In The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror, historian Beverly Gage combines exhaustive research with the mystery of a detective novel. Gage is the John Lewis Gaddis Professor of History at Yale University where her focus is 20th century American political history. The Day Wall Street Exploded is Gage’s first book, built upon her 2004 dissertation work at Columbia University. The book centers around the worst act of terrorism seen in America at the time: On September 16, 1920, at 12:01 PM, a horse-drawn wagon parked in front of Morgan Bank and the U.S. Assay Office exploded, killing 38 people and injuring over 300. The Day Wall Street Exploded explores the rapidly changing American political environment of the early 20th century, using the events around the bombing as a case study of radicals opposed to America’s liberal-capitalist order and the law enforcement officials set on protecting it. The book explores a critical transitionary period in American history when postwar ascendency was blighted by domestic instability.[i]
Gage relies on standard sources for political histories: periodicals, government records, and archived first-hand accounts from individuals. At the core of the book’s research—the records that tell the story—are the Bureau of Investigation case files from the investigation of the Wall Street bombing (though, despite the passage of decades, portions of those files were redacted).[ii]
Gage devotes several chapters to both the bombing and subsequent investigation. From the eyewitnesses interviewed by investigators and journalists, the book provides a detailed description of the bombing. To Gage’s credit, she avoids intellectualizing attack’s violence and simply describes what happened. The timing of the attack and the placement of the wagon reveal a goal of maximizing casualties. Given the bomb went off at lunchtime, the goal of the attackers was to inflict indiscriminate violence and, indeed, victims of the bombing were from all walks of life. Although little is known about them, Gage uses some effective examples to illustrate the tragic loss of life.
The Bureau of Investigation led the investigation into the bombing. This proved to be a multiyear effort, taking on two distinct phases as the Wilson Administration gave way to President Warren Harding. Under AG Palmer, William J. Flynn served as director of Bureau and led the Wall Street investigation for approximately one year. Flynn was a veteran investigator, serving in the New York City police department as well as the US Secret Service. In visiting the bombing site he quickly concluded the explosion was not accidental. Flynn had been appointed Director based upon his experience in investigating anarchists, now regarded as an elevated threat following the series of bombings in the summer of 1919. Pamphlets found near Wall Street as well as the bomb’s signature pointed towards a group of Italian anarchists known as the Galleanisti, the followers of the radical Luigi Galleani. While not as well-known as figures like Most or Goldman, Galleani and his followers published a newspaper and several books advocating the violent overthrow of the existing order in the US and abroad. While there were many leads, they proved to be dead ends—especially as persons of interest could not be located. The few arrests made lacked physical evidence, and ultimately no one was charged. The next phase of the investigation began in the Harding Administration when AG Harry Daugherty appointed William J. Burns as director of the Bureau. Burns was a celebrity private detective who owned a large agency known for strike breaking and other anti-union activities. Regarded as publicity-seeking and attuned to public opinion, Burns used public fears about the rise of Bolshevism to shift the investigation toward Russian communists and their American allies. This proved to be a disastrous step for the Bureau as Burns relied on a skilled fabulist as a key informant. Eventually the press got hold of the story, undermining Burns’ credibility. This would prove to be only one of the many problems Burns had as Bureau director. Ultimately, Burns was unable to make a significant arrest in the Wall Street investigation.[iii]
Not to detract from the “police procedural” elements, but the strongest aspect of The Day Wall Street Exploded is its in-depth description of American political culture at the time of the bombing. At the end of World War I, Wall Street in general, and the House of Morgan in particular, were exemplars of the American system. J.P. Morgan and Company—ostensibly the bomb’s target—was the strongest force in international banking, playing a key role in the Great War by supplying Great Britain with American materiel as well as financing the Allies with American dollars. While postwar America prepared for a return to normalcy, the Wall Street bombing was a sign of continuing instability. Thirty attempted mail bombings aimed at “financiers, industrialists, and politicians” occurred on May Day 1919, and a month later (June 2nd), multiple bombs detonated in seven eastern cities, all aimed at government officials including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.[iv]
Gage then turns her attention to the opponents to the American system, a diverse group of idealogues supporting everything from basic rights for industrial workers to revolutionary, egalitarian, and utopian ideals. One of the radicals was Johann Most, a German immigrant and anarchist in the tradition of Mikhail Bakunin. Most openly advocated the use of violence to overthrow the regime of private property, expressing an enthusiasm for the use of dynamite “for deployment at strategic moments.” He promoted the concept of “propaganda by deed” which posited “that individual acts of terrorism…offered a vital way for the working class to liberate itself from the tyranny of capital.” Propaganda by deed was among the strategies that would “illustrate the depravity of American industrial conditions and to put the society’s leaders on notice that they, too, would suffer.” Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, key figures in the American anarchist movement, were among Most’s disciples. The Haymarket Affair in 1886 led to further radicalization as anarchist and socialist leaders were prosecuted for their political beliefs more than actual evidence of involvement in the bomb that sparked the riot.
In fact, violent rhetoric was too often matched with the violent action of high-profile attacks conducted by radicals. As the Homestead strike raged, Goldman and Berkman plotted the assassination of Henry Frick, Carnegie Steel’s chairman (which Berkman carried out, only for Frick to survive and Berkman to face 14 years in prison). Members of radical labor unions resorted to violent tactics in disputes with strike-breaking employers, for example the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) blowing up an ore processing plant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist resulted in more government efforts to discipline and punish anarchist ideology, including a New York law outlawing its advocacy. In public opinion radical ideologies were associated with political violence—a linkage encouraged elites and law enforcement officials.[v]
Despite the civil disorder of labor disputes and terrorist attacks on elites, American liberalism remained largely intact during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century. American traditions of individualism called for tolerating heterodox political beliefs while the rule of law called for due process and the protection of individual rights. Ironically, America’s relative permissiveness was one of the reasons political radicals from Europe like Most immigrated to the United States. Heterodox political movements, stifled by secret police and speech suppression in Europe, only grew in America at this time. Socialists formed the Socialist Party of America which obtained ballot access in local, state, and federal elections (Eugene Debs ran for president in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920). In addition, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW a/k/a Wobblies) was founded in 1905 with the stated, public goal of organizing a general strike to bring about a working-class revolution. Radicals also received a high degree of protection from American due process rights and respect for rule of law, most aptly demonstrated in the 1906 trial of WFM senior leaders—including Bill Haywood—accused of plotting the assassination of Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. Represented by Clarence Darrow, the WFM leaders were acquitted of the crime despite their ideological positions.[vi]
This changed when the US entered the Great War in Europe and tolerance for political heterodoxy was put aside. Radical agitation against US involvement in the war included multiple attacks, including a series of bombings in New York City and the 1916 “Preparedness Day” attack which killed ten people. With the US entry into the war as a combatant, tolerance for heterodoxy reached a new low in America. The 1917 Espionage Act (and its amendment, the Sedition Act of 1918) allowed the federal state to regulate political expression. The Espionage Act was pushed through Congress by the Wilson administration in reaction to antiwar, antidraft, anti-British, and pro-German sentiments among the American populace. While the laws provided harsh penalties for espionage and sabotage, there were also provisions that criminalized any acts or attempts to “cause insubordination, disloyalty, or refusal of duty in the military” or to obstruct recruiting or enlistment in the military.[vii] Consequently, radicals like Goldman, Berkman, Hayward, Debs, and other radicals were swept up by law enforcement for speaking out against the war. Recent immigrants caught in Espionage Act enforcement were frequently deported. Prosecutions and jailing broke the IWW while the Socialist Party fractured—partly in reaction to the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian state. The heightened sense of emergency and intolerance for dissenting opinion continued after the war. Bolshevik success in taking over of the Russian state brought about a new fear of political instability in America. In reaction to multiple bombing attacks in the summer of 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s shifted the Bureau of Investigation’s focus from Espionage Act enforcement to an aggressive campaign to imprison and deport suspected communists, culminating in the “Palmer Raids” in late 1919 and the “Soviet Ark” which would take Goldman and Berkman out of the country. At the end of his tenure as AG, Palmer was ultimately rebuked for his policies which evoked concerns by both Progressives and conservatives over the abuse of civil liberties.[viii]
In exploring the historical context, Gage should have devoted more time to Luigi Galleani and the Galleanisti, especially as her conclusion highlights the strong circumstantial evidence indicating this group did the bombing. Comparatively, Galleani received nowhere near the emphasis placed on Goldman, Berkman, Hayward, and Debs—key radicals in their time, but only peripheral to the Wall Street bombing. On the other hand, clearly Galleanisti like Sacco and Vanzetti were active in carrying out “propaganda by deed” against the American system. Given this, Galleani’s biography (especially his 18+ years in America), political thoughts, legal travails, and followers deserved more attention than the four pages provided by Gage.[ix]
Overall, however, The Day Wall Street Exploded is an excellent example of how an historical analysis of an incident encapsulates the history of an era, offering unique insight to America’s critical postwar transition. The book should be celebrated for its balanced approach, explaining American history from multiple perspectives: officials and institutional leaders protecting the unique achievements of American liberalism and capitalism; Progressive politicians, journalists, and lawyers navigating a rapidly changing society; and the radicals intent on changing the world. Gage adds to the historical literature on political violence in America alongside books such as Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Finally, Gage’s book is essential reading for scholars of the American security state. In entering World War I, the Justice Department, Bureau of Investigations, Post Office, and other federal agencies were provided with the legal authority and budgetary capacity to oppress unpopular groups and suppress outsider opinions. Later, in the 1920s, federal law enforcement infrastructure expanded dramatically during Prohibition (see, for example, Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol). In exploring the events around the Red Scare and other postwar activities of the Bureau of Investigation (particularly J. Edgar Hoover’s succession as FBI Director and his secret efforts to continue to monitor political radicals[x]), Gage covers milestones in the development of the American security state. Postwar and pre-Prohibition, Gage delves into this liminal period of federal policing, particularly the lessons learned from both Palmer’s overreach and well-publicized failure to apprehend the Wall Street bombers.
[i] Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). “Beverly Gage, Department of History” Yale University, accessed October 12, 2023, https://history.yale.edu/people/beverly-gage.
[ii] Gage, 333-334.
[iii] Gage 126-127, 149, 207-212, 228, 261, 329-330
[iv] Gage, 17, 26-27.
[v] Gage, 8, 41, 45, 50-53, 57-67, 73.
[vi] Gage 74, 78, 80-82.
[vii] Espionage Act of 1917, June 15, 1917, ch. 30, tit I, §3, 40 Stat. 219.
[viii] Gage 102-106, 119-122.
[ix] Gage, 207-211, 325-326.
[x] Gage’s recently published second book is a biography of Hoover: Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, (New York: Viking, 2022).