When Dynamite Turned Terrorism Into an Everyday Threat (2024)

Magazine|When Dynamite Turned Terrorism Into an Everyday Threat


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When Dynamite Turned Terrorism Into an Everyday Threat (1)

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In early 20th-century America, political bombings became a constant menace — but then helped give rise to law enforcement as we know it.

Credit...Photo Illustration by Dan Winters

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By Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is the author of “The Infernal Machine: A True Story of Dynamite, Terror and the Rise of the Modern Detective,” from which this article is adapted.

July 4, 1914. 9:16 a.m. The first indication that something had gone terribly wrong on the upper floors of 1626 Lexington Avenue arrived in the form of a deafening sound wave. The Times would later compare it to “a broadside from a battleship.” Seconds after the boom, East Harlem pedestrians were shielding themselves from fragments of brick and cement and glass raining down from above. A quick glance upward revealed that the top three floors of 1626 Lexington had been demolished by some sort of blast.

The explosion shattered hundreds of windows in nearby buildings, and furniture from the top-floor apartments shot out across the roofline. As screams from the partly collapsed six-story structure began to rise, the pedestrians on the sidewalk realized that the debris raining down on them was not merely fragments of the ruined tenement building. They were also being bombarded by human remains. When the dust cloud from the blast cleared, a horrifying sight appeared in the carnage of the upper floors: the lifeless body of a man dangling from the fire escape, his legs twisted at a grotesque angle, the back of his skull blown out.


When Dynamite Turned Terrorism Into an Everyday Threat (2)

By the time the newly appointed commissioner of the New York Police Department, Arthur Woods, arrived at the scene, along with the city’s chief bomb expert, Owen Eagan, firefighters had pulled the body down from the fire escape. Searching through the dead man’s jacket, the police found a notebook signed “Arthur Caron.” Woods recognized the name immediately: Caron was an anarchist who had recently spearheaded a series of pickets outside John D. Rockefeller’s estate in Tarrytown, protesting the Ludlow massacre in Colorado, where almost a dozen striking miners and their families were killed by military forces. Caron was a known associate of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, arguably the two most prominent political radicals in the United States at that time, and Berkman had vowed to respond to the Ludlow crimes with dynamite. This was no gas leak or construction mishap, Woods realized. The N.Y.P.D. would later determine that the explosion was an accident, but the bomb that detonated that morning had been intended for an act of political terrorism.

“The bomb was of the most powerful construction ever employed in the perpetration of an outrage of this kind in this city,” Eagan told the assembled reporters after a thorough examination of the crime scene. “I cannot understand why there was not even a greater loss of life.” But if the destructive power of the explosive was unusual, the fact that civilians were tinkering with dynamite in an apartment building was hardly anomalous at that moment in the city’s history. Eagan spent a quarter-century on the force, until his death in 1920; over that period, he was called on to either dismantle or survey the wreckage from something on the order of 7,000 bombs, or “infernal machines,” as the press came to call them.

The bombs came in all kinds of packages. Often they arrived in tin cans, emptied of the olive oil or soap or preserves they were manufactured to contain, now wedged tight with sticks of dynamite. Sometimes they were wrapped with an outer band of iron slugs, designed to maximize the destruction; conveyed to their target location in a satchel or suitcase; “accidentally” left behind in the courthouse, or the train station, or the cathedral. And sometimes the bomb was just a naked stick of dynamite with a fuse simple enough to be lit with the strike of a match, ready to be flung into an unsuspecting crowd.

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When Dynamite Turned Terrorism Into an Everyday Threat (2024)
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