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The Lessons of America's 'First Age of Terror'

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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The bombing and attempted attacks in New York and New Jersey have further raised legitimate fears that the U.S. may be entering a dangerous era of homegrown terrorism. It’s worth remembering how the country endured similar ordeals in the past.

The most fraught period of bombings and other terrorist tactics occurred during the Gilded Age, when anarchists resorted to violence, aiming to destroy both capitalism and the state. The movement began in Europe, where the first generation of anarchists -- Peter Kropotkin, Johann Most, Errico Malatesta and others -- began implementing a program of “propaganda by deed.”

This was shorthand for revolutionary violence. Thanks to Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1864, a weapon was readily available, and the first generation of anarchists studied bomb-making with the same dedication they read esoteric tracts on political radicalism.

QuickTake The Rise of Lone-Wolf Terrorists

The German anarchist Johann Most led the way, publishing information on bomb-making in his radical newspaper, Die Freiheit. These tips were then reproduced in a tidy little pamphlet, "The Science of Revolutionary Warfare," that was rapidly translated into English.

By the mid-1880s, anarchists began a bombing campaign that left much of Europe on edge. A New York Times article from 1883 denounced what it called the “dispensation of dynamite” that had taken hold. “Random and seemingly capricious dynamite plots are contrived in all directions,” it reported. Such plots would soon materialize on American soil.

Most historians trace the opening shot of anarchist terrorism in the U.S. to May 4, 1886, when someone -- the culprit was never identified -- threw a bomb at the police during a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. A riot and gun battle ensued, leaving at least 11 people dead and many more wounded. A brutal crackdown on anarchists led to the conviction of eight people; four eventually went to the gallows, though the evidence against them was flimsy at best.

In the wake of Haymarket, newspapers and politicians seized on the idea that the country could be undermined by an inside enemy consisting almost entirely of foreign-born anarchists.

Raids of the hideouts of suspected anarchists were covered breathlessly. The Chicago Tribune reported on a typical raid in March 1886, which found a “regular anarchist arsenal” -- nitroglycerine, dynamite, guns and other weapons, and a copy of Most’s "Science of Revolutionary Warfare." For the rest of the decade and into the 1890s, bombs became a fact of life in American cities, though it was in Europe that anarchists had the greatest success in assassinating political and economic leaders.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, anarchists became far more aggressive in the U.S. Alexander Berkman, a prominent revolutionary, tried -- and failed -- to assassinate the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick with a pistol and a knife. He had planned to kill himself afterward, but was captured and imprisoned. In 1901, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz sent shock waves around the world when he assassinated President William McKinley.

On March 28, 1906, a bomb thrower tried to kill a cluster of policemen in New York's Union Square, but the device’s fuse was insufficiently long. The bomb horribly maimed its thrower and killed his accomplice. When police investigated these sorts of incidents, they found themselves faced with the same sorts of problems that law enforcement does today.

In 1908, the New York Times observed that on average, anarchists and others set off a bomb a month in New York. Yet there were few commonalities among the bombers that would allow the police to develop a profile. 

“We have found them among Americans, Italians and Greeks, Russians and Jews,” a police detective told the paper. They could belong to organized groups or be lone wolves, and the paper said it was next to impossible to single them out within the larger, law-abiding population.

To make matters more complicated, another, more diffuse group of radicals also adopted bombing as a tactic. The Iron Workers Union, seeking to break the power of U.S. Steel, founded Andrew Carnegie, resorted to dynamite to coerce employers to negotiate with the union. It detonated more than 100 bombs between 1906 and 1911 at industrial plants. The violence peaked in 1910, when two union organizers dynamited the offices of the pro-management Los Angeles Times, killing 21 and injuring many more.

A growing number of radicals adopted the terrorist toolkit in succeeding years. Antiwar activists, for example, are thought to have detonated a bomb in San Francisco in 1916 that killed 10 and wounded 40. But anarchists remained the most visible proponents of terrorism. In the late 1910s, they tried (but failed) to kill Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with a bomb; a plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral also failed. 

Terrorism had become such a fact of life by this time that newspapers ran articles blithely discussing the evolution of anarchist bombing techniques, which the Washington Post described in 1911 has having been “reduced to a science.” Would-be terrorists, the paper reported, now could pick from a range of explosive options, from crude kettle bombs to devices disguised in walking canes, lunchboxes and many other “fancy bombs.”

As hysteria over homegrown terrorists mounted, Attorney General Palmer undertook a series of raids that led to the arrest of suspected anarchists, many of whom were deported. The so-called Palmer Raids, which ran roughshod over civil liberties, eventually prompted widespread condemnation. Palmer, put on the defensive, claimed that labor radicals planned to overthrow the government on May 1, 1920. His fears proved unfounded, and the episode helped derail his bid for the presidency that summer.

More to the point, the clampdown didn’t put an end to anarchist bombings. On Sept. 2, 1920, a huge bomb went off on Wall Street. This episode, recounted by Beverly Gage in her book, "The Day Wall Street Exploded," killed 38 people dead and left hundreds wounded. Police never caught the perpetrators, but the attack was likely the work of Italian anarchists.

It may have been the creation of the Soviet Union that did the most to end anarchist bombings in the 1920s. As the Communists took power, they consolidated control over international radical labor movements. Anarchism, along with the idea of “revolution by deed,” became discredited. The Palmer Raids took a toll as well, driving many would-be bomb throwers out of business -- or out of the country.

While outbreaks of domestic terrorism continued to take place over the course of the 20th century, these never amounted to more than singular episodes: the Weathermen in the 1960s, Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s. But now we’re facing a problem far more reminiscent of what Gage has described as America’s “first age of terror.”

We survived that era. And with luck, we’ll survive this one, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net