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The lunch rush was just beginning as a non-descriptive man driving a cart pressed an old horse forward on a mid-September day in 1920.
He stopped the animal and its heavy load in front of the U.S. Assay Office, across from the J. P. Morgan building in the heart of Wall Street. The driver got down and quickly disappeared into the crowd.
Within minutes, the cart exploded into a hail of metal fragments—immediately killing more than 30 people and injuring some 300. The carnage was horrific, and the death toll kept rising as the day wore on and more victims succumbed.
In the beginning it wasn't obvious that the explosion was an intentional act of terrorism. Crews cleaned the damage up overnight, including physical evidence that today would be crucial to identifying the perpetrator.
By the next morning Wall Street was back in business—broken windows draped in canvass, workers in bandages, but functioning none-the-less.
Conspiracy theories abounded, but the New York Police and Fire Departments, the Bureau of Investigation (our predecessor), and the U.S. Secret Service were on the job.
Each avidly pursued leads. The Bureau interviewed hundreds of people who had been around the area before, during, and after the attack, but developed little information of value. The few recollections of the driver and wagon were vague and virtually useless.
The NYPD was able to reconstruct the bomb and its fuse mechanism, but there was much debate about the nature of the explosive, and all the potential components were commonly available.
The most promising lead had actually come prior to the explosion. A letter carrier had found four crudely spelled and printed flyers in the area, from a group calling itself the "American Anarchist Fighters" that demanded the release of political prisoners
The letters, discovered later, seemed similar to ones used the previous year in two bombing campaigns fomented by Italian Anarchists. The Bureau worked diligently, investigating up and down the East Coast, to trace the printing of these flyers, without success.
Based on bomb attacks over the previous decade, the Bureau initially suspected followers of the Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani. But the case couldn't be proved, and the anarchist had fled the country. Over the next three years, hot leads turned cold and promising trails turned into dead ends. In the end, the bombers were not identified.
The best evidence and analysis since that fateful day of September 16, 1920, suggests that the Bureau's initial thought was correct—that a small group of Italian Anarchists were to blame. But the mystery remains.
For the young Bureau, the bombing became one of our earliest terrorism cases—and not the last, unfortunately, to involve the city of New York. As the decades passed, the threat from terrorism would grow and change, with different actors and causes coming and going from the scene.
Secretaries and clerks crowded the streets of the financial district as a man parked a horse-drawn wagon opposite the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan bank and walked away.
The wagon was a bomb: dynamite, with sash weights and other metallic objects serving as makeshift shrapnel. Shortly after noon it exploded.
The blast shredded the wagon, killed the horse and took the lives of 38 people. Hundreds more were injured. Buildings were damaged and broken glass littered the street.
The need to get hundreds of victims to hospitals meant that many were delivered not by ambulance, but by cars that were parked nearby. The street was cleaned. Some evidence was surely lost.
On that first afternoon, police weren't sure whether the bombing was deliberate or the result of a crash between an automobile and a truck delivering explosives to a nearby construction site.
Before long, though, members of the bomb squad became convinced it had been a bomb. Once that was determined, police began trying to figure out who had done it.
he explosion was big news across the country. Thanks to wire service reports, afternoon papers in the Midwest and West could publish stories about it on the day it happened.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram used the Associated Press story, under the headline "Blast Wrecks J.P. Morgan Offices; Over Score Killed."
The year 1919 had seen two significant bombings that would have been fresh in readers' minds. The first was a letter bomb campaign.
Then on June 2 bombs went off in eight cities at nearly the same time. Like the Wall Street bomb, these had metal bits added to create shrapnel. The bomb outside the house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer went off a bit early, blowing up the bomber.
They called it the "death wagon."
The dilapidated horse-drawn cart pulled onto a busy corner of Wall Street just before noon on June 16, 1920, and several people took note of it.
They noticed innocuous details — such as the brown coat of the horse that pulled it — that only became important once the vehicle lay in countless splintered parts, destroyed by the 100 pounds of dynamite it was carrying.
The intentional blast, one of the deadliest in the nation's history, killed about 40 people and sent hundreds more to the hospital.
Rebecca Epstein, a stenographer for a brokerage firm, was returning from lunch when she saw the wagon.
A red flag flew from the rear, which was open and hauling either boxes or barrels covered in a white powder, she told The Washington Post at the time. She said she saw the vehicle stop on the street in front of financial powerhouse J.P. Morgan and Co. and watched the driver walk away.
"I had reached the Equitable-Trust Building when the explosion occurred," Epstein said. "I was knocked senseless, but I believe I would recognize the driver if I saw him. He was the laboring type, about 40 years old and was dressed in a suit of brown overalls."
Lawrence Serbin, who had been selling chocolates nearby, recalled the driver as about 5-feet-6, unshaven and wiry. He remembered him speaking with a strong Scottish accent that Serbin heard when the driver directed him to move his own wagon.
The bombing left the Financial District a battered scene of lifeless and broken bodies, and set off an intense, widespread investigation.
Even so, the case was never solved. Although the event has been mostly forgotten with time, it is a reminder of how difficult bombing investigations can prove.
After the Wall Street bombing, a reward was also offered. It began at $20,000 and, within a few months, rose to $70,000. People at the time were angry, scared and wanted justice. Until the Oklahoma City bombing, it was the deadliest domestic terrorist incident in the country.
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