Friday, February 10, 2012

Italian Anarchist Blows Himself Into Pieces in 1919

Damage from Bombing
The Foiled Bomb Plot at
2132 R Street, NW

 The image at left, captured in front of the elegant house at 2132 R Street, N.W. on June 2, 1919, first appeared on the front page of the now defunct Evening Star newspaper under a headline that shocked many in Washington at the time: Explosion at Attorney General’s Home Starts a Nation-Wide Round-Up of Anarchists.[1]  The bombing occurred in front of the home of U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who had been the intended recipient of the package bomb, which in all likelihood would have been successful if the bomber had not tripped on a series of iron wickets lining the front entrance of the home, blowing himself and his identity into thousands of pieces.

            What prompted such a dramatic event on the peaceful 2100 block of R Street 93 years?   The perceived threat of Communists “Reds.”  Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government.  His suspicions intensified at about 11 pm on June 2, 1919 when he was sitting between the upstairs windows of his home along with other government officials when the bomb went off outside.  Uninjured, Palmer rushed outside to find no remains of the Italian assassin, but instead floating propaganda from his destroyed suitcase that read: “There will be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder; we will kill, because it is necessary; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions.”  In all, a total of thirty-eight bombs had been sent to leading politicians throughout the country.              
Alexander M. Palmer

The Evening Star reporting from over eighty years ago brings to mind the contemporary criticisms of newsprint and television journalism as being too sensational.  The story was divided up into several stories, as it was in the Washington Post the following day. 

Warning!  The following is not for the faint at heart!
(you can skip safely to the next paragraph). 

The reports read in parts: “Fragments of the anarchist’s body were literally driven into the back of the trees, the woodwork of nearby houses, scattered over the pavements and smeared on the front roofs of houses, while a large portion of the man’s torso was found hanging to the cornice of a house on S Street a block from the spot where the explosion occurred.  A part of the man’s liver was found on the top of an automobile standing nearly 100 feet away.”  “John Bryn, 14, son of the Norwegian Minister, was asleep in 2137 R Street when a section of the “Red’s” spinal column smashed through the window and landed beside his bed.”  “The enormous force of the explosion…was most clearly shown in the distance in which pieces of the scattered remains were hurled.  The legs were found across the street from Mr. Palmer’s home.  The scalp reposed on S Street, to which it had to rise 50 feet in the air and transverse a distance of more than 75 yards.”  Adding to the yawning house fronts where doors had been blown from their hinges and the litter of glass and leaves in front of the houses, was a spectacle of hundreds of minute flesh pieces covering the street and adhering in ghastly fashion to the fronts of dwellings and doors.”  “Cleaners and window washers were put to work after headquarters had collected all the remains needful.”                 
2132 R Street in 2012

Instead of Palmer going after the person or persons whom directly planned the bombing, he went after everyone who had any association with suspected Communist ties.  They discovered that most Communists or ‘Reds’ were usually immigrants, therefore they found immigration laws that they could easily work under to arrest these persons.  Palmer looked to arrest all members of these groups, with a plan to arrest large numbers of unsuspecting persons at one time, thus gaining the name ‘Palmer Raids’ which began after his bombing in the spring of 1919. 

Copyright Paul K. Williams

[1] Reproduced later in the Literary Digest, June 14, 1919.

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