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Hidden History: The Scars of New York City's Forgotten Terrorist Attacks

The cross-streets off lower Fifth Avenue are some of Manhattan’s most historic and picturesque. Despite being bound by Washington and Union Square, the area feels decidedly residential, with tree-lined sidewalks and ivy-covered brownstones reminiscent of an earlier time. This peaceful atmosphere, however, belies the neighborhood’s storied past, which has been the home of the city’s richest and oldest families as well as its notorious dives, gambling dens, and brothels.

West Eleventh Street, nestled between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, is one of the neighborhood’s most idyllic, attracting prominent residents such as Mark Twain, Mel Brooks, and Thornton Wilder. Many of the homes date back to the nineteenth century, including a row of brick townhouses built in the 1840s by the wealthy landowner Henry Breevoort Jr.. The Greek Revival homes are virtually identical to each other, with one blaring exception. The facade of no. 18 juts out in a dramatic angle four feet past Breevoort’s other buildings, the only clue into it’s bizarre past. Over the years, 18 West 11th Street has housed the founder of Merrill Lynch, a Broadway legend, and a domestic terrorist organization named after a Bob Dylan lyric.

In 1963, James Wilkerson, an advertising executive, bought the house with his second wife. Seven years later, the couple left for vacation unaware that Wilkerson’s daughter would transform his subbasement into a bomb factory. Cathy Wilkerson was a member of The Weathermen, a radical anti-war group that aimed to overthrow the U.S. government. To this end, the group firebombed government buildings and military recruitment centers across the country. Until this point, The Weathermen had relied mostly on Molotov cocktails, but Cathy’s cadre decided it was time to step up to pipe bombs — despite having no demolition knowledge or experience. Needless to say, this didn’t go so well.

On March 6th 1970, a fatal cross wire error detonated three cases of dynamite in the subbasement, causing a massive explosion that ripped off the front of the house. The shock wave tore through the neighborhood, shattering the windows of nearby buildings. Trapped in the subbasement, three of the bomb makers were killed with such violence that investigators had trouble identifying which body parts they were looking at. Only two of the bomb makers survived: Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin. They stumbled out of the flaming house naked and bleeding, their clothes ripped apart by the blast. Horrified neighbors swarmed onto the street, thinking there had been a gas explosion. Dustin Hoffman, who lived next door at no.16, ran out of his house with a painting he saved.

In the midst of the chaos, Wilkerson and Boudin managed to escape, landing themselves on the FBI's Most Wanted List. They lived as fugitives for over a decade before turning themselves in to the authorities.

The gutted home lay abandoned for years, its ash-covered exterior covered in pro-Weathermen graffiti. In 1978, the house was finally rebuilt, but rather than replicating the original facade, it was given its distinct angular shape, the lone memorial to its forgotten past.

History hides throughout the city, not just in what was built but also in what was left broken. The limestone facade of the triangular, fortress-like building on 23 Wall Street is dotted with pockmarks, ranging in size from small, barely noticeable nicks to baseball-sized gashes. Though often mistaken as signs of the buildings age, the scars are actually almost as old as the building itself, caused by the second deadliest attack in New York’s history.

As the bells of nearby Trinity Church struck noon on September 16, 1920, a bomb hidden inside a horse-drawn carriage detonated outside of the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Company, shooting 500 pounds of iron weights into the air. In an instant, Wall Street was transformed into a war-zone, the ground littered with broken glass and severed limbs. The horse was atomized, it’s hooves found hundreds of yards away in Trinity Cemetery. The explosion killed a total of 38 people, injured hundreds, and caused over two million dollars of damage. No one claimed responsibility for the attack and the perpetrator’s identity remains a mystery to this day.

Despite the unprecedented devastation, bandaged businessmen returned to their desks the very next day “determined” wrote the New York Sun, “to show the world business will proceed as usual despite the bombs.” Overnight, all signs of the explosion were swept away, including any physical evidence that may have helped to identify those responsible. The Wall Street Bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States until the Oklahoma City bombing 75 years later. Yet, there is no official memorial commemorating the lives that were lost: no plaque, no statue, no list of names — just the scars left un-repaired on the building’s facade.


Weathermen Townhouse:

18 West 11th Street

New York, NY 10011

Former J.P. Morgan Headquarters:

23 Wall Street

New York, NY 10005

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