The 1920 Wall Street Bombing

Aftermath of Wall Street Bombing
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At noon on September 16, 1920, a horse drawn buggy loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast- iron slugs exploded across the street from the J.P. Morgan bank headquarters in downtown Manhattan, New York. The explosion blew out windows for blocks around, killed 30 immediately, injured hundreds of others and completely destroyed the interior of the Morgan building.. Those responsible were never found, but evidence—in the form of a warning note received at a nearby office building—suggested anarchists.

Tactic / Type:

VBIED / Anarchist

Learn more: VBIEDs (vehicle borne improvised explosive devices | Anarchism and Anarchist terrorism


Financial District, downtown Manhattan, New York


September 16, 1920

The Story:

Shortly after 12pm on September 16, a dynamite loaded horse drawn cart exploded on the corner of Wall and Broad Street in downtown Manhattan, just outside the banking firm. J.P. Morgan & Co. The blast would ultimately kill 39 people—most of them the clerks and messengers and secretaries who served the financial institutions--and cause damage in the millions of dollars.

To witnesses, the scale of the damage was unimaginable. Glass flew everywhere, including into the Morgan building, where several of the bank's partners were injured (Morgan himself was traveling in Europe that day.) The attack was made more lethal by the cast iron slugs packed in with the dynamite.

Investigations began immediately, with several theories about who might have committed the attack discarded along the way. Thomas Lamont, a Morgan bank principal, first accused Bolsheviks of the attack. Bolsheviks was for many a catch-all term that meant "radicals," whether anarchists, communists or socialists.

The day after the attack, a message was found in a mailbox a block from the attack, which said:

Remember. We will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters!"

Some have theorized that this note indicated that the attack was revenge for the murder indictment, several days earlier, of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

Finally, it was concluded that either Anarchists or communists were responsible. However, those responsible for the attack were never located, and suspicions about the object of the attack were inconclusive.

From Wall Street to the World Trade Center:

The first act of terrorism aimed at the heart of the nation's financial institutions inevitably draws comparison to the second, on September 11, 2001. Beverly Gage, author of the forthcoming book, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror, has made one such comparison:

To New Yorkers and to Americans in 1920, the death toll from the blast seemed incomprehensible. "The horrible slaughter and maiming of men and women," wrote the New York Call, "was a calamity that almost stills the beating of the heart of the people." That those numbers now seem paltry -- statistics from a past when we counted civilian deaths in dozens instead of thousands -- underscores just how violently our own world changed last Tuesday.
The destruction of the World Trade Center now stands alone in the annals of horror. But despite the difference in scale, the Wall Street explosion forced upon New York and the nation many of the same questions that we are confronting today: How should we respond to violence on this new scale? What is the proper balance between freedom and security? Who, exactly, is responsible for the destruction?"

There is another striking similarity. We may think that the defensive security crackdowns and resource mobilization following 9/11 are unprecedented, but a similiar mobilization occurred in 1920: Within days of the attack, there were calls on Congress and the Department of Justice to dramatically increase funding and legal mechanisms to counter the threat of Communists and Anarchists.

According to the New York Times on September 19: "It was said today at the Department of Justice that Attorney General Palmer would recommend in his annual report to Congress that drastic laws for dealing with anarchists and other disturbing elements be enacted. At the same time he will ask for larger appropriations, which were denied in the past."