The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 190th installment in the series.
July 2-3, 1915: Terror Attacks on U.S. Capitol, J.P. Morgan
At 11:40 pm on July 2, 1915, a bomb exploded in the reception room of the U.S. Senate chamber in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. No one was injured but the attack on the seat of the nation’s government made headlines across the U.S. While authorities hunted for clues, a letter received by The Washington Star took credit for the attack, calling it a symbolic protest against the war in Europe and America’s role in it as one of the main neutral weapons manufacturers.
As America scratched its head over this alarming event a second attack was already unfolding: on July 3, 1915 a mysterious assailant forced his way into the Long Island mansion of J.P. Morgan and shot the powerful banker twice before Morgan’s butler incapacitated him with a large piece of coal to the head. Police detectives took the would-be assassin into custody and began to unravel an ambitious if implausible terrorist plot, and the identity of the even more bizarre individual who’d planned it.
The would-be assassin identified himself as Frank Holt, a German-American immigrant who’d most recently worked as a professor of German at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Holt explained that he wanted to highlight America’s complicity in a grand conspiracy to destroy his beloved German fatherland; he blamed Morgan for arranging loans to Britain and France.
However Holt was soon discovered to be Eric Muenter—who at various times also went by Erich Muenter and Erich Holt—formerly a German instructor at Harvard University who had, for unknown reasons, poisoned his wife back in 1906 before disappearing. Muenter fled Cambridge for Nevada, created a new identity as Holt, and secured a teaching post at a college in Texas under his new name. He later moved to Ithaca and entered the faculty at Cornell.
With his unflattering history discovered, Muenter killed himself by jumping to his death on July 5, but one more attack was still underway. It turned out that in between planting the bomb in the U.S. Senate reception room and shooting Morgan, Muenter had stopped in New York City and slipped aboard the Minnehaha, a merchant ship carrying munitions intended for the Western Front, to plant another time bomb. The bomb exploded on July 7 but produced minimal damage.
Nonetheless Muenter’s wide-ranging (if mostly ineffective) campaign stoked fears of sabotage and terrorism by German agents in the U.S.—and these concerns were hardly unfounded. In November 1914 German agents were discovered operating a wireless station hidden in the woods of Maine, and in December three Germans were arrested in New Orleans for plotting to blow up Allied ships. In January 1915 the factory of a U.S. arms manufacturer, John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., was destroyed by arson, and in February a German-American, Werner Horn, tried to blow up a railroad bridge in Maine without success. In July another secret wireless station was discovered in Long Island, transmitting information about neutral ship movements, and on July 24 U.S. agents discovered that German diplomats were secretly fomenting labor unrest in U.S. munitions factories. All this helped turn American public opinion against Germany, contributing to growing diplomatic tension.