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The Swords of Wicked Men, Part III


Now that I am writing the conclusion to my latest manuscript, The Swords of Wicked Men: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil (with an expected publication date in the summer or fall of 2012), I have had occasion to reflect back on the last 15 months of my life. It has been a harrowing journey. I have spent many an evening and weekend in the company of despicable characters.

Narrowing down the cases I would focus on — a dozen in all — was challenging. With so many incidents to choose from and so much bloodshed in the scope of American history, I had to omit many horrific episodes. In the final analysis, I deliberately sought to include well-known attacks mixed with forgotten tragedies. In each instance, my goal was to include an episode emblematic of a larger trend in the study of terrorism.

In this posting, I will discuss the first six cases I selected. I will leave the remaining six cases and the lessons I learned for subsequent blogs.

Chapter 1. The Mountain Meadows Massacre (1857): The book begins with a September 11th massacre 144 years before the al-Qaeida attacks occurred on the East Coast of the United States in 2001. The 1857 episode commenced with a struggle between the Mormon Church and civilians moving westward during the antebellum era. Utah was still a territory in the 1850s, and it was an area plagued by an escalating conflict between the United States government and a militia group, the Nauvoo Legion, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (referred to in the vernacular as the Mormon Church).

The confrontation began as a result of the 1856 presidential election when Democrat James Buchanan defeated John C. Fremont of the newly formed Republican Party. During the campaign, the Republicans attacked Buchanan on several issues, including the Democratic Party’s lackadaisical attitude toward the “twin relics of barbarism,” slavery and polygamy. Even if he had been inclined to do so, Buchanan was not in a position to ameliorate the effects of slavery, but he thought he could handle polygamy by dismissing Brigham Young, the Mormon governor of the Utah Territory since 1850. The new president appointed a successor to Governor Young, Alfred Cumming, and ordered the U.S. Army to escort the new administrator to his post.

Buchanan had not counted on Governor Young’s obstreperous nature or the Mormons’ willingness to bear arms against federal troops. The army moved into Utah Territory under the leadership of several officers, most notably Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, a highly regarded leader who would later join the Confederate States Army and perish in fierce fighting at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.

On September 11, 1857, a week before Col. Johnston and his men set out for the territory, a group of Mormons slaughtered 120 civilians in southern Utah in what came to be called the "Mountain Meadows Massacre." Four days after the massacre, Brigham Young defiantly ordered the Nauvoo Legion to resist federal troops if they entered Utah Territory. In the ensuing month, the Nauvoo Legion harassed the soldiers, and even burned 52 U.S. wagons on October 5. Anticipating a long and possibly bloody campaign, Col. Johnston set up winter quarters at Fort Bridger with the expectation of moving on to Salt Lake City, the Mormon stronghold, in the spring. When spring rolled around, reinforcements arrived and the troops prepared to march. The resulting campaign might have decimated the Mormons had Governor Young not stepped aside and allowed his replacement to take office.

Mountain Meadows Massacre, 1857

The massacre continues to fascinate modern audiences owing to the fear and hysteria that have accompanied Mormonism for decades. Many contemporaries believed the Mormons were a band of dangerous religious fanatics that deceived an emigrant party with promises of safety, only to kill everyone (except 17 small children) with apparently no compunction. In the words of three historians who have written of this episode, “The Mountain Meadows Massacre stands as one of the darkest events in Mormon history.”

Chapter 2. Dr. “Black Vomit” (1864-65): The case of Luke Pryor Blackburn, the infamous “Dr. Black Vomit,” occurred during the Civil War and involved a Confederate plot to infect blankets with yellow fever and ship them to the North. Although this book is about terrorism against civilians and not military targets, the Blackburn case is an example of bioterrorism that originated with a distinctly military scheme that extended beyond the confines of military action. The incident illustrates the horrible destructiveness of bioterrorism. It quickly triggers a chain reaction that cannot be controlled but can lead to catastrophic consequences for soldiers and civilians alike. In contrast, Union General William T. Sherman pursued a military objective — the capitulation of the Southern rebels and the so-called Confederate States of America — during his 1864-65 march through Georgia and the Carolinas, despite “collateral damage” occasioned against civilians. Attempting to spread a communicable disease with no effort, or ability, to control its spread is both quantitatively and qualitatively distinct, despite arguments to the contrary by neo-Confederates. Sherman could take steps to limit the effect of his military advance on civilians, but after yellow fever was sent into the populace, the repercussions were uncontrollable and unforeseeable.

Luke Pryor Blackburn

Blackburn was a product of Kentucky, born in 1816 and deeply tied to the southern part of the state. His family was well-known in political circles, but Blackburn chose a medical career instead of the traditional legal or political career after he was graduated from Transylvania University. He initially established his practice in Lexington before moving on to Natchez, Mississippi. While serving at the city’s health officer, he became preeminent authority on yellow fever in the lower Mississippi River Valley. His knowledge of the dread disease was put to chilling effect later in his career.

When the Civil War erupted, Blackburn joined the Confederate States of America and helped to organizing blockade runners in Canada. Later, he learned that a Confederate post in Bermuda had been decimated by yellow fever. Because of his medical background and prewar experience with the disease, in April 1864 he was sent to the island to provide relief. While he was there, he took part in a plot that was to sully his name in the pages of history.

Little was known about how yellow fever spread — the nature of infections would not be understood until later in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth — but it was clear that somehow contact with the infection was required. Medical scientists subsequently realized that mosquitoes were responsible for outbreaks, but the working hypothesis of most medical practitioners during the 1860s was that the disease was transmitted through clothing that had come into contact with infected persons. With this hypothesis in mind, Blackburn collected clothing and bedding from his infected patients and stored the contaminated articles in eight large trunks. Next, he shipped the trucks to Halifax where a Confederate informant, Godfrey Joseph Hyams, was directed to oversee their removal to Washington, D.C. The plan was for the clothing to be sold at auction and the disease to spread among Union soldiers and civilians when they wore the contaminated garments.

Although the epidemic presumably would infect the populace at random — after all, there was no way to tell how many soldiers and civilians would come into contact with the clothing after the items left Blackburn’s control — the doctor recognized he could potentially strike at President Abraham Lincoln by sending contaminated dress shirts to the White House with a card indicating that an anonymous admirer had sent them. Even if Lincoln escaped infection, the contagion would strike terror in the hearts of Union supporters. The ultimate objective of all terrorist attacks, as the term indicates, is to spread terror.

At Blackburn’s direction, Hyams sold the contents of the trucks to an auction house in Washington, D.C. and to military contractors in Norfolk and New Bern. Fearing a backlash should something happen to the president, however, he did not forward items to the White House. Thus, the items were placed into the stream of commerce with no control over the resultant contamination. A yellow fever epidemic in New Bern killed more than 2,000 people that summer, leading the conspirators to conclude that at least part of the plot had succeeded. Yellow fever scares were common in nineteenth century America, especially in swampy areas where mosquitoes were found in abundance, so the infected clothing was not the culprit. Nonetheless, the only reason the plan failed was because the plotters failed to understand how the disease was transmitted. They tried to do the wrong thing; they simply did not possess the skills or knowledge to accomplish their ends.

Although he had no sure way of measuring the effect of his efforts, Blackburn made a second trip to Bermuda in 1865 to secure an additional three trunks of infected clothing, this time for the New York market. For his part, Hyams was concerned about the risks involved with a second shipment. He initially refused to take part in the second plot. In addition, believing that he should be paid more in light of the increased risk of detection, the informant quarreled with the doctor. When Blackburn refused to come to terms, Hyams contacted Union authorities and informed them of the scheme.

After the war ended, Blackburn took refuge in Canada to avoid extradition. Editorial writers in American newspapers inveighed against this “inhuman wretch” and excoriated him for the "outrage against humanity." American law enforcement officials eventually persuaded Canadian authorities to arrest the doctor and try him for his crimes in Toronto, but he was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Most of the incriminating evidence was unavailable to Canadian prosecutors and American authorities weren’t vigilant enough in providing it. Hyams’s "dubious reputation" also cast doubt on the existence of a plot in the first place, although several letters from high-ranking Confederates, including Jefferson Davis himself, seemed to confirm the details of Hyams’s story and Blackburn’s plot.

Seven years later, after passions had cooled and Reconstruction had almost run its course, Blackburn returned to Kentucky and resumed his medical practice. He later earned praise for his efforts to combat yellow fever outbreaks in Memphis, Florida, and Kentucky. In fact, he became so well-known and beloved in his home state that he was elected governor with 55 percent of the vote from a field of three candidates. When he died, the good doctor’s headstone was inscribed with the sobriquet "the Good Samaritan" for his humanitarian efforts to fight yellow fever. The lesson is that today’s terrorist can be transformed into tomorrow’s humanitarian with the right combination of good works and good press. The murkiness of the details about the plot and the unreliability of the doctor’s co-conspirator also raised questions about the nature of the enterprise, and whether it existed in the first place.

Chapter 3. The Colfax Massacre (1873): Reconstruction, the political process of bringing the seceding Southern states back into the Union, technically lasted for 12 years, from 1865-1877. By the early 1870s, however, many whites, North and South, were tired of the process of trying to find a constructive role in society for the newly emancipated slaves, the so-called freedmen. Indeed, the real losers in the Reconstruction era were not white ex-Confederates but blacks living in the former states of the Southern Confederacy. The freedmen had been given promises that the victorious Union Army and a sympathetic federal government would support them as they moved from a world of human bondage to a world of free labor. American society was to be refashioned so that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the American creed could be realized in their lifetimes. They were assured that amending the U.S. Constitution would be a first step in abolishing the “peculiar institution” of slavery, providing due process and equal protection of the law, and securing the franchise. The first promise — ending the legal institution of slavery — was fulfilled, but the reality of Reconstruction exposed the hypocrisy of the remaining high-minded rhetoric. Blacks would not enjoy the fruits of full citizenship until well into the twentieth century.

Even when blacks assumed a measure of political power in Southern states where Union troops prevented white supremacists from fixing elections, they were viewed by Northerners and Southerners alike as little more than quarreling children unable to exercise legitimate authority. This demeaning portrait was vividly illustrated by cartoonist Thomas Nast in a famous drawing in the March 14, 1874, issue of Harper’s Weekly. As black legislators argue in the foreground, an emblematic figure in the background struggles to restore order. Behind the figure are President Grant’s plaintive words from his 1868 campaign, "Let Us Have Peace." The caption reads: "Colored Rule in a Reconstructed(?) State."

In the meantime, Southerners harbored a far different view of early Reconstruction. They saw the passage of civil rights bills and constitutional amendments as well as the presence of federal troops on Southern soil as evidence that the North desired nothing so much as the eradication of their way of life. Believing that they had no outlet for expression through political channels — controlled, as they seemed to be, by blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags with assistance from armed soldiers — disaffected whites acted in the only way they thought feasible. A grassroots movement arose, a kind of counter-Reconstruction, aimed at opposing the rising tide of modernity.

Apathy set in for many Northerners; the world of commerce and industry beckoned. Rare indeed was the politician or political leader with the stomach for policing the South. Southern political affairs — long characterized by former Confederates as a "local matter" properly administered through "home rule" — gradually were returned to men who had once championed the birth of a separate nation. Slavery was a dead institution and secession had been discredited on the battlefield, but white supremacy and legal segregation would soon reign supreme.

Virtually every major leader in each branch of the federal government turned his back on the freedmen during the 1870s. With the death of the Radical Republicans in the 1860s and 1870s, a new generation of congressional leaders simply had no interest in stirring up the divisive, intractable issues of race and social relations raised by the Civil War. A series of weak, ineffectual presidents came and went, none expressing much interest in reviving federal Reconstruction policy. The Republican Party gradually turned its attention to economic affairs as industrialization took hold of the American landscape. What once had been the party of Lincoln became, by the turn of the century, the party of business and enterprise.

With the reemergence of white supremacy came acts of horrific violence. One of the worst episodes of the Reconstruction era occurred on Easter Sunday 1873 when a mob of white supremacists torched the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, where hundreds of blacks sought refuge following a prolonged street battle between freedmen and Southern whites. "Up to the point where the courthouse was set on fire, Colfax was arguably a battleground, and from the start the battle went the whites' way," one historian observed. "But what was happening now was not a hard military fight but a killing frenzy after the battle was over, after the outcome had been clearly settled, and with the defeated force unarmed." When the smoke finally cleared, scores of blacks lay dead — estimates range from 70 to more than twice that number.

The aftermath of the Colfax Massacre, 1873

The Colfax Massacre was part of a counter-Reconstruction movement that reached its zenith in Mississippi when "White Line" organizations besieged Governor Adelbert Ames, a carpetbagger who had won the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, eventually forcing him to resign. Ames was an honorable man who found himself in an untenable position owing to a financial panic in 1873, the rise of white paramilitary groups, and the increasing ambivalence of the federal government toward the problems of Reconstruction. To add insult to injury, Ames’s ambition to recapture a U.S. Senate seat (where he had represented Mississippi before he was governor) was thwarted by the creation of the Mississippi Plan, an 1875 scheme calling for whites to "persuade" more than 10 percent of Republican voters to change their party affiliation and threatening blacks with violence if they tried to vote. The Mississippi Plan later became a template for "redemption" in South Carolina and Louisiana, and served as inspiration for de jure segregation throughout the South.

The "Colfax Massacre," as it came to be called, was a striking example of what lay in store for blacks during the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws. The social order was maintained through violence and threats of violence by terrorist acts, many perpetrated under the color of law. It would be a century before the modern civil rights movement sought to secure equal rights to people of color.

Chapter 4. The Los Angeles Times Bombing (1910): Harrison Gray Otis, owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was a high-profile political conservative at the turn of the twentieth century. He was especially critical of the burgeoning labor union movement and never passed up an opportunity to excoriate unions in the editorial pages of his newspaper. On October 1, 1910, during a highly contentious strike over unionizing the metal trades in Los Angeles, a bomb erupted at the Los Angeles Times building. Although the device probably was not planted to kill Otis himself, it was meant to send a message. The message was received.

The bomb was set to explode at 4:00 a.m. when the building would be empty and no one would be hurt. Unfortunately, the timing mechanism was faulty and the explosion occurred at 1:07 a.m. At the time, 115 people were still inside the building working on the next edition of the newspaper. The blast caused the south wall facing Broadway Street to collapse and sent the second floor cascading onto the first floor. Sixteen sticks of dynamite were not enough to destroy the whole building, but the terrorists apparently were not aware of the presence of natural gas main lines under the building. The gas lines triggered a fire that in turn caused the most catastrophic damage. Ultimately, 21 people died, most burned alive in the fire.

The aftermath of the Los Angeles Times bombing, 1910

After several unexploded bombs were found in other locations around the city, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), condemned the crime and declared that no labor union or individual could have been responsible. Nonetheless, disgruntled union supporters were the most likely suspects. When no leads were immediately forthcoming, the mayor of Los Angeles hired private detective William J. Burns to investigate.

Burns was a well-known operative who had worked a number of high-profile cases. With the help of informants, the detective eventually implicated several suspects, including Ortie McManigal, James B. McNamara, and his brother John J. McNamara (secretary-treasurer of the International Union of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers). After Burns subjected McManigal to an intensive interrogation lasting a week, the suspect broke down and agreed to tell all he knew in order to secure a lighter prison sentence. He also signed a confession directly implicating the McNamara brothers and other union leaders.

Despite the prosecutors’ protests that this was not a union issue, organized labor viewed the trials of the suspects as an attack on the unions and labor. Gompers spared no expense; he hired Clarence Darrow, the most famous attorney of his generation, to defend the McNamara brothers. Darrow was in ill health and reluctant to take the case, but after Gompers pleaded with him, the great litigator relented. As he reviewed the defendants’ case, he called them “pawns in a vast industrial war.”

When the trial began, Darrow believed that the brothers were guilty and their chances at winning an acquittal were minuscule. In addition, the defense position was weakened when Darrow was accused of attempting to bribe a juror. The defense team’s chief investigator had been arrested for bribing a juror and Darrow had been seen providing the investigator with money not long before the arrest. With few options available, the brothers agreed to plead guilty. When he learned of the pleas, Gompers was incredulous. "I am astounded; I am astounded," he said. "The McNamaras have betrayed labor."

James McNamara received a life sentence while his brother received a sentence of 15 years. Two others, David Caplan and Matt A. Schmidt, were later implicated and received life sentences. In the meantime, Darrow was tried on the bribery charge and acquitted. Anxious to destroy the great defense attorney’s illustrious career, prosecutors filed charges again, but the second trial ended with a hung jury. Although he escaped a successful prosecution, Darrow would be haunted by the allegations for the rest of his life. As for the labor movement, it suffered a setback that would take decades to overcome.

Chapter 5. The Wall Street Bombing (1920): The use of weapons that indiscriminately frighten and kill innocent civilians, especially in America’s most prominent and populous city, antedated the September 11th terrorist attacks by decades. Wall Street was the scene of a bombing on another September day, this time in 1920. Shortly after noon on September 16, an incendiary device exploded, killing 38 people and maiming more than 400 others.

It began with a horse-drawn wagon slowly moving past a lunchtime crowd near the J. P. Morgan Bank at 23 Wall Street. Unbeknownst to the passersby, the wagon was filled with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron sash weights. At 12:01 p.m., a timer triggered an explosion that claimed as its victims mostly stenographers, messengers, and other lowly Wall Street working-class citizens. In addition to the loss of life, more than $2 million of property was damaged.

The aftermath of the Wall Street bombing, 1920

Initial reports were unclear: Was this a horrible industrial accident or an act of terrorism? Moving quickly to assuage the fears of anxious investors, the New York Stock Exchange board of governors convened a conference and decided to open for business the following morning. Regrettably, in their zeal to clear away anxiety-causing debris, the board of governors authorized a crew to clean the area, inadvertently compromising evidence at a crime scene.

In an investigation that last more than three years, federal authorities concluded that the bomb had been deliberately set, although no one had claimed responsibility. In this post-World War I era where Americans had heard terrible tales of anarchists and communists dedicated to undermining the American way of life, suspicion immediately fell on foreigners who spoke in thick guttural accents and sported difficult-to-pronounce names with too few syllables and too many consonants. Partially as a response to this episode, the U.S. Department of Justice created the General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation, which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

For a time, the prime suspect was an Italian anarchist, or Galleanist, named Mario Buda. An associate of the controversial martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti, Buda was well-known as an expert in explosives. He supposedly confessed to the crime in later years. American police officers were never able to question or arrest Buda, however; he had fled to Italy before they could apprehend him, and he never returned to the United States. His participation in the bombing remains uncertain, although other Galleanists continued to engage in terrorist activities well into the 1930s.

The Wall Street bombing remains one of the great unsolved terrorist acts in American history. Did Buda really perpetrate the crime and, if so, how did he escape prosecution? In addition, had modern forensic techniques and crime-scene analysis been available in 1920, could the culprit’s identity have been established conclusively, assuming the crime scene had not been compromised? These and other counterfactual questions continue to interest criminologists even today.

Chapter 6. The Puerto Rican Nationalists’ Assault on Truman (1950): Political attacks, especially when directed at an individual political leader as opposed to a group of innocent civilians, can provide a wealth of information about why and how terrorists choose their targets and what they hope to accomplish by engaging in violence. The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, headed by Harvard-educated Pedro Albizu Campos, presents an excellent case study into the motivation of political terrorists. The party emerged in the 1940s as a group dedicated to achieving the independence of Puerto Rico from U.S. control. Campos was angry because of the racism he felt he had encountered while he served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I. Imprisoned in the 1930s for helping to assassinate the chief of police in Puerto Rico and for triggering riots, by the late 1940s he was a bitter man searching for an outlet to make the United States pay for its imperialism.

Campos’s goals were shared by two equally bitter compatriots, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola. The former, a personal acquaintance of Campos', was born and raised in Puerto Rico but came to the United States as a young man and worked menial jobs, all the while remaining active in the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Collazo was married with children and seemed to be a stable, model citizen when he met Torresola. Torresola, however, had a troubled past. He, too, was from Puerto Rico, but after he came to the United States he descended into the seamy side of life. After the two men met, they began discussing tumultuous events on the island and grew more radical and dissatisfied with the present state of affairs. Torresola had amassed a cache of weapons that had been used in an unsuccessful coup d’etat in Puerto Rico. With the failure of the coup, he became increasingly unstable.

As each man fed on the anger of the other, Collazo and Torresola eventually decided to assassinate President Harry Truman to call attention to their cause. Truman and his policies were not odious to the duo; they merely believed that the violent death of the president would generate the massive publicity that would rally public opinion to the plight of Puerto Rico. This kind of muddled thinking, coupled with the conspirators’ inability to see any issues or feel any pain apart from their own, can be found in many terrorist acts.

Around 2:15 p.m. on November 1, 1950, the men took a taxicab to Blair House in Washington, D.C., where President Truman was staying while the White House was being renovated. In fact, Truman was napping in a second floor bedroom just above the main entrance. Collazo and Torresola had visited the scene previously and recognized that the lay-out presented advantages to an assassin. Unlike the White House, which is set back from the street, encircled by a large fence, and heavily fortified, Blair House was only a few feet away from the road and the fence was at shoulder height.

Aside from this small bit of advance planning, the would-be assassins were clumsy and ill-equipped. Collazo was unfamiliar with guns, so Torresola had to show him how to discharge the semi-automatic pistol he would use. Rather than reconnoiter the premises to familiarize themselves with that day’s security detail, each man took up a separate position without advance knowledge of how many guards would be on duty. Collazo assaulted the front door while Torresola charged a rear entrance.

Collazo’s gun initially jammed, although he managed to shoot a security guard in the knee. Before he could gain entrance to the house, Secret Service agents exchanged fire with him. Several bullets grazed Collazo; he was quickly knocked down, overwhelmed, and forced to capitulate. For his part, outside the rear entrance Torresola shot and severely wounded one guard. He also mortally wounded another officer. Incredibly, he gained access to Blair House. Torresola had an unobstructed path to the president before the mortally wounded guard shot him in the head. Torresola died at the scene.

Would-be presidential assassin Oscar Collazo lies wounded in front of Blair House, 1950

At his trial in 1951, Collazo was found guilty and sentenced to death, although President Truman commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. President Jimmy Carter pardoned Collazo in 1979. Although he remained an outspoken proponent of Puerto Rican independence, his minor role in history had ended. He returned to the island and lived there until his death in 1994.

This blog entry has already run far too long. In a subsequent posting, I will discuss Chapters 7-12 as well as the lessons I learned from these 12 tangled tales of terrorism.


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