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Wall Street Bombing

The aftermath of the explosion
Location New York City, New York
Date September 16, 1920
12:01 pm (local time)
Target Wall Street
Attack type bomb concealed in horse-drawn wagon
Death(s) 38
Injured 400
Perpetrator(s) Galleanist anarchists are suspected

The Wall Street bombing occurred at 12:01 p.m. on September 16, 1920, in the Financial District of New York City. The blast killed 38 and seriously injured 143.[1] It was more deadly than the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 and remained the deadliest bomb attack on U.S. soil until the Bath School bombings in Bath Township, Michigan seven years later.



At noon, a wagon passed by lunchtime crowds on Wall Street in New York City and stopped across the street from the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street, on the Financial District's busiest corner. Inside, 100 pounds (45 kg) of dynamite with 500 pounds (230 kg) of heavy, cast-iron sash weights exploded in a timer-set detonation,[2] sending the slugs tearing through the air. The horse and wagon were blasted into small fragments.

The 38 victims, most of whom died within moments of the blast, were mostly young and worked as messengers, stenographers, clerks and brokers.[3] It caused over $2 million in property damage and wrecked most of the interior spaces of the Morgan building.[4]


It was not immediately obvious to the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation (BOI) that the explosion was an act of terrorism. The number of innocent people killed and the lack of a specific target other than buildings that suffered relatively superficial, non-structural damage left investigators puzzled. Police explored the possibility of an accident and contacted businesses that sold and transported explosives.[5] By 3:30 pm, the board of governors of the New York Stock Exchange had met and decided to open for business the next day. Crews cleaned up the area overnight to allow for business to operate normally the next day, but in doing so they destroyed physical evidence that might have helped police investigators solve the crime.[6] The next day's papers carried the reaction of the local assistant district attorney who cited the timing and location as too precise for the explosion to have been an accident. He used various terms for whom he suspected: "Bolsheviks," "anarchists," "communists," "socialists."[7]

The Sons of the American Revolution had previously scheduled a rally on September 17 in celebration of Constitution Day at the same intersection. Thousands attended in a show of patriotism and in defiance of the previous day's terrorist attack.[8]

The same day, the BOI released the contents of some flyers that had been found in a post office box in the Wall Street area just before the explosion. Printed in red ink on white paper using rubber stamps rather than typeset, the several copies varied slightly but said: "Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you." At the bottom was: "American Anarchist Fighters."[9] The BOI quickly decided that the flyer eliminated any possibility that the explosion had been an accident. William J. Flynn, Director of the BOI, thought the flyers seemed reminiscent of those found at the previous June's anarchist bombings.[10]

The September 16th Wall Steet bomb killed 38 people, the city's worst disaster since the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer said that if the act was in fact intentional, he expected it to sway public opinion in favor of "more drastic action with relation to the deportation of criminal anarchists,"[11] a program he had championed without much success for about a year. Press reaction was supportive, but stopped short of support for the nationwide measures Palmer favored. Even conservative publications thought that the bombing was a crime to be solved like any other.[12] A New York Times editorial titled "To Put Down Terrorists" counseled realism and calm: "The details of the plot may never be uncovered. The miscreants responsible may go unwhipped of justice....The most reasonable theory of the explosion is that it was intended as a terrorizing demonstration. It is not the first. It surely will not be the last....The community must show that it is not to be intimidated....By keeping cool and firm we begin their defeat....They will be hunted down in their lairs like wild animals." Augmenting the resources and authority of the Department of Justice went unmentioned.[13]


The investigation had quickly stalled when none of the victims turned out to be the driver of the wagon. Though the horse was newly shod, investigators could not locate the stable responsible for the work.[14] When the blacksmith was located in October, he could offer the police little information.[15]

The Bureau of Investigation and local police investigated the case for over three years without success. Occasional arrests garnered headlines but each time false hopes evaporated within days.[16] Most of the investigative effort focused on the same network of Galleanist anarchists law enforcement tied to the 1919 bombings and to Sacco and Vanzetti.[17] In the Harding administration, new attention was paid to the Soviets as possible masterminds of the Wall Street bombing[18] and then to the renascent Communist Party USA.[19] In 1944, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, successor to the BOI, performed a final investigation and concluded by saying its agents had explored the involvement of many radical groups, "such as the Union of Russian Workers, the I.W.W., Communist, etc....and from the result of the investigations to date it would appear that none of the aforementioned organizations had any hand in the matter and that the explosion was the work of either Italian anarchists or Italian terrorists."[20]

In 1991, historian Paul Avrich argued that Mario Buda (1884-1963), a follower of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, planted the bomb to avenge the indictment of his fellow Galleanists Sacco and Vanzetti. Buda was in New York City at the time of the bombing, was experienced in the use of dynamite and other explosives, and is believed to have constructed several of the largest package bombs for the Galleanists. On the other hand, even after Buda returned to his native Italy, similar bomb attacks occurred intermittently as late as 1932.[21][22][23]

Remnants of the damage from the 1920 bombing on 23 Wall Street.

See also


  1. ^ Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009; pp. 160-161.
  2. ^ Bruce Watson, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind (NY: Viking Press, 2007) 77
  3. ^ Gage, 329-30.
  4. ^ New York Times: "Havoc Wrought in Morgan Offices," September 17, 1920, accessed February 4, 2010
  5. ^ New York Times: "Explosives Stores All Accounted For," September 17, 1920, accessed February 4, 2010
  6. ^ Gage, 150-1
  7. ^ Gage, 37
  8. ^ Gage, 166-8
  9. ^ Gage, 171
  10. ^ Gage, 172; see also New York Times: "Funds are Needed in Fight on Reds," September 19, 1920, accessed February 4, 2010
  11. ^ Gage, 178
  12. ^ Gage, 184-5
  13. ^ New York Times: "To Put Down Terrorists," September 18, 1920, accessed February 4, 2010
  14. ^ Gage, 174-5
  15. ^ Gage, 225-6
  16. ^ Gage, 217-9, 249-53
  17. ^ Gage, 207-28
  18. ^ Gage, 261-90
  19. ^ Gage, 295-308
  20. ^ Gage, 325
  21. ^ Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991; pp. 204-207
  22. ^ Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996; pp. 132-133.
  23. ^ Gage, 325-6



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