Bomb Kills 29 and Injures 200; J.P. Morgan’s Office Wrecked

New York Tribune/September 17, 1920

Blast of Loaded Slugs Rocks Financial District at Noon; Property Loss Great

Dead May Reach 50

Wagon Painted Red Seen Shortly Before Explosion; Three Investigations Already Under Way

 

An explosion believed to have been caused by the most powerful infernal machine ever devised wrought destruction and death yesterday noon at Wall and Broad streets.

Chief Inspector Lahey of the Police Department has evidence, he said, that the explosion was that of a huge bomb loaded with slugs and charged with TNT, one of the most powerful of explosives.

At least twenty-nine persons were killed and at least two hundred injured. It was said at the Morgue last night that the list of dead might be swelled to fifty when those dying during the. night in hospitals were reported. Windows were shattered for two blocks around, and the damage from this cause alone, exclusive of that suffered by the offices of J. P. Morgan & Co. and the United States Assay Office, which bore the brunt of the explosion, was estimated at nearly $1,000,000.

Cast iron slugs, made from window sash weights which had been broken up, were volleyed in all directions, one of them crashing through the skylight of the forty-story Equitable Building. These slugs, together with the fact that the explosion took place at the very center of the financial world and at 12:01 precisely, form the basis of the generally accepted theory that an infernal machine, and not an accident, caused the explosion.

Wagon Painted Red Seen in Wall Street

Of the wagon, said by witnesses to have been painted red and of the kind used by grocers for deliveries, and which housed the engine of destruction, only a few fragments could be found. Drawn by a plodding horse, it was seen coming up Wall Street from the east a few minutes before 12 o’clock. Some of those who saw it declared that it bore the name of a manufacturer of explosives.

It stopped at the curb just about at the dividing line between the Assay Office, where $900,000,000 in gold bullion is stored, and the Sub-Treasury, vaults of which hold $1,000,000 more. Directly across Wall Street is the $4,000,000 structure which houses the Morgan firm, where, in an office on an upper floor, members of the firm had just seated themselves with a representative of the coal operators to discuss the strike in the anthracite fields.

Half a block to the south the riotous curb market was surging and shouting in the roped spaces of Broad Street. The bell of Trinity sounded noon and like an echo came the bell which marks that hour in the curb market.

While the latter still was chiming, the explosion came. Buildings rocked at the shock. A sheet of flame leaped up that licked through windows shivered by the detonation. Then came a mushroom of smoke, the convolutions of its undersurface tinged with sulphurous yellow. For a moment the smoke canopy hung solidly above the financial district. Then it drifted away.

In the streets below all motion was paralyzed for the moment. Three bodies lay on the steps of J. P. Morgan & Co. Other huddled forms were strewn on both sides of Wall Street, and a few more were prostrate on Broad Street. Bits of smoldering cloth which an instant before had formed part of the clothing of men and women were blowing along the sidewalk.

Panic Among Employees in Many Buildings

An upturned automobile which had stood at the curb near the red wagon, with two women in it, was blazing furiously on the sidewalk. From all sides came the crash and tinkle of falling glass. In a dozen office buildings persons who had been near the windows were beating out flames in their clothing and striving to stanch the wounds glass shards had made.

Others, some of them powerful financiers, were marveling to discover that they had escaped scatheless, although their desks were littered with broken glass, their window sills scarred by slugs or the glass in the telephone booth in which they happened to be lay in fragments at their feet.

Although timed to explode at the moment when the activities of the world of finance are at their height and placed at the very center of that world, the infernal machine failed to destroy a single financier. One employee in the Morgan offices was killed. Junius Spencer Morgan suffered a cut on the hand. Robert Bacon, who was with him in conference, was slightly hurt.

The victims were chance by-passers, men and women of the more ordinary walks of life, whose business, pleasure or fate had called them at that hour to that spot.

The walls of the new Assay Office and of the Morgan Building showed scars where slugs had struck. Window sills and cornices had been chipped by the missiles. All the windows in the Assay Office were shattered and the steel casements in which the panes were set were bent inward.

Work of Rescue Started by Those Injured

Not a sound pane of glass remained in the Morgan Building. Even the heavy plate glass panels in the doors were broken. Screens of copper mesh which were set inside the windows were bent and twisted, but had fulfilled their mission of protecting those within. Fragments of the glass dome above the main office lay on the floor, and one of these, or some similar bit of falling débris, is believed to be responsible for the single death that occurred there. The streets were covered with broken glass, some of it finely powdered, like sugar.

The heroic statue of Washington on the steps of the Sub-Treasury was not so much as scratched by the explosion, and stood firmly, with hand outstretched in a quelling gesture.

Those who merely had been thrown to the ground by the shock set about rescue work as soon as they regained their feet. White-clad surgeons soon were at their elbows, for the clangor of arriving ambulances and fire apparatus filled the air while glass still was falling.

Policemen were sent to the scene in force and established lines two blocks from the corner where the explosion occurred. Within forty minutes of the blast, army trucks came lumbering up Broad Street from South Ferry and fifty men of Company M, 22d Infantry, clambered out and fell in line with fixed bayonets, each man with one hundred rounds of ball cartridges in his pouches.

They had been summoned because of the proximity of the Assay Office and the Sub-Treasury, and were reinforced by another company later. For a time a squad armed with light Browning automatics stood guard on the steps of the Sub-Treasury. It was decided within two hours, however, that the protection afforded by the police was ample, and the soldiers were withdrawn.

“A Bomb Beyond a Doubt,” Says Burns

Their preliminary investigation convinced federal, city and private detectives that the disaster was premeditated.

“It was a bomb beyond a doubt,” said William J. Burns, head of the detective agency which bears his name.

It was found that the broken sash weights used as missiles were such as are used in dwelling houses and in no building in the vicinity of the explosion. The fractured faces on the fragments were worn and rusted, it was said, as though the iron of which they were composed had been broken long ago.

No hole in the pavement marked the spot where the wagon had last been seen, and this was taken to show that some such explosive as TNT was used, rather than dynamite, which exerts its force downward. As to statements that the wagon bore the name of a firm manufacturing explosives, officials of that company said that none of their wagons had been below Sixteenth Street yesterday. A report that three men were seen running down Wall Street toward the East River just before the explosion is being investigated.

A trunk check found beside the dead horse may prove to be of some importance. The number of the check is 101,281. It was issued by the New York Central Railroad at Saranac Lake to someone sending a trunk from that place to Washington, D. C.

Mr. Burns said he thought the wagon contained a mine of explosives, to be detonated by a device, long in use by dynamiters, consisting of a battery and an alarm clock.

When the explosion came the Stock Exchange was immediately closed, to guard against the loss of securities by messengers called upon to deliver them through the crowds that thronged the financial district. As it was, bonds valued at $85,000 and 2,574 shares of stock were reported missing in the confusion. The exchange will open as usual at 10 A.M. today.

(Source: Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1920-09-17/ed-1/seq-2/)

Visit an outstanding collection of historic journalism, including long out-of-print works by H.L. Mencken, Nellie Bly, Jack London, Lincoln Steffens, and Ernest Hemingway, at The Archive of American Journalism.