In My Words: The other September day of infamy

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor Tom Nelson remembers another September act of terrorism that claimed lives and struck fear in the hearts of Americans. The column was published by The Virginian-Pilot, the Greenville Daily Reflector, The Salisbury Post, the Daily Press and other media outlets

By Tom Nelson

Most adults in this country who are alive today remember Sept. 11, 2001. No one alive today remembers Sept. 16, 1920. It is the other September day that will live in infamy.

Tom Nelson, associate professor of journalism

The event of Sept.16, 1920, killed far fewer people than its evil twin more than eight decades in the future. Yet, at the time, that day in 1920 deeply etched itself into the American psyche as the trinitarian archetype of fear, chaos and death.

These evil twins of the 11th and the 16th of September were both conceived and delivered to strike terror in America. The event of Sept. 11, 2001, needs no recollection. The event of Sept. 16, 1920, does.

Whatever else can be said about the people behind the terror of Sept. 16, 1920, they were no friends to animals. A fine horse was hitched to a wagon that day, the wagon hanging low to the pavement under the weight of hidden explosives. The animal was then coaxed through the congested streets of lower Manhattan, pulling its wagonload of dynamite, stopping near the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street.

The wagon master, about to turn mass murderer, calmly lit the fuse to ignite the explosives and walked briskly into history. He was never caught.

The horse, the wagon, a good chunk of Wall Street and 30 or so unfortunate passersby were then blown to kingdom come. No accurate count of the dead could be made as the devastation prohibited a complete tally.

With that explosion, America entered an age of terror that would find, only city blocks distant, another more brutal manifestation, on another September day, decades into the future.

There was no Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1920, only its early form, something called the Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau, as it was intimidatingly called, was anything but its self-styled image. Despite an earnest effort by the Bureau’s agents as well as the New York City police, nothing was ever firmly established as to the motivation of the terror attack nor to the identity of those who carried out the deed.

The most telling detail in this terror scenario was the place and the time that the explosion was ignited, adjacent to a building named for the fabulously wealthy international capitalist, J.P. Morgan, who had died a few years earlier.

To his admirers, Morgan was a symbol of an emerging nexus of wealth and power that seemed to have its gravitational center in America. To his detractors, ironically, he was a symbol of exactly the same things.

The building that held J.P. Morgan’s name was an office for powerful bankers who, as creatures of habit, exited for lunch by the same door, at the same time each day. It was surmised they were the target of the noon explosion.

It was a target missed. All were spared death that September day by fate, with the bankers held late by a morning meeting. The explosion did not even dust their clothes.

The Bureau surmised from wildly diverging accounts that a swarthy, proletariat-looking male drew the wagon of explosives, setting the fuse, igniting the load of explosives before disappearing into the crowds of New York. It is hardly modern forensics, but it is all we have.

As for motive, American capitalists represented by the bankers of New York were a frequent symbol of increasingly concentrated wealth, influencing everything and anything in proportion to their fortunes. That was something anathema to emerging social movements seeking a more equitable distribution of wealth.

The Bureau concluded the mysterious wagon driver was a representative of a violent, international organization of Italian anarchists hellbent on ending the hegemony of world capitalism.

The Bureau was certain then, but passing years have nibbled at that certainty.

All these years later, the explosion on that day and the social friction sparking it, are mostly forgotten.

Cruelty has many forms, some commissive like the bombing itself. And some omissive, like its erasure from memory.

Sept. 16, 1920.

The other September day of infamy.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.