Segment from Fear Tactics

The Day Wall Street Exploded

Brian interviews historian Beverly Gage on America’s “First Age of Terror,” and Gage tells the story of an early anarchist attack on Wall Street.

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**This is a transcription of an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in language in this rebroadcast.**

PETER: A history of domestic terrorism, today on BackStory. Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hello.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN: And we’re going to start our show today with an act of terrorism that may sound a little familiar to anyone who’s been following the news from Boston these past few weeks. It was September 16, 1920.

BEVERLY GAGE: It was a fairly ordinary day. Weather was pretty nice.

PETER: This is Beverly Gage, an historian at Yale University.

BEVERLY GAGE: And at some point that morning, a horse-drawn cart rolled up next to the Morgan Bank at the corner of Wall and Broad.

PETER: At noon, the bells of Trinity Church began tolling. The carriage was still parked there at the street corner.

BEVERLY GAGE: And at exactly 12:01, just as many people are beginning to leave their offices in the financial district for lunch, the wagon explodes into the crowd.



BRIAN: It was a massive explosion. Sheets of flame flashed across the street. Nearby buildings trembled.

BEVERLY GAGE: People feel it even a mile or two north. So as far up as Union Square, people hear the noise. They feel the shudder.

BRIAN: Skyscraper windows crumbled and fell, scattering shards of glass across the street. The roar of falling glass reminded one survivor of Niagara Falls.

BEVERLY GAGE: And within about five minutes, 38 people had been killed and several hundred had been wounded and were lying, dying and bleeding in the street.

BRIAN: And the supposed targets of this attack, if they were JP Morgan or if they were government agencies, were they prepared for this? Were they sitting around worrying about this? Were they on code– did they have color codes in those days?

BEVERLY GAGE: There was no color coding. But one of the things that was the most interesting to me when I began to look at this event was that people on Wall Street, their response was of course shock and horror and indignation and a desire to figure out who the perpetrators were. And yet people were also saying, ugh, well we should have seen this coming.

This is so familiar to us. This is so expected. And that response proved to me to be one of the most interesting paths to go down. Why did this seem so inevitable? Why did it seem so kind of predictable and familiar in ways that I didn’t initially understand as a historian?

BRIAN: The reason we called up Beverly Gage in the first place is that we wondered how Americans in the past understood terrorism. How did they experience it in their own tongue? Because despite the feeling that a lot of us had when we heard about the Boston Marathon bombing, is this is really happening here, there’s a long history of this kind of violence in America.

ED: So for the rest of the hour today, we’re looking how Americans have experienced terrorism on US soil. Later in the show, we’ll really dig into what we mean and have meant when we use the word terrorism. But let’s return now to Brian’s interview with historian Beverly Gage.

BRIAN: That bombing on Wall Street we were talking about was never really pinned down definitively to anybody, not one group, not one individual. The best guess was that it was retaliation for the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti. Those were the famous anarchists who would eventually be found guilty of murder and then executed. And the backdrop to all of this, says Gage, is the so-called Red Scare, when a lot of people still thought that the Bolshevik Revolution was headed for America next.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s the absolutely critical context for understanding kind of the ways people respond to this bombing, why they understand it in the ways that they do, who they’re looking at as targets.

BRIAN: So why did it seem so predictable in retrospect?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think there are really two things that ended up coming together in the Wall Street bombing. And the first was a very long history of people not liking Wall Street. So almost from the moment that Wall Street became the center of American finance in the 19th century, you had all sorts of political movements who were denouncing it as a kind of den of corruption, as something that was distorting the American economy, creating these big fortunes. And a lot of that had been really ramped up during the First World War, which people said was a war that we engaged in to protect JP Morgan’s billions of dollars lent to Europe.

So I think you had that strain of things. And then the other was the fact of terrorism itself. That for the last 50 years, Americans had grown quite used to a kind of dramatic series of left-wing violent attacks on the symbols of capital and government, everything from the assassination of presidents to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910 to a whole series of violent episodes which I think people have largely forgotten about, but that people who lived through them knew very well.

BRIAN: Tell me, what does the profile of a terrorist look like to, let’s say, a police officer on the beat in 1919? What would the Justice Department, what would their sense of what a terrorist looks like be? Or are they even thinking about that?

BEVERLY GAGE: They are absolutely thinking about it. Terrorism was often associated, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, with the anarchist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. And then as ideas about this kind of violence began to emerge in the United States in particular, you were often thinking– again, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, about various kinds of European immigrants. So in particular, Italian immigrants or people who were coming from Eastern Europe and Russia in particular, where of course you just had the Bolshevik Revolution, and you have a pretty long-standing tradition of violent revolutionary conflict.

BRIAN: Right. I want to take us back to the day after the bombing. And I’m curious to know how the bank responded, how the police responded, how did the Department of Justice respond.

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, the response on Wall Street was really pretty extraordinary. So the bombing happened on a Thursday afternoon. And it shut down the financial markets immediately. And then you saw a sort of ripple effect throughout the country. The exchanges in Chicago and ultimately all the way out to San Francisco, they all shut down. The financial markets for the day are closed.

Then you’ve got this huge cleanup effort and rescue effort. They bring in government troops from Governors Island, which was right nearby. So you’ve got this military presence. Wall Street is under lockdown. You’ve got all of these victims being taken to the hospitals.

And then you have this conversation on Wall Street about what to do. And they decide that the financial markets absolutely have to reopen the next day. And in fact, they decide that the financial markets are going to go up. And in 1920, it’s actually really within the power of figures at the Morgan Bank and other financial institutions, a fairly small club of people involved here, to really make this happen.

BRIAN: They could make the market– I mean, when they said they’re gonna go up–


BRIAN: They meant it.

BEVERLY GAGE: Exactly. And so this is pretty much what they do. They have building inspectors who come and make sure that the buildings are stable. They put out a call for all of their employees, even if you’ve been injured, if you were able-bodied, to come into work the next day in a show of defiance and solidarity. And all of the markets and the financial institutions of the district reopen at 9:00 AM. There are these incredible images of financial district workers coming in off the subways and the train lines with their arms in slings or on crutches or looking kind of shell-shocked and coming back to work and getting Wall Street functioning. And in effect, the market goes up quite a lot.

BRIAN: So are they able to just to move on? Because this is the private sector. This is a private sector that literally can make the stock market go up if it wants to. Or to put it another way, could any politician take that same position of just moving on? Or is that simply something that the private sector, which does not have to get reelected, can do?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, that’s an interesting question. Actually, you saw this very similar debate on a much smaller scale to the sorts of debates that we’ve seen post 9/11 in the sense that there were politicians who said, look, some bad person committed this bad criminal act, and we are going to find that person, and we are going to bring that person to justice through the courts, and that that’s the way that we should be handling this. Now of course, they ultimately failed to do that, which was a problem. But then there are people who say, no, actually what we need is a kind of ideological war against anarchism, against radicalism, against all of these bigger isms.

BRIAN: Now what about the government response? I know that somebody who you’re writing a book about right now, J. Edgar Hoover, had a bit of a response to this. Tell me what J. Edgar Hoover’s role in all of this was.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s right. J. Edgar Hoover is there as a very young man, just 24 years old. He has been brought in in August of 1919, so about a year before the Wall Street bombing, to head up this new division of the Bureau of Investigation called, initially, the Radical Division, which was supposed conduct surveillance of political radicals. And then they decided that was a little too explicit. So then a few months later, they renamed it the General Intelligence Division, though its function was still basically to investigate political radicals. And it was actually one of the first times that the federal government in peacetime is engaged in doing this in a concerted way.

And so he’s there in the background, and he actually ends up being the one who helps to coordinate this whole investigation at the federal level, this ultimately failed investigation at the federal level. And I do think that it becomes something of a learning moment for him. First, there’s a lot of backlash against the sorts of things, the deportation raids, et cetera, that he helped to engineer in that moment.

And secondly, I think the bombing itself becomes an example of failure for him, end of having this really high-profile event that you actually, ultimately fail to solve. And he realizes in that moment how actually how important it is. If you say you’re going to figure out what’s going on, you darn well better do it. And it is this kind of searing moment of shaping his political outlook.

BRIAN: Right. So at the very moment that Wall Street is saying, never mind, we’re getting on with our business, there in the bowels of the Department of Justice, really the seeds of a national internal security mechanism for the first time is growing.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s absolutely true. And that, ultimately, I think, is one of the most interesting things to realize how many of the institutions that are still shaping our debates about terrorism were born out of that World War I, post-war moment. Both the ACLU and the FBI really enter this arena during that moment.

BRIAN: Beverly Gage is a professor of history at Yale University. She’s the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of america in its First Age of Terror.

ED: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, John Brown. Terrorist, freedom fighter, or both in some way?

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. Don’t go away.