New film 'The Bombing of Wall Street' explores mostly forgotten terror attack that launched Hoover's career

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Anarchists gathered in Union Square, NYC, May 1, 1914
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

It was a blast that turned the nation’s financial center into a bloody war zone. 

On September 16, 1920, as hundreds of Wall Street workers headed out for lunch, a horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded in front of Morgan Bank — the world’s most powerful banking institution. 

When the smoke cleared, 38 were dead and hundreds more were seriously injured.

As financial institutions around the country went on high alert, many wondered if this was the strike against American capitalism that radical agitators had threatened for so long. A mostly forgotten act of terror that remains unsolved today, the bombing helped launch the career of a young J. Edgar Hoover and sparked a bitter national debate about how far the government should go to protect the nation from acts of political violence. 

Based on Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror, The Bombing of Wall Streetis executive produced by Mark Samels, written and directed by Susan Bellows, and produced by Michael Rossi and Susan Bellows. 

It premieres on American Experience on Panhandle PBS at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The brutal Wall Street attack struck at a moment in history when millions of people around the globe were challenging capitalism as an economic system. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia spurred similar workers movements around the globe, including in the U.S. While the so-called Gilded Age had produced great wealth, it had also created great poverty, fracturing the U.S. into the haves and the have-nots. World War I, which had just concluded a year earlier, had been enormously profitable for capitalists, but had created economic and political divisions that would prove fertile ground for revolt. 

The bombing came on the heels of a series of violent labor battles from Seattle to Boston. In April and May of 1919, 30 bombs targeting bankers and government officials were mailed to arrive on May Day. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, an ambitious man with his eye on the White House, ordered the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation to draw up a list of possible suspects. When, a month later, a bomb — and the bomber — exploded on Palmer’s very own doorstep, followed by similar attacks in six other cities, he retaliated with a broad campaign targeting anyone connected to revolutionary organizations.  

Palmer created “The Radical Division” at the Bureau and appointed an ambitious 24-year-old, J. Edgar Hoover, to run it. In its first year of operation, the unit amassed more than 200,000 files on radical activities but, to Palmer’s critics, it was not enough. He silenced them on November 7, 1919, the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, with a massive raid that resulted in the deportation of 249 Russian immigrants, including the anarchist Emma Goldman. Additional “Palmer Raids” struck across the country and suspected radicals were sent to detention centers and many more were deported. 

While the raids were praised by some, many church, labor and business groups questioned Palmer’s tactics; the negative publicity quashed any chances Palmer had of winning the Democratic nomination for president at the July 1920 convention. Three months later, Palmer would oversee the investigation of the Wall Street bombing. Although there were suspects, no one was ever charged or convicted of the bombing.

“During this period, America was grappling with the some of the same difficult quandaries in which we find ourselves now,” said American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels. “How do we protect ourselves from violent extremists who wish to harm us without violating the civil liberties of those who may have different political beliefs? There was no easy answer in 1920 and no easy answer now.”

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