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Boston Marathon bombing: how it compares to the 1920 Wall Street attack

The 1920 bombing of Wall Street, which killed 38 and injured hundreds, was the deadliest terror attack on US civilians until Oklahoma City. The crime has never been solved.

By Randy DotingaContributor / April 17, 2013

Beverly Gage, author of 'The Day Wall Street Exploded,' says that Wall Street leaders 'had a pretty deliberate strategy' of letting the story of the 1920 bombing recede into the past.


The bomb exploded in the very center of American capitalism on a weekday afternoon, just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange and the famed statue of George Washington at Federal Hall. Thirty-eight people died and hundreds were injured, several losing limbs to the explosive power of an estimated 100 sticks of dynamite.

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As in Boston this week, the bomber had rigged the device to not only kill but maim through the spread of shrapnel packed into the bomb.

The United States would not see a deadlier attack of terrorism until a spring day in Oklahoma City.

Despite its horrific toll, the Wall Street bombing of 1920 is largely forgotten today. New York City instantly cleaned up the scene and moved on. No one was ever charged with the crime, and no memorial was ever built. Only the pockmarked stone of the former Morgan Bank building remains as a grim if subtle reminder.

The bombing is worth remembering. It reminds us of an era when terrorists horrified the world but had yet – until that September day – to make a point of targeting ordinary Americans in public. And it shows how the US refused to take the wrong path in the wake of tragedy.

Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University, wrote the definitive book about the attack, 2009's "The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror." I asked her to reflect on the similarities between the bombings in New York and Boston, the evolution of terrorism in the US, and the legacy of that distant but familiar day of horror.
Q: What struck you as you learned about this week's bombing in Boston?
A: We think of these kinds of mass bombings as being symptomatic of the terrible things about our own contemporary world, at least since Oklahoma City. But this kind of event has been going on as long as technology has existed to set off bombs in crowded places.
Q: Was this fact of history the reason you wrote the book?
A: I set out to write that book because I came across a mention of the 1920 bombing, which killed 38 people and injured hundreds more people, many of them quite seriously. I was shocked that I had never heard of this. What's going on that allowed this big event to be lost to history?

The other thing that surprised me was how many people at that time were saying "Ah ha! Of course. We all knew this would come."

I thought, "What? How did they assume that?"

I began to look not only into anti-Wall Street history but also the long history of anti-capitalist bombings that had been going on for 30 to 40 years, going back to the Haymarket bombing in 1866 [in Chicago], the most famous of them all, all the way up to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910, the bombing at a Preparedness Day parade in 1916 in San Francisco, and a series of coordinated bomb attacks in a number of different American cities, including the bombing of the US attorney general's home in Washington D.C.
Q: What made this bombing stand out as unusual?
A: A lot of the previous bombings had been much more targeted, very deliberate acts of assassination aimed at particular people. This one hit messengers, tourists, and several veterans of the first World War who had gotten jobs on Wall Street and were killed at home instead of on the fields of France.


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