In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States had a series of events that forever changed the face of our nation’s national law enforcement agency and set off a wave of anti-immigration acts around the country.
In early 1919 a group of anarchists mailed bombs to 36 prominent politicians and appointees, including the Attorney General of the United States, as well as justice officials, newspaper editors and prominent businessmen. These dynamite-laden booby-trapped bombs were the work of a group of disciples of Luigi Galleani, a particularly radical anarchist who advocated violence as a means to effect change, to rid the world of laws and capitalism.
After the April spate of bombings, another wave early in June 1919 in seven different cities all within 90 minutes of one another, bombs of a much stronger capacity rocked New York; Boston; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; Washington; D.C.; Philadelphia; and Patterson, New Jersey.
On the evening of June 2, 1919, an anarchist named Carlo Valdinoci, who was a former editor of the Galleanist newspaper Cronaca Sovversiva and close associate of Luigi Galleani blew up the front of newly appointed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in Washington, D.C.
Valdinoci also blew himself up in the process when the bomb exploded prematurely. Across the street, a young man named Franklin Roosevelt, along with his wife Eleanor were also shaken by the blast. The Roosevelts had just returned home from a walk and had just passed by the Palmer home.
The bombs placed on June 2nd were much more powerful than the ones that had been mailed in April. The bombs were composed of up to 25 pounds of dynamite packed with heavy metal slugs designed to act as shrapnel. The targets of the anarchist bombs included government officials who had pushed for anti-sedition laws and deportation of immigrants suspected of crimes or associated with illegal movements, as well as judges who had sentenced anarchists to prison.
Within minutes the other bombs rocked the cities across America as the bombs were initially designed to explode at about the same time. Luckily, none of the intended targets were killed or injured but a nightwatchman, William Boehner was killed in New York City.
The bombs were also packed with leaflets printed on pink paper titled, “Plain Words” which was the anarchists attempt at psyops.
War, Class war, and you were the first to wage it under the cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws. 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.
Law enforcement officials were able to quickly trace the leaflets to a print shop they had already arrested two members from. The Canzani Print Shop in New York City had been under surveillance by federal authorities for some time. The feds arrested the typesetter Andrea Salsedo and Roberto Elia, a compositor.
After being held for weeks incommunicado without the benefit of calling his lawyer, Salsedo reportedly committed suicide by leaping out the window of the Federal building and landing on the sidewalk 14 floors below. There were rumors that Salcedo didn’t leap but was pushed out the window.
This was a dark and generally unknown time in American history. The nation was reeling from a pandemic flu which was killing thousands and the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia had given rise to a “Red Scare” as well as the many labor strikes that were prevalent of the days leading up to and after the bombings.
The anarchists overplayed their hand. Rather than fomenting revolution as they had hoped, the American public was demanding action be taken. The Attorney General in Washington D.C. put a young lawyer in charge of the federal investigation by J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover began collecting and organizing every scrap of intelligence gathered by the Bureau of Investigation (the FBI’s predecessor) and creating large files to identify anarchists. This is what he would take to extremes once he became the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Investigation along with the Immigration Bureau worked to round up and deport illegal immigrants who they said posed a threat to national security, including many Galleanists, the anarchists dedicated to Luigi Galleani.
But the abuses of power by the federal government and the trampling of the rights of those scooped up in the many raids led to the same population having the severe criticism of the tactics used by the federal government.
Hoover’s voluminous files resulted in several arrests under the quickly passed Sedition Act. Among those arrested included .suspected radicals and foreigners identified by Hoover’s intelligence gathering, including well-known leaders Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. In December of 1919, after the arrest of many of the “Red” radicals, they were publicly put on a ship that the public named the “Red Ark” and deported to the Soviet Union.
This was followed by the “Palmer Raids” in January of 1920. The raids were the subject of illegal search and seizures, unwarranted arrests and detentions, and the deportation of several hundred suspected radicals and anarchists.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and Hoover came under increasing criticism for the heavy-handed way they conducted the raids. Under the guise of the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, and/or the Immigration Act of 1918, there were nearly 10,000 people arrested, of those 3,500 were held in detention. And only 556 resident aliens were eventually deported.
The FBI admits that the Palmer Raids, in part fueled by the AG’s aim for a White House bid in 1920 was hardly a bright spot in the Bureau’s history, however, in their words, they claim that this incident allowed the FBI to “gain valuable experience in terrorism investigations and intelligence work and learn important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”