Photographs showing the aftermath of bombing in the Wall Street financial district in New York on Sept. 16, 1920. Library of Congress photos. Click the images for higher resolution versions.
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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.
The book, Hopeless Cases: The Hunt for the Red Scare Terrorist Bombers by Charles H. McCormick, University Press of America: New York, 2005, and the FBI investigative file on the case were used in the development of this article.