‘does This Happen Often?’


With evidence hard to come by, speculation, naturally, was given free rein. The “red scare” that swept the country at the end of World War I was still in full swing in 1920, and the “bloodcrazed proletariat” was widely blamed. The usual suspects of the day were promptly rounded up and grilled. These, it turned out, had mostly “foreign names and airtight alibis.”

In all probability the bomb was the work of anarchists, the final, spectacular outrage, in fact, of the fast-fading nineteenth-century extremist philosophy. After the explosion the post office turned over to the police some fliers it had found in a mailbox at the corner of Broadway and Cedar Street, a short walk from Wall and Broad. The mail had been collected from that box at 11:30 and again at 11:58 that morning, two minutes before the explosion. It was in the latter batch that the fliers had been found, placed there almost certainly by someone who knew what was about to happen.

“Remember,” the leaflets said, a little incoherently, “we will not tolerate any longer Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you.” It was signed “American Anarchist Fighters.” They were almost identical to some circulars found after anarchist bombings in 1919, but they led to no arrests.

There was one other major lead. Edwin P. Fischer was a young lawyer, well connected on Wall Street and formerly a nationally ranked tennis player. He also possessed an eccentricity that more than once had gone over the line into outright lunacy. About two weeks before the explosion, Fischer began telling acquaintances that it was going to happen, adding disparaging remarks about Wall Street in general and J. P. Morgan & Company in particular. He usually said it would be on the fifteenth of September but at least once hit the date right on the money.

Morgan decided not to repair the gouges the bomb made in its stone facade. They remain there today, the stigmata of capitalism.

Naturally, they paid no attention until the bomb actually went off. Fischer was in Canada when it happened, and his brother-in-law immediately went to him and persuaded him to return to the United States. Thoroughly questioned, he was quietly hospitalized for a few months. After all, as one friend explained, “No conspirators, after talking with Fischer for ten minutes, would consider letting him into a plot with them.”

As nearly as anyone can tell, Fischer’s warnings were only an instance of that peculiar prescience that so often seems to be nature’s gift to the insane.

Wall Street, as it always does, soon got back to getting and spending. The awnings that had been torched by the explosion were replaced and the glass restored to the windows. The desks and chairs were set once more to rights and the memories of that awful day began to fade. But J. P. Morgan & Company decided not to repair the gouges the bomb had made in its limestone facade. Some an inch deep, they remain there to this day, the stigmata of capitalism and one of the Street’s minor tourist attractions.

When the book that provided many of the details in this column, John Brooks’s splendid history of Wall Street in the 1920s and ‘30s, Once in Golconda , was published, in 1969,1 asked my Grandfather Gordon if he had been on the Street that day and witnessed the great explosion. His eyes brightened immediately in remembrance, and he told me that indeed he had. In fact, he had had a ringside seat, less than fifty yards from ground zero.

He had gone for an early lunch at the Stock Exchange Lunch Club, nearly directly across from Broad Street from the Morgan bank. Because he had arrived early he was seated by the windows, overlooking the scene. Curiously, that is what saved him from, at the least, serious injury. For while he was violently thrown from his chair by the force of the blast, the shattered glass blew up and over him, raining down instead on the waiters and busboys across the room. One employee, his carotid artery pierced by a shard, bled to death almost instantly, and most of the others were savagely cut up. My grandfather himself was virtually unscathed.

As he was telling me this story, he suddenly stopped talking, and his eyes, no longer looking at me, stared off into some middle distance. For a fleeting second I thought he had taken ill. But his mind was only looking backward across fifty years of a busy and happy life to an event that had very nearly cost him that life.

After a few moments revisiting a world I could never know, except as history, he returned to the present and said, “I just remembered who it was I was having lunch with that day. It was your other grandfather.”