Skip to content

The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror

The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror. By Beverly Gage. Oxford University Press,; 416 pages; $18.95.

The Day Wall Street Exploded is an account of the events surrounding the September 16, 1920, explosion that killed 38 people and rocked America. There are still marks on Wall Street buildings left by shrapnel from the blast. While the case was never solved, it is suspected that an Italian anarchist named Mario Buda was the perpetrator. Buda was an associate of Sacco and Van­zetti, the infamous pair whose highly publicized 1927 prosecution eclipsed the notoriety of the Wall Street bombing.

In the aftermath of the bombing, investigations were launched by the New York Police Department, the Bureau of Investigation, and the William J. Burns Detective Agency. There was jurisdictional squabbling and intense public scrutiny. William J. Flynn, who headed the Bureau of Investigation, and William J. Burns were former colleagues in the Treasury Department. But in this case, they were competing to solve the case and win popular approval.

The William J. Burns Detective Agency, founded by Burns, provided investigative and security services to a variety of clients, including the American Bankers Association. The Burns Agency later became Burns International Security Services and was eventually acquired by Securitas. Burns came to fame following the anarchist dynamite attack on the Los Angeles Times in 1910 in which 21 people were killed. Burns tracked down the McNamara brothers, combining the Times investigation with another case he was working on where there had been a series of dynamite attacks from Illinois to California. He became known as the “Great Detective.” Comparisons were made between Burns and Sherlock Holmes.

Burns later went on to head the Bureau of Investigation. He held this post from 1921 until 1924 when he resigned following a series of unethical and illegal activities. Burns was replaced by a young man named John Edgar Hoover who took this small investigative arm of the Justice Department and transformed it into the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Day Wall Street Exploded describes an America faced with widespread radicalism and terror. It details the fear, uncertainty, and finger-pointing in the wake of a major loss event. The story also includes jurisdictional disputes, a lack of interagency liaison, and intense public pressure to solve the problem. Much of this is analogous to how terrorism is being dealt with today.

Professor Gage has authored a serious historical tome that delves into America’s response to anarchist terror and the development of investigative entities. There is some history of private investigative firms such as the Burns Agency.

Her discussion of the Bureau of Investigation helps to fill a substantial void in law enforcement history, as few authors have discussed this organization. The Day Wall Street Exploded is an important addition to the academic literature of security and investigation. It is highly recommended for those teaching investigation, security management, or homeland security.

Reviewer: Christopher A. Hertig, CPP, CPOI (Certified Protection Officer Instructor), is a member of the Behavioral Sciences Department at York College of Pennsylvania. He sits on the ASIS Council on Academic and Training Programs and previously worked in training administration for Burns International Security Systems Inc.