Authored by Sean S. Murray
In the northwest corner of Maple Grove Cemetery, there is a family plot with a gravestone bearing the name Portong. Last among the names inscribed on its front facing side is Ludolf F. Portong, a bank teller from Jamaica, New York who died at age 28 on September 16, 1920 (Bellows 2018, 42:14; Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery, 2020). This date likely bears little significance in the minds of most people today. However, the date corresponds with what was, at the time, the single deadliest terrorist attack in American history, and Ludolf F. Portong was among the many now mostly forgotten victims (Gage 2009, 1).
On Thursday, September 16, 1920, just before noontime, a horse-drawn carriage stopped outside the J.P. Morgan building on the corner of Broad and Wall Streets in Manhattan’s financial district (Martinez 2012, 124). Its driver quickly dismounted and vanished from the scene (Leonard 2009, BU. 4). It would turn out that the carriage was filled with one hundred pounds of dynamite as well as heavy iron sash weights intended to create shrapnel (Han and Han 2022, 549; Leonard 2009, BU. 4). At 12:01 PM, just as bankers, like Portong, and other office workers would be heading out onto the streets for lunch or to make an afternoon appointment, the bomb would detonate, killing 38 people—and one horse—and wounding “hundreds more,” (Gage 2009, 1; Han and Han 2022, 549; Martinez 2012, 125-6). The exact perpetrators have never been found, and the case remains unsolved (Han and Han 2022, 549-50).
Certain parallels have been drawn between this event and the attacks on September 11, 2001, but more focus should be drawn to some of the contrasts. Principally, whereas after 9/11 the words “Never Forget” became adopted as an inescapable slogan, countless memorials would be erected, and the names of victims would be read aloud at annual remembrance events, the immediate response on Wall Street to the 1920 bombing was to almost literally sweep everything under the rug and move on as quickly as possible. “[B]anks and exchanges imported a full ‘battalion’ of sweepers, repairmen, street cleaners, stonemasons, and mechanics” who worked through the night, cleaning up broken glass and rubble, washing away dust and gore, and restoring broken windows and doorframes, and by the following morning on September 17, employees returned to their jobs, the stock exchange resumed trading, and offices advertised “Business as Usual” as if nothing had happened (Bellows 2018, 43:08; Gage 2009, 150-1). Today, the only lasting reminders of this incident are the pockmarks created by the shrapnel on the north face of the old J.P. Morgan building and a “tourist sign” around the corner mentioning the act of terrorism that had occurred, but there is no proper tribute, memorial, or list of names commemorating the 38 individuals who had lost their lives (Gage 2009, 1). This is antithetical to how our contemporary culture responds to tragedy and pays tribute to the victims of violence, and it has resulted in largely forgotten history.
However, this is an oversight that the non-profit organization Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery plans to rectify. They intend to make use of the cemetery’s historical resources with purpose of establishing their own memorial for all the victims of the Wall Street bombing in the cemetery, adjacent to the site of Ludolf F. Portong’s final resting place. By doing this, it can finally be possible to pay tribute to those whose lives were lost and shine some light on a neglected historical event.
Bellows, Susan, dir. 2018. The Bombing of Wall Street. Documentary. San Francisco: American Experience Films PBS. https://www.kanopy.com/en/stjohns/video/6081543.
Clymer, Jeffory A. 2003. America’s Culture of Terrorism : Violence, Capitalism, and the Written Word. Cultural Studies of the United States. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=114679&site=ehost-live.
Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery. 2020. IMG_8980.JPG. Photograph. Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery.
Gage, Beverly. 2009. The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press.
Han, Lori C., and Tomislav Han. 2022. Political Violence in America: Historical Flashpoints and Modern-Day Trends [2 Volumes]. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=3197453&site=ehost-live.
Leonard, Devin. 2009. “On the Road to 9/11, There Was 9/16: [Money and Business/Financial Desk].” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast), March 1, 2009, sec. BU. https://www.proquest.com/docview/434053937/abstract/6BD1D33385F4FFAPQ/1.
Martinez, J. Michael. 2012. Terrorist Attacks on American Soil: From the Civil War Era to the Present. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=499987&site=ehost-live.