In the year that saw the start of World War I, the United States was itself on the verge of revolution, with industrial depression in the east, striking coal miners in Colorado, and increasingly tense relations with Mexico. “There was blood in the air that year,” a witness later recalled, “there truly was.”
In New York, 1914 opened with bright expectations and then quickly tumbled into disillusionment and violence. For John Purroy Mitchel, the city’s new “boy mayor,” the trouble started in January when a crushing winter caused homeless shelters to overflow. By April, anarchist throngs paraded past industrialists’ mansions, and tens of thousands filled Union Square demanding “Bread or Revolution.” Then, on July 4, 1914, a detonation destroyed a six-story Harlem tenement. It was the largest explosion the city had ever known. Among the dead were three bomb-makers; incited by anarchist Alexander Berkman, they had been preparing to dynamite the estate of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of a plutocratic dynasty, who had been widely vilified for a massacre of his company’s striking workers in Colorado earlier that spring.
More Powerful Than Dynamite charts how anarchist anger, progressive idealism, and plutocratic influence converged in that July explosion. Its cast ranges from celebrated figures such as Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, and Andrew Carnegie to the fascinating and heretofore little known: Frank Tannenbaum, a homeless teenager who dared to lead his followers into the city’s churches; police inspector Max Schmittberger, too honest for his department and too crooked for everyone else; and Becky Edelsohn, a young anarchist known for her red tights and for spitting in millionaires’ faces. Historian and journalist Thai Jones has created a fascinating portrait of a city on the edge of chaos coming to terms with modernity, and today, when the chasm between the haves and have-nots is greater than ever before,More Powerful Than Dynamite is especially resonant.