Tag Archives: Washington DC

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.
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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

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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.

My debut on the Travel Channel, chatting about the Astor Place Riot

This past week I made my debut on the Travel Channel as a guest on Mysteries At The Museum hosted by Don Wildman.   The show explores history via actual objects is various museums throughout the United States.  The subject this time around was the Astor Place Riot.  The object in focus: A copy of Macbeth owned by William Macready, the actor who became the ire of the mob on May 10, 1849.

Some of you may remember we devoted an entire podcast to the Astor Place Riot back in 2014. [For more information, look here!]  Here’s the video of my appearance on Mysteries at the Museum, filmed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC:

Afterwards one of the curators gave me a little ‘backstage’ tour of the Folger.  The museum opened in DC in 1932, cultivated from the vast Shakespeare collection of Henry Clay Folger, president of Standard Oil. You can find a bit of Folger’s love in New York City as well; the Shakespeare Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was also founded by him.

I got to explore their basement archives a bit and was shown some folios, programs and other Shakespeariana with some New York collections.  Here are a few of my pictures from that tour.  My favorites were the 19th century theater programs printed on silk! Wow those kids in the Gilded Age really know how to market a show to its target audience.

I was pleased to see the Folgers were a fan of Shakespeare kitsch as well.

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And if you’re a fan of prop making, these were genuine treasures — full-color displays of original scenery used in some of the greatest Shakespeare productions of the Gilded Age.

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And after you enjoy your time at the Folger Shakespeare Library, you literally step out the door and emerge with this view. 
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More information on the Folger Shakespeare Library can be found here. AND look here for more on Mysteries at the Museum. New episodes every Friday!

I want to thank the crew at the Travel Channel for a very enjoyable day, talking history in DC. Hope to do it again soon!

History In The Making 8/19: White House Down Edition

Above: An engraving the gutted Capitol building by William Strickland (LOC)

Two hundred years ago this week (on August 24, 1814), the British invaded Washington DC and torched not just the White House, but a great many other government buildings. “Of the Senate house, the President’s palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins” [Eyewitness To History]

The most recent New York Times’ Streetscapes column by Christopher Gray explores Manhattan’s aerial bridges and mentioned the Bowery Boys website and our recent photo gallery by Alexander Rea of the Gimbels traverse.  [New York Times]

You know what closes next week FOREVER? Kim’s Video. Crank up your DVD players and go visit them one final time before they close on August 25. [Jeremiah’s Vanishing NY]

Help save the Subway Inn, a classic dive bar near Bloomingdale’s that’s being shuttered for — what else — a luxury apartment building. [New York Neon]

Some fascinating history from Cincinnati — a fiery courthouse riot that erupted in 1884 over the course of three bloody days. [Murder By Gaslight]

The Panama Canal opened 100 years ago on August 15, 1914.  The United State maintained a presence in the Canal Zone until 1999. [Smithsonian]

Below: The American steamship SS Ancon makes the first official transit through the locks of the Panama Canal, August 15, 1914:

That rascal Daniel Sickles, the beloved politician and veteran who killed the son of Francis Scott Key

We don’t have large, parade-like funeral processions marching up the avenues as they once did during the Gilded Age and in the early years of the 20th century.

These events were times of public mourning and a bit of festivity.  Most often they involved the passing of a well-connected political leader or a popular entertainers.  They were somber and reverent affairs; afterwards the saloons along the side streets benefited graciously, tributes and toasts into all hours of the night.

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One hundred years ago today, on May 8, 1914, New Yorkers filled the streets — from Fifth Avenue up to St. Patrick’s Cathedral — to mourn the passing of Daniel E. Sickles, one of the city’s most heralded war veterans.

Having marshaled up volunteers in New York in the early days of the Civil War, Sickles distinguished himself as a bold and commanding general, gathering military promotions through sheer ambition. (He was one of the few commanders in Abraham Lincoln’s army without a West Point education.)

During the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles was severely injured and had his right leg amputated. (At right: Sickles posing for Matthew Brady, clearly before the events of Gettysburg.)

He spent his years after the war polishing his war credentials and maneuvering from one political appointment to another.  Sickles belatedly received the Medal of Honor and, situated from his home at 23 Fifth Avenue, was acclaimed in later life in one of New York’s greatest living veterans.

Sickles’ military career, however, was built as an exercise in reputation rehabilitation.  When the war with the South arrived, he saw an opportunity to change the conversation about himself.  His bravery in service to the Union, never questioned, served a dual purpose for Sickles.  Today we might call this “re-branding.”

For in the years preceding the Civil War, the young politician was also known as a cold-blooded murderer who held a unique distinction in the history of legal proceedings.

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In April of 1859, New York Congressman Daniel Sickles became the first person in history to ever be acquitted of a crime due to temporary insanity.

The crime in this case was the February murder of Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States.

Their lives almost resemble an episode of House of Cards.  Key had been having a very open affair with Sickles’ wife Teresa. (Pictured at right)

Daniel, however, was something of an epic rake himself.  With no thought to his own or his wife’s reputation, Sickles was once passionately obsessed with the New York prostitute Fanny White, going so far as to take her into the Albany assembly chamber for a tour.  There were even rumors that some of Sickles’ campaign election costs were covered by White.

But Key was hardly a wallflower; the famous son was a charming widower who bewitched the women of Washington DC with his intelligence, elegance and wealth.  He and Teresa met in 1857 and began their affair soon after, meeting often once a day and openly flirting with each other at a society balls.

When Sickles did finally discover the affair, he was distraught and sickened, before turning violently angry.  On February 27, 1859, Sickles approached Key in DC’s Lafayette Squarea short distance from the White House — and shot him in the groin.

“You villain, you have dishonored my house, and you must die!” Sickles reportedly said.

He shot Key again in the chest and would have shot him directly in the head had the gun not misfired.

Said the New York Times the following day, “The vulgar monotony of partisan passions and political squabbles has been terribly broken in upon to-day by an outburst of personal revenge, which has filled the city with horror and consternation.”

Above: An illustration of the Sickles trial, courtesy Library of Congress

The condition of Sickles’ mental state during and following the murder would be closely dissected in court. A colorful swath of testimony described Sickle as everything from disturbingly serene to a raging lunatic.

According to authors Michael Lief and H. Mitchell Caldwell, “These conflicting stories may be exaggerations on the part of creative witnesses, or they may be evidence that Sickles was driven to the edge, past the breaking point, entirely out of his mind.”

One of the lawyers who helped craft the insanity defense was Edward M. Stanton, later to be Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War.  Their defense of temporary insanity — never successfully tried in a U.S. court — was sprung upon the jury, nested within an extravagant bed of prose, classical quotations and moral quandary.

“It is folly to punish a man for what he cannot help doing?” asked associate defense attorney John Graham.  Apparently so, it seems, for in April, a jury acquitted Sickles, taken with the plight of a man wronged by his unfaithful and deceitful wife. (His attorneys did a spectacular job of burying Sickle’s own unfaithfulness and deceit.)

At left: 23 Fifth Avenue, the home of Daniel Sickles and the location of his death on May 5th, 1914

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Fifty-five years later, Sickles’ many legitimate accomplishments (and, let’s be honest, his relentless self-promotion) assured that this unusual crime was rendered a footnote when he died on May 5.

His New York Times obituary is an extraordinary bit of word play:  “Philip Barton Key … paid attention to Mrs. Sickles, and Sickles shot and killed Key on the street in Washington D.C. on February 27, 1859.”

The focus then turns on Sickles’ “gracious” forgiveness of his wife: “I am not aware of any statute or code of morals,” said Sickles to his critics, “which makes it infamous to forgive a woman….I shall strive to prove to all that an erring wife and mother may be forgiven and redeemed.”

In reality, the two never reconciled.  Teresa died in 1867 at age 31, her reputation destroyed.  A few years later, Sickles became the ambassador to Spain, returned to his legendary womanizing and eventually married a well-connected daughter of a Spanish official.

He spent his final years at his Fifth Avenue home nearly bankrupt, his only means of support coming from his children and his now-estranged second wife.  “[S]everal attempts were made to seize the art treasures  in his Fifth Avenue home because of debt,” noted the Times.

Below: Daniel Sickles at a 1913 Gettysburg reunion, accompanied by his live-in secretary Eleanora Wilmerdirg