85 Years Before 9-11 ... Manhattan Was Blasted in a Now Forgotten Act of Terrorism

News at Home

Mr. Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and attorney, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column “Attorney at Large.”

Since September 11, 2001 -- when the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed by Al-Qaida terrorists -- tourists have been barred from climbing to Lady Liberty’s crown. Since July 30, 1916, visitors to Liberty Island have been barred from climbing into the Lady’s torch. At about two o’clock on that Sunday morning, an explosion of such severity rocked adjacent Black Tom Island that Philadelphians felt the shock wave. The Statue of Liberty sustained 100,000 1916-dollars worth of damage from a shotgun-blast of shrapnel. One long-term result was the closing of her torch to tourist traffic, according to a U.S. Park Service Officer. “Another,” he adds, “was the founding of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Black Tom Island, today comprising a portion of Liberty State Park’s south side, was connected to Jersey City by a long pier used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company and the National Dock and Storage Corporation as a munitions depot for trans-shipment to the allies on the Western Front. The night Black Tom blew, its warehouses held more than two million pounds (1000 tons) of TNT, gunpowder, dynamite, and shrapnel. One vessel, Johnson Barge Number 17, alone accounted for 100,000 pounds of TNT. As with the airliners high-jacked by Al-Qaida three years ago, the railroad and barges on and around Black Tom were poorly guarded. The U.S. was still formally “neutral” in 1916, albeit British control of the Atlantic shipping lanes insured that the allies were America’s main customers for our munitions production. Germany resolved to do something about that.

Accident or Act of Terror?

The park officer, who took this writer on a tour of Ellis Island recently, says the main blast damaged neighboring Ellis Island, where he leads tours, to the tune of $500,000 or “half the one million dollars it cost the government to build the facility.” In the immediate aftermath of the Black Tom disaster, spontaneous combustion was suspected. Guards spotted several small fires and ran for their lives. One watchman had the mental presence to pull the alarm that alerted the Jersey City Fire Department… but too late. The fires set off a series of shrapnel shells. As if part of a nuclear chain reaction, the small explosions culminated in a giant blast. And as if to record the blast for history, a chunk of metal hit the Jersey Journal’s clock tower, stopping it at exactly 2:12 a.m.

Lady Liberty at 30, her torch burning. Illustrated by Nathan R. Greenberg a/k/a Roberg

Readers of the Journal were told in two-inch headlines later that morning that damage amounted to $75,000,000. Damage estimates vary, but windows were shattered within a ten-mile radius; the vast, vaulted concrete ceiling of Ellis Island’s main hall collapsed; and "the shock wave set off burglar and fire alarms all over Manhattan," according to my guide. In sharp contrast to the thousands killed in the Nine-Eleven tragedy, the Black Tom death toll was mercifully low… 50 at most. Fortunately, no immigrants were in the Ellis Island great hall at that early hour; ultimately all those in transit at the time had to be evacuated to Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan.

Since spontaneous combustion was the initial suspect, the first defendants brought to trial were not terrorists. Rather they were corporate officials charged with “criminal and gross negligence.” And civil litigation concerning who should shoulder the losses dragged on through both World War I and World War II, including a 1941 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, local police actually apprehended a suspected saboteur shortly after the disaster. His name was Michael Kristoff (sometimes identified as Krisoff in court records). Aged 23 in 1916, he boarded with a distant relative, the elderly Anna Rushnak, a Czechoslovak who ran a half-dollar-a-night boarding house in Bayonne. According to an article published in American Legion Magazine in August 1964, Mrs. Rushnak -- tossed from her bed like so many others in the path of the Black Tom shock wave -- subsequently encountered Kristoff seated on the edge of his bed, mumbling “What I do? What I do?”

After consulting with her daughter, Mrs. Lulu Chapman, who also had boarded Kristoff for a time and who found his comings and goings mysterious, the elder landlady approached a friend, Captain John J. Rigney of the Bayonne P.D. Kristoff was arrested, and questioned. A Slovakian subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- Germany’s chief ally in the Great War -- he had emigrated in 1899 and was employed at the Tidewater Oil Refinery near Black Tom shortly before the explosion. All the same, he was released, viewed by the authorities as “insane but harmless.”

Kristoff actually enlisted in the U.S. Army after America joined the allied cause in April 1917. He and the Black Tom disaster were temporarily forgotten, their celebrity eclipsed by the war news from “over there.” But after the November 11, 1918 Armistice ended the “war to end all wars,” the Lehigh Valley Railroad -- itself buffeted by multiple civil suits, similar to the owners and operators of the Trade Center today -- wanted to recoup its losses and, if possible, shift the blame onto other shoulders.

The railroad's chance came due to the occurrence of other alleged acts of sabotage in the years immediately before America's entry into the war. For example, on New Year's Day, 1915, a fire had damaged Trenton's Roebling Steel Foundry. And on January 11, 1917, the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Kingsland had suffered an act of arson. Congress finally acted to address these claims in 1922 by passing the Settlement of War Claims Act. The statute established a "German special deposit account" and a Mixed Claims Commission.

The Mixed Claims Commission

The commission's creation and the assertion of the Black Tom claim brought Michael Kristoff back into the judicial spotlight. Located in an Albany jail, serving time for theft, Kristoff admitted to being employed "for a few weeks" by Germany back in 1916. Released before this tantalizing but inconclusive statement could be followed up, he was fitfully pursued, until in 1928 he turned up in a potter's field on Staten Island. Even after exhumation of the corpse, however, Kristoff remained an enigma. The body carried papers identifying it as Kristoff's, but its teeth failed to match dental records purported to be the suspect's.

Consequently, in the words of one of many federal judges to consider aspects of the railroad's claim over more than two decades of litigation, District Judge Goddard of the Southern District of New York, sitting in Manhattan, "[A]fter extensive investigation by Lehigh, Federal, State and local agencies, evidence was obtained tending to show that the explosions had been caused by one Krisoff. Although it was suspected that Krisoff was acting as an agent of the German Government,... Lehigh did not have the evidence to establish the fact...."

A former German agent, Lothar Witzke, was trailed to South America and then to China. Interviewed when he was beyond the reach of the U.S. law's long arm, and therefore voluble, he said, "yes" he "did the work in New Jersey with (an accomplice, Kurt Jahnke) when the munitions barges were blown up and the pier wrecked."

Despite such evidence, the commission dismissed the Black Tom claims in 1930. Attorneys for Lehigh Valley Railroad and its co-claimants moved to reopen the case, contending that the commissioners had been misled by "fraudulent, incomplete, collusive and false evidence" provided by Germany's witnesses. The motion was heard by the commission's umpire, Justice Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court, who decided in December 1933 that "while the Commission was without power to reopen a case merely for the presentation of after-discovered evidence, the Commission was still sitting as a court and did have power to consider the charge that it had been misled by fraud and collusion...."

After that the commission, comprised of its umpire, plus one American and one German commissioner, reopened the Black Tom case. Proceedings dragged on into 1939 and became so contentious that the German commissioner ultimately withdrew, and the German Ambassador challenged the commission's continuing jurisdiction in the absence of its member. The American commissioner contended that the tribunal enjoyed jurisdiction to determine the claim, even if reduced to a duet. Mr. Justice Roberts, as umpire, asserted his power to resolve the jurisdictional disagreement. He then held that, the commission having agreed six years earlier to retain jurisdiction and reopen the hearings, and having heard evidence establishing fraud by the German side, was obliged to render an award.

Following subsequent proceedings, Roberts ruled that the claims had been accurately calculated and, at a hearing boycotted by the Germans, he joined the American commissioner in an order awarding $50 million to the Lehigh Valley Railroad and its co-claimants.

The award was immediately certified by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and almost as quickly challenged by the holder of an earlier commission award. Z. & F. Assets Realization Corporation challenged the cabinet members' decision to sanction the huge award, realizing that its payment would so deplete the fund that plaintiff's own award would not be completely covered. Z. & F. lost its case all the way up the judicial ladder. On January 6, 1941, in a decision penned by Chief Justice Hughes, and supported by the concurring opinion of Justices Douglas and Black, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial and appellate courts, holding that Lehigh Valley's award should stand.

But even this seeming-swan song by the "Supremes" did not put the claim completely to rest. An attorney named Lewis A. McGowan sued Lehigh Valley Railroad for a contingent fee, based on his efforts to implicate the German government in Michael Kristoff's misdeeds. McGowan finally lost his case in 1944, District Judge Goddard of the federal court in Manhattan holding that the lawyer's contract with the defendant railroad required that plaintiff actually prove Germany's complicity in order to qualify for a fee. Since the defendant had succeeded in establishing German culpability by other evidence, after Justice Roberts reopened the claim, McGowan was out of luck. And, at last, the long saga that started on July 30, 1916, ended.

Lasting Legacy of Black Tom Island

The Black Tom blast and related acts of German terrorism resulted in the passage of the federal Espionage Act in June 1917. The statute went beyond its principal purpose of curtailing Teutonic terrorists. Section 2 embargoed from the U.S. mails "every letter, writing, circular, postal card, picture, print, engraving, photograph, newspaper, pamphlet, book or other publication... containing any advocating or urging of treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States," and subjected the authors to a $5,000 fine and five years imprisonment. A potent precedent favoring the Constitutionally-questionable provisions of the United States Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Nine-Eleven attacks, the 1917 law was given the Supreme Court seal of approval in Schenk v. United States, where no less a civil-libertarian than Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the high court majority, "When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its efforts that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight...."

Additionally, the U.S. Justice Department was given a Bureau of Investigation, which would soon be re-christened the FBI. Shortly after the 1918 Armistice, the new agency launched the now-notorious Palmer Raids against suspected-communists and other "subversives," initiating the nation's first Red Scare,. Immigrants deemed to be pro-communist or else Anarchists -- including Sacco and Vanzetti, now viewed by many civil-libertarians as martyrs to an hysterical attack on First Amendment free speech and free association -- were targeted for deportation and worse.

Lingering Traces of Manhattan's First Terrorist Attack

Walk the south side of Liberty State Park today and you'll find a marker memorializing the Black Tom terrorist attack of July 30, 1916. A circle of American flags compliment the plaque, which stands just a bit east of the visitor's center.

Says my Ellis Island tour guide, "People have pretty much forgotten the Black Tom explosion. They don't know that, as bad as the Twin Towers tragedy was, it wasn't the first time terrorists attacked lower Manhattan."

He adds that to this day, Black Tom stands as one of the three worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the other two being the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh and Terry McNichol and the Nine-Eleven attacks.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

As best can be determined from this convoluted and inconsistent article (plaintiff and defendant both arguing for German government culpability, etc.), there is no conclusive proof that the explosion was deliberate, that it was an act of terrorism rather than sabotage, and that it was a motivation for the formation of the FBI or the Palmer raids. Better that it remain "forgotten" than that it be "remembered" in such a hopelessly muddled fashion.