Terror in America: from Racist Lynchings to Anarchist Bombings

Terrorism as spectator sport: for centuries, it was common practice in parts of the United States for whites to gather with their families at lynchings.

In the closing decades of the 19th century in the United States, “terrorism” was a tool use by white Americans to keep African Americans "in their place," and took the form of brutal lynchings and other kinds of violence.  

Anti-state terrorism made its debut in the form of anarchist bombings. Anarchists – the “enemy within” of their day - opposed the authority of the state and some favored the use of violence to overthrow state power.

Public sentiment against anarchists was inflamed by the killing of seven people, one of them a policeman, when a bomb went off at a demonstration against police brutality in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886, and by the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by a self-proclaimed anarchist. In 1903, Congress passed the Anarchist Exclusion Act to bar anarchists from entering the country and enable others to be deported.  In the following year the US Supreme Court in Turner v. Williams ruled that the statute did not violate the First Amendment rights of John Turner, who was excluded from the country.

Beginning in 1914, bombings blamed on the followers of the Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani took place in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington DC,  while in Milwaukee a  bomb killed nine policemen and a woman at a police station in November 1917. 

In 1918, additional legislation was passed aimed at any non citizen who “advises, advocates, or teaches or who are members of, or affiliated with any organization, society or group, that advises, advocates or teaches opposition to all organized government.” Galleani and 36 other people were deported. 

But the bombing campaign continued. In late April 1919, some 30 bombs were put in the mail addressed to such people as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, a Bureau of Investigation agent, Congressional sponsors of the anti-anarchist legislation and Attorney General Palmer himself. Two caused injuries, but the rest had either been set aside for insufficient postage or were retrieved before they could be delivered. Two months later, eight bombs went off simultaneously in various cities. Targets included a member of the Massachusetts legislature and again, Attorney General Palmer. A bomber blew himself up outside Palmer’s Washington home. 

The Attorney General’s response was the massive dragnet known as the Palmer Raids. Eight months later, on September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn buggy loaded with explosives blew up outside the offices of J.P. Morgan on Wall Street, killing 33 people and wounding hundreds more.

Above: the aftermath of a 1920 anarchist bombing in front of J.P. Morgan headquarters in NYC

The press and the public remained fairly calm, possibly because of apprehension about what widespread panic could mean for the stock market. The New York stock exchange opened on the day following the bombing and a previously scheduled Constitution Day event was attended by thousands of New Yorkers.  

The smattering of subsequent bombings was viewed more as a nuisance than an existential threat, as the anarchist scare faded away. More enduring was the xenophobic suspicion of immigrants, as well as the notion that such “foreign influences” as trade union organizing and socialism were fundamentally anti-American. The index of subversives maintained by J. Edgar Hoover of the Bureau of Investigation soon had 450,000 names.

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