How bomb blasts a century ago launched the Red Scare and a raid against Paterson anarchists
The explosion hurled the sleeping Morris family of Paterson onto the floor in a tangle of limbs and sheets. It pitched their beds. It shattered windows and propelled paintings from the walls.
It ripped wood boards off the house next door, and sent an upright piano skidding across the floor.
The sound of the blast could be heard outside Paterson City Hall, a mile away. One neighbor told a reporter their houses “rocked like a cradle.”
When the Morris family — who “escaped without injury through some freak of fate,” as the Paterson Morning Call described it — scrambled down to the sidewalk in front of 331 East 31st St. in Paterson’s affluent Eastside neighborhood, they saw that the blast had created a four-foot hole in the home’s concrete foundation, and caved in the front of the three-story structure.
What damaged the home of Henry Morris on June 2, 1919 — a century ago on Sunday — was one of a series of bombs that detonated within a short time in eight American cities, from Cleveland to Boston.
Officials determined the bombs were set by anarchists — copies of a handbill found at each bomb site tipped them off. Titled “Plain Words” and signed “The Anarchistic Fighters,” it contained a long, rambling screed, arguing for class warfare against the country’s powerful elite.
“Class war is on, and cannot cease but with a complete victory for the international proletariat,” it read.
“We have been dreaming of freedom, we have talked of liberty, we have aspired to a better world, and you jailed us, you clubbed us, you deported us, you murdered us whenever you could,” it said.
The bombs — which killed none of their intended victims, but took the life of a night watchman — targeted judges, legislators, the mayor of Cleveland — people, the Morning Call said, who had directed the “force of law” against anarchists.
The attacks helped fuel America's first Red Scare, heightened efforts to round up and deport anarchists, and sparked a raid led by J. Edgar Hoover that nearly eviscerated Paterson's anarchist community.
Among the bomb targets was the U.S. attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, whose posh Washington home was attacked. The bomb ignited before the anarchist who carried it could let go — he was killed, and his arm was blown across the street.
In one of those historic twists of fate, just a minute before the bomb went off a young assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, and his wife, Eleanor, had strolled past Palmer’s house. A sliver of difference in time might have cost the nation one of the most influential presidents of the 20th century.
Palmer breezily dismissed the coordinated attacks as an “utter failure to terrorize the country and stay the hand of the government.”
President Woodrow Wilson, in France negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, sent Palmer a cablegram: “My heartfelt congratulations on your escape. I am deeply thankful that the miscreants failed.”
Initially there was some confusion about the Paterson attack, since the Morris family had no anti-anarchist connections.
Hear from those who witnessed it: MLK’s speech in Paterson was one of his last
But officials concluded the real target was their neighbor next door – Harry Klotz, president of the Suanhna Silk Company, where a strike had been suppressed the prior year. Klotz was a member of the executive board of the Paterson manufacturer’s association, which opposed granting a 44-hour work week to employees.
Paterson: Anarchist capital
The anarchist attacks focused the federal government’s investigative spotlight on Paterson.
“Paterson was not only one of the anarchist capitals of the United States, but of the world,” said Fraser Ottanelli, a professor at the University of South Florida and an expert on labor movements. “Paterson was recognized as a center of anarchist thought and activity.”
In Paterson, anarchists ran private libraries that distributed anarchist pamphlets. They wrote and published Italian-language anarchist newspapers that were distributed worldwide, including La Questione Sociale, whose editor, Ludovico Caminita, wrote: “The pen in our hands is an axe to decapitate privilege and abuse of authority.”
Gaetano Bresci, an anarchist who lived in West Hoboken (now Union City) and worked in Paterson’s mills, returned to Italy in 1900 to assassinate Italy’s King Umberto I after a bloody repression of protesters in Milan.
There were anarchist taverns and clubs in Paterson that hosted prominent anarchist speakers, including Emma Goldman. Many of these anarchist institutions were centered around Straight Street.
Paterson’s silk and textile mills attracted workers from Italy, where they had already been exposed to the anarchist efforts to improve working conditions.
But anarchism had been part of the Paterson mill culture before the Italians arrived. They rubbed shoulders with German and French workers who had already promoted the anarchist message, writes Kenyon Zimmer, now a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, in his doctoral dissertation, “`The Whole World is our Country’: Immigration and Anarchism in the United States, 1885-1940.” It has since been published as a book.
(photos on website)
Paterson’s working conditions were horrific by today’s standard. Mill workers routinely worked 11- and 12-hour days. And the cyclical nature of the business meant that work was not steady.
Zimmer quotes Industrial Workers of the World organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who visited Paterson in 1913 and called it “a typical textile town with the same poor shabby fire-trap wooden houses for the workers, dreary old mills built along the canal. The people were poorly dressed, pale and undernourished.”
Zimmer also quotes Sophie Cohen, a Jewish silk weaver, from an oral history of the IWW: “Paterson had a prison-like feeling when you walked through the narrow streets where the mills were.”
The anarchist message was perfectly suited to such a maligned group of workers, and anarchists collaborated with Paterson labor unions during many of the strikes that hit the city’s mills, including the famous 1913 silk strike.
“The anarchist’s radical anti-capitalist ideology was very appealing to that workforce and fitting to their own experience,” Ottanelli said.
“The political reality of the time, not unlike today, was that the political system was not addressing the problems of the working people,” Ottanelli said. “The power of the state was used to repress worker demands for better working conditions and salaries.”
Anarchists believed the real wealth being produced in the mills of Paterson and elsewhere should be distributed to those who created it – the workers themselves.
“Anarchism was a form of libertarian socialism,” Zimmer said in an interview. “They were anti-capitalist and anti-statist. They viewed capitalism as inherently unjust and exploitative, since the owners accumulated wealth produced by their workers.
“They wanted to replace that model with worker ownership, not through the state like socialists, but through a decentralized, local, factory-based decision-making system, which would make the state unnecessary.”
Many anarchists believed violence was inappropriate. But a small group thought the violence displayed against workers should be returned in kind.
“For these radicals, American political corruption, capitalist exploitation, and anti-radical repression left no alternative but violent retaliation,” Zimmer writes. He notes that in 1919, one anarchist paper declared, “In this Republic of sharks and ‘pimps’ nothing can be obtained without violence!”
And the handbill found at the site of the bomb attacks on June 2, 1919 railed that “there will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder; we will kill because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions.”
After the June 2 bombings, the response by the government at the national and local levels was swift. In many cities, anarchist clubs were raided, and many suspected anarchists were arrested.
Officials took advantage of laws passed just a few years before to strip foreign-born anarchists of their U.S. citizenship and deport non-citizens. Anarchist newspapers could no longer use the postal service to distribute their publications. The 1918 Sedition Act had expanded the government’s ability to police radical speech.
Palmer, the attorney general, orchestrated the Palmer Raids, launching the nation’s first Red Scare.
In Paterson, those in charge uttered threats against anarchists. A front page headline in The Record on June 4 announced that “Bolshevists and Anarchists Are Warned to Keep Out of Paterson.”
Paterson Police Chief John Tracey told reporters, “When the anarchists come to Paterson they will find they have struck a rock that will wreck them.”
Valentine’s Day Raid
After months of investigation that included the use of an undercover agent who infiltrated Paterson anarchist groups, some 200 federal agents and Paterson detectives raided anarchist homes and institutions on Valentine’s Day in 1920, and arrested 17 people in Paterson, Prospect Park and East Paterson (now Elmwood Park).
It was the first raid in the field for J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the Bureau of Investigation’s Radical Division.
Those arrested were alleged members of “the notorious L’Era Nuova group of anarchists, the most dangerous known anarchist organization in the United States,” reported the Morning Call.
Agents also raided a printing office on Straight Street where the anarchist paper La Jacquerie was printed. The agents confiscated galley proofs of a future issue of the paper.
At an anarchist library on Ellison Street, agents hauled away two truckloads of books and pamphlets.
The arrested men spent the night at the Paterson police station, then were sent to Ellis Island to await deportation proceedings. As they were led through the Paterson streets, one of the anarchists recalled later, “the sidewalks were lined with people, who hailed us waving caps and handkerchiefs. A policeman said to a federal agent, ‘You see? We told you that public opinion is with them,’” Zimmer writes.
While the circumstances in 1920 were different, the efforts by national leaders to pass laws making it easier to suppress the anarchist movement and conduct raids to sweep up suspected anarchists and deport them have striking parallels to today’s immigration policies, including the Trump administration’s ban on travel from some Muslim countries and the intensifying roundups of illegal immigrants by ICE agents.
Even President Donald Trump’s largely erroneous depiction of Mexican illegals coming across the border as criminals, drug dealers and rapists, and his call for a border wall, are nothing new. Ottanelli cites a political cartoon published in 1904 in which a large stone wall labeled “Immigration Restriction” is overrun by sinister looking Italians, Germans and Irish.
An “American laborer” tugs at Uncle Sam asking for help. “American labor calls Uncle Sam’s attention to the inefficiency of his immigration restriction wall,” reads the caption beneath the cartoon.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Ottanelli said. “The motivations that lead immigrants to come to the United States are no different than those of the immigrants that came before. It’s about displacement and opportunity.
“And anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon — it has existed since colonial days,” Ottanelli said. “Ben Franklin feared the Germanization of Pennsylvania, and in the 19th century there was great fear among WASPs over the arrival of the Irish.
“There’s always a tendency to place blame for the country’s problems on outsiders,” he said. “And that’s really fomented by those in power. In times of growing social uncertainty, it’s easier to place blame on outsiders than to tackle the real reasons for the problems, which are unequal distribution of wealth.”
Zimmer agreed. “Most of the anarchists were not radicalized when they left Europe,” he said. “The economic conditions and ethnic racial prejudice in the U.S. made them receptive to this more radical ideology. And we do see the same in a lot of cases with Islamist terrorist acts in recent years. They were radicalized after arriving in the U.S., like the Boston Marathon bomber.
“The fear and prejudice toward them helped produce and feed into radical movements,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer writes that the Red Scare and Hoover’s personal intervention dealt a near fatal blow to Paterson’s anarchist community.
Yet, despite the successful raids across the country in 1919 and 1920, the Red Scare soon waned. In March 1920 a liberal, Louis Post, took the reigns of the labor department and began subjecting all deportation cases to close review, dismissing most for lack of evidence, Zimmer writes.
Of 6,300 deportation warrants issued for suspected alien radicals in 1919 and 1920, fewer than 900 were carried out, he writes.
When the most deadly anarchist bomb exploded on Wall Street in September of 1920 in front of the offices of J. P. Morgan, killing about 30, the nation did not push for more repression.
“Public opinion had turned against the Red Scare and its violations of civil liberties,” Zimmer writes. By the end of 1921, postal authorities stopped banning radical publications from the mails. Within three years, “all remaining prisoners held under the Espionage and Sedition Acts were released.”
And not a single person ever faced trial for the bombs that exploded on June 2, 1919 — including the one that hurled the sleeping Morris family of Paterson from their beds.