Devastation on Wall Street

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Devastation on Wall Street

Bolshevist, Anarchist Terrorists Accused of Wall Street Bombing


By: Unknown

Date: September, 1920

Source: Photograph showing bomb damage to Wall Street from a 1920 bomb attack.

About the Photographer: The photographer is unknown.


Just after noon on September 16, 1920, a powerful dynamite bomb exploded in New York City's financial district on Wall Street near the intersection with Broad Street. Until the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the Wall Street bombing was the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history.

The bomb, which detonated just as the lunch hour was beginning, was carried in a horse-drawn cart. In the cart were hundreds of pounds of iron window-sash weights that acted as shrapnel. The scene was one of horrible devastation. At least thirty people were killed instantly, and some forty more would later die of their injuries. Hundreds more were wounded. Many of the victims were messengers crossing the streets or clerks eating lunch at their desks.

One witness described a mushroom cloud of greenish-yellow smoke rising a hundred feet in the air. Broken glass was everywhere, people were lifted into the air and then fell to the ground with their clothing on fire, and body parts were scattered on the street. Windows shattered and canopies were burned up to a fourth of a mile away. A car was thrown twenty feet into the air. At the corner of Broad and Wall Street, scars from the bombing can still be seen on the J. P. Morgan Building, where the firm's chief clerk was decapitated as he sat at a front window eating his lunch.

Minutes later, some 1,700 New York City policemen and seventy-five nurses from the Red Cross descended on the scene by foot, subway, car, and on horseback. Rifles and bayonets at the ready, 22nd Infantry Army troops from Governors Island marched through Lower Manhattan.

The only real piece of usable evidence was two charred horse hooves that had landed in front of nearby Trinity Church. Investigators showed the hooves to more than four thousand horseshoers and stable hands up and down the Atlantic coast, hoping that one would recognize his work and provide a clue to the identity of the bomber. One blacksmith on Elizabeth Street remembered a driver who had a Sicilian accent. Meanwhile, investigators carted away ten tons of broken glass and other debris, keeping it for two years as evidence.

The following photograph captures the devastation in front of the New York Stock Exchange.



See primary source image.


Between 1892 and 1914, many of the seventeen million immigrants who had passed through New York's Ellis Island were from places such as Hungary, Greece, Romania, and southern Italy. Popular anti-immigrant sentiment wrongly associated these immigrants with disease, dirt, crime, communism, anarchism, and extremism. Secretary of Labor James J. Davis had referred to them as "rat people."

After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917, anti-immigrant sentiment and fears of communist insurgents led to the first wave of "Red scares" in the twentieth century. Those fears were stoked in 1919, when mail bombs had exploded in eight American cities, one at the home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936), touching off the socalled Palmer raids in which ten thousand suspected subversives and anarchists were rounded up and hundreds were deported.

In response to the bombing, Palmer ordered the arrest of "Big Bill" Haywood (1869–1928), president of the labor union Industrial Workers of the World. The estates of financial magnates such as J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and others were put under guard.

Postal workers later discovered circulars that had been mailed a block away in the half hour before the bombing. The circulars read "Remember/We will not tolerate/any longer/Free the political/prisoners or it will be/sure death for all of you." The circular was signed by the American Anarchist Fighters, a group linked to the bombings in 1919. One suspicion was that the bombing was an act of reprisal for the September 11, 1920, indictment of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both with anarchist ties, in connection with a holdup in Massachusetts.

Despite the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other investigators, no one was ever charged with the crime. Suspicion centered on Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani and his followers. The next day, the stock exchange opened for business and thousands of New Yorkers, led by the Sons of the American Revolution, gathered at the site to sing "America the Beautiful" and listen to patriotic speeches.



Baritz, Loren, ed. The American Left: Radical Political Thought in the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic, 1971.

Lynd, Staughton. Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Pope, Daniel, ed. American Radicalism. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.


Ward, Nathan. "The Fire Last Time." American Heritage (December 2001). Available online from <> (accessed May 16, 2005).