The New York Times described it as "a crash out of a blue sky -- an unexpected bolt which in a twinkling turned into shambles the busiest corner of America's financial centre and sent scurrying to places of shelter hundreds of wounded, dumb-stricken, white-faced men and women, fleeing from an unknown danger .... Skyscrapers of the financial district appear to have been shelled."
The nearest hospital was overflowing with the wounded and dying shortly after noon on that September day. A 17-year-old youth commandeered a car and made four trips carrying 30 of the injured to a nearby hospital -- just one of the many heroes that afternoon.
Nearly 100 doctors and nurses volunteered to minister to the wounded. Hundreds of rescue workers flooded the downtown area. "Fumes from explosion and dust," according to the Times, "formed a dense haze." The headline the next day read, "Street strewn with bodies of dead and wounded -- panic follows explosion." The paper reported "slow identification of the dead, many of them mangled beyond ready recognition."
The Stock Exchange immediately halted trading for the first time in its history. The mayor rushed to the scene. An editorial the next day claimed "it would appear there were human beings so depraved as to plot and carry out what they knew would be indiscriminate and wholesale murder." Investigators now were convinced that "they faced a piece of organized deviltry."
The head of America's Federal Bureau of Investigation saw it "as an act of general terrorism, believed to have been aimed against the Federal Government as well as against American capital." He believed that "it was planned in the financial heart of America as a defiance against the American people and the American government."
The Times reported that the terrorists "evidently timed their infernal machine for an hour when the streets ... were crowded, but they chose ... the hour when not the captains of industry but their clerks and messengers were on the street."
The attorney general of the United States took charge of the investigation and immediately blamed budget cutting for the lapse in intelligence: "Therefore we are not able to keep in as close touch with ultra-radicals as we were," he said.
It happened on September 16th, 1920, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, at the corner of Wall Street and Broad. The events of that day are just a reminder to Americans that this is not the first nor will it probably be the last time we experience acts of terror within our country.
Just across the East River, the Dodgers would extend their lead over the Reds to 10 games after beating Cincinnati later in the day. A few miles north, the Giants would split a doubleheader with the Pirates. And Yankee fans were wondering if Babe Ruth, in his first season in the Bronx, was really worth $125,000.
But at 12:01 on the 16th of September lower Manhattan was rocked by an explosion of perhaps 100 tons of TNT left in an "uncovered one-horse truck ... in front of the new U.S. Assay office next door to the Sub-Treasury, and directly across the street from the J.P. Morgan Building," according to the Times.
The bomb killed nearly 40 and injured over 300. Property damage was estimated at $2 million. A bronze statue of George Washington was "sprayed with bits of metal." Slugs were found on the 34th floor of a nearby building.
Though banking baron J.P. Morgan was abroad, flying glass cut his son and killed a clerk at America's premier financial institution. There would be little doubt about who was to blame. "While no arrest has been made ... federal, state, and city authorities were agreed that the devastating blast signaled the long-threatened Red outrage," the Times reported.
This was the last in a series of terrorist bombings that began in April 1919. Historians today believe an anarchist group operating out of the New York/Boston area was to blame. But the real blame fell on the thousands of innocent immigrants who were caught up in the ensuing panic. Many of the radicals were foreign-born, with Italians being especially singled out. (The Sacco-Vanzetti case being one example.)
Labor unions had been encouraged during World War I to think that they would benefit at the war's conclusion. But when prices rose without any corresponding rise in wages, strikes broke out across the country. By the fall of 1919, the Boston police went on strike, followed by the steel workers, then the coal miners -- nearly two million workers in all.
Immigration was on the rise. Lenin was waving the red flag. America was nervous. Somehow the ocean that had provided us with so much comfort in the past was suddenly not as wide. (A few years earlier we had invaded Mexico in an attempt to bring Pancho Villa to justice for his terrorist attack on our homeland. Skeptics correctly predicted failure. Villa remained a free man and today is considered a folk hero by many.)
If it weren't for the bumbling of the terrorists, the toll would have been much higher. Nearly 40 letter bombs were sent to government and business leaders. Many were found in a New York City post office with postage due. A terrorist blew himself up trying to bomb the home of the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer.
The "fighting Quaker," as his friends were fond of calling him (his critics preferred "quaking quitter"), was up to the test. With President Woodrow Wilson recovering from a stroke, Palmer led the fight against the Red Menace. In January 1920, raids across the country netted over 6,000 suspects, mostly immigrants, 500 of whom were deported. The raids yielded a total of three handguns.
Civil libertarians were outraged but the country was too frightened to care. A rigid quota system would result in less immigration during the 1920s; it was especially aimed against those Europeans thought to be less desirable. As the president of the New York Chamber of Commerce said: "The Anglo-Saxon sometimes blunders, but he never has been intimidated."
The Times editorial two days after the bombing sounded strangely similar to President Bush when he told the American people that we would "smoke the terrorists from their caves." The paper suggested that "these callous and cowardly murderers must be made to feel that every resource of civilization will be employed against them. They will be hunted down in their lairs like wild animals ... so that, in the end, the greater terror will be their own."
Oddly enough, not a single person was brought to justice for the Wall Street bombing. The Red Scare was winding down by the fall of 1920 and Americans were more interested in the Black Sox scandal and the upcoming presidential election. The stock market reopened the next day after the blast -- up! Within a week the story had dropped off the front page of the Times. The Roaring '20s were about to begin. Normalcy was at hand.
Steve Haley is a professor of sociology and history at Southwest Tennessee Community College.