Anarchists in America: The Wall Street Bombing of 1920

23 Wall Street as it appears today

Walking past 23 Wall Street, just east of Nassau Street, you could hardly be blamed for missing them: a series of pockmarks chipped out of the building’s limestone facade. There are few people alive today who were old enough to remember what was, up to that point, the deadliest act of terrorism in American history.

Pock marks in the limestone facade of 23 Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street protests of the past year are mere child’s play in comparison to the Anarchist movement which threatened to dismantle the world’s social and economic structure in the early years of the 20th century. More than a band of drum-beating twenty-somethings hoping to inspire change through marches and interviews, the Anarchists of yesteryear, particularly the followers of Luigi Galleani, were out for blood. They saw the massacre of the world’s elite ruling classes as the only sure path toward human equality and opportunity.

Luigi Galleani ca 1912

Government, Industry, and Banks were all the enemy to Galleani, who had been arrested in his native Italy in 1894 after being convicted of conspiracy. He escaped his island prison south of Sicily in 1900 and went into hiding in Egypt. He was discovered, though, and fled before he could be extradited to Italy, landing briefly in London before sailing to the United States in 1901.

Once in America, Galleani used his gift for effective public speaking to further propagate his radical ideas regarding social revolution. When silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey, went on strike in 1902, Galleani was there to speak forcefully on their behalf. He encouraged them to overthrow their capitalist society and take down their labor overlords. Working the strikers into a frenzy, Galleani was among the wounded when the police opened fire on them. He quickly fled to Canada, but was almost immediately captured and escorted back across the border to Vermont.

Galleani found a community of Socialist Italians in Barre, Vermont, and with minimal delay, assumed the role of their leader, pushing them to ever-more-extreme levels of radicalism, and indoctrinating them with his own vitriolic hatred for America’s social structure. From Barre, and with the help of his new followers, Galleani published a newsletter which served to spread his views beyond what merely his voice could reach. The “Cronaca Sovversiva,” or “Subversive Chronicle,” had a circulation which peaked near 5,000 copies, and made passionate arguments against the existence of God, against governmental tyranny, and in favor of free love. The Chronicle was published for for 15 years before being shut down by the U.S. government under the 1918 Sedition Act, which barred any speech which cast the government or the war effort in a negative light.

A political cartoon lampooning the 1918 Sedition Act (Jersey City Journal)

The closing of World War I and the ensuing Bolshevik Revolution in Russia sparked what is now known as “The First Red Scare” in America. Fear of radical social and political upheaval spreading to our shores gripped the nation’s psyche, leading the government to begin a series of deportations and imprisonments of those deemed threats to the common order.

NY Times, April 29, 1919

But in April of 1919, America’s fears would begin to be realized: a series of cleverly-disguised package bombs were mailed to 36 different prominent politicians, police officers and businessmen across the country. The first to arrive was addressed to the Ole Hanson, the Mayor of Seattle, and was opened by a member of his staff, who entered the box from the wrong end, causing the detonating device to malfunction.

NY Times, April 30, 1919

The second package, however, arrived at the home of Georgia Senator Thomas W. Hardwick on April 29th. When his housekeeper opened it, the dynamite inside successfully detonated, blowing off her hands, and severely wounding the Senator’s wife, who was standing nearby. News reports of the blast alerted an employee at the post office in New York, who recognized the similarity between the description of the bomb packages and a collection of 16 parcels set aside at his office due to insufficient postage.

12 further packages were then successfully intercepted before reaching their intended targets. Among those to whom the bombs were addressed were: Governor Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, U.S. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, New York City Police Commissioner Richard Enright, New York City Mayor John Hylan, Governor William Sproul of Pennsylvania, along with prominent businessmen J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Authorities could not immediately tie the bombs to any person or group, and panic threatened to overwhelm the American public.

People gathered outside the home of U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer after it was severely damaged by a bomb in 1919.

On June 2nd of the same year, eight large bombs exploded almost simultaneously at the homes of politicians, judges, and attorneys who had endorsed the 1918 Sedition Act which had shut down the Subversive Chronicle. None of the targeted men were killed, but nearly all of their homes were virtually destroyed, and as can be expected, their nerves severely rattled.

The bombs had left clues this time, however. Each was delivered with a pink flyer entitled “Plain Words,” which read: “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.” 

Andrea Salsedo, who killed himself while being held by the police in connection with his involvement in the 1919 bombings.

The notes were able to be traced back to a printing press owned by 2 Galleano disciples. One, Andrea Salsedo, committed suicide by jumping out the window of their 14th-floor holding cell after providing information about the Galleanists to the police. The other, Robert Elia, could not legally be convicted, for lack of evidence, and was deported. Three weeks later, Galleani and 8 more of his followers were deported to Italy, where they restarted the Subversive Chronicle.

The J.P. Morgan building in the 1920s.

Galleani’s supporters continued executing minor bombings in the year after his deportation, and at noon on September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon pulled to the curb across the street from the J.P. Morgan bank headquarters at 23 Wall Street. The intersection, downtown Manhattan’s busiest at the time, was mobbed with people on their lunch breaks. None could have seen what was coming: at 12:01, 100 pounds of dynamite hidden inside the wagon exploded, sending a further 500 pounds of metal shrapnel tearing through the crowd.

NY Times, September 17, 1920

When the smoke cleared, the wagon was completely obliterated, along with its horse. 38 people were either dead or near death, and a further 143 lie wounded and bleeding in the street. Windows all around the intersection were shattered, and cars and wagons were overturned and destroyed all around.

An overturned car on Wall Street

Inside a nearby mailbox were found stacks of flyers similar to those affiliated with the 1919 bombings, which read: “Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. -The American Anarchist Fighters”

A gruesome account by an AP Reporter who was near the blast.
NY Times, September 17, 1920

Police and detectives from the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) could not definitively point a finger at a culprit. Due to the nature of the bomb, and the cryptic message on the flyers, suspicion arose that this bombing was tied to the series of house bombings in 1919. But the driver of the exploded wagon was not among the bodies recovered on Wall Street, meaning he had escaped, with no witnesses and few clues.

Onlookers standing near a collection of victims’ bodies
(Library of Congress)

J.P. Morgan, assumed to have been the intended target of the bomb, refused to have the shrapnel marks repaired on the facade of his building, insisting they remain as a symbol of defiance against the perpetrators and their followers.

Mario Buda

In 1955, a Galleanist by the name of Mario Buda allegedly admitted to his nephew that he had built and detonated the Wall Street bomb. He had even remained at the scene after the explosion, but was neither interviewed nor arrested. He fled to his native Italy, where he remained under the pseudonym Mike Boda until his death. He was never brought to trial for his admitted crimes, which also included the detonation of a bomb in Milwaukee which killed 9 police officers in 1917. The Wall Street bombing case was never officially closed.

Damage on 23 Wall Street today

Galleanists continued sending and detonating bombs against authority figures until 1932, when their subversive reign of terror finally petered out. And few tourists wandering through Wall Street’s canyon think to look at the facade of unassuming 23 Wall Street, which still bears the marks of the deadly bombing of September 16, 1920: the worst terrorist attack in New York until 2001.

Shrapnel recovered after the blast. This is what killed and injured dozens and left the marks on 23 Wall Street that can be seen to this day.

About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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5 Responses to Anarchists in America: The Wall Street Bombing of 1920

  1. Pingback: | Just Do History

  2. Kelly Breed says:

    I stumbled across your blog due to–naturally–the Evelyn McHale story but I am thoroughly enjoying exploring your other writings. I had never heard of the Wall Street bombing before. Wow. History is perspective. Thank you!

    • Thanks for reading! If you’re ever in NYC, do stop by Wall Street to see the scars from the bomb. They’re still very much there and very much ignored by most!

  3. Anna says:

    See? Wandering around… 🙂 – another good one. very, very interesting stuff. thank you for sharing your wealth of information!

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