“Remember We will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchist Fighters.”

So read a note following the worst terror attack on New York before 9/11. Anarchists killed 37 and wounded over 400 in downtown Manhattan on September 16th 1920. The attack took place at Wall Street, just before 12 o’clock as workers headed out to the streets to eat lunch.

The remote detonated bomb was in a horse-drawn cart on the street. This was no specific target like a police department or government building. The anarchists killed whoever happened to be near a wandering horse in the street.

The New York Times (9/18, p1, c5) reported:

Investigators pointed to this discovery [of steel slugs, chipped granite] as only one more bit of cumulative proof that the damage could not have been done by an explosion of powder, but was done by a bomb loaded with chopped-up window weights and steel slugs.

Bomb design has not changed much over time, has it? Bomb blasts do little damage on their own. Steel ball bearings are a simple form of shrapnel that greatly increase the killing range. The goal back then was to maximize random carnage just as it is today.

The “political prisoners” that their note referred to was widely speculated to be the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were arrested on robbery and murder charges near that time.

The suspected leader of the terror attack was Giacomo Carusso, an anarchist who had already been suspected of over 30 mail bombs, and bombings targeting Attorney General Palmer and judges. Searches of his home and a barber shop turned up explosive powders, anarchist literature, and some firearms. The NYPD arrested three others. Carusso was a member of the Bresci sect of anarchists, but the Galliani group was also suspected.

Luigi Galleani lead the Galleani group the NYT mentioned. This network of anarchists included Sacco and Venzetti.

The anarchist threat eventually faded, but not before it killed hundreds including President McKinley. There was a string of terror attacks and attempted attacks. Anarchists bombed courts and churches, assassinated judges and politicians, they tried to destroy St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. This was coupled with routine attacks on police.

The anarchists published their literature in cheap pamphlets and newspapers. They distributed bomb-making guides and sought recruits from the immigrant population.

Young immigrants made up a disproportionate number of anarchists. Many came from Russia, Italy, Greece, and other areas. Some gravitated to socialism or anarchism. The Socialists were gradually absorbed into the more mainstream Progressive Movement. The Anarchists were a bigger problem. They killed because they believed in a fantasy that could never be realized. Their goals were mass murder without any realistic political objective. The anarchist fantasy ideology fell out of favor many decades later, but until then, it left a path of terrorism.

I think we should reconsider the Palmer Raids and similar police actions of the time. President Woodrow Wilson and Attorney General Palmer first cracked down on radical leftism during World War I and expanded their efforts shortly thereafter. Aggressive police raids rounded up a large number of anarchists and communists while cutting off immigration from Russia and other nations that supplied many of these radicals.

Historians paint Palmer as a xenophobe who overreacted to a minor threat and curtailed civil liberties. Palmer is strongly associated with the first “Red Terror.” I wonder how much political bias affected this judgment.

The left-wing politicized the for the Sacco and Venzetti murderers and belittled the government policing of anarchism. Upton Sinclair helped form a conspiracy theory that suggested the two were framed. Eventually, Sinclair and most leftists acknowledged that these two were guilty without doubt. Yet they continued to claim that the authorities acted out of racism or hidden motives to install dictatorial powers. In hindsight, this seems absurd. The Palmer raids did not create a dictatorship. Yet the same accusations are routinely made today.

First of all, our nation has become politically freer as time went on even as it defends itself against threats. Second, the US defeated anarchist terrorism. Could this goal have been accomplished with alternative methods which respected civil liberties similar to those that we enjoy today?