Picture this: There is a mad bomber on the loose that mails packages to important people that explode when opened and is meant to kill the person that opens the small package and anyone else near the opener at the time. Further, in the same era, a man drives up to a federal building, parks his vehicle and quietly walks away. The vehicle explodes shortly after and causes extensive damage to the building. Many people are killed in the explosion. The events, coming so close together, causes a panic among many Americans. In just one year the United States Congress submitted no fewer than seventy new bills aimed at helping to prevent terrorism. When did these events happen? While most would answer that these events happened in the early 1990’s, (the Unabomber and the destruction of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City) the answer would be correct. However, these same two events also happened in America in 1919 and 1920.
On April 29, 1919 a small package was delivered to the home of Senator Thomas Hardwick in Atlanta. Mrs. Hardwick sat at a table on began opening the day’s mail. Among the envelopes she found a small package. The return address was from Gimble Brothers the famous department store in New York. The package also had the word “Sample” stamped on it. She handed the package to their maid and resumed opening the other mail.
While the maid untied the string securing the package an explosion occurred. Shrapnel flew about the room. The maid’s hand were blown off. The upper third of Mrs. Hardwick’s body was severely burned. Both had extensive lacerations about their bodies. Amazingly, both women survived.
Letter bombs were also mailed to several other influential people, including the mayor of Seattle Washington, Ole Hanson, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, the Postmaster General Albert Sydney Burleson, as well as others. Fortunately, the only letter bomb to explode was the one delivered to Senator Hardwick. The same day, a letter bomb was delivered to the home of the mayor of Seattle. However, since he had already received several death threats due to his public denouncing of terrorism, he was cautious and called the police before opening it. The police were able to defuse the bomb without anyone being injured. Luckily, these were the only two to be actually delivered to the addressee. The rest were sent back due to insufficient postage on the packages. All were defused at various post offices by the police before doing any further harm.
Also, fortunately, the bomber was discovered before he could send out his next round of letter bombs. The F.B.I and the C.I.A. were in their infancy and very small in that period of American history. The director of the Bureau of Investigation at the time was a man named Mitchell Palmer. Two months after the Atlanta bombing, police were called to the home of Palmer as several reports of an explosion at his home had been reported. After investigating the agents discovered that in fact Palmer had been the mad bomber.! Palmer had just spent the evening preparing another batch of letter bombs he intended to mail the next day. One of the bombs detonated prematurely and leveled Palmer’s home as well as killing him. Within his home were booklets published by radicals whose intent was to overtake the United States Government.
The following year on September 16, 1920 a man drove his horse and wagon to the front of the J. P. Morgan building on Wall Street and parked it there. He quietly walked away. This building was the hub of the nation’s financial district at the time. Five minutes later, at 12:05 the cart exploded. The only thing left of the cart and horse were the horse’s hoofs! The building was extensively damaged also. Witnesses described the explosion as a great cloud, like a mushroom, that rose high in the air and it rained debris back onto the street. Shock waves of the explosion could be felt as far away as across the river to Brooklyn. Many other buildings close the to Morgan building also received excessive damage. Windows for blocks around were blown out by the shock wave. With so much damage to buildings, it is fortunate that while two hundred were wounded, only thirty-five people were killed in the explosion. Officials traced to bombing back to radicals who were trying to overtake the United States government. Unfortunately, no one was brought to trial for the bombing.
To read an actual newspaper account of the bombing of the J.P. Morgan Building go to HistoryBuff Online Newspaper Archive.
At least in this case, history does repeat itself. It was seven decades before Americans would experience another round of terrorist activities on American soil similar to those of 1919 and 1920.