Yes, Sadly, It Has Happened Here Before
As I write this on Friday afternoon, October 26, 2018, thirteen package bombs have been discovered so far this week, mailed to prominent critics of Donald Trump whom he likes to denounce, disparage, and denigrate.
Thankfully none of the bombs detonated, and a suspect has been arrested.
Nearly a hundred years ago, in an eerie prequel, a similar influx of infernal machines, or bombs, was terrifying Americans.
Suspects were questioned, but the investigation went nowhere. Technology available to law enforcement today fortunately makes
an unsuccessful outcome like that increasingly unlikely.
The following account of the so-called May Day package bombs of 1919 is adapted from my book, In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.
BOMBING SEEMED to be in the air in the spring of 1919. In March came reports of an alleged radical plot to bomb Chicago. In April similar reports came from Pittsburgh. May 1, May Day, a kind of labor day for radicals, was fast approaching. It would prove to be a harbinger of fear, marking the discovery of a nationwide terrorist bombing conspiracy.
It began with a package bomb mailed from New York to Mayor Ole Hanson in Seattle and delivered to his office on April 28, 1919. The bomb failed to go off because the staff member who opened the package happened to do so from the wrong end. The next day another package bomb with similar markings was delivered to the Atlanta home of a former senator from Georgia who had chaired the Senate Committee on Immigration. He was not at home, but his wife and maid were injured when the bomb exploded.
The following day, April 30, 1919, a New York postal clerk reading a newspaper account of the package bombs realized that he had shelved sixteen identical packages for insufficient postage. It’s hard to believe that bomb-building terrorists could be so inattentive to detail that they would use the wrong amount of postage, but that’s what happened. The clerk notified authorities, and the sixteen packages were safely intercepted. All had been mailed from New York in late April.
Post offices around the country were put on alert for more bombs, and indeed more were found—more than thirty May Day bombs in all, mailed to a virtual hit list of anarchist enemies, including Cabinet officers, United States senators and representatives, governors, mayors, judges, district attorneys, a police commissioner, a newspaper editor, and three industrialists—John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and William Wood, president of the American Woolen Company of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
None of the bombs hurt its intended target, but the bold plot and wide net were alarming. Angry citizens disrupted radical meetings and parades in several cities on May Day.
Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, bombers struck again. On June 2, 1919, explosions blasted nine new targets, spreading what the Washington Post called “Nation-Wide Terror.” In Massachusetts, the homes of a judge in Boston and a state legislator in Newtonville were damaged. In New York City, the target was a judge’s home. In Paterson, New Jersey, it was a textile executive’s home, and in Cleveland, it was the home of the mayor. There were multiple targets in Pennsylvania.
Most shocking of all, a bomb rocked the Washington, D.C. home of the Attorney General of the United States.
Doors were blasted off, windows smashed, the front of the house shattered. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, sitting near an upstairs window, was showered with glass but unhurt. This strike in the nation’s capital, a mere two miles from the White House, “challenged the government,” the Post declared; anarchists were “trying to kill the man who has an army of agents on their trail.”
All the June 2 bombs exploded around midnight, a time clearly chosen for maximum impact, since most of the targets were private homes likely to be occupied at that hour by sleeping residents. Each bomb contained about twenty pounds of dynamite and caused extensive damage.
Miraculously none of the people presumed to be targets of the midnight blasts was seriously injured, which isn’t to say that no one died. A watchman in New York was killed, and the attorney general’s would-be assassin was “blown to atoms,” an early if accidental suicide bomber. Bits and pieces of his body flew up and down the street, onto doorsteps and roofs, through open windows into neighboring homes.
At each bomb site, investigators found identical leaflets with a chilling message:
“. . . [C]lass war is on. . . . [W]e have aspired to a better world, and you jailed us,
you clubbed us, you deported us, you murdered us. . . . Do not expect us to sit down
and pray and cry. . . . We mean to speak for [the proletariat with] the voice of dynamite, through the mouth of guns. . . .”
Today a message like this would be blasted instantaneously around the world through social media. In 1919 it was printed on pink paper found scattered on lawns, in streets, and in the detritus of the bombed buildings.
Entitled “Plain Words,” the flyer was signed by a group calling itself The Anarchist Fighters. A group with a similar name—The American Anarchists—had signed “Go-Head!,” a flyer distributed a few months earlier in New England. Neither group issued additional statements claiming responsibility for specific bombings.
The synchronicity of “Plain Words” and the bombings of June 2, 1919 left little doubt
that the so-called Anarchist Fighters were behind the June bombs. “Forces of law and order, shocked into activity by the bomb outrages . . . , are today aligned against the anomaly of organized anarchy,” the Boston Evening Transcript announced on June 3. Agents from the Department of Justice and “police throughout the country are hunting the organized band of Anarchists who last night launched what they called an attempt to overthrow the government. . . .”
TOO MANY BOMBS, too many threats of violence: Americans felt encircled and endangered by unseen, unknown forces. After the 1919 May Day bombs, newspapers reported that investigators were “sleeplessly” working on the case, arrests were “imminent,” and “the net tightens.” After the June bombs, “newspapers were again ablaze with police reports of rapid progress. . . . [T]he bomb-throwers were hourly on the verge of capture.” In fact, however, as the Washington Post noted, “no arrest has yet been made [in the May Day case], though a month has elapsed,” and in the June case the immediate investigative results were “practically futile.”
Attorney General Palmer was shaken by his close call. One day after the June explosions, he began a reorganization at the Department of Justice. Ten days after the explosions, he asked Congress for more money to prevent “the wild fellows of this movement” from “ris[ing] up and destroy[ing] the Government at one fell swoop.” Palmer recruited William Flynn, a former Secret Service director whom he called “the greatest anarchist expert in the United States,” to head the Department’s Bureau of Investigation.
In the immediate aftermath of the June 2 bombings, more than sixty suspects were taken in for questioning, without productive result. “Public Demands Action,” declared the Washington Post on June 4. A muscular new policy was needed: “Act First, Theorize Afterward.”
The perpetrators continued to remain at large, however. “No arrests are in sight at this time,” Flynn admitted on June 6.
By autumn 1919, the investigation into the Palmer house bombing had hit a wall. No suspects had been charged in any of the May Day or June 2 bombings.
The “lack of real ‘leads’ is remarkable,” commented Louis Post, Assistant Secretary of Labor at the time. “How was it possible for so gigantic a conspiracy of revolutionaries, if that is what it was, or so desperate an outburst of proletarian passion, if it was that, to have escaped detection when most of the detective agencies of the country . . . were pursuing the perpetrators of its crimes with tireless zeal? . . . [W]hat inference is possible, in all reason, except that the crimes were not of ‘ultra-radical’ origin, or else that the detectives were grossly inefficient?”