The Lexington Avenue explosion was the July 4, 1914 explosion of a bomb in an apartment at 1626 Lexington Avenue in New York City, killing four people and injuring dozens.
A large quantity of dynamite, which was believed was being made into a bomb to blow up John D. Rockefeller’s Tarrytown home, exploded prematurely at a new seven-story model tenement. The bomb intended for Rockefeller had exploded prematurely at Berger’s apartment, killing 3 conspirators and another renter.
In July 1914, two members of the Lettish section of the Anarchist Black Cross, Charles Berg and Carl Hanson began collecting dynamite they had obtained from Russia. Plotting with them was Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) member Arthur Caron (above). They stored the dynamite at the apartment of another Anarchist Black Cross member, Louise Berger. Berger was an editor of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth magazine. Several meetings were held at the Ferrer Center, where they devised a plan in which Caron, Berg, and Hanson were to plant a bomb at John D. Rockefeller’s home in Tarrytown, New York.
According to later accounts, the three men, along with Alexander Berkman and Charles Plunkett, met at the Ferrer Center at least twice to discuss the plot. Charles Plunkett, a party to the conspiracy, later stated that Berkman chose to remain behind the scenes rather than take an active role in the bombing due to his being on probation for the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick. Berkman later denied any involvement or knowledge of the plan, a denial supported by some who knew him, and rejected by others. Plunkett also claimed that neither Rockefeller nor his house were intended to be the target of the bomb, and that its detonation in Tarrytown would be merely a “gesture of protest.”
At 9 a.m. on July 4, Berger left her apartment and headed over to the Mother Earth offices on 119th Street. Fifteen minutes later, a deadly explosion took place on the sixth story of Berger’s tenement building at 1626 Lexington Avenue, between 102nd Street and 103rd Street in the thickly populated area of Harlem, only a few blocks away from the Ferrer Center. Passers-by witnessed a shower of debris and rubble fall into the street. The three upper floors of the tenement building were wrecked from the explosion, while debris showered rooftops and the streets below. Large pieces of furniture were thrown hundreds of feet through the air due to the power of the blast. The bomb intended for Rockefeller had exploded prematurely at Berger’s apartment, killing Hanson, Berg, Caron and Marie Chavez, who had apparently not been involved in the conspiracy but had merely rented a room in the apartment. The blast threw Caron’s body onto the mangled and twisted fire escape. The mutilated bodies of Chavez and Hanson were found inside of the apartment. The blast had torn the body of Berg into pieces, which were seen by spectators being thrown through the air onto the streets. In total, twenty other people were injured, seven of them severely enough to be hospitalized. Berkman attended the men’s funerals. Berger later denied any involvement, and police were unable to implicate her in the conspiracy.
Another IWW member named “Mike” Murphy was spending the night in the same apartment when the explosion occurred. The blast destroyed the floor underneath him, causing his bed to fall into the apartment below. Slightly dazed and confused, Murphy was able to walk away from the incident with only the loss of some clothes and a few minor bruises. He was immediately sought for questioning by the police, but was able to slip away to Mother Earth headquarters, where it is believed that Berkman sent him into hiding, accompanied by Charles Plunkett, another co-conspirator of the bombing. Murphy was first taken to New Jersey and then to Philadelphia by members of the Radical Library and finally on to Canada.
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The deaths of the bombmakers did not end the attacks against Rockefeller and Standard Oil. On November 19, 1915, another bomb plot was discovered, this time against John D. Archbold, President of the Standard Oil Company, at his home in Tarrytown. Police theorized the bomb was planted by anarchists and IWW radicals as a protest against the execution of IWW member Joe Hill in Salt Lake City. The bomb was discovered by a gardener, who found four sticks of dynamite, weighing a pound each, half hidden in a rut in a driveway fifty feet from the front entrance of the residence. The dynamite sticks were bound together by a length of wire, fitted with percussion caps, and wrapped with a piece of paper matching the color of the driveway, a path used by Archbold in going to or from his home by automobile. The bomb was later defused by police.
Philosopher Will Durant later created a fictionalized version of this bombing and placed the semi-autobiographical narrator, using the name “John Lemaire,” in the story as the innocent fourth roommate. This version appeared in Durant’s 1927 book, Transition: A Sentimental Story of One Mind and One Era. In Durant’s version, the innocent roommate survived. The parallels between the true story and Durant’s version are unmistakable, as Durant associated with anarchists loosely affiliated with the Ferrer Center at which Durant taught. Durant further describes the bombing as intended retaliation against a wealthy industrialist whose company had caused a massacre of employees in Colorado. Despite the use of fictionalized names, some confusion about Durant’s intentions with this material has arisen, possibly due to editorial changes as the book was reprinted. An editor’s “Caution” in the 1955 edition states that initially the book was “in the form of a novel; consequently it added, to the actual experiences and memories of the author, some events and conversations not actually his own.” (source)
Photo credit: 1) The bobobed Harlem apartment on Lexington Avenue. 2) Arthur Caron. 3) The IWW committee. Left to right are: Sullivan, Caron, Plunkett, Turner, Woolman. Arthur Caron and Charles Plunkett who were implicated in the bombing.