Until the 1990s, the Wall Street Bombing on September 16, 1920 was among the worst acts of terrorism in United States history. This was not the work of groups whom we now think of as terror groups. It’s widely believed that the bombing’s mastermind was an Italian-born anarchist named Mario Buda. Who were the anarchists?
Acts of Anarchist Terror
In the late nineteenth century, anarchism was the greatest threat to established order. Anarchists carried out a string of assassinations and bombings from the 1870s through the early 1920s. They succeeded in murdering six monarchs, including the Tsar of Russia, the Empress of Austria-Hungary, and the Kings of Italy, Portugal, and Greece.
An anarchist assassin also killed US President William McKinley, the leader of France, two prime ministers and hundreds of other officials, policemen, and innocent bystanders. In 1886, in Chicago, someone threw a bomb during an anarchist demonstration in Haymarket Square. Seven policemen were killed. Four anarchists were later hanged.
In 1893, anarchist Santiago Salvador tossed two bombs into the packed Liceu Theater in Barcelona, killing 20 people. Another anarchist, Auguste Vaillant, detonated a nail bomb in the French Parliament, wounding two dozen. Vaillant went to the guillotine proclaiming, “Death to Bourgeois Society, Long Live Anarchy!” Bourgeois society had good reason to feel under siege.
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Anarchists: A Definition
But who were these anarchists? A common notion is that anarchists refuse to obey any rules or authority. But anarchism isn’t lawlessness, fashion statement, or vandalism. It’s a philosophy that influenced many movements. Nor do all anarchists advocate violence; there are indeed pacifist anarchists, but no one pays much attention to them.
Anarchism isn’t the rejection of law, but rejection of the state. Anarchism sees the state as a tool of the ruling class, a system of control and exploitation. Anarchists believe destruction of the state will free humanity to create a genuine, egalitarian society.
The state is an instrument of violence, so it’s okay to use violence against it. Violent action is called “propaganda of the deed” as opposed to “propaganda of the word.” Anarchists see violence as defensive, and a means of revenge.
Auguste Vaillant’s bomb in the French Parliament was payback for the execution of another anarchist bomber, Ravachol. So, it fits that the Wall Street bomb might have been Mario Buda’s revenge for the indictment of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
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Galleani, the Anarchist Leader
Anarchists weren’t Bolsheviks. They had no supreme leader like Lenin. Nor was there an anarchist international to order them around. But they did have ideological gurus who exerted wide influence in the movement. Early examples included such thinkers as Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin.
But by the start of the twentieth century, one of the most influential anarchists was another Italian, Luigi Galleani. Galleani created an anarchist secret society dedicated to terrorism. Escaping prison in Italy, he came to the United States in 1901, the year McKinley was shot.
In Paterson, New Jersey, Galleani edited an anarchist journal, La Questione Sociale. Among those drawn to his growing circle were two brothers, Carlo and Mario Buda. Galleani was also a stirring orator. As Carlo Buda put it, “You heard Galleani speak, and you were ready to shoot the first policeman you saw.”
Charged with inciting strikers to violence, Galleani fled New Jersey and ended up in Barre, Vermont. There, he started another journal, Cronaca Sovversiva, the “Chronicle of Subversion”. He praised anarchist assassins such as Gaetano Bresci who killed King Umberto of Italy in 1900; and Leon Czolgosz, who fatally shot President McKinley.
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Galleani published a do-it-yourself manual on bomb-making that included a home recipe for nitroglycerin. Galleani didn’t order terrorist acts, he inspired them. His followers called themselves the Galleanisti. In 1916, one of his followers poisoned soup at a reception in Chicago, affecting more than a hundred people. In 1917, Mario Buda dynamited a Milwaukee police station. In 1918, the US government used the new Sedition Act to close Cronaca Sovversiva, and deported Galleani back to Italy.
But the Galleanisti didn’t give up. In April 1919, they mailed 36 bombs to congressmen, governors, mayors, police commissioners, and to A. Mitchell Palmer, the US attorney general. Most of the targets had backed anti-sedition and anti-anarchist measures. The bombs came wrapped as gifts from Gimbels Department Store in New York. Most were intercepted before reaching their targets.
In June, the Galleanisti hand-delivered eight bigger bombs. Attorney General Palmer was again a target. He and his family escaped certain death when the bomb exploded prematurely, killing its handler. The attacks doubtless influenced Palmer to launch the so-called Palmer Raids in January 1920. Ten thousand foreign-born radicals were rounded up, and more than 500 deported.
Palmer believed he was battling a massive conspiracy. It was a conspiracy alright, though the Galleanisti probably numbered no more than a few dozen. But a secret society’s impact is almost never based on its numbers. Palmer wasn’t the first to believe he was facing an organized anarchist menace.
The First War on Terror
In 1898, the shocking murder of Habsburg Empress Elisabeth led to an International Conference for the Social Defense against anarchists. The Great Powers declared the first War on Terror. Delegates from 21 countries attended the conference. Russia led the charge, demanding governments enact harsh penalties, including the death penalty for regicide, along with uniform extradition laws, and sharing of information.
First, the delegates had to define what it was that they were fighting. The enemy was identified not as anarchism but “anarchist acts”, those having as their aim “the violent destruction of all social organization”. Continued assassinations and bombings led to a second conference at St. Petersburg in 1904.
This resulted in a secret protocol signed by different governments, including Russia, Germany, and Austria. It called for offices in each country that would share information with a central anti-anarchist office. This was the first step toward what would eventually become Interpol. There may even have been a secret agreement for the assassination or rendition of wanted terrorists.
Common Questions about Anarchism and Anarchists
Anarchists were the greatest threat to organized society because they carried out a string of assassinations and bombings from the 1870s through the early 1920s.
Anarchists believed that the state is an instrument of violence, so it’s okay to use violence against it. Anarchists saw violence as defensive, and a means of revenge.
Luigi Galleani was the most influential anarchist in the early twentieth century. He created an anarchist secret society dedicated to terrorism.