Anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric and bomb scares — in 1919

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO FLASHBACK - By Ron Gross­man rgross­man@chicagotri­

On May 3, 1919, Judge Ke­ne­saw Mountain Lan­dis looked down from a win­dow in his cham­bers as a po­lice de­tec­tive ex­ploded a bomb that had been re­moved for safety to the roof of a lower wing of Chicago’s fed­eral build­ing. For­tu­nately for Lan­dis, he had al­ready left for home when a pack­age con­tain­ing the ex­plo­sive de­vice ar­rived in the mail the pre­vi­ous day.

“I’d have opened it if I’d been here,” Lan­dis said.

The de­tec­tive pointed his re­volver at a wooden box con­tain­ing a glass tube, shat­ter­ing it with his third shot. To a Tri­bune re­porter, the re­sult­ing blast made it seem like a gi­ant fire­cracker had gone off.

“Dy­na­mite,” a Secret Ser­vice agent said upon ex­am­in­ing the frag­ments. “Enough to de­cap­i­tate a man.”

In fact, about a week ear­lier a sim­i­larly dis­guised bomb had blown off the hands of a house­keeper who’d opened a pack­age sent to Thomas Hard­wick, a former U.S. sen­a­tor from Ge­or­gia. One end of the par­cel was marked “Open Here,” and do­ing that had caused acid to drip on blast­ing caps that, in turn, trig­gered a stick of dy­na­mite.

That par­cel also had a dis­tinc­tive re­turn ad­dress — “Gim­bel Broth­ers” — that an alert postal worker in New York spot­ted on 16 pack­ages that had not been de­liv­ered be­cause they didn’t have suf­fi­cient postage stamps. A dozen more pack­age bombs were sub­se­quently found.

All were ad­dressed to po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and prom­i­nent busi­ness­men. That evoked fears that other bombs might be lurk­ing in the mail, as was wit­nessed by such Tri­bune head­lines as: “All De­part­ments of the Gov­ern­ment Hunt Senders of Death Mis­siles.”

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing ar­ti­cle re­ported that: “The word flew through Wash­ing­ton warn­ing the house­holds of cabi­net mem­bers, the Supreme Court jus­tices, and other of­fi­cials to be­ware of open­ing any pack­ages of un­known con­tents.”

So­cially and po­lit­i­cally, Amer­ica was bit­terly di­vided in 1919, much as it is nearly a cen­tury later. The recent case of more than a dozen pack­age bombs al­legedly sent by Ce­sar Sayoc, a Florida man who is a sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, is sim­i­lar to the 1919 case. But with one dif­fer­ence: The recent bombs dis­cov­ered over the course of about a week in Oc­to­ber all tar­geted prom­i­nent lib­er­als such as Hil­lary Clin­ton and Ge­orge Soros.

In 1919 the sus­pected bomb senders were lib­er­als, and the tar­gets were con­ser­va­tives, such as banker J.P. Mor­gan and oil mag­nate John D. Rock­e­feller.

The bombs of 1919 were dis­patched in late April — as if in­tended to ar­rive by May 1, or May Day, a hol­i­day cel­e­brated in­ter­na­tion­ally by trade unions and so­cial­ist par­ties. Af­ter the bomb sent to Lan­dis was found, U.S. Dis­trict At­tor­ney Charles Clyne rea­soned that the bombs were meant to be dis­cov­ered, as he told the Tri­bune.

“You can­not tell me,” he told the Tri­bune, “that the brains that con­ceived the in­fer­nal ma­chines, de­signed the wooden cylin­ders, du­pli­cated the pack­ages of Gim­bel Broth­ers, would over­look the de­tail of hav­ing the cor­rect postage and mail­ing the parcels so as to reach var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions si­mul­ta­ne­ously.”

Clyne’s the­ory was that the bomb mak­ers wanted to “make the na­tion be­lieve that a great upris­ing will oc­cur.”

In fact, rad­i­cal dis­senters had pre­vi­ously clashed with Judge Lan­dis, who had presided over the tri­als of those who broke a fed­eral law by protest­ing Amer­ica’s en­trance into World War I. In 1918, one of them, Wil­liam “Big Bill” Hay­wood, had been given a 20-year sen­tence by Lan­dis and was await­ing trans­fer to a prison when Chicago’s fed­eral build­ing was bombed. Re­spon­si­bil­ity for the deaths of three bystanders al­most au­to­mat­i­cally fell on the In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World, the mil­i­tant union Hay­wood headed.

The IWW was never for­mally im­pli­cated, how­ever.

The fol­low­ing year — and af­ter the pack­age bombs of April 1919 — a se­ries of ex­plo­sions rocked eight cities on June 2. The bombs were much larger than the ear­lier ones and were de­liv­ered by hand. Again, the tar­gets were prom­i­nent fig­ures, in­clud­ing the mayor of Cleve­land, a fed­eral judge in Pitts­burgh and U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral A. Mitchell Palmer.

None of the tar­geted men were killed, but Sec­re­tary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, nar­rowly es­caped in­jury. The fu­ture pres­i­dent and first lady lived across the street from Palmer, and their house was hit by de­bris when a man named Carlo Valdinoci in­ad­ver­tently blew him­self up with the bomb in­tended for Palmer.

Valdinoci would prove key to fig­ur­ing out who was be­hind the bomb­ings and bomb scares. He had worked for Cronaca Sovver­siva, an Ital­ian-lan­guage news­pa­per as­so­ci­ated with an an­ar­chist group called the Gal­leanists. Its phi­los­o­phy was also re­flected in fly­ers de­liv­ered along with the June bombs. Ti­tled “Plain Words,” they an­nounced: “There will have to be blood­shed … we will de­stroy to rid the world of your tyran­ni­cal in­sti­tu­tions.”

Fed­eral au­thor­i­ties traced the pam­phlets to a print shop in New York and ar­rested An­drea Salsedo, a type­set­ter, and Roberto Elia, a com­pos­i­tor, both an­ar­chists. They were taken to the fed­eral build­ing in New York, held in­com­mu­ni­cado and leaned on to give up their pre­sumed as­so­ci­ates. Elia re­fused to, and Salsedo ei­ther jumped or was pushed to his death out of an up­per-story win­dow.

Ei­ther way, the au­thor­i­ties were left with­out a case they could make in court, even as they were un­der in­tense pres­sure to do some­thing. Two days af­ter the June bomb­ings, a Tri­bune ar­ti­cle re­ported a ma­jor re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Jus­tice Depart­ment staff be­cause “a well-or­ga­nized group has un­der­taken a cam­paign of as­sas­si­na­tion and ter­ror­ism.”

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Palmer used the fear gen­er­ated by the bomb­ings to launch a mass roundup of im­mi­grants sus­pected of hav­ing ties to sub­ver­sive groups. Amer­ica was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a wave of anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment at the time. Hard­wick, the tar­get of one of the pack­age bombs, had spon­sored leg­is­la­tion to curb im­mi­gra­tion. Palmer wanted to make a run for pres­i­dent and thought his chances would be en­hanced by crack­ing down on for­eign-born rad­i­cals.

Dur­ing the en­su­ing “Red Scare,” as his­to­ri­ans have dubbed it, some 500 al­legedly dan­ger­ous im­mi­grants were de­ported, many to the Soviet Union, the site of a com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in 1917.

When Palmer’s pol­icy was put to prac­tice, the Tri­bune ran a head­line across its Jan. 2, 1920, front page: “Raid Reds Here: Seize 150.” It re­ported that au­thor­i­ties raided the “open and secret gath­er­ing places and homes of the 70 or more rad­i­cal cults and their mem­bers.”

On Feb. 14, the Tri­bune re­ported: “De­por­ta­tion of alien Reds has been pas­sion­ately protested by rad­i­cals and sen­ti­men­tal­ists on the ground that it was a de­par­ture from our tra­di­tional pol­icy of asy­lum.”

The U.S.’ asy­lum pol­icy was an idea the pa­per em­phat­i­cally re­jected, ar­gu­ing: “They were re­turned to bol­she­vik Rus­sia, where con­di­tions are what they would have them be­come in Amer­ica.”

Civil lib­er­tar­i­ans, how­ever, were out­raged by the heavy-handed “Palmer raids,” in which ar­rests were made and de­por­ta­tions were or­dered with­out af­ford­ing their sub­jects due process of law.

The Chicago Church Fed­er­a­tion protested that the de­por­ta­tions had left “hun­dreds of for­eign moth­ers and their Amer­i­can-born children ... home­less and with­out means of sup­port.” Amid the re­sult­ing back­lash, Palmer’s ex­pec­ta­tion that a tough-guy pos­ture would win him a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion van­ished.

The Red Scare did, how­ever, make the po­lit­i­cal for­tunes of Palmer’s key aide.

J. Edgar Hoover was a low-level staffer in the Jus­tice Depart­ment when the 1919 bomb­ings be­gan. But rec­og­niz­ing Hoover’s or­ga­niz­ing tal­ents, Palmer gave him more and more re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. When the FBI was es­tab­lished in 1924, Hoover be­came its di­rec­tor.

Pres­i­dents feared him, which gave Hoover vir­tu­ally unchecked power. Dur­ing a sec­ond Red Scare of the 1950s, ca­reers were ru­ined and fam­i­lies shat­tered, as Hoover pounded away at his mes­sage that a per­fectly or­di­nary-look­ing Amer­i­can could be a “crypto-com­mu­nist.”


De­bris is strewn across the front of the home of U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral A. Mitchell Palmer in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., af­ter a bomb ex­ploded nearby in 1919.


About 150 “rad­i­cals” were rounded up in Chicago on Jan. 1, 1920, part of na­tion­wide raids to wipe out sub­ver­sive groups. Many were from the In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World union.


Wil­liam “Big Bill” Hay­wood, seated left, ap­pears in court on Jan. 5, 1920, along­side Ge­orge T. Speed, both mem­bers of the IWW’s ex­ec­u­tive board.

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