History Book – A bomb on Wall Street

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, September 14th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio, and we are so glad you are. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The WORLD History Book.

Today, the rise of a radical movement in the United States and one of its most daring attacks 100 years ago this week.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: In the late 19th century, a radical movement was spreading around the world. It fed on the rising distrust of federal governments: it’s known as “Anarchism.” 

KLEHR: Well, the anarchists argued that all government was illegitimate. 

Harvey Klehr is emeritus professor of politics and history at Emory University. Another movement emerged around the same time—based on the writings of Karl Marx. The two movements were not strictly allies, more like co-belligerents. 

KLEHR: Quite often the anarchists were in conflict with Marxists. The Marxists focused, for example, on building labor unions, political parties, they contested elections where they could. The anarchists were opposed to all that. They insisted that to participate in the political system was to concede to your enemies. The purpose was to destroy the political system. And one way to do that was violence.

Anarchists called it: “propaganda of the deed.” 

KLEHR: You have these bombings which start in 1914 and really pick up in 1918, 1919. Most of them are, we now are pretty sure were carried out by a group of Italian immigrants called the Galleanistas. 

With the Russian Revolution, and the rise of anarchist violence, the U.S. government strengthened the Espionage Act of 1917 and clamped down on many agitators. The anarchists responded with even more bombings. 

In 1919, anarchists attempt to assassinate U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer. The only casualty is the one planting the bomb.

KLEHR: So the government is increasingly frightened and concerned by this rise of radicalism.

Palmer launches a counter offensive by the U.S. government. The attorney general appoints a Justice Department lawyer to head up the operation: J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover coordinates intelligence from various government sources and quickly creates a large database of suspected anarchists and communists. Then, the government starts arresting large numbers of them. 

KLEHR: The Palmer raids begin in 1919 and then carry over into 1920, and involve the arrest of anybody who was associated with several organizations… 

The arrests were most often dragnet raids. 

KLEHR: They would arrest anybody that was around them. So lots of people that had nothing to do, or very little to do, with these organizations were arrested. They were held incommunicado. They were denied bail. All these kinds of things which wound up discrediting the raids.

In the end, more than 3,000 people are arrested in 30 U.S. cities. Most are released, but Hoover deports more than 550.

KLEHR: A number of the actions were overly severe and unlikely to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The evidence was awfully thin against most of the people arrested. And of course the government eventually admitted that.


At noon on September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon weaves its way through lunchtime crowds on Wall Street in New York City. It stops across from the J.P. Morgan bank on one of the busiest corners in the financial district. 

The crowds are unaware that inside the wagon is 100 pounds of dynamite, as well as 500 pounds of cast-iron window weights. The explosives are triggered by a timer. 


The explosion wounds more than 400 bystanders. Thirty-eight people die. And after years of investigation, no one was ever convicted of the crime, but bombings continued to be a common tactic for anarchists until the early 1930’s. 

According to history professor Harvey Klehr, the threat was real, but he maintains the Palmer Raids were the wrong way to go about dealing with it and in fact may have made matters worse.

KLEHR: First of all, it tends to discredit their larger aims. But when you go off on a wild goose chase, first of all, as you’re chasing those wild geese, you may miss some real dangers. And secondly, if you accuse innocent people or people that can prove their innocence pretty easily, you tend to make it less likely that people will believe you in the real cases. 

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book.

I’m Paul Butler.

(Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.) Aftermath of a bombing on September 16, 1920, at Wall Street and Broad Street in New York City that killed 38 people and injured hundreds.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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