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‘does This Happen Often?’

June 2024
6min read

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.

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.”

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