Kaufman dodges Wall Street bombing

The aftermath of a 1920 bombing on Wall Street is pictured. Marquette legend Louis Kaufman was a mere two blocks from the scene when the bomb exploded, killing 38 people and injuring hundreds more.

By Larry Chabot

The corner of Wall and Broad streets—center of New York’s financial district—was filling with a pre-lunch crowd on September 16, 1920. The powerful J. P. Morgan Company was headquartered on one side of the street, and a U.S. Treasury Department building on the other. A horse-drawn wagon stopped in front of the Treasury building about the same time as Marquette’s Louis Kaufman walked down Morgan’s steps. The wagon driver jumped out and ran off. Kaufman turned and walked down the street. When he was two blocks away, KABOOM! The wagon erupted, spewing metal shrapnel in every direction.

Windows shattered, buildings were pock-marked with flying metal, vehicles were upended, and 38 people lay dead, most of them young clerks, messengers and stenos. Hundreds were injured, 143 of them seriously. A block away, a streetcar blew over. Financier Joseph Kennedy—father of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy—was lifted off his feet by the blast, and a Morgan clerk was killed at his desk by flying debris that wrecked the building’s interior (the scars are visible today).

Had the bomb exploded a few minutes later, as more people headed out for lunch, the death toll would have been in the hundreds. Had it detonated a few minutes earlier, Louis Kaufman would have surely been a fatality.

Within a minute of the blast, the New York Stock Exchange closed the trading floor to prevent a panic. The next day, amidst recovery and cleanup crews, a huge crowd of New Yorkers showed up to view the damage. The crowd burst into emotional, rousing renditions of America the Beautiful and the national anthem.

Back in Marquette, the tragedy earned a page one headline. Marquette was Kaufman’s home town; he was born here in 1870 to Samuel and Juliet Kaufman, working his way up from bookkeeper to bank president by 1906. He was an officer in two local banks, had shares in mining, insurance, and railroads, and built the fabulous Granot Loma lodge north of town. His generosity to his birthplace was legendary, and continues to this day.

By 1910, Kaufman was in New York as president of Chatham National Bank while still holding a Marquette bank presidency. He engineered a merger with Phoenix National, served on the General Motors board of directors, and was a key player in construction of the Empire State Building.

Louis Kaufman, pictured here, narrowly escaped a devastating bomb explosion on Wall Street in 1920. He told the harrowing tale to the Mining Journal.

Barely five days after the Wall Street disaster, Kaufman and his wife, Marie, were in Marquette sitting for an interview with the Mining Journal, which headlined the story: “Bomb Explosion Was Terrifying.” Kaufman knew that the American people had no idea of the extent of the terror and suffering in New York. News reports failed to convey “the gruesome details and terrifying incidents that happened in the Wall Street district after the death dealing bomb did its work,” he said.

It is fortunate, the article continued, that all American people couldn’t see first hand what happened or at least know more of the facts so they could appreciate how serious it was, the evil intent of the plotters, and how nearly it was a greater catastrophe.

Kaufman explained how he was in the Morgan offices until 15 minutes before the blast, and had managed to walk two blocks to a meeting of bank directors. Even that building was shaken violently by the blast, and its upper floor windows shattered. He walked back to see people rushing about in a frenzy, away from Wall Street, where police were organizing care for hundreds of injured while trying to prevent a panic.

The scene, he told the paper, “was sickening and most gruesome.” Hundreds of men, women and youth were hurt, “many maimed so badly they could scarcely walk, moved panic-stricken through the street. As fast as the more seriously wounded could be found, they were put in ambulances and other vehicles pressed into emergency service, and rushed to hospitals. The scene made one think of a mob of terrorized people rushing out of a battle,” Kaufman recalled.

He thought it a near miracle that more people hadn’t been killed in the disaster. Although the dead toll was 34 when Kaufman was interviewed, it rose to 38 within a few days. He noted that had the explosion been delayed by a few minutes, the casualties would have been enormous.

News reports had the blast detonating at noon but Kaufman stated the time was 11:40 a.m. He saw one car which had been near the wagon “blown high into the air. Its gasoline tank exploded and the flames spread in all directions, setting fire to the clothing of two men who were walking nearby.”

Police determined that the bomb contained about 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of steel and cast iron pieces, which broke into sharp fragments and were propelled in all directions at terrific speed. A statue of George Washington, standing in a direct line of fire, had not a scratch.

Despite many investigations over the years, no one was arrested and tried for the crime, although it was suspected that the bomb was planted by a group of anarchists who had set off other bombs. At the time, it was the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States.

Louis Kaufman died in 1942 and is buried in the family mausoleum in Marquette’s Park Cemetery. Peter Kaufman, his grandson, had never heard the story nor does he recall any family legends about the horrific event involving his grandfather. But there was no danger that a fatal blow to Louis Kaufman would have prevented him having descendants because he had sired all of his children by then. Peter’s father Otto Young Kaufman was 16 years old at the time.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.