The Explosion at Black Tom Island

One of the largest examples of sabotage during World War I happened half a mile from the Statue of Liberty and hardly anyone knows the story. On July 30, 1916, an explosion at Black Tom Island rocked New York Harbor. In this episode, we talk about German Saboteurs and then chat with Author of “Branding Democrats,” Ken Weber.

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It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about the Mandela Effect – the idea that somehow a large group of people misremember something collectively. One Mandela Effect that’s related to this story is about the Statue of Liberty. There are a ton of people alive today who claim to remember visiting the statue of liberty and climbing the stairs all the way up to the torch, where they looked out over the New York Harbor. But it’s doubtful that anyone currently living has been up to the torch of the statue. Because while the statue was built for the torch to be accessed by tourists, its been closed from visitors since 1916.

And the reason it was closed? It was irreparably damaged in a massive explosion only 3,000 feet away. 

World War One was raging in Europe. The deadly Battle of the Somme had just begun in France and would last for 5 more months, producing more than one million casualties. And during the great war, there were at least 10 instances of attempted terrorist attacks in America by Germany. 

For instance, Germany had sponsored a program the previous year to sabotage the American Cattle Industry. America didn’t join the fight in Europe until early 1917, but Germany was nervous about America’s supply of materials to France and Britain, including cattle. Anton Dilger was an American who sympathized with Germany after studying there. He returned to the United States with anthrax and glanders with the intention of infecting and killing livestock. While it’s not thought that he was incredibly successful, he was discovered by the FBI and fled to Mexico.

That same year, a German agent entered the U.S., planted a bomb in the Senate reception room at the U.S. Capitol and set it to detonate at midnight. It didn’t kill anyone, but the saboteur’s plot was to send a message for America to stay out of war profiteering. One of the largest profiteers was J.P. Morgan and the same German agent, Eric Muenter broke into the home of Morgan and shot him twice. J.P. Morgan survived, but Muenter died soon after – most likely from suicide.

The most deadly of these acts of German-sponsored terrorism happened on July 30, 1916 just 3,000 feet from the Statue of Liberty. It was the middle of the night and the summer night on New York Harbor was calm. Just Southwest of Liberty Island, which used to be known as Bedloe’s island there was a munitions depot called Black Tom Island. Just outside of Jersey City, the island was a manmade rectangle of land, mostly built up from refuse and rocks in the New York Harbor. It had a reputation as an environmental hazard, and people in New York hated that it was so close to the city. A lot of this criticism came because of an 1875 accidental explosion on the island that killed 4 people. 

The island was the location of 2 million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition. They were being stored on rail cars sitting on barges, ready to be shipped to Russia to assist them in the war effort.

That night, around midnight several small fires were discovered on the pier near the barges. Employees on the island started frantically trying to fight the fires, and eventually called the Jersey City Fire Department for help. Some simply ran away, thinking there was no way these fires were going to be contained. They were right. Two hours later, at 2:08 in the morning, a huge explosion rocked the island.

This explosion was so large, it was heard all the way in Philadelphia. It blew the windows out of every high-rise building in Lower Manhattan. One of the barges was loaded with 50 tons of TNT. It had 417 cases of detonating fuses. According to an article at Firefighter Nation, the blast wave traveled at 24,000 feet per second and tore firefighters from their boots, throwing them in the air. With shredded clothes, bleeding ears and faces full of soot and dirt, the Jersey City fire department continued to fight the fire. They couldn’t get to a second barge with another fire burning. At 2:40am, another explosion this one slightly smaller rocked the island. The explosions that went off that night would have registered high on the Richter scale. For reference, when the World Trade Center’s North Tower collapsed in 2001, it registered a 2.3 on the Richter scale. It’s thought that, had the Richter scale existed, the Black Tom Island explosions would have registered somewhere around a 5.5.

It wasn’t until the next morning that most of the city saw the devastation. The Statue of Liberty was pelted with shrapnel. The rivets popped out of the right arm and the arm holding the torch was pushed up against the statue’s crown. The island was temporarily closed. Nearby Ellis island was evacuated. Throughout the city, office buildings were missing windows. Nearer to Black Tom Island, blackened, twisted metal and debris covered an area several city blocks wide. A giant crater extended below sea level near the pier and filled with debris and water. James Doherty, a police officer from Jersey City, was killed in the explosion. So was Cornelius Leyden, the Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police. One of the barge captains was also killed. A 10-week old baby lost its life as well, being thrown from his crib in Jersey City. A total of 7 people were killed as a result of the series of explosions.

And what did the public think caused the explosions? Well, as reported in many of the newspapers in the aftermath, they thought it was negligence. Remember, this was an island with a history of being filled with rubbish and explosives with little protection from accidents and without the proper safety measures. So everyone just thought it was another accident like the one that had happened in 1875. And that was partly true. There wasn’t nearly enough water supply to the island to fight the fires. One of the things that was blamed was the lighting of smudge pots to keep mosquitos away. Railroad officials, warehouse owners and barge operators were immediately arrested. Edgar Clark, a Commissioner with the Interstate Commerce Commission immediately began working on a report to President Woodrow Wilson, and found that there was no violation of federal laws governing the packing and transportation of explosives. So the men that were initially arrested were freed. They knew a fire had started the chain of events. But they hadn’t yet discovered the sinister truth. They had been the victim of what’s thought to be one of the first foreign terrorist attacks in the United States.

Now at this point in the war – mid-1916 – America was neutral, meaning that the munitions being stored at Black Tom Island could have been sold to the highest bidder, whether that be Germany, France, Austria, or Great Britain. But there was a blockade of Germany in place by the Royal Navy, so America was only supplying munitions to the Allies. This was one of the major reasons that Germany was sending saboteurs to disrupt the supply chain from America.

But in the aftermath of the catastrophic explosions on Black Tom Island, the agencies investigating sort of preemptively decided it wasn’t the work of foreign saboteurs. The FBI was in its infancy. The CIA wouldn’t be established until after World War II. And they couldn’t imagine that Germans would have done this. America was full of hard-working Germans looking for the American dream and with all of the safety issues on Black Tom Island, it’s like they weren’t even looking for a saboteur.

But the truth was much darker. Captain Franz von Rintelen had arrived in the U.S. the previous year. He was a German Naval Intelligence officer and a master spy. Even the other agents from the German military didn’t know about his secret orders. Von Rintelen entered the U.S. with huge sums of money and direct orders from Berlin. He wanted to try to buy off some of the people in charge of the storing of ammunition to see if he could get some re-routed to Berlin. He bribed officials, which included some of the security men responsible for guarding the pier at Black Tom Island. He had worked with a chemist to perfect a particular type of tiny bomb with a time-delayed incendiary device and he told Admiral von Tripitz back in Berlin “I’ll buy what I can and blow up what I can’t.”

Well it was option B on July 30th, 1916. He was responsible for setting the fires that led to the explosions. Von Rintelen and his ring of helpers was fairly successful in their efforts. In New York alone, there had been 70 pier fires and 139 fires on board ships. The Black Tom event was the largest and the deadliest.

We know all of this now, but without any sort of unified investigative body in 1916, this info took years to uncover.  There simply wasn’t any sort of federal body with the ability or the authority to deal with foreign saboteurs.

It wasn’t until several decades later that Germany was declared officially responsible and  was sued. It was 1939 and Germany had other plans happening at the time. The Nazi party in control of the government refused to pay. It wasn’t until 1953 when the Federal Republic of Germany agreed to settle the matter and paid the United States $95 million dollars in damages. That money continued to be paid until 1979, 63 years after the attack.

If you visit what’s left of Black Tom Island today, there’s a historical marker that tells this story. It starts, “You are standing on a site which saw one of the worst acts of sabotage in American history!”

So if you ever run across someone who claims they’ve been up to the Statue of Liberty’s torch, now you know why they haven’t. They’ve likely been up to the crown, which is open to the public, but the public hasn’t visited the torch since 1916. And now you can tell them why.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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