‘does This Happen Often?’


I came by my love of history naturally, for both my grandfathers were passionately fond of the subject and learned in it. Having been raised in the late nineteenth century they were also, of course, well acquainted with the classic authors who today are more honored than read.

I never knew my Grandfather Steele, who died suddenly in the 1930s, before I was born. But my mother remembered his reading Herodotus, Gibbon, and Macaulay for pleasure.

My Grandfather Gordon lived to be ninety-six, and I knew him very well indeed. He, too, loved the classic historians. I especially remember him telling me about a cousin of mine who was reading Xenophon in his Ancient Greek class at college. “Just imagine reading the Anabasis in the original,” he said, regretting as usual what he regarded as a lack of formal education in himself. “I, of course, had to read it in translation.” My reply was some mumbled harrumph, for I was unwilling to tell him that it had never once crossed my mind, formally—not to mention expensively—educated as it was, to read it in any language.

What brings all this up, however, is the great terrorist bomb at New York’s World Trade Center this winter. For while my grandfathers loved to read history, they were sensible enough to make their livings as stockbrokers, and the Wall Street of their day, too, knew what high explosives could do.

Unlike the recent bomb, the explosion that went off a few seconds past noon on September 16, 1920, was clearly intended solely as a people killer. The horse-drawn wagon loaded with explosives also contained hundreds of pounds of sash weights cut into pieces.

When the wagon blew up, in front of J. P. Morgan & Company at the corner of Hall and Broad, the bits of metal turned into shrapnel. Thirty people were killed almost instantly, and ten more died as a result of wounds sustained in that awful moment. Had the explosion occurred only a few minutes later, however, when the streets would have been packed with lunch-bound office workers that bright and sunny day, the death toll would have been in the hundreds at least.

Awnings, ubiquitous in those days before air conditioning, burst into flame up to twelve stories above the ground. Windows half a mile away shattered. A great pall of thick, green smoke filled the area.

High and low alike were affected. Seward Presser, president of Bankers Trust Company, barely escaped death as one of the sash-weight fragments shot through an office window and missed him by an inch or so. A young runner, as Wall Street messengers are called, was not so lucky. Grievously wounded, he begged passersby to take the bundle of securities he had been carrying, so that he would not die with his duty undone.

Brokers on the floor of the Stock Exchange, stunned into unaccustomed silence by the blast, surged into the middle of the room as the great windows that faced Broad Street vanished into millions of fragments. Then, realizing their peril from the glass dome above them, which trembled violently but held, fled once more, this time for the safety of the walls. The president of the Exchange immediately fought his way to the rostrum. There he rang the bell, suspending trading, within one minute of the explosion.

The windows of J. P. Morgan & Company, the spiritual as well as financial heart of post-World War I capitalism, shattered as well. By some miracle of providence, metal screening had just recently been installed on the inside of the windows and this alone prevented a blood bath on the banking floor below. Still, one Morgan employee was dead and another would succumb the next day. Junius Morgan, son of J. P. Morgan, Jr., was wounded (on the hand, according to newspapers of the day; on the buttocks, according to his amused partners).

Although J. P. Morgan, Jr., head of the firm since his father’s death in 1913, was in England at the time, four of his partners were in conference in his office with a French general when the blast occurred. A thick wall of limestone had stood between them and the bomb, so they were uninjured, but, like everyone else, stunned into silence. As the thunderous noise of the bomb melted away, replaced by the tinkling of glass, the screams of the survivors, and the moans of the wounded, the French general asked politely, “Does this happen often?”

As with the recent explosion, the area swarmed with police, firemen, and ambulances within minutes. Even federal troops were dispatched from their base on Governor’s Island in New York’s Upper Bay.

But in 1920 the forensic science of high explosives was not even in its infancy. Bombs by their very nature reduce the evidence of who planted them to minute bits. All the police could gather in this case were five hundred pounds of sash-weight fragments and two of the horse’s hooves, shoes still attached, which were found a block away, in front of Trinity Church.

Certainly, the authorities did a thorough job of it, and the investigation went on for years. They visited four thousand stables along the whole East Coast, trying to determine the horse’s owner. Every blacksmith east of Chicago was interviewed in the vain hope that the horse’s shoes could be traced. Sash-weight manufacturers and dealers were contacted, but one sash weight, it seems, is much like another.