Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers, murdered four people and injured 280 in the April blast they set off near Copley Square and in shootings afterward. Tamerlan, the elder brother, was also killed. Dzhokar said after his capture that they were radicalized by their opposition to America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that they had learned to build bombs from an al-Qaeda– inspired online magazine article: “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Their crimes remind us that the war on terror is still with us nearly 12 years after 9/11.
Radicalism and bombings are not new. A century ago America suffered a wave of violence carried out by anarchists. Like the Tsarnaevs and most terrorists, the anarchists had grievances both real and imagined—and their attacks were both simple and deadly.
The anarchist movement started in Europe in the late 19th century. Anarchists longed for a stateless society, composed of self-governing workers’ communes. Revolutionary anarchists believed the only way to accomplish their goal was to smash the existing order, and they carried out a string of high-profile political assassinations.
Some anarchists fled to the United States, which they also wanted to transform. As in Europe, they focused their anger on the ruling class, which in America meant the industrial nouveau riche. Grinding hours and bitter strikes provided the spark. Johann Most, who came to New York from Germany in 1882, believed in targeted murders of political figures or prominent capitalists—what he called “propaganda by deed.” Retail violence would make the ruling classes fearful, and could be justified as attacks on “money kings” and “beasts of property.” He published a how-to pamphlet on explosives, Revolutionäre Kreigswissenschaft (Science of Revolutionary War). “A girdle of dynamite encircles the world,” he wrote.
His preaching fell on eager ears. In 1886 someone, most likely an anarchist, threw a bomb at police who were breaking up a demonstration of strikers in Haymarket Square in Chicago. Eight anarchists were arrested and four executed. In 1892 Alexander Berkman, a Russian-born anarchist, broke into the Pittsburgh office of industrialist Henry Clay Frick during a steel strike and stabbed and shot him. Frick survived. The most sensational crime of all came in 1901: President William McKinley was shot and killed while shaking hands at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. The assassin, Leon Czolgosz, said he had been inspired by Emma Goldman, anarchist lecturer and former lover of both Most and Berkman. “I thought it would help the working people,” Czolgosz said of the assassination.
These terrorists were almost all immigrants—the anarchists from Europe, the Tsarnaev brothers from central Asia. And yet many of them had lived here for a number of years and become at least partly Americanized. Czolgosz, whose parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe, was born in Michigan. They were the killers next door.
Anarchist crimes in the early 20th century became more indiscriminate. In 1910 radicalized union leaders planted a bomb in the offices of the Los Angeles Times that killed 21 people. Ten years later two Italian-born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were indicted for a robbery in South Braintree, Mass., in which two payroll guards were killed. On September 16, 1920, a bomb went off that combined both symbolism and slaughter. One minute after noon a blast of flame and metal shards swept the intersection of Wall and Broad streets in Manhattan, the heart of the financial district. Survivors described the aftermath as “like a dream” or “the end of the world.” The dead, the wounded and the simply dazed lined the streets, along with broken glass and body parts.
The explosion happened opposite the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Company. (Pockmarks from the blast are still visible in the facade of the building.) J.P. Morgan, who died in 1913, had personified finance capitalism, and the bank he founded was still the most powerful in the country. The victims, however, were almost all worker bees in the financial industry— clerks, accountants, stenographers, messengers—running errands or beginning their lunch hour. “Tell my boss to send another boy to relieve me,” said a dying messenger. Thirty-eight people were killed, most of them under the age of 30. Four were teenage boys; five were women.
Wall Street was determined to return to normal as soon as possible. Cleanup crews worked all night, and both the Morgan bank and the New York Stock Exchange—kitty-corner from the blast—opened for business on September 17. Their shattered windows were replaced by boards or lengths of cloth.
Details of the crime were pieced together only slightly less quickly. The explosion was set off by blasting gelatin, a form of nitroglycerin used in demolition and excavation. It had been carried in a horse-drawn wagon; one of the horse’s shoes was traced to a downtown stable. Flyers found in a financial district mailbox seemed connected to the blast. “Rimember,” the misspelled headline read. “Free the political prisoner or it will be sure death for all of you.” It was signed, “American Anarchist Fighters.”
Then the trail went cold. Eyewitness accounts of supposed perps fleeing the scene were confused and worth less. A few wrong men were arrested. Left-wing newspapers meanwhile argued that the disaster had been either an accident—blasting gelatin was used in ordinary building jobs—or a provocation, arranged by the beasts of property themselves.
In 1927, after many appeals, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for the South Braintree murders. A few bombings in America and at American embassies and banks abroad marked their deaths—and then the cycle of anarchist violence ended.
In 1944, an internal FBI memo finally attributed the Wall Street bomb to Italian anarchists. Italian-American anarchism was fertile soil for violence. Luigi Galleani, an Italian immigrant who lived in Vermont, had published an equivalent of Most’s bomb-making pamphlet, eerily titled La salute è in voi! (Health Is Within You!). The “prisoner” mentioned in the American Anarchist Fighters flyer was quite possibly two prisoners, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Wall Street blast happened five days after their indictment. Paul Avrich, a historian of anarchism, suggested in 1991 that the Wall Street bomber was Mario Buda, an anarchist friend of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Anarchists were inspired by a quasi-religious faith in the transforming power of destruction—the apocalypse of the Bible, transmuted to secular terms. Dzhokar Tsarnaev also claimed religious motivation— politicized Islam. “When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims,” he wrote as he awaited capture.
Though the handiwork of the anarchists and the Islamists was deadly, their equipment was small-scale and homemade. Dynamite was relatively easy to steal and use; the Tsarnaevs made bombs of ordinary pressure cookers. Both anarchists and Islamists used widely available recipes for their explosives. The 9/11 attack, a quasimilitary operation planned in Afghanistan, created a mistaken impression of the scale of terrorism; bloody acts of violence can be strictly DIY.
Anarchism waned not because of efforts to suppress it, but owing to competition from communism. Communists believed in political action directed by a revolutionary vanguard, not freelance mayhem; after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, radical energy worldwide was sucked into the service of the Soviet Union.
It will take a long time for the grievances of politicized Islam to wear out. In the meantime, our police and intelligence work is a lot better than it was in 1920. That’s one reason the Boston bombing was the first major attack since 9/11. We will need all our skills and vigilance in the years ahead.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.