the pocket of his overcoat, until after the blast. “It is all bunk,” he told The New York Times. “The man is deranged, I fully believe, otherwise I would have turned the card over to the Department of Justice immediately. I have known Ed for twenty years. He is a man of great intellectual power and integrity, but four or five years ago he had a nervous breakdown that left him mentally deranged.”
A report from Toronto claimed that Fischer had left town suddenly without paying his hotel bill. “Fischer is a German, who is reputed to have a grudge against Wall Street because he had lost money there. He had attended Communist meetings here.”
The police were very interested in speaking with Edward Fischer. Canadian authorities detained him in Hamilton, Ontario. He was extradited and handed over to the New York investigators.
Fischer arrived on the train Monday morning. Although he appeared to be dressed in a conventional manner — “He wore an unpressed gray suit, unpolished shoes and a cap,” wrote The New York Times — Fischer was actually garbed like a Russian nesting doll. Beneath his gray suit and trousers, he wore a second business suit.
Beneath that, in place of underwear, he wore a tennis outfit. His sartorial selection had several advantages he told reporters. Layers of clothing offered greater protection from the heat during the summer months. Moreover, as a former tennis champion, he always wanted to be ready to strip down and play a game.
Fischer was an eccentric. After a lengthy interview with the suspect, attorneys from the Justice department announced that he was insane. He claimed to have learned about the bombing “out of the air from God.”
Nor was this the end: “More will happen,” said Fischer. “Unseen powers have communicated that to me.” Among his catalog of coming disasters was the prediction that England and France would be at war in three months.
After a frustrating day of listening to his views, the authorities concluded that Fischer’s foreknowledge was nothing more than coincidence. They ordered him committed to the psychopathic ward of Bellevue Hospital.
The investigators had eliminated Fischer as a suspect. That left the amorphous and ill-defined enemies of the American state: Reds, Communists, and Anarchists. Two days after the explosion, William J. Flynn, leader of the U. S. Bureau of Investigation — the predecessor of the FBI — announced that minutes before the bomb exploded, a mailman discovered five sheets of paper, each containing the same threat in a mailbox two blocks from the scene of the explosion.
Printed on each of the rough sheets in red ink were the words:
We will not tolerate any longer.
Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you.
— American Anarchist Workers.
Flynn believed that the driver of the carriage had parked the bomb in front of the Morgan Building, and then dropped these sheets into the mailbox as he strolled away.
The police began rounding up the usual suspects: men who were known to belong to subversive organizations. Outbound ships were searched for fleeing revolutionaries. The intense manhunt led to many arrests, but no convictions.
Their effort came to nothing. The perpetrators of this horrific act of domestic terrorism were never caught. The most widely-held theory is that a group of Italian anarchists — the Galleanists — were the terrorists, but this supposition never bore the fruit of convictions. A century after the explosion, we are no closer to identifying the perpetrators.
The Wall Street Bombing remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of American criminal history.
Sources: New York Times, Sept. 16–21; Chicago Tribune, Sept. 17–20.