When one hears the word "terrorism" in the present day, it likely conjures images of Osama bin Laden, ISIS and 9/11. Yet, 94 years ago today, Wall Street fell victim to a terrorist attack, and it had nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism.
In fact, the perpetrators were never found, but were believed to be Italian anarchists. This was the worst terrorist attack on American soil until the Oklahoma City Bombings 75 years later.
On September 16, 1920, at approximately noon, a man on a horse-drawn wagon meandered his vehicle through the heart of Wall Street during the chaotic lunch rush.
Eventually, he stopped across from J.P. Morgan headquarters at 23 Wall Street. He then stepped off the cart and slipped into the crowd. Moments later, the cart exploded — it had been loaded with dynamite.
More than 30 people died and hundreds more were injured. The damages to the surrounding area exceeded $2 million back then (approximately $24 million in the present day). According to the FBI, at first it wasn't immediately clear that this was an act of terrorism:
By the next morning Wall Street was back in business — broken windows draped in canvass, workers in bandages, but functioning none-the-less.
The investigation would continue well into the 1930s, but ultimately faded into history. The police never charged anyone, although investigators always believed that it had been the work of Italian anarchists or Communists.
A few months before the Wall Street bombing, the subject of anarchism had come to the forefront of America's attention in one of the most famous trials in US history.
Two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were charged and convicted of murdering two men during an armed robbery in Massachusetts.
Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists and believed that governments had to be destroyed in order for social justice to prevail. The trial was politically charged and controversial, with disparities in the testimonies of various witnesses.
During their trial, Sacco and Vanzetti garnered huge support from the radical left all over the world, which raised millions of dollars in their defense.
Likewise, the American embassy in Paris was bombed in protest of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Ultimately, however, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted and executed in 1927.
This was an era during which many Americans were paranoid about the spread of communism and radical politics.
Consequently, anti-Communist and anti-immigrant sentiments became quite common across mainstream America. Likewise, one might argue that this has impacted American perceptions of immigrants, socialism and communism today.
A large part of the reason the police assumed that Italian anarchists were responsible for the Wall St. bombings was due to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Police believed that an anarchist named Marco Buda was upset by their conviction and wanted revenge.
Some actually believe that the bombings could have been an accident. Because following World War I, there was a surplus of dynamite in the United States, most of which sold on the black market during the post-war building boom.
However, there was substantial evidence to believe the bombing was indeed the work of Italian anarchists.
The day after the explosion, a letter carrier found several flyers in the area from a group calling itself "American Anarchist Fighters." The flyers pledged violent reprisal if certain political prisoners weren't freed. These political prisoners were likely Sacco and Vanzetti.
The best evidence and analysis since that fateful day of September 16, 1920, suggests that the Bureau’s initial thought was correct — that a small group of Italian Anarchists were to blame. But the mystery remains. For the young Bureau, the bombing became one of our earliest terrorism cases — and not the last, unfortunately, to involve the city of New York. As the decades passed, the threat from terrorism would grow and change, with different actors and causes coming and going from the scene.
To this day, there are still no definitive answers to what happened 95 years ago. A few years after the bombing, people were hardly discussing it.
Today, thousands of people pass by the spot of the explosion every single day, likely without any knowledge of it.
There are actually still visible signs of the incident on the J.P. Morgan building that probably go unnoticed. But if you ever find yourself over there, you can see where shrapnel struck the building.
We may never know who was responsible. The investigation is now a job for historians. Even so, it's a reminder that politics and history are complicated and largely a product of interpretation.
Likewise, when we approach the subject of terrorism, it's important not to make widespread conclusions based on the extreme actions of a few individuals.
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