July 30, 1916 Black Tom

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”.

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.

British-blockadeTo 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.

Sanitary_&_Topographical_Map_of_Hudson_County,_N.J
Black Tom Island, 1880

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.

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Firefighters were unable to fight the fires until the bullets and shrapnel stopped flying. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Wrecked_warehouses_and_scattered_debris_after_the_Black_Tom_Explosion,_1916Known 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?”

View_of_the_debris_of_the_Lehigh_Valley_pier_after_Black_Tom_explosion_(cropped)
Lehigh Valley Railroad pier, after the explosion

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.

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“German Master Spy Franz Von Rintelen and his “pencil bomb” were responsible for acts of sabotage in the United States during World War I”. H/T Smithsonian

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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View of the Statue of Liberty from the site of the Black Tom explosion
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July 5, 1915  The Nutty Professor

For all his vaunted brilliance, Muenter seems to have been nuttier than a squirrel turd.  His intention as explained to police, was to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage, until the financier cut off loans to Europe.  He told police of his intention to assassinate J.P. Morgan, as well.  How these two objectives squared with one another, remains unexplained.

The train left Boston in April, 1906. On board were the infant, the toddler, the nanny, and the children’s father, a German language instructor from Harvard University.  The two little girls’ mother was onboard as well.  She, and her casket, were going home to Chicago, to be buried in her home town.  Leone (Krembs) Muenter had passed from some sort of stomach ailment, ten days after giving birth.

The story may have ended there, but for Dr. Herbert McIntyre.  The circumstances of death didn’t seem right, and Dr. McIntyre ordered an autopsy.  On April 27, Cambridge police issued a warrant for the arrest of Professor Erich Muenter, in the murder of his wife, by arsenic poisoning.

Apparently, this “man of science” wanted to test his theory that you could see the soul passing, at the moment of death.  Now, Erich Muenter vanished.Man of science

Nine years later, the United States’ entry into WW1 was still two years in the future.

US policy at this time allowed arms sales to any and all belligerents in the European war.  With British dominance of north Atlantic shipping routes, for all intents and purposes this meant France and Great Britain.

German language professor Frank Holt was teaching at Cornell University in 1915.  A naturalized citizen and committed German nationalist, Holt had ties with the secret German spy intelligence unit Abteilung IIIb, which was conducting a campaign of sabotage against US ships carrying munitions ‘over there’.

Frank Holt might have described himself as a ‘peace activist’, obsessed with the idea that arms themselves were extending the war.  If arms exports were brought to a halt, Holt believed, the war would come to an end.

On July 2, Holt gave up arguing the point, and took a train to Washington DC.  In his hands he carried a bomb, three sticks of dynamite attached to a timing mechanism, ingeniously designed to go off when the acid ate through its cork stopper.  In those days, you were apparently free to stroll about the United States Capitol, with a bomb in your hands. At least when Congress was in recess.

Finding the Senate chamber locked, Holt placed his package under a telephone switchboard in the Senate reception room, with the timer set to go off around midnight.

The explosion was enormous, tearing the room to pieces and blowing a night watchman out of his chair on the other side of the building.  Writing to the Washington Star newspaper under the pseudonym R. Pearce, Holt explained his intentions to “make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war. This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.”

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Aftermath of the Senate bombing, July 2, 1915

The following day, a tiny little box on the front page of the New York Times, attributed the explosion to ‘gasses’.  As the paper was hitting news stands, Frank Holt was headed for Long Island, to the Glen Cove estate of “the Great Pierpont”, J. P. Morgan.  Armed with two revolvers, a suitcase full of dynamite and a few anti-war newspaper clippings, Holt bulled his way through the butler who opened the door, and into the Morgan residence.

JP Morgan
John Pierpont Morgan

Pandemonium broke out in the home, as Holt turned his weapons on the four Morgan children.  Mrs. Morgan tried to block the path to her husband, but the millionaire financier lunged, tackling the much smaller man to the ground.  Holt fired twice into Morgan’s thigh and groin, as the pair went down together.  Pierpont twisted the gun from his grasp as Mrs. Morgan and a gaggle of household servants struggled for the other.  All the while, the butler pounded the would-be assassin’s head with a lump of coal, as Holt shouted “Kill me! Kill me now! I don’t want to live any more. I have been in a perfect hell for the last six months on account of the European war!”

A copy of the R. Pearce letter quickly tied Holt to the Capitol bombing, as former colleagues identified the long-since vanished, accused killer of Leone Muenter.  Frank Holt and Erich Muenter were the same man.

A colleague once described Muenter as “a brilliant man, a tireless worker, and a profound student.  Night after night he would sit reading, studying and writing while his wife lay asleep in a room nearby.” The Harvard Crimson newspaper described him as ‘harmless on the surface…affect[ing] a scholarly stoop and a Van Dyke, and wore dingy, patched suits”.  Fluent in seven languages, he was the pale, bearded model of the junior faculty intellectual, complete with elbow patches.

For all his vaunted brilliance, Muenter seems to have been nuttier than a squirrel turd.  His intention as explained to police, was to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage, until the financier cut off loans to Europe.  He told police of his intention to assassinate J.P. Morgan, as well.  How these two objectives squared with one another, remains unexplained.

Erich MuenterThat Sunday morning, July 4, the J.P. Morgan shooting seems to have been front page on every newspaper in the world.  On July 5, Erich Muenter took the brass ferrule from a pencil eraser, and slit his wrist.  That suicide attempt was unsuccessful.  The following day, Muenter scaled the bars in his prison and jumped, leaving his brains on the concrete floor, twenty feet below.

The day after his death, Police tracked down a trunk Muenter had left in a New York city storage facility.  In it were 134 sticks of dynamite, blasting caps, fuse coils, batteries, nitric acid, windproof matches, mercury fulminate and smokeless explosive powder. Three tin can bombs had been recently completed, and were ready to go.  Inspector of Combustibles Owen Egan declared it to be “the greatest equipment for bomb making ever brought to New York”.

That same day, the 2nd Mrs. Muenter received a letter from her dead husband.  It said that an arms shipment headed for England would go to the bottom, that very day.    Warned by wireless, the crew of SS Minnehaha frantically searched for the bomb, without success.  Muenter’s bomb went off and touched off a fire, but it was far away from Minnehaha’s cargo of high explosives, and did little damage to the ship itself.

SS Minnehaha

The Harland & Wolff liner SS Minnehaha was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast with the loss of 43, on September 7, 1917.