Financier Russell Sage Attacked

Dynamite Bomb Nearly Killed Wall Street Titan in 1891

Engraved portrait of financier Russell Sage
Russell Sage, one of the wealthiest Americans of the late 1800s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the wealthiest Americans of the late 1800s, financier Russell Sage, narrowly escaped being killed by a powerful dynamite bomb after a visitor to his office threatened him with a bizarre extortion note. The man who detonated a satchel packed with explosives in Sage's lower Manhattan office on December 4, 1891, was blown to pieces.

The strange incident took a grisly turn when the police tried to identify the bomber by displaying his severed head, which had been remarkably undamaged.

In the highly competitive era of yellow journalism, the shocking attack on one of the city's richest men by a "bomb thrower" and a "madman" was a bonanza.

Sage's dangerous visitor was identified a week later as Henry L. Norcross. He turned out to be an outwardly ordinary office worker from Boston whose actions shocked his family and friends.

After escaping the massive explosion with minor injuries, Sage was soon accused of having grabbed a lowly bank clerk to use as a human shield.

The badly injured clerk, William R. Laidlaw, sued Sage. The legal battle dragged on throughout the 1890s, and Sage, widely known for eccentric frugality despite his $70 million fortune, never paid a cent to Laidlaw.

To the public, it just added to Sage's miserly reputation. But Sage stubbornly maintained he was simply adhering to principle.

The Bomber in the Office

On December 4, 1891, a Friday, about 12:20 p.m., a bearded man carrying a satchel arrived at Russell Sage's office in an old commercial building at Broadway and Rector Street. The man demanded to see Sage, claiming he carried a letter of introduction from John D. Rockefeller.

Sage was well-known for his wealth, and for his associations with robber barons like Rockefeller and the notorious financier Jay Gould. He was also famous for frugality.

He frequently wore, and mended, old clothing. And while he could have traveled with a flashy carriage and team of horses, he preferred to commute by elevated trains. Having financed New York City's elevated railroad system, he carried a pass to ride for free.

And at the age of 75 he still arrived at his office every morning to manage his financial empire.

When the visitor demanded loudly to see him, Sage emerged from his inner office to investigate the disturbance. The stranger approached and handed him a letter.

It was a typewritten extortion note, demanding $1.2 million. The man said he had a bomb in his bag, which he would set off if Sage didn't give him the money.

Sage tried to put the man off by saying he had urgent business with two men in his inner office. As Sage walked away, the visitor's bomb, intentionally or not, detonated.

Newspapers reported that the blast frightened people for miles. The New York Times said it had been clearly heard as far north as 23rd Street. In the downtown financial district, office workers ran into the streets in a panic.

One of Sage's young employees, 19-year-old "stenographer and typewriter" Benjamin F. Norton, was blown out a second floor window. His mangled body landed in the street. Norton died after being rushed to the Chambers Street Hospital.

A number of people in the suite of offices received minor injuries. Sage was found alive in the wreckage. William Laidlaw, a bank clerk who had been delivering documents, was sprawled on top of him.

A doctor would spend two hours pulling shards of glass and splinters out of Sage's body, but he was otherwise uninjured. Laidlaw would spend about seven weeks in the hospital. Shrapnel embedded in his body would cause him pain for the rest of his life.

The bomber had blown himself up. Parts of his body were scattered throughout the wreckage of the office. Curiously, his severed head was relatively undamaged. And the head would become the focus of much morbid attention in the press.

The Investigation

The legendary New York City police detective Thomas F. Byrnes took charge of investigating the case. He began with a ghastly flourish, by taking the bomber's severed head to Russell Sage's house on Fifth Avenue on the night of the bombing.

Sage identified it as the head of the man who had confronted him in his office. The newspapers began referring to the mysterious visitor as a "madman" and a "bomb thrower." There was suspicion he may have had political motives and links to anarchists.

The next afternoon's 2 p.m. edition of the New York World, the popular newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer, published an illustration of the man's head on the front page. The headline asked, "Who Was He?"

On the following Tuesday, December 8, 1891, the front page of the New York World prominently referred to the mystery and the weird spectacle surrounding it:

"Inspector Byrnes and his detectives are still completely in the dark as to the identity of the bomb-thrower, whose ghastly head, suspended in a glass jar, daily attracts crowds of curious people to the Morgue."

A button from the bomber's clothing led police to a tailor in Boston, and suspicion turned to Henry L. Norcross. Employed as a broker, he had apparently become obsessed with Russell Sage.

After Norcross's parents identified his head at the New York City morgue, they released affidavits saying he had never shown any criminal tendencies. Everyone who knew him said they were shocked at what he had done. It appeared he had no accomplices. And his actions, including why he had asked for such a precise amount of money, remained a mystery.

The Legal Aftermath

Russell Sage recovered and soon returned to working. Remarkably, the only fatalities were the bomber and the young clerk, Benjamin Norton.

As Norcross seemed to have no accomplices, no one was ever prosecuted. But the peculiar incident moved into the courts following accusations by the bank clerk who had been visiting Sage's office, William Laidlaw.

On December 9, 1891, a startling headline appeared in the New York Evening World: "As a Human Shield."

A sub-headline asked "Was He Dragged Between the Broker and the Dynamiter?"

Laidlaw, from his hospital bed, was claiming that Sage had grabbed his hands as if in a friendly gesture, and then pulled him close just seconds before the bomb detonated.

Sage, not surprisingly, bitterly denied the accusations.

After leaving the hospital, Laidlaw began legal proceedings against Sage. The courtroom battles went back and forth for years. Sage was ordered at times to pay damages to Laidlaw, but he would stubbornly appeal the verdicts. After four trials over eight years, Sage finally won. He never gave Laidlaw a cent.

Russell Sage died in New York City at the age of 90, on July 22, 1906. His widow created a foundation bearing his name, which became widely known for philanthropic works.

Sage's reputation for being a miser lived on, however. Seven years after Sage's death, William Laidlaw, the bank clerk who said Sage had used him as a human shield, died at the Home for the Incurables, an institution in the Bronx.

Laidlaw had never fully recovered from the wounds suffered in the bombing nearly 20 years earlier. Newspapers reported that he had died penniless and mentioned that Sage had never offered him any financial assistance.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Financier Russell Sage Attacked." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Financier Russell Sage Attacked. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Financier Russell Sage Attacked." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 2, 2021).