Beverly Gage

New York businessmen in suits and ties swarm the streets to survey the “war zone” unfolding in the nation’s financial center. Where a grand building once stood only rubble remains, and charred hats and shoes that once belonged to members of the business elite line the sidewalk. This is how Public Broadcasting Service’s latest “American Experience” documentary begins.

But the film — based on the book “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror,” by Yale history professor Beverly Gage ’94 — is not about the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the World Trade Center. Rather, the documentary, “The Bombing of Wall Street,” which premieres on PBS on Tuesday, explores another, mostly forgotten act of terror that occurred almost 100 years earlier. On Sept. 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart exploded in front of Morgan Bank, leaving 38 dead and hundreds seriously injured and igniting national debates about civil liberties, political violence and immigration.

“[The Wall Street bombing] is a really interesting and a very little known piece of the American past,” Gage told the News. “Terrorism tends to be described and understood as this unique challenge of the 21st century, and, in fact, people in the 19th and 20th centuries were having similar discussions about how one understood … and addressed this kind of violence.”

Written and directed by Susan Bellows, the movie focuses on both the aftermath of the bombing as well as the era in which it occurred. The Gilded Age was marked by a sharp rise in income inequality, creating economic and political divisions and causing millions of people around the country and world to challenge the foundations of capitalism and turn to radicalism.

The bombing, which remains unsolved, succeeded a series of violent labor strikes throughout the country. In spring 1919, 30 bombs were mailed to bankers and government officials nationwide, prompting Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who would later lead the Wall Street bombing investigation, to create “The Radical Department’s Bureau of Investigation.” In its first year of operation, the unit amassed more than 200,000 files on radical activities and carried out what became known as the “Palmer Raids” across the country, arresting suspected radicals, many of whom were immigrants, and often deporting them to their countries of origin.

According to Gage, PBS’ “American Experience” asked to buy the rights for her book in the early 2010s, and Gage acted as a consultant as Bellows wrote and directed the film. She, as well as other historians, feature in interviews throughout the documentary, which also displays silent film footage from 1919 to 1920.

Although the Wall Street bombing happened almost a century ago, Gage said the event and its aftermath capture “conflict and tensions” that are just as relevant now as they were at the time. When Gage began writing her book in the 1990s, she was particularly interested in the world’s “love-hate relationship” with Wall Street, the intellectual battle between pro- and anti-capitalism and the history of radicalism. But after 9/11, she said, she started to explore the nature and history of terrorism itself. Now, people are probably intrigued by how deportation was used as a political tool during the period, Gage said.

Kenneth Ackerman, author of “Young J. Edgar: Hoover and the Red Scare, 1919–1920” and one of the historians interviewed in the documentary, said PBS “American Experience” was interested in making a documentary about the Wall Street bombing because the story is interesting and dramatic, involving many of the “headline people” of the time, including J.P. Morgan and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

The program was also interested in exploring the roots of domestic terrorism, Ackerman said — something the U.S. government continues to deal with and that the public worries about to this day.

According to Ackerman, many people, including law enforcement officials, jumped to conclusions about who perpetrated the attack and whom the attack targeted. One of the lessons from the Wall Street bombing is that it is important to follow facts and not jump to conclusions, he said.

“In dealing with these very dramatic, traumatic events, whether it’s the bombing on Wall Street in 1920 or the shootings in San Bernardino or the shootings in Florida, it’s important to get the facts before drawing conclusions, and often, by reacting to stereotypes and preconceived notions, law enforcement and others make bad decisions,” Ackerman said.

Mike Davis, author of “Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb,” which also discusses the Wall Street bombing, said the events and aftermath of the attack demonstrate the continuity of trends in U.S. history, noting that Italian immigrants, a small portion of whom were anarchists, were subjected to the same type of stereotyping and scapegoating at the time that Arab and Central American immigrants face today.

“The war against terrorism has gone on arguably for 150 years, we just don’t know about the earlier period, and that’s why it’s important that this film has been made and the book has been written,” Davis said. “It shows you how in reacting to this bombing, it gave a carte blanche to the Bureau of Investigation, which became the FBI. This kind of thing always opens the doors to not just repression, but to rewriting laws and giving the government sweeping power.”

The film will air from 9 to 10 p.m. on PBS.

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu