In the early months of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy largely swept the seas of the Kaiser’s surface ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at the time, and more than a hundred German ships sought refuge in American harbors.
The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas, while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash, but for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.
To the Central Powers, such trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys on the battlefields of Europe.
The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral countries were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.
“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.
On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.
Guards discovered a series of small fires around 2:00am. Some tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a detonation so massive as to be estimated at 5.5 on the Richter scale. People were awakened from Maryland to Connecticut in what many thought was an earthquake. The Brooklyn Bridge shook and the walls of Jersey City’s municipal building were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away, while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.
Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church, and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan. Damage to the skirt and torch carried by the Statue of Liberty alone, came to over $2¼ million in 2017 dollars. To this day, the ladder to “Lady Liberty’s” torch, remains off limits to visitors.
The enormous vaulted ceiling of Ellis Island’s main hall, collapsed. According to one Park officer, damage to the Ellis Island complex came to $500,000 “half the one million dollars it cost the government to build the facility.”
Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, a ten week old infant, and the barge captain.
The explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.
Responsibility for the Black Tom explosion was never proven, conclusively. Early suspicions centered on accidental causes. Legal wranglings would climb the judicial ladder all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and continue well into the second World War. Anna Rushnak, an elderly Czechoslovak immigrant who ran a four-bits-a-night boarding house in Bayonne was thrown from her bed by the explosion, to find then-23-year-old Michael Kristoff sitting on the edge of his bed, mumbling “What I do? What I do?”
Kristoff, a Slovakian subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, (Germany’s principle ally in WW1), was arrested by Bayonne Police and interrogated, and judged to be “insane but harmless.”
In 1922, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was buried in lawsuits, and looking to fix blame on a German act of sabotage. Kristoff came into the judicial spotlight once again, and located in an Albany jail where he was serving time for theft. Kristoff admitted working for the Germans “for a few weeks” back in 1916, but was released before the claim could be investigated. Kristoff was finally traced to a pauper’s grave in 1928 and there ends his story, yet that ‘insane but harmless’ label may be open to question. Papers carried on the body exhumed from that potter’s field were indeed those of Michael Kristoff, but the dental records didn’t match.
Meanwhile, suspicion fell on the German-born naturalized citizen Kurt Jahnke who ran sabotage operations for the German Admiralty out of bases in San Francisco and Mexico City, and his assistant, Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke. Witzke was arrested on February 1, 1918 in Nogales, Arizona and convicted by court martial. He was sentenced to death, though the war was over before sentence could be carried out. President Wilson later commuted the sentence, to life.
By 1923, most countries were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A report from Leavenworth prison shows Witzke heroically risking his life, entering a boiler room after an explosion and probably averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released. Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923, and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.
The U.S.–German Peace Treaty of 1921 established the German-American Mixed Claims Commission, which declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had, in fact been responsible and awarded a judgement of $50 million. The Nazi government refused to pay and the matter was finally settled in 1953, with a judgement of $95 million (including interest) against the Federal Republic of Germany. The final payment was made in 1979.
The Black Tom explosion and related acts of pro-German espionage resulted in the Federal Espionage Act signed into law in June 1917, creating, among its other provisions, a “Bureau of Investigation” under the United States Department of Justice. Now, nothing remains of the Black Tom terminal or the largest foreign terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11, save for a plaque, as seen in the photograph below. That, and the FBI.
Feature image, top of page: Shrapnel damage can be seen in this image of the Statue of Liberty
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