Sept. 11, 2001 was not the first time or even the second time that New York was shaken to its core by a terrorist attack. The first time was September 16, 1920.
On that day near noontime, a rickety and battered red horse-drawn carriage stopped in front of the U.S. Assay Office next to the U.S. Sub-Treasury and across the street from J.P.Morgan & Co., near the corner of Wall of Broad Streets. The carriage driver slipped out of the seat and into the growing crowd of stockbrokers, stenographers, messengers and bank clerks heading out for lunch, and hurried down the street.
Moments later a massive bomb exploded from the wagon and 30 people were dead and some 300 more injured. Nine of the injured would later die from their wounds.
To the World War I veterans who were near the blast, the area reminded them of the battlefield they had so recently vacated. The scene as described by one eyewitness:
I saw the explosion, a column of smoke shoot up into the air and then saw people dropping all around me, some of them with their clothing afire.
It was a crush out of a blue sky—an unexpected, death-dealing bolt,” one witness observed, “which in a twinkling turned into a shambles the busiest corner of America’s financial center and sent scurrying to places of shelter hundreds of wounded, dumb-stricken, white-faced men and women—fleeing from an unknown danger.… Looking down Wall Street later I could see arising from the vicinity of the subtreasury building and the J.P. Morgan and Co. bank, a mushroom-shaped cloud of yellowish, green smoke which mounted to a height of more than 100 feet, the smoke being licked by darting tongues of flame.
George Weston, an Associated Press reporter, witnessed the blast. He hid in a doorway and described the blast as:
…an unexpected, death-dealing bolt, which in a twinkling turned into a shamble the busiest corner of America’s financial center. Almost in front of the steps leading up to the Morgan bank was the mutilated body of a man. Other bodies, most of them silent in death, lay nearby. As I gazed horrorstruck at the sight, one of these forms, half-naked and seared with burns, started to rise. It struggled, then toppled and fell lifeless to the gutter.
Reportedly, Wall Street ran red with blood. One of the horse’s legs lay on the steps of one building. A woman’s head, with hat still perched atop it, was stuck to the wall of another. Buildings were pockmarked by the sash weights the wagon had carried that had concealed the dynamite and become shrapnel.
Wall Street closed for the afternoon while the carnage was cleaned, and police began investigating and searching for suspects. Just three hours after the blast, New York Stock Exchange governors met and decided to open for business the next day.
At the time of the blast the country was in a recession and the Dow had lost more than half its value over the previous five years. Never letting a good crisis go to waste – if they didn’t, in fact, perpetrate it — the propagandists immediately went to work.
As Smithsonian.com proudly proclaims:
The following day, New Yorkers returned to work, and the stock market remained open. Thousands gathered at the scene of the blast to sing “America,” led by a World War I veteran. Brigadier General William J. Nicholson made a patriotic speech: “Any person who would commit such a crime or connive in its commission should be put to death,” he said. “He has no right to live in a civilized community. Such persons should be killed whenever they rear their heads, just as you would kill a snake!
A band, with fife and drum, played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The crowd sang along as the stock market soared — an indication, many were convinced, that anarchy would never stand, and that as America entered the 1920s, the economy was poised to roar.
A newspaper editorialized that Wall Street employees were “defiant” and “patriotic” and “determined to show the world that business will proceed as usual despite bombs.”
Public mood turned and participation in the stock market became an act of defiance against the enemies of the country and an affirmation of patriotism. Criticism of the crony capitalist system and the Federal Reserve began to be considered as support for terrorism and violence. Critics of the Wall Street’s growing power were successfully muted.
Buoyed by patriotic fervor and new confidence, the market rose on high volume the next day and continued its upward trajectory through the 1920s until it all came crashing down in October of 1929, signaling the beginning of the 10-year Great Depression.
Investigators focused on “Italian anarchists” as the most likely culprits. But no person or group ever claimed responsibility, and despite a massive investigation by New York police and the FBI, no one was ever charged, much less convicted.