Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Wall Street bombing occurred at 12:01 pm on Thursday, September 16, 1920, in the Financial District of Manhattan, New York City. The blast killed thirty people immediately, and another ten died later of wounds sustained in the blast. There were 143 seriously injured, and the total number of injured was in the hundreds.:160–61
The bombing was never solved, although investigators and historians believe it was carried out by Galleanists (Italian anarchists), a group responsible for a series of bombings the previous year. The attack was related to postwar social unrest, labor struggles, and anti-capitalist agitation in the United States.
The Wall Street bomb killed more people than the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times, which was the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil up to that point.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (BOI, the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI) did not immediately conclude that the bomb was an act of terrorism. Investigators were puzzled by the number of innocent people killed and the lack of a specific target, other than buildings that suffered relatively superficial, non-structural damage. Exploring the possibility of an accident, police contacted businesses that sold and transported explosives. By 3:30 pm, the board of governors of the NYSE had met and decided to open for business the next day. Crews cleaned up the area overnight to allow for normal business operations, but in doing so they destroyed physical evidence that might have helped police investigators solve the crime.:160–61 The Sons of the American Revolution had previously scheduled a patriotic rally for the day after (September 17) to celebrate Constitution Day at exactly the same intersection. On September 17, thousands of people attended the rally in defiance of the previous day’s attack.:166–68
The New York assistant district attorney noted that the timing, location, and method of delivery all pointed to Wall Street and J.P. Morgan as the targets of the bomb, suggesting in turn that it was planted by radical opponents of capitalism, such as Bolsheviks, anarchists, communists, or militant socialists.:150–51 Investigators soon focused on radical groups opposed to U.S. financial and governmental institutions and known to use bombs as a means of violent reprisal. Often throughout the Gilded Age radical ideology and violence was used as a form of protest by groups to initiate change. When simple protests were not enough, these extremists would resort to ruthless measures to be heard. Although the violence proved to be detrimental to their overall cause, many historians saw that this was a clear point of radical behavior aimed at facilitating transformation throughout the classes. They observed that the Wall Street bomb was packed with heavy sash weights designed to act as shrapnel, then detonated on the street in order to increase casualties among financial workers and institutions during the busy lunch hour.
Officials eventually blamed anarchists and communists for the Wall Street bombing. The Washington Post called the attack an “act of war”. The bombing stimulated renewed efforts by police and federal investigators to track the activities and movements of foreign radicals. Public demands to track down the perpetrators led to an expanded role for the BOI, including the bureau’s General Intelligence Division headed by J. Edgar Hoover.:272–82 The New York City Police Department (NYPD) also pushed to form a “special, or secret, police” to monitor “radical elements” in the city.
On September 17, the BOI released the contents of flyers found in a post office box in the Wall Street area just before the explosion. Printed in red ink on white paper, they said: “Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you.” At the bottom was: “American Anarchist Fighters”.:171–75 The BOI quickly decided that the flyer eliminated the possibility of an accidental explosion. William J. Flynn, director of the BOI, suggested the flyers were similar to those found at the June 1919 anarchist bombings.:171–75
The BOI investigation stalled when none of the victims turned out to be the driver of the wagon. Though the horse was newly shod, investigators could not locate the stable responsible for the work.:171–75 When the blacksmith was located in October, he could offer the police little information.:225–26 Investigators questioned tennis champion Edwin Fischer, who had sent warning postcards to friends, telling them to leave the area before September 16. He told police he had received the information “through the air”. They found Fischer made a regular habit of issuing such warnings, and had him committed to Amityville Asylum, where he was diagnosed as insane but harmless. Meanwhile, Robert W. Wood helped to reconstruct the bomb mechanism.
The BOI and local police investigated the case for over three years without success. Occasional arrests garnered headlines but each time they failed to support indictments.:217–19, 249–53 Most of the initial investigation focused on anarchists and communists, such as the Galleanist group, whom authorities believed were involved in the 1919 bombings.:207–08 During President Warren G. Harding’s administration, officials evaluated the Soviets and the Communist Party USA as possible masterminds of the bombing.:261–90, 295–308 In 1944, the FBI, successor to the BOI, investigated again. It concluded that its agents had explored many radical groups, “such as the Union of Russian Workers, the I.W.W., Communist, etc. … and from the result of the investigations to date it would appear that none of the aforementioned organizations had any hand in the matter and that the explosion was the work of either Italian anarchists or Italian terrorists.”:325
One Galleanist in particular, Italian anarchist Mario Buda (1884–1963), an associate of Sacco and Vanzetti and the owner of a car which led to the arrest of the latter for a separate robbery and murder, is alleged by some historians, including Paul Avrich, to be the man most likely to have planted the bomb. Avrich and other historians theorize that Buda acted in revenge for the arrest and indictment of Sacco and Vanzetti. Buda’s involvement as the Wall Street bombmaker was confirmed by statements made by his nephew Frank Maffi and fellow anarchist Charles Poggi, who interviewed Buda in Savignano, Italy, in 1955. Buda (at that time known by the alias of Mike Boda) had eluded authorities at the time of the Sacco and Vanzetti arrests, was experienced in the use of dynamite and other explosives, was known to use sash weights as shrapnel in his time bombs, and is believed to have constructed several of the largest package bombs for the Galleanists.:15 These included the Milwaukee Police Department bombing, which was a large black powder bomb that killed nine policemen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the time of the bombing, but he was neither arrested nor questioned by police.
After leaving New York, Buda resumed the use of his real name in order to secure a passport from the Italian vice-consul, then promptly sailed for Naples. By November, he was back in his native Italy, never to return to the United States. Galleanists still in the U.S. continued the bombing and assassination campaign for another 12 years, culminating in a 1932 bomb attack targeting Webster Thayer, the presiding judge in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Thayer, who survived the ensuing blast that destroyed his house and injured his wife and housekeeper, moved his residence to his club for the last year and a half of his life, where he was guarded 24 hours a day.
The bombing has inspired several books, notably The Day Wall Street Exploded, by Beverly Gage, The Death Instinct, by Jed Rubenfeld, and Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007) by Mike Davis.
The bombing is the subject of the PBS series American Experience episode “The Bombing of Wall Street”, broadcast in February 2018.
- McCann, Joseph T. (2006). Terrorism on American Soil: A Concise History of Plots and Perpetrators from the Famous to the Forgotten. Sentient Publications. p. 63.
- Gage, Beverly (2009). The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Barron, James (September 17, 2003). “After 1920 Blast, The Opposite Of ‘Never Forget’; No Memorials on Wall St. For Attack That Killed 30”. The New York Times.
- Watson, Bruce (2007). Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. New York: Viking Press.
- Avrich, Paul (1996). Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 132–33.
- “Havoc Wrought in Morgan Offices”. The New York Times. September 17, 1920.
- “Remick Nips Panic on Stock Exchange”. The New York Times. September 17, 1920.
- “Boy Seizes Auto and Takes 30 Injured to the Hospital”. The New York Times. September 17, 1920. Retrieved May 6, 2020.
- New York (N.Y.) Police Department (1920). Annual Report. pp. 167–168.
- “Explosive Stores All Accounted for; Some of the Striking Effects of the Explosion”. The New York Times. September 17, 1920.
- Gage, Beverly. (2007). “Why Violence Matters: Radicalism, Politics, and Class War in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era”. Journal for the Study of Radicalism. 1 (1): 99–109. doi:10.1353/jsr.2008.0021. ISSN1930-1197. S2CID154748636.
- Gage, Beverly. “The First Wall Street Bomb”. History News Service. Retrieved September 16, 2010.
- “Funds are Needed in Fight on Reds”. The New York Times. September 19, 1920.
- Bryk, William (March 6, 2001). “Wall Street’s Unsolved Bombing Mystery”. New York Press. Retrieved December 25, 2011.
- Bellows, Alan (May 14, 2007). “Terror on Wall Street”. DamnInteresting.com. Retrieved December 25, 2011.
- Seabrook, W. (1941). Doctor Wood, Modern Wizard of the Laboratory. New York: Harcourt Brace.
- Edmonton Bulletin (Edmonton, Canada), May 14, 1923, p. 1 (arrest of Noah Lerner)
- Avrich, Paul (1991). Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. p. 213,227.
- Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: Interview of Charles Poggi, p. 133: Among other interesting admissions, Buda acknowledged that Niccola Sacco was in fact present (“Sacco c’era“) at the South Braintree payroll robbery and murder for which he was eventually executed.
- Newby, Richard (2011). Kill Now, Talk Forever: Debating Sacco and Vanzetti. AuthorHouse. p. 590.
- Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: Interview of Charles Poggi, p. 133: “Buda was a real militant, capable of anything. In 1933 I drove to New York with Buda’s nephew, Frank Maffi…Frank said, ‘Let’s drive downtown and see my uncle’s bomb’, and he took me to Wall Street, where the big explosion took place in September 1920, just before Buda sailed for Italy. You could still see the holes in the Morgan building across the street.”
- Dell’Arti, Giorgio (January 26, 2002). “La Storia di Mario Buda” (PDF) (in Italian). Io Donna.
- “The 1920 Wall St bombing: A terrorist attack on New York”. Slate Magazine. Retrieved April 30, 2016.
- Stern, Seth (February 23, 2011). “Book review: ‘The Death Instinct’ by Jed Rubenfeld”. Washington Post. Retrieved May 19, 2011.
- “The Bombing of Wall Street”. American Experience. PBS.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 03.20.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.