Friday, December 10, 2010

Down With Wall Street! (1920 version)

Ninety years ago anti-Wall St. sentiment exploded.

by Stephen J. Gertz

"Direct Action." New York: 1920.
Broadsheet (28 x 22 cm)
On newsprint, recto-only.

At 12:01PM on September 16, 1920 a massive blast outside the headquarters of J.P. Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street, the Financial District's busiest corner, left thirty-eight people dead and 143 seriously wounded.

It was the deadliest bombing on U.S. soil to date. The Washington Post declared it "an act of war."

Just prior to the explosion flyers were found by a Post Office letter-carrier in the District. Printed in red ink on white paper, the text read: "Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you." It was signed "American Anarchist Fighters."

The case dragged on for over three years yet no indictments were ever issued. The I.W.W., the Communist Party, the Union of Russian Workers - the usual suspects - were investigated and cleared.

Curiously and quite coincidentally, dramatist Booth Tarkington wrote a play, in four acts addressing the radicalism of the times, that opened exactly one week before the bombing, on September 9th.

"Written as a light satiric comedy, Booth Tarkington's Poldekin (1920)...was intended to laugh Communism out of existence. A comic rendering, he offers, was 'more effective than to fall into a fury at mention of the word, as so many Americans are doing.' The title character...leads a group of Russian revolutionaries, who, seeing themselves as sociopolitical missionaries, intend to launch a rebellion in the United States by publishing propaganda and inspiring a class war. Referring to postwar upheaval, a professor among them intones: 'We take advantage of the violent mood to produce universal war between the classes'" (Wainscott, The Emergence of the Modern American Theater, 1914-1929, p. 172).

The play, which only ran for one month,  inspired the anonymous author of this broadside, published without imprint or any identifying information whatsoever. All we know is that is was issued between September 16  and sometime in October 1920, when the curtain rose for the last time; Poldekin closed after only forty-four performances. Though a  light satire it was, apparently, too heavy for theater goers prior to the bombing and afterward, when nerves were frazzled and fear was dominant.

(Famed stage, later film, actor George Arliss played the title role. Twenty-seven year old Edward G. Robinson portrayed Pinsky. Sidney Toler, who later starred in the Charlie Chan movies -  assuming the role after Warner Oland's death - acted the character, Welch).

Wall Street, September 16, 1920.
Photo credit: World-Telegram

This broadside is one of the many items concerning Social Movements that rare book dealer, Lorne Bair, features in his most recent catalog, Catalog Ten: Fall 2010

MARLEN, George (pseud. of George Spiro).
Earl Browder: Communist or Tool of Wall Street -
Stalin, Trotsky or Lenin?

New York: By the author, 1937.

"Our mission," Bair writes, "is to seek out unusual and obscure material relating to (mostly) American social movements and to approach it with the respect and scholarship it has long deserved but only rarely received from collectors and booksellers.

The Pink Iconoclast. No. 49 (Nov. 14, 1903).
Colorado Springs, CO: E.E. Sonnanstine.
Quirky, scarce newspaper devoted to
freethought and radical politics.

"Though our sympathies lie decidedly on the Left, we feel a responsibility to document as much of American social history as we can stomach...So in this catalog you'll find George Lincoln Rockwell butting up against Big Bill Haywood, and primitive racist lost-race fantasies rubbing elbows with civil rights manifestos.

"SLEUTH" (pseud. of S.O. Berg?)
Capitalism's Last Struggle: Fascist Terrorism
Just Around the Corner. Manifesto of the
United Workers and Farmers. Revised
from Prosperity Around the Corner.

Seffner, FL: S.O. Berg, [c. 1934].
A fictional parable of Depression-era class warfare.

"Don't let this bug you. Or, rather, go ahead, let it bug you; get worked up: that's what nearly every item in this catalog was intended to make you do. 

WHITE, Bishop Alma.
Heroes of the Fiery Cross.
Illustrated by Rev. Branford Clarke.

Zarephath, NJ: The Good Citizen, 1928.
Racist, and anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic
encomium to the Klu Klux Klan.
Published in New Jersey.

"It's strange times we live in, and we could do worse than to remember that even stranger times preceded us." 

For example: KKK activity in New Jersey.

ADAMS, Samuel Hopkins. The Flagrant Years:
A Novel of the Beauty Market.
New York: Horace Liveright, 1929.

The beauty business had, by the time  The Flagrant Years was published in 1929, evolved into the the beauty industry, and the beautification of the average American woman became a social revolution that triumphed over all religious and moral objections. It was, in its way, as radical as any contemporary political movement. Case in point: the  Marcel Wave.

Lorne Bair Rare Books logo.
Based upon that of The Vanguard Press,
the venerable radical publishing house.

The culprits to the Wall Street bombing of 1920 were never apprehended. It had been suspected that  sympathizers to Luigi Galleani, the Italian anarchist active in the United States until his deportation in 1919, were to blame. It appears that Galleanist Mario Buda was behind the attack; never questioned in the bombing's aftermath, he skipped to Naples, never to return to the U.S.

And Booth Tarkington's Poldekin has, to the best of my investigation, never been published, separately or within an anthology. As playwright, director, humorist, and drama critic George S. Kaufman famously declared, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." But when the satire concerns radical politics it closes on Friday night and theatricals publisher Samuel French wants nothing to do with it.

All images courtesy of Lorne Bair Rare Books, with our thanks.

A special thank you to Peacay at BibliOdyssey for a key assist.

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