Today we think of terrorism as starting in recent history, 50 years ago or so. In fact, the United States was hit with a series of terrorist attacks from 1918 through 1920. The attacks occurred in cities across the United States. This article will focus on the attacks in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Series of Attacks
The first bombing in Pennsylvania happened overnight on December 30, 1918. Explosives surrounded by metal slugs damaged the homes of four Philadelphia City officials. Fortunately each home’s residents were away, so no one died. At each site the perpetrators put leaflets calling for the death of all priests, judges, police, soldiers, and businessmen. Those words showed the bombing was terrorism.
The second terrorist attack went off across several cities, overnight on June 2, 1919. In Philadelphia Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church and the home of a jeweler exploded from TNT. Both buildings suffered extensive damage, shattering windows and collapsing the interiors and roofs. In Pittsburgh, the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was attacked. The bomber, Carlo Valdinoci, was killed in the blast while the Attorney General survived. It appeared that the bomb went off early as Valdinoci was placing it.
A third attempted attack did not go as planned. An unexploded device was discovered at Philadelphia’s Frankfurt Arsenal on June 8, 1919. The arsenal was the main munition supplier for the U.S. Army and employed thousands of people. A bomb going off in such a location would have caused massive casualties.
Investigation and Effects
These bombings in Pennsylvania were part of a larger series of anarchist attacks across America. The most deadly bombing occurred on September 16, 1920 on Wall Street in New York city. Thirty-eight people lost their lives that day and hundreds laid injured.
The FBI investigated these attacks and attributed them to local Galleanist groups. Galleanists considered themselves anarchists. Inspired by the writings of Italian immigrant Luigi Galleani, they called for overthrow of all institutions. Galleani’s newspaper, Cronaca Sovversiva, wrote for over a decade of inevitable revolution. Galleanists believed that any violence they committed was justified to end a corrupt system.
The reactions to the terrorist attacks were not what the anarchists hoped. Rather than support an uprising against the government, citizens supported deporting immigrants, long jail terms, and a moratorium on new immigrants. The federal government put immediate limits on new immigrants in 1921, formalizing it into law with The Immigration Act of 1924.
Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” As family historians we easily recall major events from 1918-1920. When these terrorist attacks occurred, our ancestors also lived with the 1918 Flu Pandemic and World War One. The Selective Service Act of 1917 drafted many young men into a war in Europe while at home wave after wave of influenza struck. Meanwhile the revolutionaries wrote about overthrowing the government and set off bombs. While these events are not exactly like our own today, they are eerily similar. We have thousands of soldiers deployed around the world, an ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and great civil unrest in our cities.
Genealogy Research Advice
Events like terrorist attacks make a genealogist wonder the effect on their ancestors. To start research, make sure to know the street address of ancestors. You can search the address in digitized newspapers by putting the house number and street name in the search bar. The search results should be a list of articles which contain that address. Now scan through the articles to see what events happened at that address of your ancestors!
Terrorism is a federal crime investigated by the FBI. The FBI began in 1908 and their files are accessible through a Freedom of Information Act Request. The older the file you request, the more likely it is to have fewer redactions. You can request files of both employees and investigation files. To make a request, be sure you have evidence through a newspaper article or other source that your ancestor was involved with the FBI. Requests are made online through the FBI.gov website.
“Famous FBI Cases of the Philadelphia Office,” Federal Bureau of Investigation archived website,
(https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/philadelphia/about-us/history/famous-cases/famous-cases-1919-bombings : accessed 10 September 2020).
“The Anarchist’s Chronicle,” by Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, National Endowment for the Humanities Blog, (https://www.neh.gov/divisions/preservation/featured-project/the-anarchist’s-chronicle : accessed 10 September 2020).
Cronaca Sovversiva, digitized edition, Chronicling America website (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2012271201/ : accessed 10 September 2020).
Summary of June 1919 nationwide events in The York Dispatch newspaper: “Russians Back of Bomb Plots,” The York Dispatch, 4 June 1919, page 1, (https://www.newspapers.com/image/614586689 : accessed 10 September 2020).
Coverage of Philadelphia June 1919 bombings: “Terrorist Plot Believed Hatched Here; Bombs Shake 7 Cities in Red Conspiracy,” The Evening Public Ledger, 3 June 1919, pages 1 & 16, (https://www.newspapers.com/image/87195132).
Coverage of Pittsburgh June 1919 bombings: “Get Bomb Plot Clue,” The Pittsburgh Gazette, 4 June 1919, page 1, (https://www.newspapers.com/image/144814540 : accessed 10 September 2020).
Coverage of Philadelphia December 1918 bombings: “Probe of Bomb Outrages Becomes Nationwide; 8,000 Known Disloyalists Being Investigated; Arrests Made Here; Home Reserves Called Out,” The Evening Public Ledger, 31 December 1918, page 1, (https://www.newspapers.com/image/58890797 : accessed 10 September 2020).
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