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Exploding New York
Steven H. Jaffe

Over its long history, New York has been the site of many acts of warfare and terror. In this excerpt from New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham (Basic Books, 2012), Steven H. Jaffe recounts some notorious twentieth-century bombings in the city, and shows how quickly the memory of them can fade.

Wall Street Bombing, September 16, 1920.
Wall Street Bombing, September 16, 1920.

The explosion tore through the red brick façade and scattered debris out onto the tree-lined Greenwich Village street. The shock wave shattered windows up and down the block. As smoke billowed from the wreckage, police officers pulled two dazed and bleeding women out of what had been the building's first floor. Within minutes, as firefighters arrived, two smaller blasts sent flames rolling up through the four stories of the building as the front wall collapsed into a pile of burning rubble. The actor Dustin Hoffman carried paintings and a Tiffany lampshade out of his damaged house next door before police barred him from reentering. As firefighters' hoses poured water into the site and police pushed spectators away, the two unidentified women, who had taken shelter in the apartment of a neighbor, fled the scene, disappearing into thin air. It was the afternoon of March 6, 1970, and the townhouse that had stood for 125 years at 18 West Eleventh Street was no more, the evident casualty of a gas main leak and explosion.

But, as the police soon discovered, the explosion was no ordinary accident. Sifting through the Eleventh Street rubble, investigators found fifty-seven sticks of dynamite and four homemade pipe bombs. Buried under the wreckage were also the remains of one woman and two men—twenty-eight-year-old Diana Oughton, twenty-three-year-old Ted Gold, and another man eventually identified as twenty-one-year-old Terry Robbins. All had been members of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society and of its offshoot, the Weathermen. The two fleeing women, Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin, were also identified as members of the Weathermen; the townhouse belonged to Wilkerson's father, a retired advertising executive who was abroad at the time. The truth was soon clear: the townhouse's basement had been a clandestine bomb factory. Somehow, something had gone wrong, and a bomb in the making had exploded, rupturing and igniting the building's gas line and killing Gold, Oughton, and Robbins.

The townhouse explosion happened at a time of great turbulence in New York and around the country. Rallies against the Vietnam War, campus takeovers, marches by Black Panthers, protests by feminists and gay activists: New York in 1970 was a city at war with itself. Nationally, the 1969–1970 school year witnessed 247 arson cases and nearly 250 bombings on college campuses, most tied to racial or war-related policies. On the Lower East Side, Abbie Hoffman later claimed, "I was approached by several arms dealers during this period with offers of hand weapons, machine guns, plastiques, bazookas, mortars. 'You name it,' one dealer said, 'I can get you a tank, even a jet!'" But for the majority of the city's blue-collar, middle-class, and affluent white residents, New York was a place of longed-for privacy and security, a domain of apartments and houses where, its denizens hoped, violence would remain a distant reality consigned to news reports from Vietnam, Chicago, Berkeley, or still-segregated Harlem, watched in the safety of the family living room.

Ted Gold, himself the product of a middle-class upbringing on the Upper West Side, saw things differently. He had been a leader of the 1968 student sit-in at Columbia and was a seasoned veteran of militant antiwar activism. "We've got to turn New York into Saigon," he told an old college friend over a drink in the West End Bar on Broadway shortly before his death. The Saigon he envisioned was the Saigon of the Tet offensive, when Vietcong guerillas brought war into the sanctum of that city's US embassy compound. In 1969, Gold, his Columbia comrade Mark Rudd, and a network of other former SDS members formed the Weathermen (later renamed the Weather Underground) to bring armed revolution to the streets of America.

The roots of the Weathermen lay deep in the idealism of the student civil rights, antiwar, and community organizing movements. But as the Vietnam War dragged on, as the student left became more defiant, and as the government's reactive crackdown intensified, a select few young radicals turned, partly in desperation, to destruction as a tool for change. "After a certain amount of frustration you decide that at least you can make yourself into a brick and hurl yourself," one SDS member commented in 1969.

"A mass revolutionary movement" was needed, the Weathermen's founding manifesto declared, something "akin to the Red Guard in China . . . a movement with a full willingness to participate in the violent and illegal struggle." That manifesto and others amounted to declarations of war against the entire American military-industrial complex. Along with Robbins, Oughton, Wilkerson, Boudin, and John Jacobs, Gold formed a New York collective of the Weathermen dedicated to the idea that only a violent response could end the violence manifested by the United States in Southeast Asia, in the domestic persecution of black activists, and in the malign neglect that left the poor to languish in their poverty. "We were going to bring the war home," Jacobs later recalled. "'Turn the imperialists' war into a civil war,' in Lenin's words. And we were going to kick ass."

Behind the elegant nineteenth-century façade on quiet West Eleventh Street, the homegrown militants had found the perfect safe house. Already, in the early morning of February 21, 1970, two weeks before the deadly explosion in Greenwich Village, members of the collective had planted three gasoline bombs in front of the house of Judge John Murtagh in the Inwood section of northern Manhattan. They scrawled "Vietcong Have Won" and "Free the Panther 21" in red letters on the sidewalk but left no mark identifying themselves. Murtagh was presiding over pretrial hearings in the case of twenty-one members of the Black Panther Party arrested for allegedly planning to bomb Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and three other midtown department stores at the height of the Easter 1969 shopping season. Nobody was hurt when the Inwood gas bombs exploded, nor were there injuries when small bombs exploded that same morning in front of the Charles Street police precinct in Greenwich Village and at army and navy recruiting booths on the edge of the Brooklyn College campus.

By March, the New York collective's immediate goal was to turn Fort Dix, New Jersey, seventy miles away, into Saigon. There, a dance for noncommissioned army officers and their wives and dates would provide a setting for bringing the horrors of Vietnam home to America. As they planned the bombing, Cathy Wilkerson later claimed, "we still didn't talk about the physical impact of the actions, either on buildings or people . . . 'You cannot act with such greed and recklessness without consequences!' I wanted our message to be, and I wanted to say it as loud as we could." It was the bomb they planned to plant in the Fort Dix dance hall, a dynamite pipe bomb studded with roofing nails to shred the dancers, that exploded accidentally in the townhouse basement around noon on March 6.

The Weather Underground was not the only activist group that turned to terrorism to achieve its ends. In March 1970, the same month as the accidental explosion at the group's safe house, thirteen other bombs exploded in New York City. On March 12, bombs caused damage but no injuries at Mobil Oil's corporate office on East Forty-Second Street, the IBM Building on Park Avenue, and the General Telephone and Electronics Building on Third Avenue. A letter sent to the offices of United Press International and signed "Revolutionary Force 9" accused the three corporations of profiting from the Vietnam War, "Amerikan imperialism," and "racist oppression." On March 22, a lead pipe bomb attached to a clock detonator wounded seventeen people at the Electric Circus discotheque on St. Mark's Place, and another pipe bomb damaged a stock brokerage on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. The incidents continued a trend. New York bombings between June 1969 and the end of March 1970 cost thousands of dollars in property damage and left forty-three New Yorkers injured and four radicals dead. "To hurt innocent people seems to be the fad these days," a police deputy inspector commented after the Electric Circus blast.

A new era in international terrorism had begun in the mid and late 1960s. In Northern Ireland and Israel, guerillas launched surprise attacks that killed civilians. Hijackers commandeered planes (including one from Newark and two from Kennedy Airport) to Castro's Cuba. In New York and elsewhere, anti-Castro émigrés attacked those who countenanced the Communist government in Havana. Three Cuban émigrés were arrested in December 1964 for firing a bazooka at the United Nations headquarters as Castro's Minister of Industry, Che Guevara, addressed the General Assembly. (The shell, fired from the Long Island City waterfront, fell short, "sending up a 15-foot geyser of water" in the East River, according to a newspaper report.) In 1968, anti-Castro militants bombed fifteen New York City foreign consulates, tourist bureaus, and bookstores; two of the nine New York men later apprehended for the crimes were veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion force. Black Panthers exchanged gunfire with police in New York and several other cities; incidents accelerated after Chicago police killed Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Moore in December 1969. In 1970–1971, four New York patrolmen would be killed and two injured by black militants. ("The armed goons of this racist government will again meet the guns of oppressed Third World Peoples," warned a letter sent to the New York Times after one shooting.)

Yet as New Yorkers pondered their city's sporadic explosions, and as FBI agents and bomb squads worked overtime to meet the threats, they rarely remembered the city's long history of radical bomb blasts. In the early twentieth century, New York had experienced its first wave of militant violence, one rooted in the era's tensions over industry, labor, and class. Firebrands like the German refugee Johann Most had brought the idea of "propaganda by the deed" from Europe, where some of his fellow anarchists, abetted by the increasing availability of concealable handguns and the invention of dynamite in 1866, assassinated monarchs and heads of state. Violence, anarchists argued, was the only fitting response to the daily violence of factory exploitation, strike-busting police, slum housing, and the other outrages of proletarian life. Their perception of New York, the great financial dynamo and hub of immigrant labor, was shared broadly in leftist circles. "If there is one place in America where the workers have reason to revolt against capitalism and this thing called 'civilization' and to overthrow it," Socialist Louis Duchez wrote in 1910, "it is New York City."

New York's first explosion came in March 1908, when a Russian-born anarchist, Selig Silverstein, threw a bomb as police drove Socialist demonstrators from Union Square. The bomb exploded prematurely, mortally wounding Silverstein and injuring several policemen; the dying man proudly proclaimed that "I came to the park to kill the police. . . . I hate them." A flurry of unsolved explosions followed in 1914 and 1915: bombs went off at St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Alphonsus Catholic Church on West Broadway, the Bronx Court House, the Tombs Police Court, and police headquarters on Centre Street. In February 1915, an undercover policeman helped to entrap two Harlem-based Italian-born anarchists, Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone, in another bomb plot against St. Patrick's. Their aim, police alleged, was to attack "the ruling classes, law, order, and the churches." The class war was arriving on the doorsteps of the comfortable denizens of the capitalist metropolis, even if wounds were few and no lives were lost. Mabel Dodge Luhan, the Fifth Avenue socialite and patroness of Greenwich Village radicals, later remembered the era as one in which her anarchist friends frequently "referred to the day when blood would flow in the streets of New York."

In 1919—a postwar year of nationwide economic stress, bitter industrial strikes, and the founding of two American Communist parties in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia—leftist bombings resumed after a four-year hiatus. In late April, thirty-six packages containing "infernal machines," some with the false return address of Gimbel's department store on West Thirty-Third Street, were mailed from New York City to dignitaries and industrialists around the country, including J. P. Morgan Jr., Mayor John Hylan, and Police Commissioner Richard Enright in New York. All but one of the parcel bombs were intercepted and defused; the exception blew the hands off the maid of former Georgia senator Thomas Hardwick in Atlanta. On June 2, a month after this "May Day plot," dynamite bombs ripped apart a Philadelphia church rectory and the homes of eight officials and manufacturers across the country, including that of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in Washington. The only fatality was a night watchman on the East Sixty-First Street premises of the New York target, Judge Charles Nott, who had sentenced Abarno and Carbone to prison in 1915. The other targets were linked by their public opposition to radicalism or their advocacy of immigration restriction.

But it was on September 16, 1920, that full-blown terrorism, aimed indiscriminately at the largest possible number of victims, arrived in New York. A bomb on a horse-drawn wagon sitting at the Wall Street curb exploded, killing 38, mostly clerks, messenger boys, stenographers, and drivers in the thick noontime lunch crowd; 143 were seriously wounded. "Free the political prisoner or it will be sure death [for] all of you," demanded crudely printed flyers, signed "American Anarchist fighters," found in mailboxes nearby. (Five days earlier, on September 11, two Italian immigrant anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, had been indicted for a Massachusetts payroll robbery in which two guards were killed; the flyer probably referred to them.) The site of the blast, next to the US Sub-Treasury, and across the street from the headquarters of J. P. Morgan and Company and the New York Stock Exchange, had profound symbolic value for radicals: no intersection better represented the beating heart of American financial and corporate capitalism. (Fifty years later, a few weeks after the West Eleventh Street bomb blast, the same crossroads would be the site of the hard hat riot against antiwar demonstrators.)

Yet the September 16 bombing also represented something new: an indiscriminate attack on the mass of random passing pedestrians, an assault aimed at terrorizing the entire population, not just selected officials, businessmen, or landmarks. The wagon, packed with fifty pounds of blasting gelatin and five hundred pounds of iron window sash weights to cause maximum shrapnel damage, was the first major vehicle bomb in modern world history. The death count remains the third worst from a terrorist attack in America, following 9/11 and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. After tracking and interrogating numerous anarchists, alleged Soviet agents, and cranks, the New York police and federal investigators came up empty, as they also did with the 1919 attacks. To this day, the Wall Street bomber or bombers have never been conclusively identified. (Recent research points to Mario Buda or Boda, an Italian-born anarchist who left for Naples shortly after the event.)

The 1920 Wall Street blast was the last major episode in the postwar wave of radical attacks, in New York and across the country. Anarchists may have been sobered by the horror of the severed body parts and mangled corpses, many belonging to working-class New Yorkers, which littered Wall Street that day. Fifty years later, other radicals also recoiled from bloodshed. A Weatherman bomb injured seven police officers at the NYPD's Centre Street headquarters on June 10, 1970, just over three months after the accidental explosion on West Eleventh Street. But these officers would be the last casualties taken by the Weathermen in New York, for following the deaths of Gold, Oughton, and Robbins, the Weather Underground had shifted its tactics. Henceforth, bombs would only be planted in secluded corners of "Amerikan" targets, with warning given to authorities to clear the area before detonation. "Targeting only buildings, not people, we switched over to 'bombing lite,'" Rudd later noted. Over the next seven years, the Weathermen planted bombs that damaged government and corporate property but avoided human casualties. By the mid-1970s, the Weathermen claimed credit for over twenty-four bombings around the country. But weary of living on the run, most members emerged from hiding in the late 1970s and early 1980s, cutting deals with prosecutors and judges to reduce their sentences.

A few Weathermen, unable to give up a desperate vision of the coming revolution, persisted in violence. In October 1981, Kathy Boudin, David Gilbert, and several other Weather veterans, along with members of the militant Black Liberation Army, robbed a Brinks armored car at a mall in Nanuet, New York, killing two policemen and a guard in the process. Gilbert was sentenced to seventy-five years in prison; Boudin and some of the others were released after serving long terms. From 1983 to 1985, the Armed Resistance Unit, a Weather offshoot, bombed eight sites, including an FBI office on Staten Island, the South African consulate, and the Israeli Aircraft Industries building in Manhattan.

With the exception of these isolated incidents, the era of the Weathermen had passed. Looking back on the era, Abbie Hoffman distilled his own lesson: "'One cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs,' remarked Lenin. This attitude, however, is a far cry from the terrorism of deliberately taking innocent lives, be they in a classroom, an airplane, or an apartment building." Several of the surviving Weather Underground bombers, continuing as activists, abandoned violence for other, more peaceful forms of political engagement.

While the events of the early twentieth century and the Vietnam War era were hardly identical, some striking patterns linked the two. Anarchists and Weathermen both brought the war home to comfortable, complacent, powerful New York—whether the war in question was the "class war" of the Colorado coal mines or the "imperialist war" in Southeast Asia. New York City, thousands of miles from the brutal bloodshed Weathermen viewed as enriching its Wall Street banks and midtown corporate headquarters, had to become a battlefield, a place of vengeance, and a school of revolution whose lessons the city's own terrified media organs would trumpet around the country and the world. Narrowly symbolic acts—bombs planted at famous landmarks of business power or government authority—would be strategic shortcuts to insurrection. The invulnerable, arrogant metropolis of the ruling class, its true capital city, would be made vulnerable. Indeed, in the eyes of these militants, the very violence, racism, and greed of the Establishment proved an underlying decay that already made the system vulnerable. Surely, a few well-placed bombs had to help precipitate the coming revolution.

But the revolution did not come, either in 1920 or in 1970—quite the opposite, in fact. Although most leftist organizations and spokesmen clearly distanced themselves from violence, the main outcome in both cases was redoubled government hostility and popular discredit for the broader Left in New York and throughout America. To no avail did radicals during the 1910s point out that the terror casualties were dwarfed by the scores of American workers killed each day in industrial accidents, or by the 25 percent of poor American children who died before adulthood, or by the one in twelve New York City corpses that had to be buried in pauper's graves. Instead, the events of 1908 and 1914–1915 earned new accolades for the city's twenty-odd National Guard armories, the Establishment's first line of defense in the class war.

The June 1919 bombings prompted Attorney General Palmer to declare war on those who "seek to terrorize the country" and, using dubious legal maneuvers, to deport hundreds of foreign-born aliens, most of them having no provable connection to radical violence. The ensuing "Red Scare" helped build the career of a young Justice Department lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover, who stood on a Staten Island pier to watch the SS Buford carry 249 deported alien anarchists to the Soviet Union in 1919. Across the country, moreover, the bombings only confirmed anti-immigrant feeling and antipathy toward New York. It was natural for the "bomb massacre" to have occurred in New York, the Washington Post asserted in 1920; "rather it would have been surprising if this festering sore had not come to its horrid head."

A half century later, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and other militant groups existed in a strange symbiotic relationship with Hoover's FBI and Richard Nixon's Justice Department, which infiltrated radical groups. Undercover federal agents incited militants to violent, self-destructive deeds in order to discredit their movements. Sure enough, bombings and strident manifestos did not win over the hearts and minds of the American masses. An April 1970 Gallup Poll found that a clear majority of Americans wanted stiff prison sentences for bombers and hijackers.

Perhaps the most damning verdict on terrorist bombings was that New Yorkers, and other Americans, simply forgot. Five years after the 1920 bombing, in an era of financial prosperity and a deflated left, a Wall Street Journal reporter found that young stenographers strolling through the fateful intersection of Wall and Broad Streets didn't know about the blast. "How quickly time effaces the memory of startling events," the paper commented. In a city bent on the future, new blood arrived, and tragedies faded. And, after all, in a city of 5.6 million, there had been fewer than 300 casualties; a New Yorker had highly favorable odds for surviving an unpredictable attack. The only "plaque" to the Wall Street explosion and its victims is the series of shrapnel pockmarks that still mottles the marble façade of the Morgan and Company edifice at 23 Wall Street. Similarly, rather than fearing another bomb after the West Eleventh Street explosion, a Greenwich Villager focused on the real estate: "In a couple of days they'll turn it into a parking lot." New Yorkers' short memories consigned the terrorists of 1970, like those of 1920, to the dustbin of history. Today, few passersby know why the townhouse rebuilt on the site of 18 West Eleventh Street in 1978 differs architecturally from its stately neighbors.

Excerpted from New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham by Steven H. Jaffe. Available now from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

Contributor's Note

Steven H. Jaffe, a member of the College Hill Review editorial board, is a historian living in Maplewood, NJ. He is currently the guest curator of the exhibition "Activist New York" at the Museum of the City of New York (

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