Death Came Calling at the Corner of Wall and Broad Streets, in Lower Manhattan’s First Major Terrorist Attack
In 1913, J. P. Morgan & Company settled into its new headquarters at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, an unidentified, unadorned four-story stone building in a growing neighborhood of steel-frame corporate skyscrapers. The firm did not need the extra notoriety or additional rent.
On September 11, thousands gathered at the World Trade Center site to honor those killed 18 years earlier when commercial airliners were repurposed into deadly missiles, striking a blow at an iconic symbol of capitalism by targeting prominent buildings in New York’s Financial District.
On September 16 tens of thousands will walk down Wall Street unaware that nearly 100 years ago New York City’s deadliest terror attack until 2001 took place right there. Though no plaque marks the spot, the scars are still visible if you know where to look.
As the noon hour approached on a fall Thursday morning in 1920, a horse-drawn wagon slowly made its way west down Wall Street toward “the Corner,” the high-powered intersection of Wall and Broad. Its driver came to a gentle stop in front of the Assay Office, where stockpiles of gold and silver were stored and tested for purity. But theft was not his motive.
In an instant both wagon and horse were vaporized, the closest automobile was tossed twenty feel in the air, a streetcar two blocks away was knocked off its tracks, and shattered windows rained down on noontime strollers a quarter mile away. Incredibly, the iconic bronze of George Washington surveys the devastation from the nearby steps of the Sub-Treasury without so much as a scratch.
Next door was the U.S. Sub-Treasury with its own cache of precious metals, including the heroic bronze of George Washington kickstarting a nation out on the front steps. And just across Broad Street stood the iconic façade of the New York Stock Exchange. For an anarchist with deadly intentions at the dawn of the Jazz Age, there could scarcely be a more target-rich environment.
But it was the building directly across narrow Wall Street that seems to have held the driver’s interest. J. P. Morgan & Company was the nation’s most powerful bank. Known as “the House of Morgan,” or simply “the House,” 23 Wall Street was the most important address in American finance. Its headquarters distinguished itself by its lack of ornamentation.
As other companies proclaimed greatness with buildings that scraped the sky, the House modestly rose four unadorned floors. Inconspicuous consumption at its finest. Of course, the firm announced its presence even more loudly by playing it so cool, and everyone-bankers, wagon drivers, and terrorists alike-knew whose house it was.
Few recalled the old wagon or its driver, who suddenly dropped the reins and hurried off. Some recalled Trinity’s bells begin to announce the noon hour. Everyone recalled the sudden flash of light and the explosion.
It was important to open the New York Stock Exchange the following morning to show the world its resiliency. To that end, the surrounding streets were quickly cleared of all debris, including potential evidence. NYPD spent two years sifting through ten tons of broken glass hauled away from the scene looking for evidence.
Just before the peal ended, one hundred pounds of dynamite exploded, vaporizing both wagon and horse and hurling 500 pounds of white-hot metal through streets crowded with bank clerks, secretaries, and messenger boys out for lunch.
An eerie silence followed, broken by the sound of crashing glass and the cries of 400 injured. Thirty-eight men, women, and children–and one horse, whose hooves were found two blocks away in front of Trinity Church–were killed. Those closest to the wagon were consumed by flames or cut to pieces by metal shrapnel. One hundred and fifty lay badly wounded.
Within a minute of the explosion, the Stock Exchange closed. Within an hour, 2,000 police officers, Red Cross nurses, and soldiers stationed on Governors Island were at the scene caring for the wounded and protecting the precious metals stored in the suddenly breached Assay Office.
The Wall Street bombing remains unsolved nearly a century later, though Italian anarchists–responsible for a wave of similar bombings across America the previous year–are the main suspects. In a successful effort to open the Stock Exchange the following morning and appear unfazed by the event, bodies and debris–including evidence that might have helped identify the perpetrators–were cleared away before the sun came up.
In that same spirit of defiance (though some argue it was more a cost-saving move), J. P. Morgan & Company quickly announced that it would not repair the damaged stones. Though the wooden wall that gave the street its name is long gone, a stone wall on “the Corner” tells a Wall Street tale worth remembering.
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