Were Germans Responsible for Black Tom?
During the early morning hours of July 30, 1916, tons of munitions stored at the Black Tom Island loading facility in Jersey City and bound for the Allies fighting in the trenches of the Western Front exploded, sending shockwaves that could be felt as far away as Maryland. Germany believed the United States’ claims of neutrality were a farce because war supplies made in the U.S. and loans from its bankers allowed the Allies to keep fighting as the British blockade starved the German people. To counter this, German agents were sent to destroy U.S. munitions productions, and the attack on Black Tom was one of the most successful.
1916 was also a presidential election year, and the Democratic incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, planned to run on a platform of regulating big business and avoiding war. However, an attack by Germany on American soil would make this impossible.
Frank Hague, who would become one of the most powerful Democratic bosses in New Jersey history, spoke as the fires were still smoldering and shells exploding. According to the Asbury Park Press of Aug. 1, “Frank Hague, commissioner of public safety for Jersey City, today asked Governor Fielder to call a special session of the New Jersey legislature to consider state conditions revealed by the Black Tom island explosion. R. Hague wants a law put thru to take effect immediately, granting municipalities the right to regulate the transportation of high explosives within their limits.
“New Jersey authorities were seeking sufficient evidence to warrant the arrest of two millionaire railway presidents in connection with the ammunition explosion on Black Toms Island.”
After talking with Hague, The New York Times editorialized, “On one point the various investigating bodies agree, and that is that the fire and subsequent explosions cannot be charged to the account of alien plotters against the neutrality of the United States, although it is admitted that the destruction of so large a quantity of allied war material must prove cheering news to Berlin and Vienna.”
All eyes turned toward the evils of big business as the villain. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the next day, “Drastic action was taken by the City Commissioners of Jersey City late today to make impossible a recurrence of such a disaster as the fire and explosions on Black Tom island early Sunday morning. … By a vote of 4 to 1 the Commissioners adopted a resolution ordering the removal and exclusion from the city of freight cars laden with high explosives. … The railroads were given twenty-four hours’ notice to obey the requirements of the resolution. If they fail to comply within that time, Director of Public Safety Frank Hague, who is Chief of the Police Department, is directed to use all the means within his power and at his command to enforce the order. Hague announced that if necessary he will arrest every railroad official or employee who fails to comply with the terms of the resolution.”
At the same time, the Philadelphia Ledger reported on the position of the federal government.
“The possibility of complicity of German agents in the Black Tom Peninsula explosion, resulting in the destruction of 86 carloads of shrapnel destined for the Allies, was scouted by Department of Justice officials today. … If a German agency was responsible, it is the opinion at the Department that it would only be the act of an irresponsible fanatic. Assuming incendiary origin, however, officials are more inclined to attribute the explosion to pacifist fanatics.”
Toms River’s New Jersey Courier of Aug. 4 added its voice, saying, “But big business, if big enough, always defies law in this country – and everywhere else. And the newspaper organs of big business the morning after the explosion, instead of denouncing this defiance of law which had resulted so disastrously, used columns to denounce a German plot – thus dragging a red herring across the trail to divert public indignation from the defiant law-breakers.”
The same day, the White House sent a telegram to Hague.
“I would advise that immediately upon receipt by the commission of notice of this accident we dispatched one of our inspectors to Black Tom Island for the purpose of obtaining first-hand information in regard to the accident and its cause. …
“Our investigation thus far discloses no evidence that the law or the regulations of the commission governing the packing and safe transportation of explosives were violated. Furthermore, from the best information obtainable the explosion was caused by fire on the docks, which was known to have been burning for approximately two hours before the first explosion occurred.”
The pro-German magazine Fatherland was quick to join the chorus, and on Aug. 9 it printed, “THE HAND OF GOD, The explosion which shook the skyscrapers of Manhattan and was heard in five states, causing the destruction of $7,000,000 worth of munitions, seems like the judgment of God on the hideous traffic in murder. It is a judgment on those who, careless of the feelings, the safety and the lives of their fellow-citizens, bent only upon the blood money of the Allies, make the name of America a by-word throughout the civilized world. It is unfortunate that the accident affects those who are blameless no less than those who are guilty. But there certainly is a certain poetic justice in the fact that every window in the bombproof offices of J. Pierpont Morgan was shattered by the force of the detonation. Nor is it without significance that the shrapnel raining upon New York Harbor from barges laden with lethal weapons severely shook the Statue of Liberty to its very foundations. The Allied shells did not, however, succeed in extinguishing her lamp. We trust that this is also symbolic.”
Unfortunately, the subject wouldn’t go quietly, and the Times of Aug. 10 announced, “The Jersey City police arrested Erling Iverson and Axel Larsen, Norwegians, at their boarding house, 241 Grove Street, Jersey City, yesterday on charges of being suspicious persons. They are held on suspicion of complicity in the $15,000,000 million Black Tom Island fire. … The detectives searched their room and found in a violin case a mass of papers. … The detectives also found a book in which there were shorthand notes. … There was also an uncompleted letter from Iverson to his mother in London telling of the explosion and saying: ‘I expect there will be more, for there are still sixty-eight cars of ammunition in the Black Tom yard.’”
The paper continued, “The police of New York and Jersey City, as well as agents of the Government, have been at work trying to verify information that comes from highly reliable sources that the explosion which destroyed the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s Black Tom terminal in Jersey City…. A man who is in touch with the investigations now under way said yesterday that there was every reason to believe that the explosion of Benzola, a benzene compound, in the Lehigh Valley yards late Sunday night and the big explosion on the previous Sunday were both developments in the carrying out of a plot to hinder the exportation of war materials from the United States to Europe.”
Two days later the Pittsburgh Press reported, “Axel Larsen and Erling Iverson, arrested on suspicion of complicity in the explosion, could not be identified today as men seen running from a burning freight car shortly before the explosion. They will be released.”
With this, the topic of Black Tom faded. It wasn’t an issue in the campaign, and in November 1916, Wilson won one of the closest elections in the country’s history. But Black Tom resurfaced when, on the day Wilson was inaugurated in March 1917, the New York Sun broke this story: “Fritz Kolb, arrested this afternoon in the Commercial Hotel at No. 2112 River Street, Hoboken, across the street from the German piers, has confessed, according to Chief of Police Patrick Hayes of Hoboken and Capt. Tunney of the Bomb Squad of the New York Detective Bureau, that two bombs found in his room were made to be used in an attempt to blow up President Wilson, and that he was implicated with others in the explosion which wrecked the Canadian Car & Foundry munitions plant at Kingsland, N.J., and in the disastrous Black Tom explosion in Bayonne last summer.”
On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. One of his reasons was “They filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators and sought to corrupt the opinion of our people in their own behalf. …
“Some of these agents were men connected with the official embassy of the German government itself here in our own capital. They sought by violence to destroy our industries and arrest our commerce.”
Following the war, there would be 20 years of court cases that eventually found Germany guilty of the attack on Black Tom, and there would be one last chapter. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy remembered a conversation with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. Roosevelt had been assistant secretary of the Navy under President Wilson.
“The Japanese had sunk our fleet at Pearl Harbor. … We knew they had planned subversion to be sure the United States wouldn’t recover. The highest concentration of Japanese-Americans was on the West Coast. Roosevelt said, ‘Move them.’ We moved them to relocation camps to get them out of sensitive areas.”
Roosevelt, McCloy said, “knew all about Black Tom. He said to me, ‘We don’t want any more Black Toms.’”
With that, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, opening concentration camps for American citizens of Japanese ancestry. The shockwaves from Black Tom are still with us today.
Next Week: 1916’s real horror.