The First Wall Street Bomb

This past weekend marks the anniversary of what, until Tuesday, was the worst terrorist attack in the history of New York. Like last Tuesday’s disaster, it struck at the heart of the city’s financial district. It killed more people than most Americans imagined possible from terrorist attack. It left the city facing an unknown enemy, one whom many Americans believed had committed an act of war. And, like the destruction of the World Trade Center, it left New Yorkers and Americans with the sickening realization that their world had changed irrevocably.

The attack occurred on September 16, 1920, at the corner of Wall and Broad streets, the hub of American capitalism. Just after noon, as workers poured onto the street for their lunchtime breaks, a horse-drawn cart exploded into the crowd. “It was a crash out of a blue sky,” one witness wrote, “an unexpected, death dealing bolt which in a twinkling turned into a shamble the busiest corner of America’s financial center.” By the next day, more than 30 people were dead, and within a month a total of 40 people lost their lives.

To New Yorkers and to Americans in 1920, the death toll from the blast seemed incomprehensible. “The horrible slaughter and maiming of men and women,” wrote the New York Call, “was a calamity that almost stills the beating of the heart of the people.” That those numbers now seem paltry — statistics from a past when we counted civilian deaths in dozens instead of thousands — underscores just how violently our own world changed last Tuesday.

The destruction of the World Trade Center now stands alone in the annals of horror. But despite the difference in scale, the Wall Street explosion forced upon New York and the nation many of the same questions that we are confronting today: How should we respond to violence on this new scale? What is the proper balance between freedom and security? Who, exactly, is responsible for the destruction?

When Americans in 1920 heard of the carnage on Wall Street, many believed they had encountered a type of violence never before seen. There had been bomb explosions before — at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886, at the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 — but they had been part of specific labor disputes, party to specific protests. The blast on Wall Street, by contrast, seemed to be purely symbolic, designed to kill as many innocent people as possible in an assault on American power.

“There was no objective except general terrorism,” wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The bomb was not directed against any particular person or property. It was directed against a public, anyone who happened to be near or any property in the neighborhood.” The Washington Post labeled it an “act of war.”

But if this was war, it was, like today’s violence, a war without a definite enemy. In 1920, suspicions focused on political radicals, mainly anarchists and communists. The condemnations were heated. “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,” wrote the Washington Post.

Responsibility for the blast, however, was never determined. For the authorities and for the American public, failure to find the perpetrators was a major embarrassment. But it was also a triumph. In the midst of the post-World  War I Red Scare, when anarchists and communists were routinely deprived of their civil rights, the Wall Street investigation did not, against all odds, produce a scapegoat.

The blast did, however, result in serious consequences for American democracy. Fear of further violence boosted nativist campaigns for immigration restriction, which discriminated against groups — Italians, Russians, Jews — suspected of harboring radical ideas.

The explosion also solidified national support behind Wall Street, transforming the daily routine of finance into an act of defiance and patriotic affirmation. Critics of the country’s economic system were denounced for supporting violence and terror, and debate over Wall Street’s power grew noticeably more muted. It was in such silences, rather than in shouting, that the attack had its most profound national effect.

Wall Street itself, eager to minimize fears of a stock market crash, swiftly returned to “business as usual.” The New York Stock Exchange opened at its normal time on the next day, September 17, and the market continued the previous day’s upward climb. By September 20, the New York Commercial could report that “There is unmistakably a better feeling in Wall Street than there has been for some time.” The violence was dismissed as the work of crazed revolutionists.

All of that, of course, mattered little to the families of those who lost their lives. For them, as for the victims of Tuesday’s horrific disaster, we can only borrow the words of the New York Call in 1920: “It would seem at times as if the whole world is one madhouse.”

Beverly Gage is a President's Fellow at Columbia University and a writer for the History News Service. She is writing a book on the 1920 Wall Street explosion.