-by Ronald M. Johnson
In the midst of recent terrorist attacks, historians of the United States Capitol last year marked the 100th anniversary of an event that literally shook the foundations of the building. On July 2, 1915, life on the Hill was suddenly and dramatically disrupted when a bomb exploded in the Senate reception room. In the context of a nation on the edge of involvement in World War I, the bombing appeared to represent the actions of terrorists and was widely reported in all the major papers of the country.
Public suspicion increased when, within a few days, it became known that the bomb maker and individual who set it off was Frank Holt, a German-born academic at Harvard and Cornell universities who earlier had used the name Erich Muenter.
Over the years, the full details behind the 1915 bombing have only slowly come to light. A wide variety of scholars have sought to clarify them and render an interpretation, but this has not been an easy task. As recently as 2013, social psychologist and blogger Romeo Vitelli stated that “the only conclusion anyone can make about Professor Erich Muenter is that he is much an enigma in death as he was in life.” However, popular historical writer Howard Blum appears to hold a different view; in Dark Invasion, also published in 2013, he tells the story in detail and provides a convincing context for understanding the 1915 bombing of the Capitol.
The details that should be of most interest to readers involve the damage caused to the Capitol and the effect it had on the international politics and rising war-fever of that day. As shown in the accompanying photograph, the bomb’s toll was minimal. While the Senate’s reception area was destroyed, there was little collateral damage elsewhere in the building.
Because Muenter set the bomb to go off around midnight, there were no injuries. The noise from the explosion was heard all over Capitol Hill and caused much alarm, but with no follow-up, the public’s fear quickly subsided. The general consensus among scholars is that the bombing did not accelerate American involvement in the war then underway in Europe.
The July 2, 1915 bombing of the Capitol, by itself, emerged in part as an isolated event by a lone individual. At the same time, as Howard Blum’s book reveals, German terrorist cells operated in the United States during this period. Erich Muenter/Frank Holt’s actions can be see as part of that broader effort.
After the bombing of the Capitol, for example, Muenter/Holt attempted to assassinate J.P. Morgan, Jr., who he saw as the main force behind the shipping of war materials to the Allies fighting Germany. Morgan survived the attack. Muenter/Holt also placed bombs on U.S. ships bound for Europe. Those efforts also failed, but their attempt reveals that Muenter/Holt could have done much more damage than he did, a troubling prospect at the least.
Making his life all the more complex and puzzling, Muenter was also guilty of the 1906 murder of his wife, a systematic user of aliases, and he had exhibited other violent behavior. His death by suicide, which came shortly after his arrest, has made the investigation of his origins and life in the United States difficult to draw more informed insights into the man. His actions in Washington and New York did help federal authorities track down and bring to an end German espionage within the country.
In the end, this story reminds us that Americans have successfully faced down terrorism many times before in our history. Awareness of that fact should bolster our resolve as we confront it again in today’s more complex world.
As noted, the 1915 bombing is extensively covered in Howard Blum, Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America (2013) and now available as a Harper paperback. In an early effort to tell the story of Erich Muenter’s evolution into Frank Holt, The Harvard Crimson in 1942 carried a brief account, no author listed. Romeo Vitelli’s analysis in his fascinating website Providentia on the event (Parts I and II, April 21, 28, 2013) explore the psychological underside of Muenter/Holt’s personality as a terrorist. Clearly, the event, the man, and the circumstances continue to invite interest and commentary.