Happy New Year! I thought I would start off this year by publishing a story I wrote last year. Right before I was going to publish it, a bigger story came up and I ended up putting it on the back shelf. The article deals with the bombs that were found in the mail, which received some attention and then was quickly overshadowed, but it is still an important story.
Mayday, mayday, mayday. Most of us know this as an international call for distress. Calling a national Mayday is an appropriate reaction to the discovery of bombs sent by mail to prominent Democrats back in October. These attacks were blamed on presidential rhetoric and the overall political divisiveness prevailing in the nation, especially before the midterm elections. While this was true, it is giving those who report that our nation is hopelessly divided more ammunition. We are in difficult times, but one of the key jobs of historians is to show that we have faced difficult times in the past, and on each occasion we have persevered. With the example of mail bombs, not only has America seen divisive times before, in fact we have seen almost this exact same thing happen.
Whereas today Mayday means distress, in the early twentieth century May Day, or May 1, was International Workers Day, or, to some, Communists or Anarchist Day. On May 1, 1919 about 20 bombs were sent by mail to prominent government leaders and business men, such as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes.
The years following the Great War were not unlike ours. Race relations were at a low, as soldiers returning home from war found that thousands of African Americans had moved up to northern cities during what is known as the Great Migration and replaced them at work. The next few summers found race riots erupting in northern cities, including the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. In the South, whites feared that returning black soldiers would expect equal treatment. Not only had black soldiers sacrificed for this nation, they were now trained killers. To make sure blacks knew their place, a rash of lynchings occurred across the South, including the murder of ten black veterans.
Labor relations were also at an all-time low after the War. During the Great War, workers showed their patriotism by not striking, but with the armistice their truce with management ended. Strikes broke out across the nation. Strikes were common in America, but things had changed during the war. One of the largest consequences of WWI was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Where before a strike was just a strike, now every strike was seen as a possible communist revolution. In 1919, the Russians even called for a world revolution.
In the midst of these fears came the May Day attacks. The bombs were all sent in late April, trying to time their delivery on May 1. All the bombs were similarly wrapped in brown paper and the same size. Each bomb had a stick of dynamite and was rigged to explode when the side marked open was opened. Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson’s aide opened one of the first packages, but he opened it upside down so it did not detonate. Georgia Senator Thomas W. Hardwick was not so lucky when his maid and wife were injured from the blast. The police and post office were both notified and with national media coverage the other recipients knew not to open their packages.
In New York, sixteen of the packages were set aside by a clerk for insufficient postage. On the way home, the clerk read in his paper about the Georgia bomb and recognized the description of the packages that he set aside. He rushed back to his office and secured the bombs, probably saving many lives.
Over the next few months more bombs were sent, some deadly. One bomb detonated at the home of the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, while he was away. Palmer struck back. With the General Intelligence Division, he raided twelve cities and arrested hundreds of suspected communists. Many were deported and many others illegally detained. The man Palmer used to gather information on suspects was a young lawyer in his office named J. Edgar Hoover. The worst of the attacks happened the next year in September when a horse-drawn wagon blew up in front of the Stock Exchange, killing thirty people. No one was ever tried for the bombs, but as the Roaring Twenties moved in, the Red Scare died away and everything returned to normal.
For two years Americans were on heightened alert as fear gripped the nation. As Americans we were greatly divided not only about racial and class issues, but over the way Palmer and the government handled the crisis. Palmer had presidential ambitions, but his tactics and civil liberty violations eventually came to light and damaged his chance at the White House.
The bombings of 1919 are not the only time we saw similar scares. There was the anthrax attacks of the 2000s. In each of these cases, we endured. What history teaches us is that even with the divide today, when the rhetoric from both sides is stirring violent protests and even potential bombings, we too can endure. I still hope that sanity will one day soon rule in America, as it eventually did in the 1920s, but in the meantime remember most Americans are just like you, just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of happiness.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blogor Facebook at @jamesWfinck.