The 1920 Wall Street bombing

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 26, 2012

A while ago I read the interesting New York Streetscapes, by Christopher Gray. It probably has a stronger appeal to those with more architectural awareness than I have, but I found most of it enjoyable enough. One entry features a connection with Brilliant Deduction, and more specifically with William Burns: “September 16, 1920: A Bomb That Rocked New York’s Financial District.” The accompanying photo does a great deal to really bring home an event that even I had trouble really pinning down, despite reading about it multiple times in my research.

Scene outside J.P. Morgan & Company headquarters on Wall Street, following Sept. 16, 1920 bombing

Thinking about it after reading Gray’s summary of the event, it struck me how strange it is that this bombing doesn’t loom larger in our cultural memory. J.P. Morgan is still a name to conjure with, and Wall Street remains the center of America’s financial universe. Thirty people died. And the crime was never solved. This seems like it should rank relatively high on the list of Great Unsolved Cases in the history of American crime.

In trying to understand why it’s largely vanished from memory, I suppose part of the explanation is that it was part of an era when such bombings were not so unusual as they have been, since. William Burns, who spent years working on the case, had already solved multiple bomb plots in the preceding decade, and I can recall at least one other explosives crime from my research on that time period which did not involve Burns, just off the top off my head. Burns’s great success, the Los Angeles Times bombing, seems just as much a historical footnote, after all. So I suppose this shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise. (Burns himself naturally receives no mention in Gray’s write-up about the event, but aside from the detective’s failure to actually close that particular case Burns and his ilk seem to be left out of history most of the time anyway, whether they succeeded or failed; for my full thoughts on this bit of cultural amnesia you know where to look.)

Meanwhile, as is often the case, the past is still with us even if we fail to notice it. Some times in a surprisingly physical sense, too. Gray closes his remarks on the episode by noting that

The fist-sized holes in the marble Wall Street facade of J.P. Morgan were never repaired. They are a textbook illustration of the damage caused by antipersonnel bombs, an inadvertent monument to the dead and wounded that can bring a chill to any spine. The person who carved it must have died long ago.

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