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TheStreet Open House

Previous Terror on Wall Street -- A Look at a 1920 Bombing

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in September of 2001.

Last week, two hijacked planes pierced the heart of New York's financial world, but inspired an outpouring of heroic and patriotic responses. To many observers, the events recalled the 1993 World Trade Center bombing or the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

To this history-minded financial journalist, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the reaction to it calls to mind a September 1920 tragedy that took place just across the street from TheStreet.com's headquarters. Until last week, that event stood as the deadliest terror attack in New York City's long history.

On Thursday, Sept. 16, 1920, a simple wagon, pulled by an old, dark bay horse, made its way through a crowded Wall Street. At about noon, it came to a stop about 100 feet west of the corner of Wall and Broad streets, the section of Lower Manhattan cobblestone that had recently emerged, in the words of the author John Brooks, as "the precise center, geographical as well as metaphorical, of financial America and even of the financial world."

'The Corner'

To the south stood 23 Wall St. Known simply as "The Corner," the fortresslike structure housed J.P. Morgan & Co., the world's most powerful financial institution. That address was the professional home to the men who ruled over huge swaths of the global economy: J.P. (Jack) Morgan Jr. and Thomas Lamont, the financial architect of the Paris Peace Conference.

As historian Ron Chernow puts it, "The House of Morgan spoke to foreign governments as the official voice of the American capital markets." To the north stood the U.S. Assay Office, where workers were moving some $900 million in gold bars. Next to it stood the U.S. Sub-Treasury, the building now known as Federal Hall, fronted by its statue of George Washington. Around the corner stood the New York Stock Exchange.

As the bells of Trinity Church gently tolled noon, the driver released the reins and fled. Within seconds, the wagon delivered its lethal cargo: hundreds of pounds of explosives.

The Site of 'The Corner'
Here's how 23 Wall St. looked in 1905

Source: J.P. Morgan Web site

Shrapnel -- bits of iron made from window sash weights -- tore through flesh, concrete, stone and glass. Windows shattered throughout a half-mile radius, showering glass missiles onto busy streets. Awnings 12 floors above street level caught fire. Joseph P. Kennedy, then a young stockbroker, was thrown to the ground by the concussive force. Pillars of brown smoke and greenish flames engulfed the ancient, narrow lanes.

George Weston, an Associated Press reporter, witnessed the blast, calling it "an unexpected, death-dealing bolt, which in a twinkling turned into a shamble the busiest corner of America's financial center." He hid in a doorway. "Almost in front of the steps leading up to the Morgan bank was the mutilated body of a man. Other bodies, most of them silent in death, lay nearby. As I gazed horrorstruck at the sight, one of these forms, half-naked and seared with burns, started to rise. It struggled, then toppled and fell lifeless to the gutter."

The Destruction

Wall Street ran red with blood. A single horse leg was splayed across the steps of one building. A woman's head, still wearing a hat, was stuck to the wall of another. A fatally wounded messenger pleaded for someone to deliver his securities. Thirty people were killed instantly: messengers, stenographers, clerks and brokers. Thomas Joyce, the chief Morgan clerk, died at his desk. Three hundred more were injured, among them Junius Morgan, Jack Morgan's son.

A bell rang out on the floor of the exchange, which halted trading -- the first time trading had ever been halted by violence.

Within minutes, 1,700 New York City policemen and 75 Red Cross nurses, many of them World War I veterans, rushed to the scene by horse, car, subway and foot. Troops from the 22nd Infantry, garrisoned on Governor's Island, marched through Lower Manhattan, rifles and bayonets at the ready. Mayor John Hylan rushed from his office to supervise. A 17-year-old office boy, James Saul, loaded injured people into a car that he commandeered, and he ferried more than 30 casualties to Broad Street Hospital.

Order was quickly restored, as bodies were laid out on the sidewalk and covered with white sheets. Undaunted by the unprecedented act, the NYSE governors met at 3:30 p.m. and decided to open for business the next morning.

Before night fell, the search was on for the culprits. William J. Flynn, the dashing head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who had been involved in the antiradical Palmer Raids, arrived in New York. Eyewitnesses had reported seeing an Italian man fleeing from the scene; another saw an "East Side peddler." Suspicion naturally centered on anarchists, who had been behind an unsuccessful campaign of letter bombs that targeted Jack Morgan. A message was found in a nearby mailbox reading: "Free the political prisoners. Or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters." (The previous day, anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had been indicted for bank robbery and murder.)

The next morning, Wall Street employees went back to work amid heightened security. They were defiant, patriotic and "determined to show the world that business will proceed as usual despite bombs," as the Sun and New York Herald put it. Volume on the stock exchange was relatively high, and the prices of many stocks rose.

At noon Friday, Sept. 17, led by the Sons of the American Revolution, thousands of New Yorkers rallied in front of the boarded-up windows of 23 Wall St. They sang America the Beautiful and listened to a patriotic speech from World War I hero Brig. Gen. William J. Nicholson.

During the next several weeks, the New York City police fanned out. Hundreds of detectives interviewed every ferrier and stablehand in the region in a vain effort to track down the owner of the horse and wagon. Carlo Tresca, a well-known anarchist, was hauled in for questioning. Police also detained Edward Fischer, a well-born eccentric and former New York City tennis champion. The mentally imbalanced Fischer had mailed postcards from Toronto to friends in New York, in which he had apparently predicted the bombings. He was ultimately sent to Bellevue Hospital. Nobody ever credibly claimed responsibility for the attack. And no person was ever charged in the deadly bombing, which resulted in 39 casualties and about $2 million in property damage.

The Damage

The potential for damage was far greater than the human and financial tolls indicate. The bombing came at a time when wealth still resided in stock and bond certificates and in precious metals. A large percentage of the nation's gold reserves and paper wealth could have been incinerated in the explosion.

But the potential for psychological and structural damage was greater. In the fall of 1920, modern Wall Street was just emerging into public consciousness. With the popularity of Liberty Bonds during World War I, the nation for the first time had a large group of middle-class individual investors. During World War I, New York had eclipsed London as the world's financial capital.

The bombing -- and the overwhelming popular response to it -- helped to humanize Wall Street. As Brooks wrote, "Selling paper for money -- the basic business of Wall Street -- had graduated from a mere way of making a living into a defiance of the country's enemies, a moral act."

J.P. Morgan & Co. no longer exists as an independent entity, but 23 Wall St. still stands. The corner occupies much the same place in the popular imagination today as it did 80 years ago.

Next time you're in Lower Manhattan, walk past 23 Wall and check out the facade. The lower portions still bear the scars: pockmarks and moonlike craters that stand as palpable 81-year-old evidence. Touch them and recall that this was once ground zero, a scene of mayhem, pain, anger and destruction -- and that it opened for business the next day.

Destructive as it was, the 1920 bomb that exploded in Wall Street's heart did not halt the rise of our new financial capital. Destructive as they were, the 2001 attacks near Wall Street's heart will not bring down our old financial capital.

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