"Just look for the pock marks on Wall Street," my friend said before I went to find the site of the 1920 Wall Street bombing. "Can't miss it."
It's goddamn cold out, but I want to check this out before sunset. Everyone's bundled up, down jackets at the least. I'm the only idiot walking around with a wool jacket and nothing on my face. It's so cold the second I go outdoors, my phone drops from 50% to dead.
Maybe that's just the phone's fault.
I read about a bombing on Wall Street, and my initial thought was the 1990s truck explosion at the World Trade Center. Big mistake. The World Trade Center is a few blocks away from the actual Wall Street, and cars aren't even allowed down the cobble streets.
The past couple days, Wall Street's been packed. The big Christmas tree is up again and everyone's trying to get the best picture of it, usually right at the intersection of Wall and Broad and Nassau, where you can fit the entire tree in your frame. The problem is, everyone's walking through there, everyone's trying to get past, so there's no such thing as an intimate, solo picture.
I had never really heard that much about the bombing on Wall Street, which is weird--I come from a background in urban studies, and I've taken classes on race and class violence in cities. No one ever mentioned this event.
September 16, 1920, 12:01 p.m.
"HAVOC WROUGHT IN MORGAN OFFICES," the New York Times read. A bomb exploded at the corner of Wall Street and Broad, where the J.P. Morgan & Sons office had been located at the time. People in the early 20th century seemed to have a little bit more poetry in their news. The article described the scene "LIKE SNOW," a "GLASS SHOWER" over Wall Street. 30 people were killed in the blast, plus a horse. Several more people died from their injuries afterward. The bombing remains an unsolved case.
At the time, people speculated it was an anarchistic attack on a capitalist institution, with the intent of killing J.P. Morgan partners. The attack "failed in its purpose," with all the partners escape unscathed, though J.P. Morgan's son Junius Spencer Morgan "was cut slightly."
Mr. Lamont, one of the partners, expressed some doubt, saying that the explosion was likely an accident, as they never received any warning or threat beforehand. Frank Francisco, an agent of the Dept. of Justice, shared the same view, suggesting a true attack would have occurred at night.
I found the site and tried to recreate some of the news shots. I'll post my shots and the references together--I'm assuming that the old photos have long since passed into public domain, so let's hope I don't get a cease and desist order, yeah?
I talked about the site at a party I went to on New Year's Eve. "The building's still standing," someone said. "They must not have done a good job."
The building's still standing, all right, but the interior of the building was roughed up pretty good. "The interior ... was completely wrecked," the Times reported. "Only the ceilings, floors and counters on the first floor survived the explosion's force." Officials feared the damage to the ceilings may have made the entire building unsafe.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, and no perpetrator was ever confirmed despite the investigation. The FBI concluded it was the work of Italian anarchists when they revisited the evidence in the 1940s, but still, no names were named, and no suspects were ever charged.
The 1920 bombing is a relatively obscure piece of history. Beverly Gage wrote a book on the topic: The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age, and she mentioned that a few years after the explosion, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal came to the site on its anniversary and found no one commemorating the event. Hardly anyone even remembered it.
A bunch of history blogs talk about it today, at least. I even met a man leading a small tour group to the exact spot I was photographing.
I wonder how we would have treated this incident if it happened today. We'd probably never forget.
- Atlas Obscura, where I originally found out about this
- "Anger and Anarchy on Wall Street" from Smithsonian Magazine
- The original article from the New York Times
- An update from 2003 in the New York Times
- The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age by Beverly Gage