The Era of the Dynamite Girl

Aftermath of bombing at the Chicago Federal Courthouse, 1918 (Courtesy of the National Archives via Flickr Commons)

The years after the end of WWI were turbulent ones in the United States.  A slump came with peace, as wartime demand for American agricultural and industrial output weakened, diminishing American opportunities.  The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the radical political ferment that contributed to it, had a profound effect on political activism in the States, as workers and intellectuals explored whether communist or socialist doctrines could be used to revolutionize a capitalist system that was generating unacceptably high levels of inequality and suffering.  The anarchist sentiment that had triggered the outbreak of WWI had never vanished, and it combined with other domestic conditions, including historically high rates of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, to make the years before 1920 ones of conflict and unease.

The threat of domestic violence, and the fear of such threats, was felt in many parts of the country.  These were the years of the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare, as well as a deadly race riot in Chicago and the dubious prosecution and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in New England.

In Chicago, the year 1918 got underway with the arrest of a nineteen-year-old Italian-born radical named Gabriella Antolini, who was found carrying a satchel full of dynamite (36 pounds) along with a loaded pistol through Union Station.  The press immediately dubbed her ‘the Dynamite Girl.’  A professed follower of anarchist Luigi Galeani, Antolini served eighteen months in prison.  She was a sympathizer of the IWW, the radical labor union headed by Big Bill Haywood and headquartered in the city.  That summer, Chicago tried to stay steady amid a series of bombings and attempted bombings, typically connected with labor disputes, and some seemingly involving IWW members, known as Wobblies.

On September 4, 1918, a bomb exploded in the north lobby of Chicago’s Federal Building, killing four people.  According to later accounts, a man in a tan raincoat had been seen pacing around the building around 3:00pm with a cigar box with a string dangling from one side of it under his arm.  He was seen to drop the cigar box and kick it under a radiator near the Adams Street entrance before hurrying away.  According to Sean Deveney, writing on his website The Original Curse, the explosion was so powerful that it ripped open the Federal Building and threw from their seats employees at work inside the neighboring Marquette and Edison Buildings.  The buildings’ windows were shattered, shards of glass raining onto the streets.  Although many suspected a connection to the recently concluded trial and conviction of some 100 IWW officials, the perpetrator of the crime was never found.

Image: The wreckage of Chicago’s Federal Building, 1918, from this source.

5 responses

  1. Susan-how wonderfully you put our American present into perspective with our American past. The only thing that has really changed is the size of the weapons, but basically you remind us that America has always been a violent country. I always learn so much reading what you write and the way you write about our history. Thank you – Thank you.

    • Michele,
      Thanks for your kind words, and for reading. We have to continue the work of developing a more peaceable culture, both here and abroad.
      Kind wishes,
      Susan

  2. I knew from something I read that those years had labor problems but you put a lot of history into this short essay. Thank you for the “education!”

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