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1919 Bombings

1919 Bombings

Background

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An October 1919 Philadelphia Inquirer cartoon illustrates
U.S. feelings towards bombing suspects, with a
caption that reads “PUT THEM OUT AND KEEP
THEM OUT.”

In seven U.S. cities in June 1919, all within approximately 90 minutes of one another, bombs of extraordinary capacity rocked some of the biggest urban areas in America, including New York; Boston; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; Patterson, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia. The bombings were a concerted effort among U.S. based anarchists who were most likely disciples of Luigi Galleani, a vehemently radical anarchist who advocated violence as a means to effect change, to rid the world of laws and capitalism.

The Philadelphia Bombings

Sometime between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. on June 2, 1919, two bombs exploded within seconds of each other under the porch of the rectory of the Our Lady of Victory, a Catholic church located at 54th and Vine. The bombs caved in the porch and shattered every window in the rectory as well as those in the basement of the church. The church was still smoldering when another bomb exploded less than a mile away at 57th and Locust, home of Philadelphia jeweler Louis Jajieky. The interior of the Jajieky residence was completely demolished; only the four walls remained standing.

By far, the most notable target of the June 2 attacks was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The bomber, Carlo Valdinoci, did not live to tell his story, as he was killed in the blast. (There are two theories as to Valdinoci’s fate. One has him tripping on the Attorney General’s front step and prematurely detonating the bomb—Palmer did hear a thud just prior to the explosion. The other theory has a faulty fuse setting off the bomb prematurely.) Although Valdinoci was literally blown to pieces, the Bureau was able to locate a number of items, including a train ticket and a hat, both of which led investigators to Philadelphia.

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Anarchists in the U.S. were tied in closely
with the American labor movement. A June 1919 Chicago
Tribune cartoon illustrates how not all laborers
in America sided with the bombers.

Valdinoci (whose name was still unknown to investigators at that point) had left behind a train ticket that showed he had boarded a train at the Baltimore and Ohio Station at 24th and Chestnut in Philadelphia. Also found at the Palmer site was a hat that bore the name of “DeLucca Brothers, hatters, 919 South Eighth Street, Philadelphia.” The three brothers who made up the DeLucca firm informed federal investigators that they had “sold many hats [like that] worn by the dead anarchist” and that the hat must have been purchased at least one month prior to the bombings due to the fact that they had been “dealing almost exclusively in straw hats” since May.

Identifying the Bombers

The federal investigation in Philadelphia was headed by Special Agent Todd Daniel. and the Bureau of Investigation’s (BOI) Acting Director, William Flynn, made Philadelphia his headquarters for the terror investigation. Flynn, a former Secret Service agent, was known to be an “anarchist chaser,” and, according to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, “the greatest anarchist expert” in the U.S. The reason Flynn operated out of Philadelphia is not clear. It may have been because intelligence suggested the plot was developed in Philadelphia or because the city was conveniently located between New York and Washington.

Days after the bombings, Special Agent Daniel said that “the terrorist movement is national in scope, and it is not impossible that its headquarters is located in this city.” Daniel also noted the large number of “anarchists in this city and so many places used by them for meeting places.” Daniel’s first thought was that the perpetrators of the Philadelphia bombings were members of the Industrial Workers of the Word (a leftist union that embraced socialistic principles). By June 5, federal and local investigators were tracking down members of the “bomb-throwing squad” (which is said to have included women) and had 12 radicals suspected of having a hand in the city’s attacks under constant surveillance in Philadelphia.

While the investigation continued, an unidentified man discovered a bomb at the Frankfurt Arsenal on June 8, 1919. After bringing the bomb to the attention of local authorities, the man was told to bring the device to a police station. He declined, noting he didn’t want to “get mixed up in any bomb plots.” The Philadelphia bomb squad determined the mechanism was genuine and had the potential to rip a sizable hole in the arsenal. Federal and local authorities, however, were not able to determine if the device was connected to the Galleanists.

Another lead being tracked down by the authorities involved a car believed to have been used in the attacks. The automobile was found abandoned in Fairmont Park early on the morning of June 4 and was identified by police as the car in which four men were seen driving away from Our Lady of Victory around the time of the explosions. The car had been stolen by several young men in the early evening hours of the day of the attacks in the vicinity of 12th and Columbia. The car’s owner, Max Lang, had called to them to stop, “but they put on speed and made their getaway.”

The police’s search of the Our Lady of Victory crime scene uncovered copper wire and percussion caps, which suggested time bombs. Philadelphia police also found evidence at the Jajieky residence that led to them to believe the device left there was in a wooden container “filled with sawdust or sand, which was saturated with nitroglycerine.” It was likely detonated by “a powerful acid eating its way through a metal container until it reached the explosive.”

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Aftermath of bombing at A.G. Palmer’s home

The authorities argued that those who carried out the attacks were members of “the inner circle of terrorists to whom [were] given the bomb throwing and fire spreading missions … who [roamed] from city to city,” and that the attacks across the country could have been assigned from Philadelphia. The perpetrators, according to Acting Police Superintendent William Mills, were the same individuals who bombed the homes of public officials in Philadelphia in December 1918, including his own house.

Intelligence Drives the Investigation

By August of 1919, the Department of Justice had created a Division of Intelligence, closely aligned with the Bureau of Investigation. It was led by future FBI Director John Edgar Hoover, then a quickly advancing attorney in the Justice Department. As one historian recently wrote:

“[Hoover] received a staggering number of regular reports from the field, between 600 and 900 in a typical week …. He set up information-sharing arrangements with key government offices like the War Department’s Military Intelligence unit, the State Department’s foreign desks, the British Embassy, … and even the Royal Canadian Northwest Mounted Police.”

The young Hoover had his division writing and disseminating Intelligence Information Reports (IIR’s) based on intelligence gathered by Bureau agents decades before such reports would be formally implemented.

To understand better those groups and individuals who threatened the nation:

“[Hoover] read books. He borrowed dozens of reference works from the Library of Congress on Bolshevism, socialists and Russia. He studied the Communist Manifesto, the Third International, platforms of the radical parties, hundreds of articles from radical magazines, and all the reports from his field agents.”

Much like today’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, in June 1919 “[t]he plan … worked out by the federal authorities in its efforts to combat anarchy … combined activities of all federal, state, and local police authorities in every part of the country.” Then as now, the Bureau’s approach to defeating terrorism in 1919 relied heavily on intelligence.

Conclusion

The attacks in Philadelphia were never solved. Although the synchronized timing and power of the bombs had a psychological impact, the bombings were an enormous failure. None of the intended targets were killed. A number of their targets were not at home at the time of the attacks; some were still out on the town, while others were vacationing at summer homes. This suggests poor operational planning by the anarchists. Poor operational preparedness notwithstanding, the men who carried out these attacks were serious about killing their intended victims. They “boldly courted martyrdom” and, according to the Galleanists, the “use of violence … [was] a justifiable response to persecution.”

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Director, Bureau
of Investigation:
William Flynn

This attitude and the attacks it engendered angered Americans. Rather than fomenting revolution, the public demanded a strong response to the anarchist threat; following the June attacks, the Bureau of Investigation increased its efforts with the Immigration Bureau to round up and deport illegal immigrants who posed a threat to national security, including many Galleanists. The scope of the effort, poor preparation, and the abuse of the rights of those detained in the raids, though, led to a significant backlash against the Attorney General and the Bureau. The public’s support for the strong suppression of potentially dangerous aliens clearly had limits.

The events of June 1919, occurring almost a century ago, offer today’s FBI a window into an era and lessons that apply to current events.