A Century Ago, May Day Brought Anarchist Bombs to Mailboxes—And Helped Transform American PoliticsBreaking News
tags: economic history, May Day, labor history, anarchy, radical history
Katrina Gulliver holds a PhD in history from Cambridge University, and has worked at universities and museums in the US, UK, Germany, Singapore and Australia.
April 29, 1919, a spring day in Atlanta. Housekeeper Ethel Williams received the morning’s mail for her employer, former Senator Thomas Hardwick. There was a parcel, which she opened.
The explosion took off her hands.
Mrs. Hardwick, standing nearby, also suffered severe burns. This outrage made news across the country.
The previous day, a similar device had been delivered to Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle. Fortunately, Hanson’s clerk who opened the parcel held it the wrong way up, and the bomb failed to detonate. He discovered the chemical vials inside and realized what it was. Authorities began frantically searching for other such devices. In all, 36 parcels were traced and intercepted. The targets included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, John D. Rockefeller Sr., and J. P. Morgan Jr., cabinet members, mayors, state legislators and captains of industry. The bombs were intended to be delivered on May Day — International Workers Day — and the mechanism was designed to detonate when the parcels were opened.
On April 30, the Evening World ran an extra edition that, under the headline “NATION-WIDE TERRORIST PLOT,” described the “infernal machines” as part of a conspiracy.
There were no notes or demands with the bombs. Anarchists of the time believed in the “propaganda of the deed,” that bombings and assassinations were messages in themselves. But one of the intended recipients of a parcel bomb was Rayme Weston Finch, an otherwise little-known agent with the Bureau of Investigation who had the previous year arrested two followers of the anarchist Luigi Galleani. The decision to include Finch, hardly a figure of national importance, quickly led the investigators to focus on Galleani’s group. They were unable to pin the crime on a particular individual, but anti-Anarchist laws of the time meant they didn’t really need to: political sympathies were enough.
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