On September 11 thousands gather at Ground Zero to honor those killed fifteen years earlier when commercial airliners were repurposed into deadly missiles, striking a blow at the very symbol of capitalism by targeting prominent buildings in New York’s Financial District.
On September 16 tens of thousands walk down Wall Street unaware that nearly a hundred 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.
Next door was the U.S. Sub-Treasury with its own cache of precious metals, including the heroic bronze of George Washington kick-starting a nation out on the front steps. And in view just across Broad Street stood the iconic façade of the New York Stock Exchange. Talk about a 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. Unconspicuous consumption at its finest. Of course, it announced its presence even louder 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.
Just before the peal ended, one hundred pounds of dynamite exploded, vaporizing both wagon and horse and hurling five hundred 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 four hundred 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. A hundred fifty lay badly wounded.
Within a minute of the explosion the Stock Exchange closed. Within an hour, two thousand police officers, Red Cross nurses, and soldiers stationed on Governor’s 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. Please share it with others the next time you’re there.