“Today’s Bankers Are Lucky”

No bombs exploded when Beverly Gage made another trip to Wall Street. Not this time, at least.

Gage, a Yale history professor, has written a new a book about the 1920 bombing that killed 38 people on New York’s Wall Street.

Thursday night she ventured a half-block from New Haven‘s Wall Street to talk about the book. The discussion reflected the relevance of Gage’s tale to tremors emanating today from the heart of the country’s financial district.

Gage spoke about The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America In Its First Age of Terror (Oxford) to an SRO (Stairwell Room Only) crowd in the basement of York Street’s Labyrinth books.

The book is a gripping read on its own terms. It is a fast-paced narrative wrapped around brilliant research into a chapter in American history that most of us know nothing about despite it having been the deadliest terrorist incident on our soil for 75 years. Gage tells the story like a novelist, while with the meticulous hands and honest eye of the historian she exposes the follies and dreams and lies and personal agendas of G-Men, anarchists, and bankers alike.

While she did all that work, terrorists of a different stripe unleashed the 9-11 attacks in New York’s financial district. The ensuing reactions and overreactions — the struggle to come to grips with the reality of people who want to murder innocents — practically scream in the margins of Gage’s account of a similar episode from a century past.

Now a crisis has been triggered by unaccountable, dishonest, government-enabled financiers, a crisis that’s causing pain through the world. Unlike in 1920, thankfully, no one has been known to target those responsible or civilians who happen to be standing nearby for violent retribution.

But the reader can’t help wondering: Where is the outrage? Where is the non-violent quest to challenge the system?

Speaking to the Labyrinth crowd, Gage observed how times have indeed changed.

“Today’s bankers ought to really count themselves lucky,” Gage said. “If this had been a hundred years ago and we had been in this kind of crisis, they wouldn’t have just been hauled before congressional committees to explain what they were doing.” They would have faced assassination threats, marches, “the specter of revolution.”

Today, you rarely even hear people talking about “robber barons.”

“If you look to the early 20th century, these issues of American capitalism, about the role of Wall Street spawned widespread discontent. They spawned protests in the streets [and] a much wider range of discussion than they have as yet,” Gage said. “They also spawned a great deal of violence.”

Click on the play arrow at the top of this story to hear more of what Gage had to say about that, as well as about the role in the 1920 bombing case of a then-little-known bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover.

DSCN2335.JPGClick here for more details on the book. And check out Sunday’s New York Times Book Review for a fuller discussion of it.

(Disclosure: Gage worked at the New Haven Advocate in the 1990s. I did too.)

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