Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wall Street Bombing September 16, 1920

Imagine this scene: You are standing on the Northeast corner of Broadway and Wall Street looking eastward. The date is September 16, 1920 and the day is cool and comfortable. You note that the street is bustling with activity in the minutes before noon chime goes off in the above looming Trinity Church. Men and women walk along taking care of their daily business. Street vendors sell their wares to the passing public. It seems like a scene out of the Wall Street from the year 2010, well aside from the armed Federal guards and the street barriers.

You walk down Wall Street towards the corner of Wall and Broad Streets and come face to face with three future landmarks of New York City’s financial district. To your left is Federal Hall, made famous by George Washington and his inauguration as this nation’s first President. Behind you to your right are the columns of the New York Stock Exchange building. In front of you on your right is the JP Morgan building at 23 Wall Street (The view in the above picture is from Federal Hall with the 23 Wall Street in the front and the New York Stock Exchange on the right). You look down at your watch and notice that that the minute hand has joined the hour hand on the number 12. That innocent looking horse drawn wagon that sat across from the Morgan building goes from being innocent to lethal leading to the deaths of 38 people and injuring hundreds more. This is Wall Street, September 16, 1920. (PHOTO CREDIT Mark Lennihan/Associated Press).

What exactly happened on that fateful day? To best describe the event I quote author Kevin Baker in his New York Times review of Beverly Gage’s book The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror:

The bomb was an immeasurably cruel device, most likely dynamite tied to iron sash weights that acted as shrapnel. It blew people apart where they walked out on a cool, late-summer day, tore arms and legs, hands and feet and scalps off living human beings. Others were beheaded or eviscerated, or found themselves suddenly engulfed in flames. Still more injuries were caused by a cascade of broken glass and the terrified stampede that followed.

Given the political climate at the time, it was believed that that those responsible for the attack were radical Anarchists. Later it was believed to have been planned by agents of Soviet ruler Vladimir Lenin. After exhausting investigations by the New York Police Department and the Bureau of Investigations (predecessor to the Federal Bureau of Investigations) of witness statements and numerous arrests with no convictions the case remains officially unsolved.

According to scholars, it is believed that attack was perpetuated by a known radical by the name of Mario Buda (1884–1963) aka Mike Boda. Paul Avrich in his book Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background claims that the reason for Buda's attack was in protest of the arrests of his friends Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, tried and executed for their believed roles in the South Braintree (Massachusetts) holdup that led to the killing of a paymaster and a guard on April 15, 1920.

Mike Davis, author of Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, states that Buda was a supporter of Luigi Galleani (1861-1931). Galleani was an anarchist theorist and editor of the Cronaca Sovversiva an Italian anarchist periodical. The Galleanist

Why Buda picked Wall Street as a location for his message is unknown. It is also not known whether he acted alone or with other anarchists. What is known is that a message was left in a mailbox on the corner of Cedar Street and Broadway. The message in red letters read as so:

We Will Not Tolerate
Any Longer
Free The Political Prisoners
Or It Will Be
Sure Death For All of You
American Anarchist Fighters

Why wasn't Buda ever arrested? After the bombing, Buda made his way back to Providence, Rhode Island where after getting a passport from the Italian Vice-Consul, Buda boarded a ship heading to Italy where he remained until his death in 1963.

The Wall Street Bombing of 1920 was the largest terrorist act on American soil until the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The attack was the largest terrorist act in New York City history until it was eclipsed by the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.


For Further Reading:
Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991)

Mike Davis, Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (London, Verso Press, 2007)

Beverly Gage The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America In Its First Age of Terror (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009)

- Click Here for the Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti 1921 page with maps, images and excerpt of the trial

- Click Here for the Palmer Raids post on the FBI Wall of Shame blogpage for some background on the Galleanists and other anarchist groups.

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