Wall Street’s Big Bang

The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror
By Beverly Gage
Oxford University Press, 400 pages, $27.95

Long vilified by those who feel the moneyed class has betrayed them, Wall Street was shorthand (until very recently) for the fat cat bankers who decide who wins and who loses in the American economy, a power elite shuttling between jobs in Washington and the southern tip of Manhattan. As a result, well before 9/11, Wall Street was a target of protest—and, on rare occasions, acts of terror.

In fact, on Sept. 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded at noon in front of J. P. Morgan’s bank, killing 38 people and wounding hundreds more. Until the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, this was the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history.

In The Day Wall Street Exploded, Yale University historian Beverly Gage reminds us of this attack, and of law enforcement’s befuddled inability to solve the crime. Investigators believed that anarchists were responsible for the bombing, but no charges were ever filed and the crime remains unsolved. Though Ms. Gage provides detailed background on the anarchist movement in the United States and the anarchists’ attempt to link with labor, her account falls short when compared to other histories of that era.

For instance, in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, David Von Drehle writes movingly about the tragedy that catapulted Al Smith to fame (thanks to his success in improving conditions for workers). And J. Anthony Lukas, in Big Trouble, tells the story of the assassination of a former Idaho governor—allegedly by officials of a mine workers’ union—and explains in riveting language the impact of the killing on the nation as a whole.

Whereas Lukas and Mr. Von Drehle and manage to link persuasively a specific historical event to a broad change in American society, Ms. Gage never effectively expands her focus.

Perhaps the problem is that the perpetrators of the Wall Street bombing were never caught—no courtroom drama, no government remedy. Ms. Gage is at her best when describing how succeeding Bureau of Investigation directors utterly failed in their attempts to identify and capture the terrorists. William J. Burns (“America’s Sherlock Holmes”) and the young J. Edgar Hoover, along with other well-known investigators, first chased Italian anarchists, then Russians—to no avail.

 

THE DAY WALL STREET EXPLODED is less compelling when it comes to giving us a taste of the local atmosphere, circa 1920. How can one write about Wall Street without a glimpse of Gotham? Ms. Gage notes, without pausing for comment, that the very day after the attack, The New York Times ran an ad from an insurance company warning potential customers, “That Was a Terrible Explosion Yesterday! But Accidents Are Ever at Hand and They Come without Warning; Don’t Wait until You are Disabled!”

What’s more, Broad Street Hospital, where many of the wounded were treated, took advantage of the bombing to raise funds for expansion, addressing a newspaper ad the next day to “You Men of Wall Street”: “Were your words empty words? Some few have contributed. Are you going to permit yourself to sink back …?

How very New York.

Although Ms. Gage demonstrates prodigious research skills in describing the rise of our native anarchist movement, she’s less impressive when she delves into the relationship between Wall Street and Washington. She seems to accept the statement of a Montana rancher that in World War I, “the United States was only fighting for Wall Street millionaires”; and she seems to feel that most government policies of the time were similarly skewed. Perhaps Ms. Gage is right—but she could have made more of an effort to explore the struggle between progressives and conservatives, especially in New York City.

The reader’s confidence is shaken when she misidentifies Josephus Daniels as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of war (he was actually Navy secretary). And when she bemoans, with some justification, the rightward tilt of the Democrats (she quotes William Jennings Bryan, who called the party’s 1924 nominee, John Davis, “a Wall Street man”), she omits a relevant detail: Davis’ running mate was Bryan’s progressive brother.

 

THE WALL STREET bombing proved to be the last major act of terrorism in the United States for quite some time. Ms. Gage concludes that the “Roaring Twenties” proved to be mostly a lost decade for workplace gains by labor, and she’s right about that. But organized labor was growing stronger, and Democrats saw a rich cache of votes if their party moved in that direction. Labor fared far better by tying its fortunes to the Democrats rather than to the anarchists, socialists or communists. Ms. Gage isn’t so sure.

The Great Depression led to the New Deal and to a period of dramatic success for organized labor. Unfortunately, Beverly Gage dismisses the impact of the New Deal in little more than a paragraph. That cursory treatment sums up the signal weakness of her book: It would have had much greater resonance had she linked the story of the 1920 terror attack to the political mainstream, where the power to effect change resides.

Robert Sommer is president of the Observer Media Group. He can be reached at rsommer@observer.com.

Wall Street’s Big Bang