Beverly Gage talks about the 1920 terrorist attack that rocked New York

Historians in the News

At noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a carriage filled with dynamite exploded at the corner of Wall St. and Broad St.—the heart of America's newly confident financial capital. The attack, which was clearly aimed at the headquarters of the era's dominant financial institutions, J.P. Morgan & Co., killed dozens of people and has remained one of the greatest unsolved mysteries. In "The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror" (Oxford University Press), Yale historian Beverly Gage details the dramatic attack and the ultimately unsuccessful efforts to finds the culprits, and revives the frequently forgotten history of radical-inspired violence that was surprisingly common in a period generally remembered as a triumphant one for big business. A podcast of her conversation with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross, which is excerpted below, can be heard here.

NEWSWEEK: Visitors to Wall Street can still see evidence of the attack in the pockmarked walls of 23 Wall Street. What happened?

GAGE: On Sept. 16, 1920 at about 12:01, just as the lunch hour was beginning, a horse-drawn wagon exploded into the crowd at the corner of Wall and Broad Street. The corner of Wall and Broad streets was widely known as the epicenter of American capitalism. The New York Stock Exchange was there, and so was the Morgan bank— the most prominent bank in the world. It blew out windows throughout the financial district, injuring hundreds of people and killing a total of 38 people.

There was this sense in 1920 that New York and America were rising as global financial powers. And yet at the same time you write that "millions of people around the globe believed that capitalism was on the verge of collapse or at least of transformation." Take us back to these cross currents that were swirling in 1919 and 1920.

On one hand, this was a moment of incredible triumph and promise for Wall Street, New York and the U.S. as a whole. On the other hand, labor movements and revolutionary movements had been pushing back, and the firm of JP Morgan was the figurehead of everything they loved to hate. This all exploded during World War I when many people accused Morgan of single-handedly getting the U.S. into this bloody war just so that he could get a return on his investments. We have this perception that, in the U.S. compared to Europe, there weren't real revolutionary movements. But, in terms of the numbers of people killed in particular attacks, this is to my knowledge the worst attack of this sort that happened anywhere.

You talk about how this attack—which nobody really took credit for—didn't come out of nowhere. Violence had been directed at capitalism and businesses for 30 years. What inspired it?

What was striking to me is how the industry leaders, the robber barons—people like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and all of the other famous figures from this period, had to live with so much fear and instability—a fear of personal attack and also a persistent fear that you were going to see a proletarian revolution even in the U.S. In the book, I track back the history of "anti-capitalist terrorism" which involves two wings. One was anarchists committed to "propaganda by deed," which was a theory that targeted attacks—on capitalists or major political figures—could in fact deliver a revolutionary message to the world. So it was really terrorism. The other kind of violence took place in more mainstream but still militant labor movements, who often used dynamite to attack employers and blow up non-union worksites....
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