- Historic Sites
The Fire Last Time
When terrorists first struck New York’s financial district
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
As with other suspicious disasters, multiple scenarios for the explosion emerged almost immediately. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer thought the Wall Street attack must also be the work of anarchist or Bolshevik groups, and he quickly arrested the head of the Industrial Workers of the World, Big Bill Haywood, “as a precaution.” A less sinister, and less popular, explanation claimed the horse cart belonged to a dynamite company and had simply gone off upon hitting a cobblestone, but by day’s end the fire department had accounted for all such deliveries. “Authorities were agreed that the devastating blast signaled the long-threatened Red outrages,” the Times reported on its front page the day after, while an adjacent article followed the far weirder story of “Two Cards of Warning” sent by the former ninth-ranked men’s tennis player, Edwin Fischer, who had vaguely predicted the explosion to his friends.
Fischer, a seldom-employed 44-year-old sportsman from the Upper West Side, had picked both September 15 and 16 as likely days for the attack; he had also warned a groundskeeper at his tennis club and a stranger on a train and had told a Toronto bellboy that some millionaires were soon to get what they had coming. His brother-in-law, who caught up with him in Ontario after he had mysteriously fled, reported that Fischer had twice been committed to sanitariums but had nevertheless shown psychic powers for several years. Dr. Walter F. Prince, at the American Institute for Scientific Research, told reporters it was possible Fischer had received a “psychic tip” of the bomb plot, like “picking up a wireless message.” Fischer, it turned out, predicted bad things happening to Wall Street pretty regularly. He was returned to New York and held at Bellevue Hospital, but after he told detectives that he was an alchemist and a sparring partner for Jack Dempsey and much more, they pronounced him harmlessly (if annoyingly) insane.
In his excellent history of Wall Street in the twenties, Once in Golconda, John Brooks suggests other explanations for the bombing: a botched robbery or an attack on the Treasury. On the day of the explosion, $900 million in gold bars was being moved out of the Sub-Treasury Building, which was next door to the new Assay Office, where the deadly wagon was parked. At the time of the explosion, workmen at the Treasury had just closed the side-entrance doors for lunch, possibly saving themselves as well as the gold.
But the answer to this mystery, unlike later inscrutable tragedies such as the TWA disaster, may have been disappointingly plain. Postal workers found circulars mailed a block away between 11:30 and 11:58 on the fatal day: “Remember/We will not tolerate/any longer/Free the political/prisoners or it will be/sure death for all of you/American Anarchist Fighters.”
The Anarchist Fighters had been linked to, among other things, the May Day bombing scheme of the year before and to radical groups (including what newspapers called the notorious “Galliani gang") around Lynn, Massachusetts, a place federal authorities then considered “the most dangerous spot in America,” according to a later investigator. Still another theory had it that the Wall Street bombing was revenge for the September 11 murder indictment of two Italian-born anarchists in Dedham, Massachusetts, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
Just as now, a recent immigrant group found itself broadly and unfairly blamed for the possible work of a few whose horrific violence had its roots in Old World politics. Americans of the twenties waited months and then years for the case to break, but no one was ever caught. Nine years after the attack, Sidney Sutherland wrote in Liberty magazine, “If the Wall Street bomb explosion was the result of a murder plot, it speaks eloquently for the bond of silence which the lawless world imposes on its members.” Over the decades, the feeling returned that this kind of thing happened in other places; even after the horror in Oklahoma City, Americans’ day-to-day lives were hardly altered, except we now were routinely asked at airports whether we’d packed our own bags. However, with the fiery attack on the Pentagon, the destruction of the Twin Towers, and the taking of so many thousands of lives, that old feeling and style of life will likely never return.