PBS to air film on 1920 Wall Street bombing based on Yale scholar’s book

A photo of the aftermath of the 1920s Wall Street bombing in New York City.
The aftermath of the explosion, with Federal Hall National Memorial visible at the right. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On Sept. 16, 1920, just as hundreds of Wall Street brokers headed out to lunch, a horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded outside of the headquarters of the renowned banking institution J.P. Morgan & Co. The bombing resulted in the loss of 38 lives and left hundreds more wounded.

In the late 1990s, while studying as a graduate student at Columbia University, Yale history professor Beverly Gage came across a mention of this event and starting asking whether anyone had remembered it happening. She had very little success, but remained intrigued.

The late 1990s were a high point for Wall Street, says Gage, the Brady-Johnson Professor of Grand Strategy and of History. “It was a time in which Americans’ love affair with capitalism and with Wall Street was on full display and was being talked about all the time.”

It was the counter-narrative of resistance and hostility to Wall Street both in the 1990s and in 1920 around the time of the Wall Street bombing that led Gage to focus on the historic event for her dissertation. Then 9/11 happened. “All of the public discussion of terrorism made me think more seriously about the violence piece of the 1920 bombing, not just what it stood for but what the violence itself was all about. It also made me think more deeply about the history of terrorism, and Americans’ relationship to terrorism. The book became a study of both terrorism and anti-capitalist radicalism as they existed in the early 20th century.”

To research this long-forgotten event, Gage used a variety of sources. One was the extensive newspaper coverage at the time, which testified to the bombing’s political impact and cultural significance. Another source Gage used was investigative files. Through the Freedom of Information Act, she was able to get the federal files on the bombing. “People hadn’t really looked at that before,” says Gage. “One day giant box filled with thousands of pages of investigative files showed up at my doorstep, and I thought: This looks like a dissertation.”

Gage’s dissertation became the basis for her 2009 book, “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror.” PBS’s flagship series “American Experience” has developed a film adaptation of the book. The organization bought the documentary rights to the book and developed an original script. “A lot of it does draw heavily from the wording and structure of my book,” says Gage. “It is based on my book while being an independent original production.”

The bombing, which remains unsolved, is historically relevant today, says Gage, “because people tend to talk about terrorism as this terrifying new thing that only exists in the 21st century, as if no one has ever dealt with it before and it is unprecedented.” It is important to remember that there has been a decades-long history of conflict in American society that has ebbed and flowed, explains Gage. “There have been other very deep moments of conflict in American history in terms of the kinds of political violence that people are inflicting on each other. This helps you to contextualize these events as opposed to simply react to them.”

The Yale professor’s current work, writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, “is and was an extension” of interests that began with researching the Wall Street bombing investigation, in which the young Hoover played a pivotal part.

The Bombing of Wall Street” will air on PBS on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 9 p.m. EST

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Bess Connolly Martell: [email protected], 203-432-1324