Tag Archives: explosions

Heroine of the century: A New Jersey woman saves lives during terrible explosion

On the afternoon on January 11, 1917, workers in downtown Manhattan skyscrapers were jolted from their desks by a startling sight in New Jersey — an exploding munitions plant in Kingsland, a small community about nine miles south of New York City.

“For four hours Northern New Jersey, New York City, Westchester and the western end of Long Island listened to a bombardment that approximated the squad of a great battle — a bombardment in which probably half a million three-inch high explosive shells were discharged.” (New York Times)

A map from the New York Tribune:

A Canadian company Canadian Car and Foundry had been producing weaponry for Russia and Great Britain in Kingsland. All of it went up in a dramatic and deathly burst. Two square miles of town completely flattened.

Given the dangerous work of manufacturing exploding devices, unfortunate accidents occurred all the time. But was this something more? Was this an act of sabotage?

A slightly less interesting map from the New York Sun:

The region had been on edge for a few years. Although the United States had still not yet entered the European conflict, fireworks and munitions plants had been producing weapons for Allied forces — France, the United Kingdom and Russia.  By 1917, America was clearly considered an enemy agent by the warring Germans.

Just a few months earlier, on July 30, 1916, the area shook with the horrific explosion at Black Tom Island in Jersey City, NJ, an act of sabotage that blew out thousands of windows and even damaged the Statue of Liberty. (We recount the entire story in our podcast from 2016 about the Black Tom Explosion.)

Courtesy Lyndhurst Historical Society

Seven people died in that explosion the previous year. But in Kingsland that day, with a deadly blast even greater than that which had occurred at Black Tom, nobody died.

This is attributed to the heroism that day of a single woman — Lyndhurst resident Theresa Louise “Tessie” McNamara.

Tessie was a switchboard operator at the plant that fateful day. The explosions began in a building used for cleaning artillery shells. Once they began, the company’s buildings were a scene of confusion and chaos.

McNamara was immediately informed of the blaze, but kept to her station, broadcasting messages to every building in the complex, even as most others fled the site fearing for their lives.

From the New York Tribune: “McNamara, operator of the Kingsland Central, stayed in her revolving chair, with the receivers clamped to her ears, keeping the terrified town in touch with the outer world until the wires were blasted away.  Then she fainted, with her job well done, and was carried away to safety by Fred Walters, of East Rutherford.”

From the New York Sun: “It was emphasized from a dozen sources that one girl’s bravery stood between many hundreds of men and shocking death.”

From an interview of Miss McNamara: “Shells were dropping all around and I thought every minute would be my last. About a dozen buildings were now on fire and I had completed 36 calls. No more were coming in and I started for the door without coat or hat. Just then three of the boys who had missed me appeared in the office doorway. One of them shouted, ‘Come on now, Tess,’ but I couldn’t walk. My courage left me and I needed their assistance to get out” [source]

The explosion stranded tens of thousands of passengers along train lines in New Jersey. The explosion’s curious timing — at the end of the day, near closing time — meant that trains were filled with commuters on their way home from work.  Nobody was injured, but nobody got home in time for dinner that evening.

This begs the question — was the Kingsland Explosion purposefully set? Nobody was ever arrested, although many reported the mysterious behavior of an employee named Fiodore Wozniak who lived in New York.

From a statement by Wozniak’s foreman: “I noticed that this man Wozniak has quite a large collection of rags and that the blaze started in these rags. I also noticed the he had spilled his pan of alcohol all over the table, just preceding that time. I also noticed that someone threw a pail of liquid on the rags or the table almost immediately in the confusion ….. Whatever the liquid was, it caused the fire to spread very rapidly and the flames dropped down on the floor and in a few minutes, the entire place was in a blaze.

It was my firm conviction from what I saw, and I stated, that the place was set on fire purposely, and that has always been and is my firm belief.”

Wozniak later disappeared and never questioned.

In the 1970s, Germany did pay tens of millions of dollars in reparation for various acts of sabotage within the United States, but did specifically accept the blame for the Kingsland disaster.

Today you can visit a unique site associated with the explosion — a smokestack that somehow survived the disaster, near a plaque dedicated in Miss McNamara’s honor. [More details here]

 

For additional information visit the Lyndhurst  Historical Society page on the disaster.

Terror Spree: Harvard professor bombs U.S. Capitol, shoots JP Morgan

In the early days of July 1915, the United States was preparing for a subdued celebration of America’s 139th Independence Day.  It was hardly a festive time. War was still raging in Europe, and America was debating its entry on the side of Britain, Italy and France.

The deaths of 128 Americans aboard the RMS Lusitania on May 7 had forced the U.S.’s hand, some thought. President Woodrow Wilson pressed Germany for an apology while not yet calling for war. His Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan thought even that too harsh; he resigned in protest from Wilson’s cabinet in June.

The headlines were dire as it seemed the entire world would soon be caught in the maelstrom of the Great War.

And then, right before midnight, July 2, 1915, a bomb went off at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

It exploded in an empty reception area. “The explosion was a loud one and shook the entire building, breaking transoms and shattering plastering, ” said the Sun.  Windows and mirrors were smashed, but the only bodily harm it caused was throwing a watchman from his chair.

The Sun: “Some persons in the crowd which had gathered around the Capitol were inclined to believe that the bomb had been placed by some war fanatic as an act of resentment against the United States government.”

Below: The Capitol reception room after the explosion

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Courtesy Library of Congress

They were right. And Eric Muenter wasn’t done.

Before newspaper readers in New York City would find out about the bombing, its instigator would have already arrived in their city, with a roster of further crimes on his mind.

Muenter (pictured below), a former professor at Harvard University*, was a German sympathizer angered at American intervention in the war. He spread his vitriol wide, preparing to target private businessmen personally funding war efforts.  In fact targeting one of America’s most wealthy financiers — JP Morgan Jr.

Below: Muenter after he was captured

4502797-4840111722-cover

Following his sabotage at the Capitol, Muenter fled to New York on the morning of July 3 to wreak further chaos. He had a makeshift headquarters at the Mills Hotel (Seventh Avenue and 36th Street) where he had stored dozens of sticks of dynamite and fuses. At the port of New York, he managed to sneak aboard the SS Minnehana, an ocean liner filled with explosives destined for England, and install a time bomb to detonate once the ship was at sea.

Minnehaha-01
Courtesy Library of Congress

It’s at this time that a similar time bomb was placed at New York Police Headquarters at 240 Centre Street. The device here was later believed to be from the same batch of dynamite as Muenter’s. If he was involved, you have to admit he was incredibly efficient with his time, for by 8 am, he had boarded a train, headed to Glen Cove, Long Island.

Below: New York’s Inspector of Combustibles with Muenter’s steamer trunk filled with dynamite. (Courtesy Glen Cove Heritage)

Courtesy Glen Cove Heritage

JP Morgan Jr. had been in control of his father’s banking empire since the elder’s death in 1913. The son embodied America’s involvement in the Great War in the years before the U.S.’s official entry. He facilitated an unprecedented loan of 500 million dollars to the Allied countries, backed by a consortium of over 2,000 American banks.  The loans would soon grow to almost 3 billion dollars.

This made the financier both a symbol of American beneficence for some and a target of unwanted intervention for others. New York was a great stew of European diversity in the 1910s, and the far-away war often played out in the streets of New York, especially in German communities.

Morgan Jr had his recently-built summer home in Glen Cove, a palatial manor called Matinecock Point (pictured below). This was Muenter’s destination.

The assailant arrived, armed with two revolvers and a set of dynamite in his pocket, during an opportune breakfast meeting; the Morgans just happened to be entertaining the British ambassador Sir Cecil Spring-Rice.

Courtesy American Homes of Today, 1924
Courtesy American Homes of Today, 1924

At the door, Muenter pulled a gun on Morgan’s butler who, quickly thinking, directed the intruder down an opposite hall then shouted in the other direction for the Morgans to hide.  The family scattered throughout the house.

Eventually, for the safety of their children, the Morgans did appear at the second floor landing and lured Muenter to them.

“Now Mr. Morgan I have got you.” he said reportedly.

His wife Jane attempted to leap in front of the gunman but was harshly shoved out of the way.  Muenter then shot Morgan twice and prepared to fire again from the second pistol.

Fortunately Morgan had actually fallen into the gunman, pinning him to the floor. This allowed time for Mrs. Morgan and the children’s elderly nurse to finally apprehend the shooter. The fact that Spring-Rice, the British ambassador, also personally assisted in the capture of the shooter seems especially notable.

His plan thwarted, Muenter reportedly exclaimed, “Kill me! Kill me now! I don’t want to live any more. I have been in a perfect hell for the last six months on account of the European war.”

eric

Originally giving his names as Frank Holt, it was soon discovered that the assailant was in fact Muenter, the former Harvard professor.  In 1906, he was accused of poisoning his pregnant wife.  Most likely, he did indeed kill her, for he disappeared from campus, changing his name to avoid arrest and had apparently spent years cultivating this new identity.

Once in custody on Long Island, Muenter spilled the beans. “I wanted to attract the attentions of the country to the outrages being committed by those who are sending the munitions of war to the Allies.” [source]

Below is a fragment of a letter Muenter wrote to his father-in-law while in custody. “I learned to my sorrow that Mrs. M[organ] was hurt,” it begins.
letter

On July 5th the explosion at New York Police Headquarters went off, following another explosion at the home of Andrew Carnegie.  Nobody was hurt in these blasts. These similar explosions were later declared unrelated to the Muenter incident itself, but it grimly reinforces the danger New Yorkers faced during wartime, even so far away from the battlefields.

Morgan quickly recovered from his injuries although the attack had a chilling effect among the residents of Long Island’s Gold Coast. Security was quickly beefed up at Matinecock Point and at the estates of other wealthy financiers associated with the Morgan bank loan.

Below: Muenter in custody

Muenter

On the evening of July 6, Muenter leaped to his death from his cell at Nassau County jail in Mineola. While it was but a short drop, he had jumped head first, crushing his skull. The death was so bizarre and sudden — it actually made a loud, deafening thud — that investigators initially believed that he had placed a blasting cap in his teeth to hasten his demise.

But the reign of terror wasn’t over.  The time bomb that Muenter had placed aboard the SS Minnehaha did eventually explode while the ship was in the Atlantic. While it caught the ship ablaze, fortunately the ship was able to reroute to Halifax, and the fire was safely put out.

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For more information on this spellbinding case, I highly recommend this excellent write-up by Daniel E. Russell for Glen Cove Heritage.

NOTE: Original version of this story featured the mugshot of another bomber Alexander Burkman. It’s been corrected to include the proper mugshot.

*Press reports initially thought he was from Cornell.

Terror on Sunday: The failed plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral

On the afternoon of October 13, 1914, a bomb exploded in the northwest corner of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, sending deadly iron shrapnel flying through the room. A stained glass window was shattered and an 18-inch hole (shown in the picture below) was blown into the floor.  While the pews were partially filled with worshipers, there was only a single injury, to a boy whose head was grazed by a piece of flying metal.

That was the second bomb of the day; another explosive, downtown at St. Alphonsus Church on West Broadway, detonated a little after noon.

Photograph shows damage after an anarchist bomb explosion at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011 and Washington Herald, Oct. 15, 1914) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Photograph shows damage after an anarchist bomb explosion at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on October 13, 1914. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011 and Washington Herald, Oct. 15, 1914)  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

 

Such a disturbing attack in a public space would cause mayhem in the streets today.  Yet this sort of terrorism was disturbingly frequent one hundred years ago, a tactic used by anarchist groups to sow discontent.

Many of the attacks were primarily aimed at New York’s financiers. For instance, on July 4, 1914, a brownstone exploded on the Upper East Side in the Yorkville neighborhood, killing members of the Anarchist Black Cross.  The explosives had accidentally gone off and were intended for the home of John D. Rockefeller.

The interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral, circa 1907 (Clean-up photograph courtesy Shorpy.com)
The interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, circa 1907 (Clean-up photograph courtesy Shorpy.com)

No arrests had been made in the St. Patrick’s attack.  But detectives working with the New York Department of Combustibles were on the case, and, in March of 1915, they managed to thwart a second attack on St. Patrick’s with the help of a young detective named Emilio Polignani.

Polignani was only 25 years old. He had been a patrolman for only a few months when he was chosen in the fall of 1914 for a special assignment — to infiltrate anarchist circles and identify the perpetrators of the attack on St. Patrick’s.  His qualifications, according to the New York Times, were “his nationality, his newness to the force and most especially because Captain Tunney had decided that he had the nerve and the resource to carry him through tight places.”

St Patrick's Cathedral 1923 

St. Patrick’s Cathedral 1923

For four months, Polignani lived under cover (possibly not even allowed to speak to his wife) as Frank Baldo, attending anarchist meetings throughout the city, becoming familiar with several of the more radical members. It was in Yorkville that he became friends with an 18-year-old named Charles Carbone.

From the New York Times: “Carbone and Polignani became intimate and used to take long walks together, in which Carbone, according to the detective, inveighed against the rich and suggested bombs as a means of readjusting social inequalities.”

Polignani was even initiated into an anarchist group by swearing an oath administered “on the cross hilt of a dagger to bind him … to his comrades.”

Carbone confided to Polignani details of the botched July 4th bomb meant for Rockefeller. “I am an expert,” he said. “Nothing like that could happen to me.”

Frank Abarno, an Italian anarchist who was charged with planting a bomb in St. Patricks Cathedral, New York City, on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Frank Abarno, an Italian anarchist who was charged with planting a bomb in St. Patricks Cathedral, New York City, on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012)
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

 

On Christmas the detective met another anarchist named Frank Abarno who later professed the wish to bomb St. Patrick’s. Over the next two months, the three men walked along the East River and plotted a new attack at St Patrick’s, seen as the ultimate representative of both religion and wealth.  What Abarno and Carbone did not know was that Polignani sent pages from their bomb manual down to police headquarters.

Plans were finally hatched in late February to again bomb the cathedral. The men gathered explosive materials at a tenement on Third Avenue then wandering around the church the Saturday before, looking for a more effective spot in which to place an explosive.  Their movements were closely followed by other disguised detectives, clued in by Polignani of the anarchist’s plans.

The new attack on St. Patrick’s Cathedral was planned for March 2nd.  Abarno and Polignani left the Third Avenue tenement that morning with bombs placed under coats and armed with cigars to be used to light the fuses. (Curiously enough Carbone failed to show up; he was later arrested.) They headed towards the cathedral which was filled with hundreds of worshipers in the middle of morning Mass.

Luckily, Polignani had alerted his department of the details of the bomb attack. Waiting for them at St. Patrick’s were dozens of disguised detectives, so many that a Broadway theatrical costumer was employed to fashion the various false appearances.

“Of the fifty [detectives] stationed in the Cathedral,” said The Evening World, “[s]ome were disguised as women worshipers, two as scrubwomen, others as ushers.”

When Abarno  prepared to light the fuse on the bomb with his cigar, one of the scrubwomen “suddenly straightened up and seized [Abarno ] by the arm.” Another detective calmly strolled over to the lit bomb and pinched out the fuse. The Mass went entirely uninterrupted. (Read the breathtaking details of the capture here.)

Photograph shows Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone, who were accused and convicted of an anarchist plot to blow up St. Patrick's Cathedral in March 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Photograph shows Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone, who were accused and convicted of an anarchist plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral in March 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012)  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Polignani kept up the facade for most of the interrogation, and his would-be conspirators were none the wiser.  He argued with Abarno in jail, eventually getting him to talk openly about his involvement (to the delight of detectives who were listening in).  Abarno and Carbone both eventually broke down and were promptly convicted.  They were both sent to Sing Sing in April where they both served six year terms.

Newspapers the following day declared “the episode was the culmination of one of the most intricate pieces of detective work ever achieved by the New York police.”

However the bombings would continue.  The most dramatic incident would take place on September 16, 1920, with a bomb detonating on Wall Street, killing 30 people.

 

Owen Eagan (1957-1920), a bomb expert in the New York City Fire Department's Bureau of Combustibles. He is holding a bomb recovered from an attempted anarchist bombing of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project and New York Times, March 3, 1915) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Owen Eagan (1957-1920), a bomb expert in the New York City Fire Department’s Bureau of Combustibles. He is holding a bomb recovered from an attempted anarchist bombing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project and New York Times, March 3, 1915)
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

 

Detonations and flying cheese: Annotated news from 1913

I present this little news item from the June 6, 1913 New York Tribune in its entirety:

1)  The idea of bombs exploding all over the city is shocking to us today.  But in fact the threat of makeshift bombs were sometimes employed in extortion plots such as those by the Black Hand.  Most of these bombs were homemade and many never detonated. When they did, they were usually used to kill particular individuals.  The police department even had a Bureau of Combustibles; in 1913 they reported 125 such explosive devices.
2)  This bomb was placed at 268 Washington Street.  That stretch of Washington no longer exists today, but it would have been located in today TriBeCa neighborhood.  The building which sat at this address predictably held grocers of various sorts.
3)  Notably this address is indeed in “the heart of the fruit district,” Washington Market, where the city went to get one’s produce right off the trains from St. John’s Freight Depot.
4)  Garlick & Co. was a produce “commission merchant,” i.e. a grocery middle-man who buys or sells items for a percentage of the price, obviously a familiar concept today.  
5) The spectacularly-named victim, Bongiorno Zammaturo, was unharmed. I have a feeling the Tribune has gotten his last name wrong. Zammataro is a more frequent variation of this name.
6) This particular Greenwich Street Police Station, where officer Aichman reports, was closed by the police department five years after this incident for “lack of business.”  Another police station of Greenwich Street was active by the 1930s as the man who kidnapped and killed the baby of Charles Lindbergh was taken there.
7) The damage “amounted to scarcely $100” = $2,348.00 according to the Inflation Calculator.
8) An intact flying “twelve-pound Edam cheese” is the comic star of the show of this article.  For those not versed in delicious cheeses, Webster’s describes Edam as “a mild Dutch cheese of yellow color and fine flavor, made in balls weighing three or four pounds, and usually colored crimson outside.”  It’s that outside shell that turned this little cheese into a virtual cannonball, explaining why it “landed intact”.
By the way, did you know that New York state was America’s leading cheese maker in the mid-19th century, although by the time of this article, major cheese manufacturing was centered in the northern Midwest.
Below: An advertisement from April 1913, for cheese “with all the cream”
IN OTHER NEWS THAT DAY: The big local news of that day was the announcement that New York district attorney Charles S. Whitman was running for mayor to replace William Jay Gaynor who was not running again (and in fact would die in office that September).  Whitman became a national hero during the gangland murder trial that eventually convicted Charles Becker.  
As it turns out, Whitman wouldn’t run for mayor; instead, he ran for governor in 1914 — and won.
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Edit: I originally ran this ad in context of the article above, thinking it was Manhattan’s Washington Street, although it clearly says Brooklyn.  My apologies.  However since this ad was so interesting I thought I would keep it here anyway.  I find the pricing structure particularly interesting: