THE DOCUMENTARY “American Experience: The Bombing of Wall Street”
WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT’S ABOUT On Sept. 16, 1920, a horse-drawn carriage packed with dynamite and window-sash weights pulled up in front of the J.P. Morgan & Co. headquarters on the corner of Wall and Broad streets in lower Manhattan. The explosion would knock trolley cars off their tracks blocks away and rattle buildings in the immediate vicinity.
In what would eventually be recognized as the worst terrorist attack on American soil at the time, 38 people were killed — most of them young workers on their lunch break — while hundreds were badly injured. This hour — based on Beverly Gage’s 2009 book, “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror” — doesn’t delve into what happened afterward, but explores the tumultuous period that preceded it.
MY SAY As Gage writes in her book, “the Wall Street explosion struck at a moment when millions of people around the globe believed that capitalism was on the verge of collapse.” How wrong in fact those “people” were. “The Bombing of Wall Street” goes on to explain that the carnage was cleaned up overnight so the stock market could open on time the next morning. It did, and the Roaring ’20s got underway. The rapid cleanup also abraded the crime scene, a reason the case was never solved.
Traumatic historic events birth many consequences, unintended or otherwise, but the bombing of Wall Street almost appeared to birth none. Instead, “this bombing seems like the last gasp of a conflict-ridden age,” Gage says. As countless passers-by have since discovered, evidence of this last gasp remains in jagged marble-sized holes on the facade of the old bank, while many still stop and point, wondering what happened here nearly a century ago.
What happened began years before the clock struck noon on Sept. 16, 1920. As both symbol and architect of his age, Morgan had been a target already. His adult son, Jack, was shot by a deranged man (or German spy; accounts differ) on the morning of July 3, 1915, at his palatial Glen Cove estate, Matinecock Point (he survived). But the attack on his father’s bank five years later was believed to be the work of one Mario Buda, who died in Italy in 1963. A so-called Galleanista — or fellow traveler of Luigi Galleani, an anarchist who had been deported the year before — Buda also had ties to Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Both anarchists, they had been indicted Sept. 14 for the April robbery/murder at the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in Massachusetts. Buda was alleged to have bombed Wall Street to avenge the indictment which, for some reason, this hour does not mention.
What “The Bombing of Wall Street” does thoroughly explore, however, is the mood of that distant era while suggesting parallels with the mood of our own. Immigration was under attack and foreign dissidents were targeted by the so-called Palmer Raids, named for Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. The raids rounded up thousands — many of the detainees innocent — and led to the deportation of hundreds of others. Orchestrating these raids was a young bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover, who had mastered the dark art of mass civilian surveillance. Hoover’s FBI was born in this era, and also energized by the Red Scare, but “Bombing” also ruefully notes that his FBI could never crack one of its first, and biggest, cases.
BOTTOM LINE Fascinating overview of a nearly forgotten tragedy in American history — and one at our own doorstep.