America's Original Lone-Wolf Terrorist

tags: terrorism

Greg is a history writer and journalist in St. Louis.

No one noticed as the tall, thin man carried a package into the Capitol and left it in the Senate reception room. It was nearly July 4, 1915, and Congress hadn’t been in session since March, but many of the legislative buildings were open and thinly guarded. Frank Holt, 44, sneaked back out and made his way to Union Station. At 11.40 p.m., the package exploded, wrecking the ornately decorated room but hurting no one.

Around that time, a Washington newspaper received a note signed by “R. Pearce” that claimed responsibility, noting that the blast aimed “to make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war” and serve as an “exclamation point” for an appeal for peace. But that appeal was far from over: Upon hearing the explosion, Holt boarded a northbound train and headed to his next target.

The next morning, Holt reached the Long Island estate of J.P. Morgan Jr. The son of the iconic J.P. Morgan was following in his father’s footsteps and proving a strong supporter of the British, serving openly as Britain’s purchasing agent for munitions. Holt stormed into the house, and the two men fought until a butler knocked Holt out with a lump of coal to the head. Only after Holt was restrained did Morgan realize he’d been shot in the groin, albeit not seriously. At the police station, Holt calmly confessed to the D.C. bombing but said he’d only wanted to talk to Morgan and persuade him to stop financing and shipping munitions. He even claimed the shooting was accidental.

Holt was peddling a combination of lies and half-truths. He said he was a native-born American and pacifist who worked as a German professor at Cornell and had taught at other universities. But with his picture fronting newspapers nationwide, the lies soon caught up with him. He was really German-born Erich Muenter, wanted in Massachusetts for the murder of his wife 10 years earlier. His talent for languages had indeed landed him a job teaching German at Harvard. But 10 days after the birth of his second daughter, Muenter’s wife, Leona, died suspiciously; it was later determined that she had succumbed to arsenic poisoning. By the time Cambridge police issued an arrest warrant, Muenter had disappeared; a nationwide search and $1,000 reward failed to find any trace of him. ...

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