The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror
By Beverly Gage, Oxford, 2009, 400 pp., $27.95
At noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a delivery wagon parked on New York’s Wall Street exploded, spraying lead counterweights into a crowd of workers streaming out for lunch. Messengers, typists and salesmen made up most of the 38 who perished from such causes as “evisceration of brain,” while a chauffeur waiting in an open-fronted touring car was decapitated.
The vicious attack was by no means the first “direct action” taken by radicals raging against the swollen capitalism of post–Civil War America, as historian Beverly Gage stresses in this painstakingly researched new book. She sees it as the long-feared, high-carnage—and now largely forgotten—fruition of five decades of class struggle in the U.S. It was also the one attack of the era that most resembled terrorism as we now know it: Perceived as a general assault against the nation and its economic system, it was meant to induce fear by killing as many people as possible, regardless of who they were. Its success in doing so wouldn’t be equaled until Oklahoma City in 1995.
Who did it? We’ll never know for sure. The strongest evidence implicated Italian anarchists led by Luigi Galleani, a longtime resident alien in the United States who had recently been deported for encouraging the violent overthrow of the government. He had authored a how-to booklet for making bombs and counted among his followers Sacco and Vanzetti, indicted for murder a few days earlier. Other suspects included Russians funded by the newly victorious Bolsheviks, or the many veterans of violent labor struggles of the previous decades. Radicals with alibis included Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who was in prison for opposing the draft in World War I, and Emma Goldman, founder of the anarchist journal Mother Earth, who had been deported to Russia under the 1918 Anarchist Exclusion Act.
Gage paints a seething picture of the reformist era in the United States—which, she says, is a main goal of the book. “Far from being a period of placid reform,” she writes, “the turn of the century was a moment in which the entire structure of American institutions—from the government to the economy—seemed to be up for grabs, poised to be reshaped by new movements and ideas.” She describes not only radical movements but the growth of governmental machinery meant to repress them, which had a chilling effect not just on subversives but also on constitutional freedoms and needed reform.
Thankfully Gage has a light touch in pointing out the various parallels, which are thought provoking. A firmer guiding hand would have been useful, however, to put the radicals whom she so clearly depicts into the context of the mass of moderate progressive groups that characterized the reform period.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.