Authors: Eric Burns
By 1920, the United States was able to electrify a family's entire home: thirty-five percent of American homes, in fact. Ten years later, the figure had almost doubled. Similar growth was visible in the workplace, where industrial innovation became a commonplace, factory production increased, and stores and shops were able to stay open later and make more moneyâtheir merchandise, thanks to electricity, now brightly lit and the ambience cheerful and welcoming even after hours. The entire nation hummed with an energy that had never existed before.
BUT THE ENERGY WOULD NOT
have been possible without coal either, which was being dug out of the ground in record amounts. In 1910, Americans excavated 500,000,000 so-called “short tons” from its burial places; a decade later, the number had climbed to 657,000,000. At first, it was more tonnage than could be efficiently transported, which caused such an increase in demand for railroad cars that even United States Steel struggled at times to meet it.
And, as if that weren't enough to solidify U.S. manufacturing dominance, the biggest oil deposits in the world outside of Texas would be found in Alaska in 1920. “While in Juneau Tuesday,” the
New York Times
reported, several “Cabinet officers were informed of the discovery of oil in Southern and Southwestern Alaska and the
Juneau Daily Empire
said that 35,000 acres had been filed upon by prospectors.” So far. More would be filed upon soon. Nineteen twenty was to oil in the United States what 1849 had been to gold.
By the end of the twenties, the stock market had climbed an astonishing 400 per cent. But the gross domestic product had risen only 60 percent, and as historian Bill Bryson points out, there was “little correspondence” between the two figures: the “inflated rises [of the market] had nothing to do with any underlying productivity; all that kept them so giddily buoyant was the willingness of fresh buyers to bid the prices even higher.” The giddiness, as it would turn out, was a form of manic-depression; before the decade ended, the latter of the two hyphenated traits would be settling in to devastate the thirties.
There were, in fact, hints of the crisis to come well before it arrived, the faintest of scents in America's continuing gusts of optimism. In the year that is this book's subject, the November 13 issue of
The Magazine of Wall Street
provided one of them. “Fluctuations in sugar during 1920,” it reported,
were probably more violent than in any other commodity. Prices ranged from 4â
cents to 24Â½ cents for duty paid raw sugar and from 7Â½ cents to 27Â½ cents refiners' list price for refined sugar. To give an accurate understanding of the violence of these fluctuations the American Sugar Refining Co. points out in its annual report that an investigation of the prices of one hundred years, including the years of the Mexican and Civil Wars, failed to reveal a change in any one year one-half so great as the fluctuation of 19.875 cents per pound of .
It should never have happened.
Neither should the wild swings in bond prices that were also a subject of the same issue of
The Magazine of Wall Street
. The bond market, after all, was known for stability, even more then than it is today. Was there something unsettling under the country's surface?
Meanwhile, as the United States was making its transition from rural to urban, from a nation primarily agricultural to one dependent on industry, lands devoted to farming began a startling and economically unsettling drop.
In New York, for example, in a trend beginning in 1920 and continuing for the next thirty-two years, crops were grown on a total, after those three decades-plus, of 4,600,000 fewer acres, about 13 percent of the total area of the state.
But 1920 provided only the first few signs of decline, and even if more people had spotted them, it is unlikely that they would have recognized them for what they were.
The Magazine of Wall Street
, after all, was hardly the
Saturday Evening Post
. As for the vast majority of Americans, they were willing to let the streamers fly and the confetti drop with complete confidence.
AS SOON AS TRINITY'S FINAL
bell of the noon hour struck on Wall Street on the day of the horse and cart's presence, so did the bomb. Journalist John Brooks wrote that the “explosion darkened the area for several minutes with a huge cloud of greenish smoke, set fire to awnings twelve stories above the street, broke virtually every window in the immediate vicinity and some as much as a half-mile away. It bent the heavy bars protecting the Assay Office. â¦ It shook to the foundations, but by miracle or chance did not materially damage, Wall Street's own church, Trinity.”
People who worked nearby were horrified. “That was the loudest noise I ever heard in my life,” said a long-time Morgan clerk, Andrew Dunn. “It was enough to knock you out by itself.” Another Morgan employee, Walter Dickinson, who headed the credit department and was not going out for lunch that day, said, “I was sitting at my desk under the glass dome when I heard an explosion just like the sound of a Gatling gun.” A man in the import-export trade reported that, at the moment of impact, he “was at the southeast corner of Wall and William Streets, walking east, when the terrible roar caused me to turn. I saw two sheets of flame that seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street and as high as the tenth story of the tall buildings.” His reaction was to get away, far away, as quickly as he could. He did, but only after shaking off the spell of the impossible sight behind him. Two sheets of flame that looked like solid objects to him had somehow risen from the ground, hotter than perdition. The man in the import-export trade started running, but the heat seemed to be gaining on him even as he fled. In fact, the injuries of numerous blast victims were compounded by severe burns.
Joseph P. Kennedy, who would eventually be the patriarch of America's first family of politics, was a 32-year-old financier on the make when “âhe felt a concussion' on exiting the subway âand found himself on the ground. He got up in a dazed and stupefied condition and ran back to Wall St. where he saw clouds of glass flying and men and women there with heads split and blood streaming down their faces. Numbers were crying in agony and fear.'”
And a fifteen-year-old messenger boy, having just delivered a package, claimed that he “was lifted completely off the ground.”
“Survivors on the street,” wrote Brooks, “first fled the scene in wild confusion, filling the air with their screams and stumbling over the bodies of the dead and injured; then, in a matter of minutes, their curiosity overcame their fear of a second explosion and they surged tidally forward, joined by thousands of others pouring out of the surrounding buildings. Within five minutes there were ten thousand persons milling around the area. Underfoot, the injured cried out for self-protection if not for first aid.”
Thirty-eight persons were killed in the blast and another four hundred-plus injured, fifty-seven seriously enough to be hospitalized. Among the latter were a few others who would be dead within the month. George Lacina, an injured survivor, worked for the Equitable Life Assurance Society and, having gotten an early start on his noontime break, was hurled down the steps of Fred Eberlin's New Street Restaurant. His face hit one of the steps, and the world melted into a soft red. The spiked railing snagged his shoulder and one of his lapels. â¦ He later noticed that his coat buttons had popped off and his watch was ten minutes slow. “I picked myself up somehow,” he told the [
, “and said to a fellow who was also at the bottom of the steps: âWhat the hell has hit New York?'”
Damage to property was estimated at somewhere between half a million and two and a half million dollars. “For several blocks,” writes Mark Sullivan, “plate glass windows in stores were shattered and the faÃ§ades of buildings were badly pitted. Several fine hand-wrought bronze doors were warped and broken.” Further, it was reported, “A nearby automobile flipped 20 feet into the air.”
The Morgan Bank, more than just a symbol of American finance, was in fact its very embodiment. And on this day, it might have been of special interest to terrorists, “as nine-tenths of a billion dollars in gold, in the form of small bars each weighing about twenty-five pounds and neatly packed in a wooden box, were being moved under armed guard from their old repository in the Sub-Treasury Building to a new one in the Assay Office next door. The workmen were carrying the gold along a wooden ramp across the narrow alleyway between the two buildings, and
the spot in the street where the explosion occurred was almost directly opposite this alleyway.”
Fortunately for the workmen, they had left the site early for lunch that day, before the blast occurred.
As for the horse, it lay on its side in the street, almost exactly where it had been when standing. Two of its hooves, it seems, had been torn off, but the number varies in different reports. The cart was blown to splinters; a later investigation would determine that it had contained the equivalent of one hundred pounds of dynamite and five hundred pounds of cast-iron sash weights, which acted, in effect, like shrapnel. A timing device had been set to ignite the explosives when they would do the most harm. It had worked to perfection.
Some could not remember their initial reactions to the explosion. They had been stunned by their proximity to it, so much so that they would never recall exactly what had happened.
Others, however, reacted quickly, emotionally, and erroneously. The Great War had not really ended, was their thought, and now for some ghastly reason a new front had opened, actually
the United States. But why? Who were our enemies? What did they want? Was the despair of the past few years now to be replaced by a sudden dread of those to come? Could the American psyche, battered as it had been in Flanders, Verdun, and the Somme, withstand yet more violence?
The President of the United States took no action. He made no speech, issued no statement, did not reassure the American people that this was an isolated incident, unrelated to international affairs. In all likelihood, the president did not even realize that a bomb had exploded in New York. In all likelihood, his wife had not told him; she was his only link to the outside world these days, and she would not have wanted to upset him. He cried so easily nowâsomething he had never done before, at which, in fact, he would have scoffed. If for some reason she
revealed the horror to him, Woodrow Wilson would not have known what to do anyhow. For the past year, his title notwithstanding, he had not even known how to be president. It had been a difficult time for Mrs. Edith Galt Bolling Wilson, who had never expected to be the wife of an invalid nominally in charge of a nation bursting at its seams with prosperity.
WHAT HAPPENED ON WALL STREET
during the noon hour on September 16, 1920 was the first terrorist attack ever to occur in the United States, and it would be the most destructive until the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, when 168 people lost their lives and more than 600 others were injured.
N RESPONSE TO THE FIREBALL
in front of the Morgan Bank, both police and federal troops arrived
, as soon as they could, from every station and garrison in New York and surrounding precincts, some of them in other states: Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. By the time the church bells chimed mid-afternoon, the crime scene was swarming with men in dark coats and ties, others in blue uniforms with badges winking on and off in the sunlight.
But that was the problem. So
people had descended on Wall Street from so many places that no one had any idea who was in charge or what to do. Or even, with any kind of reliability, what had happened. Eyewitnesses were plentiful, and eager to tell their stories, but they were also of limited assistance, for most eyes had witnessed something different from what other eyes had witnessed. Everyone agreed that there had been an explosion, but no one was certain
had exploded: a building, a construction site, a statue, a package left on a doorstep â¦ a horse and cart?
In a situation as chaotic as this, it was inevitable that the cops and feds would do little more than add to the confusion, which they did by fighting for jurisdiction, by literally bumping into one another as they traipsed through the debris like visitors to a museum of grotesqueries, and finally by asking the same people the same questions several times over and comparing responses to no advantage. None of them had ever seen anything like this before; none knew where to begin looking for clues. And, as they would later learn, they had themselves greatly reduced the odds of discovering clues: they had perhaps even consigned them to the bottom of the sea.
FINALLY, AN ORDER: THE FEDERAL
government assumed command of the scene and officials decided that the area around Wall Street should be immediately sealed off. The mission was accomplished, with blockades set up at key intersections and at the ends of principal streetsâbut it was busywork, nothing more. The man who had carried out the order, and probably even those responsible for the planning, knew thatâto make an unintended pun that at the same time summarizes their actionsâthey were closing the barn door after the horse had already escaped. As for the man who had carried out the equine's suicide mission, he had surely departed several hours earlier, stepping down from the wagon after he had deposited his deadly cargo, then blending into the crowds or being swallowed up by them. In fact, although it would never be proven, what he had probably done was walked or taken a trolley to the docks and then boarded the first ship bound for Naples.