Beverly Gage's history of the Wall Street bombing of 1920 getting lots of press

Historians in the News

WALL STREET was in good spirits on the morning of Sept. 16, 1920. The stock market was up, with oil and railroad shares doing particularly well. At lunchtime on this pleasantly warm day, hundreds of workers spilled into the streets, never suspecting the horror that was to come.

Just before the noon bell tolled at Trinity Church, a horse-drawn cart pulled up near J. P. Morgan’s headquarters at Broad and Wall Streets. The driver quickly dismounted and melted into the crowd. The wagon, laden with dynamite and iron sash weights, exploded, sending flames into the sky and a fusillade of shrapnel into the heart of the nation’s financial district.

Thirty-eight people were killed in the blast, and 143 more were maimed. It was the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, and so it would remain until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Yet today, as Beverly Gage laments in “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror” (Oxford University Press), the only evidence of this frightening moment in American history is a perfunctory tourist sign and a dozen or so scars on the north wall of the old Morgan bank.

This was a moment that Wall Street clearly wanted to forget. Laborers worked through the night to repair the damage. The next morning, the New York Stock Exchange miraculously opened for business. The market continued its rally — aided no doubt by free-spending private bankers who wished to restore the public’s confidence. They succeeded. Soon, America was swept up in the great stock market boom of the Roaring Twenties. Terror seemed so passé.

Not anymore. As Ms. Gage, a Yale history professor, argues convincingly in her book, the events of that Sept. 16 are more relevant than ever after terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Of course, this second atrocity inspired former President George W. Bush to proclaim a war on terror. Most people would now agree that this war has been less than a resounding success. But then, neither was the first.

In short, there are parallels to be drawn between these two days — and lessons to be learned. The most obvious is that it is perilous to forget the past. “Terrorism is not a form of violence restricted to one time or place,” Ms. Gage writes. “It has a history.”...

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