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The Wall Street Bombing of 1920: America‘s Deadliest Terror Attack Before 9/11

On September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon loaded with dynamite and iron weights exploded on the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street in New York City, killing 38 people and injuring hundreds more. The blast, which occurred just outside the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co., was the deadliest terror attack in the United States until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and remained the worst in New York City until the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

A Time of Unrest

The early 20th century was marked by significant social and political upheaval. Anarchist movements, fueled by a desire to overthrow capitalism and authoritarian regimes, had gained traction across the globe. These groups often resorted to bombings and assassinations to further their cause, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 serving as a catalyst for World War I.

In the United States, tensions were high as the country grappled with the aftermath of World War I, labor disputes, and the Red Scare. Anarchist groups, such as the Galleanists led by Luigi Galleani, had carried out a series of bombings and attempted assassinations targeting government officials, industrialists, and law enforcement.

Timeline of Anarchist Activities in the Early 20th Century

Date Event
1901 President William McKinley assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz
1908 Bombing of the Union Square Demonstration in New York City
1914 Lexington Avenue bombing in New York City
1916 Preparedness Day Bombing in San Francisco
1917-1920 Series of bombings and attempted assassinations by the Galleanists

Source: "Anarchist Terrorism in the United States" by Christopher Hewitt, Terrorism in America, ed. Kevin Jack Riley and Bruce Hoffman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)

The Bombing and Its Aftermath

At 12:01 PM on September 16, 1920, the bustling streets of New York‘s Financial District were rocked by a powerful explosion. The blast, which was heard throughout Lower Manhattan, shattered windows and sent shrapnel flying through the air. The carnage was horrific, with 38 people killed instantly and hundreds more wounded, some of whom would later succumb to their injuries.

The attack sent shockwaves through the city and the nation. The New York Stock Exchange halted trading, effectively shutting down financial markets across the country. Many businesses in the area closed for the day, and the streets were filled with debris and the bodies of the dead and injured.

"The street was littered with dying and dead," recalled one witness. "Men and women, their faces and hands blackened by the explosion, their clothes hanging in rags, fled in every direction, shrieking in agony."

Casualties and Damage

Category Number
Dead 38
Injured 400+
Buildings Damaged 300+
Windows Shattered 10,000+

Source: "The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror" by Beverly Gage (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

The Hunt for the Perpetrators

In the wake of the bombing, law enforcement agencies, including the New York Police Department and the Bureau of Investigation (predecessor to the FBI), launched a massive manhunt to identify and apprehend those responsible. Investigators painstakingly reconstructed the events leading up to the blast, interviewing witnesses and scouring the scene for clues.

Despite their efforts, no one was ever brought to trial for the Wall Street bombing. Many theories emerged over the years, with some speculating that the attack was carried out by Italian anarchists, such as the Galleanists, while others pointed to communist or even Bolshevik involvement. However, without conclusive evidence, the case remains unsolved to this day.

Key Figures in the Investigation

  • William J. Flynn, Director of the Bureau of Investigation
  • Thomas J. Tunney, Inspector, NYPD Bomb Squad
  • William J. Burns, Private Detective

Source: "The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror" by Beverly Gage (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

The Legacy of the Wall Street Bombing

The Wall Street bombing had a profound impact on American society and law enforcement. The attack highlighted the vulnerability of public spaces and the need for increased security measures. In the years that followed, the government cracked down on anarchist and other radical groups, often using controversial tactics such as mass arrests and deportations.

The bombing also served as a stark reminder of the dangers of extremism and the importance of maintaining social and political stability. While the attack did not ultimately succeed in bringing down the capitalist system, as the perpetrators had hoped, it did leave a lasting scar on the psyche of the nation.

Long-Term Consequences

  • Increased surveillance and infiltration of radical groups by law enforcement
  • Deportation of suspected anarchists and other radicals
  • Passage of anti-sedition laws, such as the Immigration Act of 1924
  • Heightened public awareness of the threat of terrorism

Source: "Anarchist Terrorism in the United States" by Christopher Hewitt, Terrorism in America, ed. Kevin Jack Riley and Bruce Hoffman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)

Comparisons to Other Historical Events

The Wall Street bombing bears similarities to other acts of terrorism in the early 20th century, such as the 1910 Los Angeles Times bombing and the 1919 United States anarchist bombings. These attacks, often carried out by anarchist groups, aimed to destabilize the government and inspire a revolution among the working class.

However, the scale and impact of the Wall Street bombing set it apart from other incidents of the era. The targeting of the financial heart of the United States and the high casualty count made it a uniquely shocking event, one that foreshadowed the rise of modern terrorism in the latter half of the 20th century.

In many ways, the Wall Street bombing can be seen as a precursor to more recent attacks, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks. While the motivations and ideologies behind these events may differ, they all share a common thread of using violence and fear to advance a political or social agenda.

Lessons for the Present Day

The Wall Street bombing offers valuable lessons for the present day, particularly in terms of understanding and combating extremism. The attack demonstrates the power of radical ideologies to inspire acts of violence and the importance of vigilance in detecting and preventing such acts.

At the same time, the response to the bombing, which included mass arrests and deportations of suspected radicals, highlights the need for a measured and proportionate approach to counterterrorism. Law enforcement agencies must balance the need for public safety with the protection of civil liberties and the rule of law.

Perhaps most importantly, the Wall Street bombing reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Despite the horror and devastation of the attack, New Yorkers came together to rebuild and recover, demonstrating the strength and determination that would come to define the city in the decades to come.

"The bomb had destroyed lives and property, but it could not destroy the spirit of the American people," noted one journalist at the time. "We will rebuild, we will recover, and we will continue to strive for a better, more just world."

As we reflect on the Wall Street bombing more than a century later, let us remember the lives lost and the lessons learned, and let us reaffirm our commitment to building a society based on peace, justice, and understanding.


The Wall Street bombing of 1920 stands as a tragic and pivotal moment in American history. The attack, which claimed the lives of 38 people and injured hundreds more, shocked the nation and brought the specter of terrorism to the heart of New York City‘s financial district.

While the perpetrators of the bombing were never brought to justice, the event had far-reaching consequences for American society and law enforcement. It highlighted the need for increased vigilance against extremist ideologies and served as a catalyst for changes in policing and counterterrorism strategies.

Today, as we face new challenges and threats, the lessons of the Wall Street bombing remain as relevant as ever. By understanding the historical context of the attack and the forces that motivated it, we can better equip ourselves to confront the challenges of the present day and work towards a more peaceful and secure future.