Assistant Professor of History, Yale University
Now, I say it casually."Oh, I was writing about this before 9-11," I tell students and reporters who ask how I happened upon the subject of my first book."This" is the history of terrorism in the U.S.-specifically, the story of what occurred on Wall Street on September 16, 1920. At 12:01 that afternoon, a bomb exploded into the lunchtime crowd at the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York, killing 39 people and wounding hundreds more. In 2001, I had just started writing my dissertation about this event and its role in prolonging the postwar Red Scare.
I was living in New York at the time. A graduate student at Columbia, I had recently moved to Brooklyn. As a result, I had a near-perfect view of the World Trade Center's collapse. I heard the second plane crash while walking my dog in Prospect Park (I thought it was a blown transformer), learned that"a plane hit the World Trade Center" on my way home (I pictured a small Cessna, nothing too serious), and watched the rest of the day's now- familiar tragedy play out from atop my roof.
What this would mean for writing history was hardly the first thing on my mind that day. As my neighbors and I sealed up our windows and gathered downstairs to await further news from across the river, it seemed entirely possible that nothing would be worth writing again.
Then the political battles began. Within days of 9-11, newspapers and television started to inform us quite authoritatively that terrorism in the U.S. was an entirely new phenomenon, a burst of evil with a dark future but no real past. In response, I launched a frenzied round of article- and editorial-writing (including--full disclosure--a short piece for HNN) pointing out that terrorism, in fact, had its own long and messy history.
In those early days, I found myself seized as well by a perverse urge to share my storehouse of uncanny historical detail with friends and family. I silenced many a dinner party that autumn pointing out how the stock exchange reopened on the same day in 2001 that it reopened after the bombing in 1920.
That impulse mercifully faded, along with the sense that everything, from the price of grapefruits to the daily weather report, had to somehow reference 9-11. But as"normalcy" (to borrow Warren Harding's famous 1920 coinage) set in, I found myself confronted with a more insistent set of questions about how to write about the history of terrorism in this altered world. Were comparisons between past and present worth making? Had the present now irretrievably distorted the past? Was it possible to write decent history on a subject so heavily politicized? Most of all, did the entire subject now seem too ghoulish and opportunistic? It was in this context that I began to issue my first disclaimers--"Oh, I was writing about this before 9-11..."-as if to show that my motives and analysis remained uncorrupted.
Today, I have not arrived at definitive answers to all of these questions. But I no longer feel quite so much urgency to compare the present and past, or to justify my subject in relation to the present day. This is in part because new issues, especially domestic debates over civil liberties, have made the relevance of past experience far more self-evident. Mostly, though, it's because the passage of time has made it possible, once again, to look at history on its own terms.
The latest draft of my book (The Day Wall Street Exploded, Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2008) hardly mentions 9-11 at all. In that sense, I've now come full circle from where I began more than six years ago. What first drew me to the Wall Street explosion was not its connection with the present, but my genuine surprise that such an event had been so thoroughly excised from our memories of the past. If recovering that story helps to lend a bit of insight into the dispiriting and often terrifying politics of the world around us today, so much the better.
By Beverly Gage
Nobody knew, precisely, that it would erupt just after noon on September 16, 1920, shattering windows throughout New York's financial district, scattering metal slugs into the lunchtime crowd, injuring hundreds of men and women, claiming 39 lives.
Nobody knew-except, perhaps, the person who abandoned a horse-drawn cart, loaded with dynamite, at the corner of Wall and Broad streets that morning. And except, some thought, for a man named Ed Fisher, who in the weeks before the explosion sent frantic notes to his friends on Wall Street, warning them to"keep away" and"get out" in mid- September. When the police arrested Fisher in Canada on the evening of September 16, he denied any responsibility for the bombing. He explained that he had learned of the Wall Street plot through “messages out of the air,” and that God had reinforced his fears with a terrible headache. The detectives doubted that Fisher had a special relationship with God, but they ultimately accepted his claim that something “in the air” had foretold the disaster. Fisher had merely gotten lucky on the specifics, they concluded; given the politics of recent years, anyone might have predicted that, sooner or later, a bomb would explode on Wall Street.
This sense of inevitability, of predictability, was one of the most pronounced aspects of the public response to the event that came to be known as the"Wall Street explosion." By some measures, the blast that tore through Wall Street on September 16 was unprecedented—the deadliest act of terrorism to that point in U.S. history. Even more stunning to many contemporaries than the sheer number of deaths was what the World called the"hopeless futility of the slaughter." The explosion came at an unremarkable moment: lunchtime on a Thursday. Until noon, there had been nothing to distinguish September 16 from any other day on Wall Street: no parades, no demonstrations, no strikes or particular spats."If the explosion was designed it was an act of diabolism almost unparalleled in the annals of terrorism," wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch."There was no objective except general terrorism. The bomb was not directed against any particular person or property. It was directed against the public, anyone who happened to be near or any property in the neighborhood."
But for all of the grief and shock at the blast, there was also a sense that, like Ed Fisher, the country should have seen it coming."It is not surprising that the bomb massacre was accomplished in New York," mourned the Washington Post."Rather it would have been surprising if this festering sore had not come to its horrid head." To the Post and many others, the explosion seemed to be the awful culmination of a half century's worth of bitter political conflicts: over the growing power of Wall Street, over the rights of political radicals in the U.S., over the problems of political violence and terrorism, over the nature of industrial capitalism itself.
When it finally came, on September 16, 1920, the Wall Street explosion seemed to capture all of these conflicts and send them hurling forth in a hail of metal and flesh and fire. It took a popular political metaphor—the idea of an"attack on Wall Street"—and made it terribly real. -- Beverly Gage in the introduction to the forthcoming"The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror" (May 2008)
About Beverly Gage
"Prof. Gage is an incredible lecturer: well organized, entertaining, and provocative. Lectures were definitely something I wanted to go to. Also, I think Prof. Gage asked all the right questions, making the class come alive and worth studying. I especially liked how she decided to present all these different topics and tried to unify them."...
"Professor Gage is an amazing lecturer. She's interesting and extremely knowledgeable and approachable. Her lectures were great supplements to the reading, so most of the studying that I did for midterms and finals came directly from my notes. I thoroughly enjoyed every class."...
"Great lecturer who really knows her stuff and understands how to convey it in an interesting and thought- provoking manner. I especially appreciated her very objective and non-judgmental approach as well as her focus on the broad themes and questions raised by the historical narrative."...
"Professor Gage's lectures were, in one short word, excellent. They were well planned, methodical, and interesting. Like clockwork, every lecture began with her outlining where we headed for that day - the theme, the overarching question, and its relation to others - so that we were never once caught off guard. He lectures were amazingly clear - I knew exactly what she meant and what she was talking about and what she wanted to convey at that moment. At the same time they were interesting and extremely engaging. Very rarely did I want to miss this class.Also, her use of films and slide show presentations was very efficient and very effective. Neither were too often or too limited within the course of the semester. When it was needed it was done and it helped greatly." -- Students from Lecture Courses
"Prof. Gage is highly knowledgeable and very en"gage"d in the material. She is approachable and willing to help. She manages to teach a politically charged topic in a completely unbiased manner."...
"Professor Gage was great. She was really wonderful at leading a full class discussion. A subject like contemporary American politcs can get emotional and silly if a class does not stay in the text and she did a great job keeping everyone in the reading during class. She didn't let on her own beliefs at all and really encouraged conversation. She was also really accesible outside of class."...
"Prof. Gage was the best seminar leader I have ever had - she clearly put a lot of time and effort into leading a good seminar. Discussion was always excellent."...
"I pretty much love her. Her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and she did a fantastic job of guiding class discussion so that it was incisive, well-considered, and edifying." -- Students from Seminar courses
This seminar was probably the best that I've taken at Yale, including my time here as an undergraduate. Partly that was a matter of luck--we had a lively, thoughtful mix of students--but it was largely due to Beverly, who is a natural seminar leader. Very few teachers are even competent at leading a discussion with the right blend of authority and informality, and those few who are have usually been in the business for 20 years. Beverly would be shockingly good even if she were old and gray--her classroom sense is all the more astounding because she is so young." -- Graduate Students