The Anti-Capitalist Terrorists Who Blew Up Wall Street


“It was a crash out of the blue sky – an unexpected, death-dealing bolt which in a twinkling turned into a shambles the busiest corner of America’s financial centre.”

At 12:01pm, the wagon exploded.

Five hundred pounds of cast-iron sash weights were packed around a hundred pounds of TNT. When the bomb went off, triggered by a timer, the small, heavy weights became bullets that flew in every direction.

In all, thirty-eight people were killed, over a hundred forty injured. The blast left a two foot crater, flipped automobiles, killed horses; it caused $2.5 million in damage. The shrapnel created pock-marks in building facades; the offices of J. P. Morgan and Co. were all but obliterated. One of Morgan’s sons was injured.

This was September 16, 1920, and was the most devastating of a campaign of terrorist attacks by Italian anarchists committed to the overthrow of American capitalism. The wagon exploded on Wall Street.

The aftermath of the 1920 explosion

Visitors to the area will recognize the scene above. The church in the background at left-center is Trinity. To the right is old Federal Hall; the statue of George Washington marks the spot where, in 1789, the first President took the oath of office. The Morgan offices were in the building at left. You can still today see where the leaden slugs struck.

Terroristic attacks weren’t common – so much so that it wasn’t until two days later that the police felt comfortable declaring the explosion to be the result of a bomb attack. The device was ultimately identified when two pieces of casing were found. One was found by a chemist employed by the Rockefeller Institute who found a fragment in the explosion’s crater, a few inches deeper than the police initially searched. The other was inside the body of a messenger boy. The bomb was built like an aerial torpedo, exploding about four feet off the ground. Chest height.

Immediately before the explosion, a mail carrier found an unusual group of flyers crammed into a mailbox near Wall Street. Printed in red ink on rough sheets of paper, they read:

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

Police later determined that the bomber (or bombers) had set a short timer and then left the area, dropping the leaflets in the mailbox while making an escape. Two minutes after the letter carrier removed the notes, he heard the explosion.

The flyers were a strong indicator that the culprits were members of the loose-knit group of anarchists led by Luigi Galleani. Until his deportation in 1919, Galleani lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, publishing a newspaper (Cronaca Sovversiva, or Subversive Chronicles) and giving frequent speeches intended to spur the working class to revolution. His influence was primarily limited to the Italian immigrant community, but there – it was powerful. In 1914, he published Faccia a Faccia col Nemico (“Face to Face With the Enemy”) which praised assassins as heroes.

The attacks of his followers – Galleanists – began in 1914 and lasted through the rest of the decade. They set bombs Westchester County, outside of New York City. They attacked police stations, churches. A bomb was left under the chair of a Magistrate who’d sentenced an anarchist to jail. They plotted to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One follower attempted to poison a gathering of scores of business and finance leaders at a banquet, making many sick. A cop was stabbed in Boston. A bomb exploded in San Francisco, killing ten; another in a Milwaukee police station after being removed from a church killed nine policemen. In 1919, anarchists mailed 30 packages of dynamite to leaders throughout the Northeast – but failed to include proper postage on most.

In 1919, eight bombs were exploded simultaneously in several cities – dynamite, wrapped with shrapnel. Three people, including an anarchist, were killed. The bombs were accompanied by a flyer:

War, Class war, and you were the first to wage it under the cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws. There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder: we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions.

The goal was always the same: destabilize the power structures – political and financial – of a still-young United States. Dismantle the class system. In the words of Galleani:

When we talk about property, State, masters, Government, laws, and police, we say only that we don’t want any of them.

Simple enough. The attack on Wall Street targeted Morgan in particular and the symbolism of the district in general. It was a message from anarchy to structure.

Even today, walls bear scars from the attack

It backfired. The next day, New Yorkers convened on the spot. Brigadier General William Nicholson addressed the crowd. It was Constitution Day.

“Yesterday one of the greatest outrages ever committed against society was perpetrated on the very spot on which we stand. Are we, as American citizens, going to close our eyes to things like that? I say no, a thousand times no!”
“No!” came the mighty response and cheering started…
The speaker ended. A man sprang up in his place. Waving his hands he began “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and again the vast harmonization of thousands rang out.
“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

No person was ever convicted of the bombing. Historians now believe the culprit was a Galleanist named Mario Buda, who was also implicated in the San Francisco and Milwaukee bombings several years before. Buda left the country immediately after the Wall Street attack and died of old age in Italy in 1963. The attacks continued until the early 1930s, the last an attack on the judge who sentence Galleanists Sacco and Vanzetti to death.

The quote at the beginning of this article is a first-person account from an Associated Press reporter who happened to be at the scene. He continues:

“The crowd was strangely quiet, and over it seemed to hang a feeling of awe and horror. At the commands of the police it moved and fell back silently. On the steps of the old Sub-Treasury Building…stands a statue of George Washington. Looking down from its pedestal between the massive granite columns, scarred by missiles from the explosion, the outstretched hand of the Father of the Country seemed to carry a silent command to be calm.

“Then came the ambulances.”

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