Mike Davis's book is named after the now leading suspect in the bombing, the long history of a futile search for one is detailed in Beverly Gage's excellent new book--
Buda's Wagom is named for the wagon that Buda is supposed to have parked in front of the JP Morgan building--a horse drawn wagon like thousands of others that carried produce to markets--
on 16 September 1920--
in protest, according to the pamphlets scattered about NYC that day--of the
9/11/1920 indictments handed down to Sacco and Vanzetti
(another overlooked 9/11 in American history--as it led to this first bombing of the city--)
Buda, Sacco and Vanzetti were all followers of Luigi Galleani--
Blood on the StreetAt the stroke of noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a bomb exploded along Wall Street, killing 38 people and maiming hundreds more. It was the worst terrorist bombing in the United States until the Oklahoma City attack in 1995, the worst in New York until the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
The bomb's target was presumed to be the House of Morgan, which sat like a blockhouse just across the street from where the explosive had been left in a horse-drawn wagon. The Morgan bank had emerged from World War I as the single most powerful financial institution in the world, and both the firm and its principals had been under increasing attack, rhetorical and otherwise, ever since it had arranged a huge loan a few years before to help the Allies and keep the Great War going. But the only fatality inside the firm was a 24-year-old clerk. Nearly all the bank's employees were back at their desks the next morning, some of them still bandaged and bruised. The explosion merely pocked the firm's impenetrable, marble walls, the marks defiantly left where they can be seen to this day: "the stigmata of capitalism."
As with all terrorist attacks, most of the victims were innocent bystanders, "messengers, stenographers, clerks, salesmen, drivers," men and women for whom "Wall Street was not a grand symbol of American capitalism" but "a place to make a modest living by selling milk, driving a car, typing reports, recording sales." Only seven of the dead were over the age of 40. Five of them were women, four of them teenagers.
Who would do such a thing? A bevy of the nation's most prominent lawmen and private detectives immediately descended on Wall Street, blaming first anarchists, then paid agents from Lenin's new government in Moscow. But years of investigation yielded nothing — no indictments, no trials, no culprits. No one ever came forward to take responsibility for the crime, or to state what it was supposed to accomplish, and before long it had dropped from public view, lost among the sensations of the racing, giddy '20s.
Beverly Gage, a writer and history teacher at Yale, has brought the bombing to life again in her outstanding first book. "The Day Wall Street Exploded" describes in detail both the bombing itself and the hunt for the perpetrators, but Gage also does us the great good service of placing it in the wider history of industrial warfare that once proliferated in America. Like much of American history, these battles have dropped out of mind because no one wanted to look at them too closely. As Gage points out, the right was loath to discuss the decades of brutal labor and political repression that preceded the Wall Street bombing; the left, to admit that extremists really were willing to resort to violence to overthrow the capitalist order.
Between 1881 and 1905 alone, there were more than 37,000 labor strikes in the United States, many of them bloody, bitter struggles. Efforts to unionize were routinely met with clubbings, shootings, jailings, blacklistings and executions, perpetrated not only by well-armed legions of company goons, but also by police officers, deputies, National Guardsmen and even regular soldiers. Dozens of workers were killed in these conflicts — at Ludlow in 1914, in the Homestead and Pullman strikes of the 1890s, at Telluride and Cripple Creek and Colorado Springs.
Some unionists, seeing the state aligned with the employers, struck back with dynamite, invented in 1866 and readily available at American construction sites. In Idaho in 1905, a bomb ripped the legs off Gov. Frank Steunenberg in his own front yard, after he stuck a thousand miners from the Coeur d'Alene strike in makeshift jails for months without trial. Twenty-one men died when labor radicals blew up the rabidly anti-union Los Angeles Times building in 1910. Relatively few workers were involved in such outrages, but millions did turn to the Socialist Party and the far-left Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), organizations that promised to sweep away the entire capitalist system. "Far from being an era of placid reform," Gage writes, "the turn of the century was a moment in which the entire structure of American institutions — from the government to the economy — seemed to be up for grabs, poised to be reshaped by new movements and ideas."
A murky underworld developed, one in which some radicals — particularly the small but implacable cells of anarchists — really did plot assassinations and bombings, while companies tried to frame strikers and their leaders with phony bomb plots and other accusations.
Things came to a head when America entered World War I and the ostensibly progressive Wilson administration put aside the Constitution, jailing thousands of dissidents and suppressing the antiwar Socialists and Wobblies. On June 2, 1919, a new wave of bombs hit in apparent retaliation, including one that wrecked the home of Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, who opportunistically used the incident to start the nation's first "Red scare." It became one of the most shameful campaigns in the country's history, with hundreds deported merely on suspicion of having radical proclivities. In perhaps the worst episode, an anarchist named Andrea Salsedo was found dead in his underwear on the sidewalk of Park Row in New York, below a room where the Bureau of Investigation — predecessor to the F.B.I. — had secretly held him for weeks.
The feds claimed suicide; Salsedo's family and friends saw murder. Four months later came the Wall Street bomb. What few clues there were pointed to Salsedo's comrades, members of a particularly ruthless anarchist group called the Galleanisti, named after their founder, Luigi Galleani. But the Red hunters had done their work too well, having already deported Galleani and many other potential witnesses.
Even though the crime was never solved, it had other repercussions. The bungled investigation and its wholesale violation of people's civil liberties, as Gage shows, led to a major housecleaning at the Bureau — which, paradoxically, enabled the rise of the biggest civil liberties violator in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. And the bombing contributed to an atmosphere in which two other anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, were convicted of murder in a case that would become the great leftist cause of the decade.
Over time, the bombings petered out, though organized violence in labor and other disputes continued. Even now, as Gage writes, "there remains a tendency to think of violence as an anomaly, something outside the American experience, rather than as one of the many ways that Americans have long carried out their political disputes."