The Time a Horse Bombed Wall Street
Things were weird in 1920. Women were liberated by short skirts and hair but still couldn’t vote for most of the year. The war was over, but you couldn’t celebrate it with a drink unless you wanted to get deep into crime. It was an all-around confusing time that did not become less so when a horse trotted up to Wall Street and promptly exploded.
Let’s back up. In the years leading up to World War I, the major conversation in America was the generally shitty labor practices endured by the working class. Everyone got distracted there for a minute, but after the war ended, people had only more reason to be mad at the lords of capitalism who had profited off the war.
As things consistently failed to get better, activists started getting dangerously louder starting in 1916 with the failed bombing of the Massachusetts Statehouse. Bombings continued around the country, mostly in the northeast, largely committed by Italian anarchists who followed Luigi Galleani, especially Mario Buda. We’ll come back to him.
September 16, 1920
Fast forward to September 16, 1920. At around noon, hundreds of people working on Wall Street flooded the Manhattan streets as the siren song of meatloaf sandwiches or whatever people ate for lunch in the ‘20s called. It’s believed the bomber(s) chose this time both to maximize damage and because no one would pay any attention to a perfectly innocent-looking horse-drawn carriage in such a crowd.
100 Lbs. of Dynamite
Indeed, few noticed the carriage as it pulled up or its driver, who quietly disappeared into the throngs, until several minutes later, when 100 lbs. of dynamite it had been carrying went off. The explosion was powerful enough to knock over a streetcar a block away and send debris high enough in the air to be seen passing the 34th-floor windows of nearby buildings, presumably resulting in a lot of prematurely adjourned meetings.
The Deadliest Terror Attack in the U.S.
At the time, the 1920 Wall Street bombing was the deadliest act of terrorism to ever take place in the U.S., a distinction it held until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. While injuring more than 300, it killed 38 people and, yes, sadly, at least one horse.
Closing the N.Y.S.E.
Obviously, with all the carnage on its doorstep, the New York Stock Exchange was forced to shut down. It was one of only a handful of unexpected closures in the institution’s century-and-a-halfish history.
America the Beautiful
The next day, thousands of people gathered at the site in a sort of half memorial, half political rally, punctuated with spontaneous renditions of “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That sounds a lot like tempting combustible fate, but everything seemed to be, well… mostly okay.
The Cleanup Destroyed Evidence
Wall Street was back to business the next day as well, having worked all day and night to clean up any evidence that anything tragic had occurred. The only problem was they also cleaned up a whole lot of literal evidence that left police without much information to launch an investigation. But hey, the wheels of capitalism stop for no one, at least not for longer than it takes to wipe them down.
What’s more, police were hard pressed to identify anything resembling a motive for the attack. The most obvious possibility was an assassination attempt on J.P. Morgan, as it took place in front of his building, but the captain of industry wasn’t even in the country at the time. The victims were mostly low-level clerks and secretaries, so as far as assassinations go, it was pretty inconsequential. The only answer anyone could come up with was “general terrorism,” which is probably the scariest option.
The only thing police did have were flyers distributed in mailboxes all around the neighborhood right before the explosion that read, “Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters.” Similar letters were found at sites of previous bombings that had been attributed to the Galleanists, so police zeroed in on the Italian anarchist community, which has somewhat dwindled over the intervening century.
In a weird twist, however, they thought for a minute that tennis champion Edwin Fischer had something to do with it after finding out that he’d warned a bunch of people there would be an explosion on Wall Street on September 16. It turned out he hadn’t even been in the country and just constantly warned people about upcoming explosions on Wall Street. He was committed to an asylum shortly thereafter.
Pietro Angelo was also an early suspect, as he was both Italian and partial to bombing shit. He ended up having an alibi, but they decided to go ahead and deport him anyway. Rude.
Without the ability to interrogate every Italian immigrant who didn’t appear enthusiastic enough about their new country, police pointed a general finger at communists determined to undermine the capitalist system. They were probably mostly wrong about that motive, but blaming communists was very in at the time.
Ultimately, the most likely suspect is someone who went completely overlooked at the time: ol’ Mario Buda, a Boston Galleanist who definitely had a hand in orchestrating those earlier bombings. He was probably mad about his friends, the infamous Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, getting arrested for murder five days earlier, though it’s unclear how killing a bunch of Wall Street clerks addressed that supposed injustice. After the bombing, he hightailed it to Italy and was never seen in the U.S. again.
The Damage Done
For all the fuss about maintaining the American capitalist spirit, nobody actually did much to repair the Morgan building. If you want to take a particularly macabre tour of Manhattan, you can point to the chunks blown out of the wall at 23 Wall Street and tell your friends, “This is where a horse blew up,” and they can say, “Sure it did, buddy,” while they guide you safely back to the hotel and make “glug, glug” gestures behind your back.
Top image: Sarah Olive/Unsplash