Select Page

Terror on New York’s Streets

Terror on New York’s Streets

by William H. Benson

September 12, 2013

     A bomb exploded at noon sharp, on September 16, 1920, at 23 Wall Street, at the intersection of Broad and Wall Streets, the address of the J. P. Morgan Bank. The perpetrator had strapped 100 pounds of dynamite to 500 pounds of cast-iron slugs and weights used in window sashes, loaded it on a horse-drawn wagon, driven to the scene, lit the fuse, and escaped the carnage before the dynamite detonated.

     At the moment of impact, the crude bomb “tore arms, legs, feet, hands, and scalps from its victims.” One witness said, “It was a crash out of a blue sky, an unexpected, death dealing bolt [that] turned into a shambles the busiest corner of America’s financial center.” Thirty-nine people died that day, and hundreds more suffered wounds in what was the worst terrorist attack in American history, that is until the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995.

     In 2009, a Yale history teacher named Beverly Gage published an account of this 1920 terrorist act in a book she entitled “The Day Wall Street Exploded.” In it, she wrote that most of the victims were innocent bystanders, “messengers, stenographers, clerks, salesmen, drivers,” the workers on Wall Street, “a place to make a modest living by selling milk, driving a car, typing reports, recording sales.”

     Lawmen believed that the perpetrators directed their attack at the J. P. Morgan Bank, but only one person employed in the bank was killed, a 24-year-old clerk. Most other employees were bandaged and back at work the next day. Cleanup crews obliterated crucial physical evidence that afternoon, and so authorities failed to apprehend, arrest, bring to trial, or convict anyone, not ever.

     A visitor to the city can still walk up to the building’s marble walls to see and touch the pock marks.

     Who would commit such a crime and why? Most detectives believed that an anarchist was behind the bombing. A series of bombs exploded in 1919 and 1920, and most were linked to anarchists. On June 2, 1919 a bomb exploded outside the house where Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, lived. He flew into action, tossed aside the Constitution, rounded up some six thousand men suspected of radical thoughts, and deported 556 aliens. The Red Scare was on.

     These anarchists were for very little, but against everything. They opposed industrialization and the state’s power to protect and regulate it. They did not waste time quibbling over their ideology’s finer points, but preferred to act, calling their dynamite bombs “propaganda by deed.” They “never developed a coherent vision for a society without state power” or without industrial strength.

     If that same visitor to New York City would walk the two blocks west of 23 Wall Street to Broadway, then north on Broadway four blocks, and then one block west on Liberty Street, he or she would stand on the southern edge of the World Trade Center, the 16-acre site where the cruelest act of terrorism occurred in our nation’s history on September 11, 2001.

     Today that visitor would not see an ugly empty lot, because on its northwest corner, stands a new skyscraper, 104 stories tall, its address One World Trade Center, its spire reaching to a height of 1776 feet, making it the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the fourth tallest in the world. Topped out a year ago on August 30, workers installed the spire’s final piece on May 10, 2013. The 1776 feet was symbolic. Its cost was $3.9 billion, the most expensive building project in the world at this time.

     Other planes had flown into skyscrapers before. At 9:40 a.m. on July 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber flown by William Franklin Smith hit the north side of the Empire State Building, at the 79th floor and killed fourteen people: Smith, his two crewmen, and eleven others inside the building. Then, on May 20, 1946 a C-45 Beechcraft flew into the 58th floor on the north side of the Bank of Manhattan building at 40 Wall Street, killing five people on board, but all inside survived.

     Authorities blamed the two crashes on fog, poor visibility, and pilot disorientation, but the crashes on 9-11 were no accidents. The perpetrators’ intent was self-destructive and cruel destruction on a massive scale, and they succeeded in both.

     What defeated those determined and violent 19th and 20th century anarchists who were so in love with dynamite?  The Newsweek writer David Wallace-Wells answered that question. “Enlightenment values have triumphed over terroristic ones before, not by defeating [them] but by absorbing them through progressive legislation, unionization, rising wages and the formalization of civil liberties.”

     Yes, the morning and evening news reminds us daily that we live in a dangerous era, but the historians observe that in the history of humankind that fact is not unique. All eras were and will be dangerous. What is remarkable is that Enlightenment values can overcome and absorb its foes.

     Because life goes on, even after a premeditated terrorist act, New York City built a new skyscraper.