September 16, 1920 | Wall Street Bombing

 Corner of Wall and Broad St. soon after the bombing
 

“An act of diabolism unparalleled in the annals of terrorism”

—St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1920   


At precisely 12:01 p.m., a huge explosion rocked the New York Financial District. It shattered windows for blocks around, throwing shards of glass in all directions along with heavy lead slugs believed to have been used as shrapnel in the bomb. The blast killed 38 people and injured hundreds more.

Americans were outraged and shocked by the attack seemingly directed at the heart of the American financial system. According to William J. Flynn, the director of the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), “[The bomb] was planted in the heart of America as a defiance against the American people and the American Government.” Flynn jumped on the first train to New York to investigate the explosion, but when he arrived he found a crime scene crowded with investigators.

The New York Police Department reasonably claimed jurisdiction over the case, though the New York Fire Department refused to be excluded. The NYPD, NYFD, and Flynn’s Bureau were joined by US Treasury Agents and the flamboyant head of the Burns Detective Agency, William J. Burns, often referred to as the “Sherlock Holmes of America” (by Arthur Conan Doyle himself). This crowded field of detectives was neither cooperative nor cordial—which may explain why the case was never solved.

Competing agencies conducted separate interviews of witnesses and were slow to share evidence. Flynn’s first instinct was to link the bombing with other recent bomb attacks attributed to Italian Anarchists, specifically the followers of Luigi Galleani. Galleani had been deported back to Italy in 1919, but his followers still preached his doctrine of terrorism as a noble political act. Flynn never got enough concrete evidence to tie Galleani or his agents to the bombing, but it remains the most likely scenario. In 1927, 17 days before the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti (two Galleanisti convicted of murder) more bombs exploded in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. This proved to be the final wave of anarchist bombings in the US and the last acts of terrorism until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

 

For a detailed account of the 1920 Wall Street Bombing investigation, read Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror.