One moment, the New York street is filled with people. Messengers and clerks bustle by, on their way to oil the cogs of the city’s famous financial district. The next moment, an explosion rips through the air. When the dust clears, 30 bodies lie in the street. It’s the deadliest terror attack to have ever sent shockwaves through America. But who is responsible for such horror?
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was booming. But while immigrants from all over the world flocked to its shores, drawn by the promise of a new life, not everyone felt so positive about the new developments in the U.S. economy. In fact, from the 1890s onwards, several anti-capitalist terror attacks ripped across the American homeland.
Frustrated by the accumulation of capital in cities like New York, several people made violent attempts to topple the status quo. In 1892, for example, a Lithuanian anarchist tried to murder tycoon Henry Frick in retaliation for his heavy-handed treatment of his steel workers. Frick survived, however, despite having suffered three bullet wounds. One year later, Eric Muenter detonated a bomb inside the Senate to protest against corporations’ exploitation of wartime conditions.
Yet despite the upheaval, America’s love affair with capitalism continued, reaching dizzying heights during the economic boom of the 1920s. At the heart of it all was New York’s Financial District, which is located in Lower Manhattan. Home to the iconic Wall Street, the district housed some of the most famous financial institutions in the world.
Meanwhile, the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street was perhaps the busiest junction in the entire district. Indeed, the U.S. Sub-Treasury and the Assay Office was just over the street, and the New York Stock Exchange stood close by. Most importantly, however, the junction was also home to the headquarters of J.P. Morgan and Co. – the most influential bank in the world at the time.
At around midday on September 16, 1920, the streets outside J.P. Morgan were packed with lunch hour crowds. Everyone from lowly messenger boys to well-heeled stockbrokers pounded the pavement, lost in their own important tasks. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, if few of them noticed a horse and cart pull up across the street.
In the blink of an eye, however, everything changed. As the noon church bells drew to a close, their sound was replaced by the roar of a thunderous explosion. The cart – along with the unfortunate horse – was blown to smithereens. In fact, the detonation was so powerful that it derailed a passenger trolley two blocks away.
The result of such a strong blast in a crowded place was horrific. The horse’s hooves were scattered across multiple blocks, while some of the victims’ body parts were embedded in walls. Morgan’s clerk died in the explosion, although the boss himself was safe on vacation on the other side of the world.
The people standing close to the cart didn’t stand a chance; either they were engulfed by flames from the explosion, or cut apart by flying shards of metal from the cart. Afterwards, broken glass and debris caused further injuries to those who had managed to survive the initial blast.
For the men present, many of whom had only recently witnessed the carnage of World War I, it must have been a shocking scene. Soot and smoke choked the atmosphere, while burned bodies and dismembered body parts littered the street. Meanwhile, some of the fatally injured struggled through the destruction even as they succumbed to their wounds..
In total, 30 people died in the explosion and its immediate aftermath. And although those on the scene were quick to react and take the wounded to hospital, eight more people eventually died of their injuries. What’s more, over 140 other people were severely hurt in the blast.
Immediately after the explosion, the President of the New York Stock Exchange called a halt to all trading. Soon after, 2,000 policemen and nurses descended on Wall Street, desperately searching the scene for any survivors. Meanwhile, investigators attempted to determine the cause of the explosion.
At first, though, the Bureau of Investigation considered the possibility that the incident had been merely a horrific accident. Soon, however, they decided that the explosion outside the offices of J.P. Morgan had been a deliberate attack. In fact, they soon realized that it was the most catastrophic terror attack that the United States had ever suffered up to that time.
Somewhat disturbingly, investigators determined that the perpetrators had been able to load 100 pounds of dynamite onto the cart. An unknown driver is likely to have then moved the bomb into place, before fleeing into the crowd. Then, the bomb had detonated, sending 500 pounds of metal weights flying with deadly force in every direction.
Interestingly, however, experts still struggled to work out who had been behind the incident. Indeed, although they determined that J.P. Morgan and Wall Street were likely the targets, they struggled to understand the terrorists’ motives. Instead of directly attacking a target inside one of the buildings, why had they chosen to detonate a weapon on the streets?
Moreover, the terrorists’ target had meant that the majority of the victims were from the lower tiers of society. Clerks and stenographers lay dead, while wealthy bankers, by and large, escaped without a scratch. This puzzled police searching for an anti-capitalist motive for the attacks.
At the time, a large part of the American public lived in great fear of communism. Recently, communists in Russia had deposed and slaughtered the Russian royal family. And with the anarchist terror attacks that had already taken place in the United States, some feared that a bloody revolution was just around the corner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the finger of suspicion pointed squarely to communists in the immediate aftermath of the attack. These suspicions seemed to be confirmed on September 17 when a piles of sinister leaflets signed the American Anarchist Fighters landed in mailboxes throughout the financial district.
But although the flyers did not claim direct responsibility for the attack, they were enough for investigators to formulate a theory. Allegedly, they were similar to those distributed during a bombing campaign in 1919. Back then, police had identified the culprits as the Italian anarchist Galleanist faction. But could the same group really have been responsible for the Wall Street bombing?
Sadly, the authorities never traced the true culprits. No group ever came forward to claim credit for the tragedy, and there was no clear link between the Galleanists and the bomb. Today, the J.P. Morgan building still stands at 23 Wall Street, its walls bearing shrapnel-forged scars from nearly a century ago – the last evidence of a crime that was never solved.