The Day Wall Street Exploded

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Gage, Beverly. The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Summary

Until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the unsolved bombing of Wall Street on September 16, 1920 was the worst act of terrorism in American history (in terms of lives lost and property destroyed). The Wall Street bombing turned out to be the last major terrorist attack in a long series of attacks likely carried out by anarchists. In “The Day Wall Street Exploded” Beverly Gage used the investigation into the Wall Street bombing as a mechanism to discuss the anarchist movement, the Palmer Raids, and the role of alternative politics in the period before, during, and immediately after World War I.

Gage began her book by describing the bombing. The corner of Wall Street and Broad Street, where the bomb was placed on a wooden cart pulled by an elderly horse, was the center of American business and finance. Here was the House of Morgan, the bank that arranged the massive European loans of 1915; the building in which Washington took the oath of office; the Stock Exchange. The bomb exploded at 12:01 pm that Thursday. Bodies flew, windows exploded, the cart and horse were obliterated. Authorities competed for control of the case which, despite the mobs present and the note found at the scene, was never solved. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try.

Gage argued that in order to understand the bombing and the immediate aftermath, one needs to understand the history of anarchy and terrorism in the United States. She writes about the influence of Johann Most, who was an “anarchist disciple of ‘propaganda by deed,’ the theory that individual acts of terrorism, from bomb plots to assassination attempts, offered a vital way for the working class to liberate itself from tyranny.” (41). She also describes the importance of the discovery and proliferation of dynamite. The Haymarket Affair was a turning point in the history of anarchy—the injustice of the trial and execution of the Haymarket defendants led Emma Goldman and Bill Haywood to the cause. In 1892, during the Homestead strikes, anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to kill Henry Clay Frick; in 1901 Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley. In 1905, American-born anarchist Bill Haywood was tried for the assassination (by bomb) of Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg (though a Wobbly supporter of Haywood had confessed). In 1910, the McNamara brothers set off a bomb that destroyed the Los Angeles Times building, killing 21. Though the threat of anarchy and assassination was never as prevalent in the United States as it was in Europe, the threat was real.

During World War I, the federal government struggled to contain followers of alternative politics. Between the world war and the rise of Bolshevism, there was fear that these events were evidence that capitalism had failed. In 1917 and 1918, a number of anarchists and socialists were arrested, including Goldman and Berkman, who were deported, and Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned. But in 1919, terrorism was still a reality. In May 1919, thirty mail bombs were sent to financiers, industrialists, and politicians. On June 2, 1919, bombs went off in seven different cities. In the wake of these bombings, Attorney General Palmer, with the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover, began to round up anarchists and communists.

Gage then returns to her narrative of the bombing. She describes the detective work of William Flynn, the head of the Bureau of Investigation and William Burns, owner of a detective agency (who became head of the Bureau of Investigation after Flynn. Flynn was convinced, with substantial evidence, that the bomber had been an Italian anarchist, a follower of Louis Galleani. Galleani “espoused violence as a means of vengeance and anticapitalist revolt. Where they [Goldman, Berkman, Haywood] hedged their bets on terrorism, he embraced it unapologetically.” (208) Though Flynn was never able to identify his culprit, Gage notes that two Galleanistis (as followers of Galleani were called) were almost certainly involved in the May Day and June 2nd bombing plots. They were already under arrest—Sacco and Vanzetti.

When Burns became head of the Bureau of Investigation, he continued to explore his belief that the perpetrator had been a Bolshevik. After several missteps, including his unexplained trust in an informant who had confessed to making things up, Burns was also removed. The case went cold, and has not been investigated since 1944.

In her conclusion, Gage questions why the Wall Street bombing, and the reality of anarchist terrorism, has fallen from public memory. In the 1920s, Louis Post, an opponent of Palmer’s, published a memoir which called these events a “popular hysteria.” Gage writes that “his claims would be adopted by a generation of liberal historians and activists who came to condemn the postwar years as a time of ‘hysteria’ and ‘poor reality testing.’” (313) Gage argues that the reality of the 1919 and 1920 bombings in particular demonstrate that there was a realistic anarchist threat of violence: there were bombs, and they killed people. She concludes that the Wall Street bombing was likely the work of a Galleanisti, and that historians have demeaned their views by failing to take them seriously. “[T]he Galleanisti, including Sacco and Vanzetti themselves, believed in and preached the act of terrorism as a noble political act. Perhaps the best judgment we can make, so many decades after the Wall Street explosion, is to take them at their word.” (326) She concludes by noting that upon their executions in 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti asked their supporters to avenge their deaths. That year, bombs exploded at American banks and embassies all over the world.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

Gage's book is fascinating, not just because the Wall Street bombing is virtually absent from public memory, but because her book challenges the historiography of anarchism and the Red Scare of 1919-1920. She argues convincingly that the threat of terrorism was real and though anarchists were undoubtedly small in number, they were capable of doing damage and instilling fear. Her argument regarding why the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare are generally thought today to be an overreaction is equally convincing. She argues that in the wake of the McCarthy hearings after World War II, historians minimized pass controversies over violence, terrorism, and class conflict. In doing this, they went too far, looking to "move beyond the tired images of bomb throwers and dangerous subversives...In the process, however, they robbed at least a few revolutionaries of their militancy--of the idea that when they spoke of dynamite and armed resistance, they sometimes meant what they said." (7)

The organization of the book, moving from the Wall Street bombing backward in time to explore the history of anarchism and moving back to the investigation of the bombing is sometimes confusing. Likewise, her description of the investigation, during which lines of inquiry were no doubt simultaneous, can get muddled. The Wall Street bombing is interesting, but in a way unnecessary. She could have focused on the May Day or June 2nd bombings and have written nearly the same book. But the Wall Street bombing was the largest and the last major anarchist bombing in the United States. Possibly, she argues, because the Palmer Raids were successful. If she is correct, Nick Salvatore, who wrote a biography of Eugene Debs (Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist) and Chris Cappozola, who wrote Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen will have to address her thesis. Gage believes that Debs was more radical than Salvatore portrays him, and that the persecution of enemy aliens during World War I may have been more necessary than Cappozola argues.

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