Tag Archives: World War I

The marks of World War I, scattered throughout the five boroughs

Echoes of the first World War, one hundred years behind us, can still be found in virtually every neighborhood of New York City.

In Kevin C. Fitzpatrick’s revealing and compact guidebook World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War, these memories linger in familiar landmarks and obscure monuments alike. The effect of assembling these reminders in one book is eye-opening; collecting them brings a new sense of poignancy to markers often ignored.

Fitzpatrick organizes these marvelous finds by subject, but in my opinion the most helpful section is near the end, where all entries are arranged by borough and neighborhood.  It’s a book designed for American history buffs and locals who just want to make new connections with their neighborhoods. (There’s even a few maps for those who enjoy self-guided walking tours.)

A few of my favorite World War I related artifacts featured in the book:

Pilot Albert S. Heinrich on Governors Island July 4, 1914. Heinrich built airplanes for the war effort during WWI. (Library of Congress)

Fort Jay Airfield and the Early Birds

Sure, Governors Island is a veritable pleasure garden now, but back in 1916-17, it was a pivotal location for wartime flight training, the spot of one of America’s first airfields.

Writes Fitzpatrick: “More than two dozen pioneer aviators trained here, and many shipped out as America’s first combat pilots.”

Library of Congress

James Montgomery Flagg and Howard Chandler Christy Studios

Two artists most associated with the war propaganda effort worked and lived on the same block on the Upper West Side.

Fitzpatrick: “Christy is remembered for his luscious palette and fetching women, often dressed in men’s uniforms, next to slogans such as ‘Gee! If I Were A Man I’d Join The Navy.’ But Flagg created the real icon, instantly recognizable a century later: Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer over ‘I Want You.'”

Photo by Jim Henderson/Wikimedia

The Red Hook Doughboy

There are Doughboy statues all over New York but they are not always well highlighted. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook holds one of these treasures which once sat in a local park.

Fitzpatrick: “It was vandalized, the bronze plaques stolen, and the memorial ruined. In 1972 it was hauled to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5195, where today it is locked up behind a steel fence next to 325 Van Brunt Street. It was repaired and memorial plaques replaced.”

World War I New York:
A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick
Globe Pequot Press

 

NOTE: Fitzpatrick also has a book on the Algonquin Round Table and joined us for our podcast on the subject back in March.

AT TOP: The Victory Arch which once sat astride Madison Square Park. While the arch is no longer there, dozens of other memorials still grace the streets of the city.

OUR ISOLATION IS OVER: In ‘The Great War’, PBS presents a different take on America’s entry into World War I

One hundred years ago this week, the United States of America rose to assist its European allies and officially declared war on Germany.

This was an unprecedented moment in this country’s history, a signal of its rising importance on the world stage and a declaration of the United States as the standard bearer of democracy.

But this declaration was also a delayed reaction. In most ways, America was already at war.

PBS marks this important moment in history with an intense three-part mini-series The Great War, looking at this country’s involvement in the European conflict from vivid and surprisingly fresh angles.

Below: An exclusive clip from The Great War, of the initial influence of Tin Pan Alley on the early opinions of Americans:

My confession: I love great historical stories of war, but I do not always like war documentaries. There’s a certain uniformity to many of them that’s rather numbing — black-and-white stock footage of smoky battlefields, static maps of troop movement, battles without context. Wars are sometimes presented as impressive events, devoid of humanity.

The Great War is rather unique (and potentially frustrating for some true war-history fanatics), easing deliberately into discussion of the conflict in the same way that Americans would have learned of it themselves during the summer of 1914.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by members of the revolutionary movement Young Bosnia, did not seem like the sort of event that would concern the dinner conversations of regular Americans. Many believed themselves isolated from those sorts of conflicts by an ocean; if anything, the Gilded Age proved that the United States was equal, if not greater, to those foreign cultures.

At yet, as the situation escalated, bringing in Germany, Russia, France and eventually Great Britain into the conflict, it would seem the United States would be dragged in as well — whether its leaders admitted it or not.

The Flatiron Building, for a time, became a war recruitment office.

The first part of The Great War (airing Monday night) takes the temperature of America from 1914 to 1917, a country torn into sympathizers and pacifists.

Because of this country’s unique make-up of immigrants, the European struggle ignites a thousand smaller conflicts here. Many race to their old homelands. Suffragists, in a struggle for their basic rights, ignite an anti-war movement. President Wilson, in a fierce re-election bid in 1916, brandishes the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out of War’.

A campaign vehicle for Thomas Woodrow Wilson candidacy in the 1916 American elections. 1916 USA

But in fact, America was already engaged in the conflict — on both sides of the battle, depending on who you were and where you lived in America. German immigrants felt embattled and rallied for peace. But events such as the sinking of the Lusitania and the explosion at Black Tom Island soon turned the opinions of most American to the cause of war. How then could a powerful nation enter such a conflict from thousands of miles away?

A faux battleship was constructed in Union Square in 1917 to encourage participation in the war effort:

Library of Congress

Part Two (airing Tuesday, April 11) explores the mobilization and training of American forces. But while the documentary does follow a set of individual stories of men going to war (such as that of Alan Seeger, a Greenwich Village poet ), it spends a significant time on American shores, observing the efforts of many (led by Wilson’s propaganda chief George Creel) to drum up excitement and patriotism — and others whose opposition to war remains steadfast.

We do follow the journey of one entire squad of soldiers, and it’s a truly amazing tale — the Harlem Hellfighters, the first African-American regiment to engage in the conflict. They were assigned to the French Army as many American troops refused to fight alongside them. What the French got was a well-trained, precise and sometimes vicious squadron. (Thanks to the under appreciated James Reese Europe, they also had a renown military band.)

Below: An exclusive clip from The Great War, of national outrage in 1918 of ‘slackers’ and an extraordinary raid in New York City.

It’s not until Part Three (airing Wednesday) that American forces, led by General John J. Pershing, are fully engaged along the Western Front.

By this time, tens of thousands of Allied soldiers had been killed, The film’s unique point of view can be unsettling at times; there are so many perspectives to tell — and the filmmakers should be credited with this uniquely 21st century approach — that the larger canvas of war and its cruel atrocities often leaves center stage for a time, only to come crashing into the narrative with jarring force.

There’s no escape in Part Three. The battles of the Hundred Day Offensive are depicted in ominous, almost otherworldly detail. Meanwhile, back in the United States, campaigns to drive ‘slackers’ and anti-war agitators into the open tramples upon basic constitutional rights and escalates the fears of regular Americans.

Over six hours, The Great War leaves you sorrowful, exhilarated and hungry to learn more.  I’d recommend pairing this with another Europe-focused film series — the BBC’s The First World War or, for something older, the epic 1964 series produced by England, Canada and Australia — also called The Great War.

During the live broadcast, please following along with me on Twitter @BoweryBoys where I’ll be sharing trivia about American and its involvement in World War I throughout the show.

THE GREAT WAR
PBS, American Experience
Debuting April 10, 9/8C
Check your local listings

 

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.

Danger in the Harbor: World War I and the Black Tom Explosion of 1916

PODCAST The tale of the Black Tom Explosion which sent shrapnel into the Statue of Liberty and rocked the region around New York harbor. 

On July 30, 1916, at just after 2 in the morning, a massive explosion ripped apart the island of Black Tom on the shoreline near Jersey City, sending a shockwave through the region and thousands of pounds of wartime shrapnel into the neighboring Ellis Island and Bedloe’s Island (home to the Statue of Liberty).

Thousands of windows were shattered in the region, and millions woke up wondering what horrible thing had just happened.

The terrifying disaster was no accident; this was the sabotage of German agents, bent on eliminating tons of munitions that were being sent to the Allied powers during World War I.  Although America had not yet entered the war, the United States was considered an enemy combatant thanks to weapons manufactures in the New York region and around the country.

But the surprising epicenter of German spy activity was in a simple townhouse in the neighborhood of Chelsea.

ALSO: New Yorkers still feel the ramifications of the Black Tom Explosion today at one of America’s top tourist attractions.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #197: DANGER IN THE HARBOR: THE BLACK TOM EXPLOSION

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The location of Black Tom Island in relation to Jersey City, circa 1880.

Courtesy New Jersey City University
Courtesy New Jersey City University/ Prepared for the National Board of Health, Washington, D.C.(Hoboken, N.J.: Spielmann & Brush, 1880)

 

The Statue of Liberty in relation to Black Tom (situated in the background) in 1912

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

The view of Jersey City from a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, 1918.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Images of the grim aftermath of the explosion (courtesy Liberty State Park):

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corbis

 

Associated Press
Associated Press

 

This series of photos (courtesy Library of Congress) shows the efforts of divers and salvagers looking for remaining munitions that had sunk into the harbor!

1 2 3 4 6

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The front page of the New York Tribune the following day:

trib

 

The Kingsland munitions explosion of January 11, 1917, caused millions of dollars in damage, but no lives were lost thanks to the efforts of a single switchboard operator named Tessie McNamara who stayed at her post throughout the disaster.

tessie

 

To give you some idea of the size of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, here’s a picture of its replacement during the 1984 renovation. It can only be accessed via a very narrow stairway.

pic

Federal Hall: Now and Always An American National Treasure

Federal Hall National Memorial, currently administered by the National Park Service, has always been a popular landmark with tourists thanks to its position on one of the most photographed intersections in New York. Who can resist that noble statue of George Washington silently meditating on the financial juggernaut of Wall Street?

Today Federal Hall was officially named an official American National Treasure, part of the ongoing Saving Places program by National Trust for Historic Preservation calling attention to endangered landmarks of national significance.  It joins an impressive hodgepodge of local landmarks such as South Street Seaport, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Whitney Studio.

While this sounds like a distinction that might pique the interest of Nicolas Cage — after all, he broke into Trinity Church up the street in the first National Treasure film — the National Treasure program gives a boost to historic places that may be otherwise neglected or under-appreciated.  When’s the last time you were there?

Here are a few facts about the history of Federal Hall that you may not have known:

1. This isn’t the real Federal Hall The original structure was built in 1699, built by the British who used  materials from the city’s demolished north defense wall — aka the wall of Wall Street — to construct it.  It was the center of most governmental functions, from city administration to later federal functions.

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2. It was remodeled by a controversial architect.  Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer redesigned the structure in time for its use as the first national capital. According to David McCullough, “it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style.”  L’Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC from Maryland swampland and be fired from that project — by George Washington.

Courtesy Nationaal ArchiefCourtesy Nationaal Archief

3. George Washington was first inaugurated here on April 30, 1789. The King James bible he was sworn in with — property of a New York Freemason lodge — is still at Federal Hall.

From the Bowery Boys Instagram feed:

 

4. The original Federal Hall was torn down in 1812 when city administration moved to the new City Hall.  Its materials were sold off to make other buildings in the city.

Below: Wall Street in 1825 without a Federal Hall, either old or new!

New_York,_Wall_Street_1825

5. The current Federal Hall is actually the original U.S. Custom House which opened in 1842, replacing a structure used for that purpose at 22-24 Wall Street.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

6. The offices of the Custom House again moved in 1855, and the building was used as the U.S. Sub-Treasury building. In 1913 it became the first place in New  York to buy the original buffalo nickel. 

Below: Suffrage proponents Mrs. W.L. Prendergast, Mrs. W.L. Colt, Doris Stevens, Alice Paul stop in front of Federal Hall

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

7. In 1918 Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks famously drew thousands to the steps of Federal Hall to promote the sale of war bonds.   Later that year doughnuts were auctioned off from its steps as a war fund-raiser.

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8.  In 1920 a wagon full of dynamite exploded across the street from the Sub-Treasury, killing 38 people in what is today still an unsolved mystery.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

9. The Sub-Treasury had moved out by the 1930s, and the building was officially re-opened as the Federal Hall Memorial Museum in January 1940.  It was inspired in part by America’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. The 1939-40 World’s Fair presented a replica of the original Federal Hall even after an earlier version of Federal Hall in Bryant Park failed to attract visitors. 

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

10. Federal Hall received a massive renovation in 2006 after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 weakened the foundations of the building.

 

Check out the official announcement at the website for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Top image by the Wurts Brothers, taken in 1908. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

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.

The Lusitania’s final voyage, breathlessly told

They said the Lusitania couldn’t be sunk. The German telegrams to the contrary were merely cheap scare tactics. Besides, England will provide protection once in their heavily guarded waters. The boat is simply too big to sink. There are plenty of lifeboats, enough for the entire passenger list. Even those in steerage!

And the best one — there are Americans on board. Germany wouldn’t risk dragging her into war.

The excuses made by the passengers and crew of the Lusitania seem strikingly naive now, almost 100 years to that May 7th afternoon when the premier vessel of the Cunard fleet was taken down — by a single German torpedo — and brought to the bottom of the ocean in all of 18 minutes.

The deck of the Lusitania, 1905-07, courtesy SMU Central University
The deck of the Lusitania, 1905-07, courtesy SMU Central University

Dead Wake, the captivating new narrative non-fiction by Erik Larson, follows the tragic fate of the Lusitania from four sectors.  In England, a group of cryptoanalysts in shadowy Room 40  attempt to crack German messages as their U-boats began prowling through British-controlled waters. Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson, still mourning the loss of his wife, attempts to keep American neutrality intact in the face of growing threats.

But the two central perspectives are what grant Dead Wake its lurching, inevitable dread.  And Larson switches between them like the dance of predator and prey in a nature documentary.

The Lusitania on one of its early voyages, 1906, courtesy Royal Museum Greenwich
The Lusitania on one of its early voyages, 1906, courtesy Royal Museum Greenwich

In New York, docked at Chelsea Piers, passengers from all walks of life board the Lusitania, ready for leisure and occupied with trivial affairs of the day. The bookseller Charles Lauriat Jr. boards with a valise of valuable literary works. Theodate Pope, the spirited, independent woman who’s clearly Larson’s favorite,  hits the decks with her mysterious male companion Edwin Friend. A pregnant Bronx woman named Margaret Kay boards with her young son Robert, destined to get the measles.  An entire family with the last name of Luck boards the ship, never a good sign in these kinds of books.

And then there’s the enigmatic Preston Prichard, a Canadian medical student described in such striking, beatific terms that it spells doom for him almost immediately.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the other narrative course follows the U-20 submarine captained by Walther Schwieger, a stern and sometimes unforgiving man in charge of a lonely vessel cutting through the waters of the Irish Sea.  Submarine warfare was primitive by nature and callous by design. Captains gauged the success of a mission not by numbers of ships sunk, but the amount of tonnage destroyed. Human lives were lightly considered.

Sinking of the Lusitania, European postcard
Sinking of the Lusitania, European postcard

Larson is best known for a certain flamboyant style of storytelling, meshing two or more sometimes unrelated story arcs to create a swelling crescendo of melodrama. His books bristle with energy even when artificially cultivated. His best known book, The Devil In the White City, works entirely because of this particular narrative mechanism, weaving together the tales of the Chicago World’s Fair and a ruthless serial killer

But in Dead Wake, it’s the inevitable confrontation between the Lusitania and the U-20 that drives the story, and Larson finely manages the tension.

He prefers to spend time with lesser known people aboard the Lusitania and barely looks at its most famous passengers — Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt or the Broadway impresario Charles Frohman. Once the torpedo hits, you’re genuinely invested in situations all throughout the boat.

The book has a cinematic feel and comparisons with the film Titanic will surely be made.  You can almost feel the urge to transform passengers like Pope or Prichard into the next Rose or Jack.  But the story never lapses into phoniness or boisterous, over-descriptive speculation for long. There are thankfully few of those artificial “she felt the wind in her hair” moments that hamper other narrative non-fiction book events. Larson is the master of this particular genre, and once the torpedo hits the ocean liner on that fateful May afternoon, he’s in full control of the story.

When you get to Dead Wake‘s halfway point, prepare to keep your afternoon open, because you won’t want to put it down.

Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Crown Publishers

 

 

On this Veteran’s Day, a salute to the Harlem Hellfighters!

The men of the 369th who were awarded France’s Criox de Guerre for distinguished acts of heroism:  Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor

New York’s 369th Infantry Regiment was America’s first African-American regiment engaged in World War I.  While many white American soldiers would have been happy to serve next to trained regiments of any color, intense racial prejudice in the United States forced many who signed up to fight for their country to instead be assigned to the French army.

Nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, the regiment served alongside the French during the summer and fall of 1918.  Perhaps the most famous soldier of the 369th was Private Henry Lincoln Johnson (at right) whose deadly efficiency on the battlefield earned him the grim nickname Black Death.  He became the first of dozens from the 369th to receive the prestigious Criox de Guerre, the equivalent of the American Medal of Honor.

They returned to New York in February 1919 and marched through the streets of Manhattan on February 17 — from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in triumph.

From the New York Times the following day:

New York’s negro soldiers, bringing with them from France one of the bravest records achieved by any organization in the war, marched amidst waving flags and cheering crowds yesterday from Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.”

“At Thirty-Fourth Street the men marched under a shower of cigarettes and candy, and such tokens were pitched at them at other points in the line, but the files did not waver for an instant.

The men of the 369th photographed as they arrive back in New York City, 1919

From original caption (courtesy US National Archies):  “[The] 369th New York City Infantry (old 15th) [African American] troops and some of the 370th Infantry, Illinois [African American] troops, one of the most decorated regiments in the United States Army return to New York City. They saw [the] longest service of any American regiment as part of a foreign army, and had less training than any before going into action. They were never in an American division or brigade always being with the French.”

The 369th marching up Fifth Avenue.

The men are shown here in this assortment of newsreel footage from the war:

Pictures from the U.S. National Archives

In 1914, a Jersey City fireworks and munitions plant exploded. Was it sabotage by the Germans?

One hundred years ago today, the Detwiller & Street fireworks plant, located in the Greenville section of Jersey City, exploded in a horrible shower of fire and glass.  Four men were killed instantly and dozens of employees were injured.  Several surrounding buildings “fell to pieces like houses of cards.”   The rumble shook buildings throughout the city, up to Weehawken and even into Manhattan and Staten Island. [sources]

This was the sad, weird reality of munitions plants in the New York metropolitan area.  Staten Island was one of America’s largest producers of fireworks and saw its share of disasters, including a 1907 explosion in Graniteville.

But there was one huge difference between the 1907 Graniteville disaster and the 1914 Jersey City explosion — World War I.  Fireworks manufacturers during the war also produced munitions.  As the United States wasn’t yet engaged in the European conflict, some manufacturers were hired directly by the Allied nations.

The New York Tribune notes the unwillingness of executives to talk about the blast, and eventually the plant’s superintendent was eventually charged with “violations of the Crimes act, which makes it unlawful to store high explosives within 1,000 feet of a  highway unless in a fireproof vault.”

From the Evening World, October 3, 1914:

While the press reports of the day never explicitly mention Detwiller & Street’s munitions productions, it’s clear from later incidents that this was probably at least part of the plant’s output that year.  Another explosion at the very same plant in 1917 killed nine, all women.  A safety report clearly indicates then that “[t]he company is engaged in the manufacture of munitions for the Russian government.”  On hand to rescue some of the women was a Russian munitions inspector. [source]

This naturally leads to a more disturbing question — was the 1914 explosion sabotage by the German?

An early postcard from 1873.  The New York based Detwiller & Street specialized in “fireworks, time danger signals, railroad track torpedoes, etc.”  They were also responsible for the spectacular fireworks display at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

That’s one suggestion according to a 1918 book The German Secret Service In America 1914-1918, listing a set of suspicious fireworks accidents in New Jersey before Oct. 3, 1914, Jersey City disaster. While these early accidents may have been due to increased munitions contracts in the hands of inexperienced employees, the authors admit ominously, “These explosions were the opening guns.”

German orders from that year make clear the focus on American targets.  From the German Secret Service book: “[A] circular dated November 18, issued by German Naval Headquarters to all naval agents throughout the world, ordered mobilized all ‘agents who are overseas and all destroying agents in ports where vessels carrying war material are loaded in England, France, Canada, the United States and Russia.”

This had horrible consequence for the United States and those plants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in particular, leading to the greatest act of sabotage prior to America’s involvement in World War I — the Black Tom Explosion. (Pictured above: Aftermath of the Black Tom Explosion, courtesy Liberty State Park)

On July 30, 1916, a munitions depot on Black Tom pier in Jersey City was set ablaze by German agents.  The resulting explosion killed seven people on neighboring Ellis Island  in Jersey City and ricocheted through the metropolitan area, shattering windows in Times Square and over at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and shaking people from their beds in Brooklyn.  The Statue of Liberty also suffered damage from this act of sabotage.

And so it’s hard to read accounts of the Jersey City explosion from one hundred years ago and not imagine the possibility of sinister intention.

 

The Women’s Peace Parade, a moody anti-war protest in 1914

Give Peace A Chance: Women take to the streets in a stunning parade of mourning

Below are some pictures of what’s possibly New York City’s first anti-war protest organized by women, on August 29, 1914.

War had erupted that summer in Europe, sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June and unfurling into a continent-wide catastrophe, as countries entered the fray on either side of the conflict.  Within weeks of the conflict, New Yorkers with strong ties to individual nations were raising money and even boarding ships to fight alongside their distant countrymen.

In other cities with sizable European populations — such as Montreal — people were already marching, calling for an end to the conflict.  And leading this call were women already involved in social organizations, in particular, suffragists with networks that reached into high society.

Protesting war has been a touchy issue in New York City. [See the Civil War Draft Riots for such a protest gone wrong.]  The mayor had expressly forbade parades in support of individual nations on New York streets lest a microscopic version of the European conflict erupt here.  Anti-war was often associated with socialist organizations and indeed, that August, several did march in Union Square.  But these were comprised largely of men.

Which makes the Women’s Peace Parade so unusual.  Prominent women met at the Hotel McAlpin in mid-August to plan what was essentially a mourning parade, with its participants — from all walks of life — dressed in black as though in a funeral procession. (As you can see in the pictures, many women also chose to wear white in a symbol of peacetime, garnished with black accessories.)

Many people didn’t quite understand what a peace protest even meant, seeing it as a wasted effort. One letter writer to the New York Times asked. “Will any of the women who intend to parade in protest of the war explain what they mean to accomplish by such a demonstration?”

While the parade drew from prominent individuals in the suffrage movement, others were simply not convinced.  Carrie Chapman Catt, one of America’s most famous suffragists, remarked, “If anybody thinks that a thousand, or a million, women marching through New York or talking about peace in the abstract will have any effect on the situation in Europe, it is because they don’t know the situation in Europe.”

But, in fact, there was a motivation.  One of New York’s leading activists Harriet Stanton Blanch — daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton — was very succinct about their motivation. “This is a movement for actual work. We intend to do something definite. We wish to have a meeting at The Hague Peace Conference called.”

The parade began in the afternoon, marching down Fifth Avenue from 58th Street down to Union Square. Women who either lived or shopped along the avenue now marched in formal procession down it, accompanied by the “ominous beat of muffled drums.”  There was occasional applause but otherwise “the general silence of the great gathering was considered the best evidence of understanding.” [source]

Among the marchers were Lillian Wald and the nurses of Henry Street Settlement.
The skies were appropriately gray.  Some participants hoped for rain actually.  “Every woman in the slow-moving line wore some badge of mourning, either a band of black around her sleeve or a bit of crepe fluttering at her breast, as a token of the black death which is hovering over the European battlefields.” [source]

The parade marshal was the young Portia Willis, a magnetic lecturer on the suffragist circuit. .

While the organizers announced there was to be only one flag on display in the parade — the flag for peace — one other crept into the proceedings.  “The smallest Boy Scout was Alfred Greenwald, 4 years old, who … attracted much attention.  Little Alfred unknowingly broke the most stringent rule of the parade by carrying a flag.  He carried a United States flag but it was furled.” [source]

Unfortunately I was not able to locate any pictures of the second half of the parade — with 250 African-American women in solidarity, followed by “a number of Indian and Chinese women” and carloads of elderly women and babies.

Those who witnessed the parade would not soon forget it, especially in the following months as the conflict that would become known as World War I grew to eventually encompass the United States.