How Terrorism Shut Down The Statue Of Liberty’s Torch

The wrecked Lehigh Valley pier (Image: National Archives/ Public Domiain)
101 years since a devastating terror attack, the torch in the Statue of Liberty remains closed to the public.

Shortly after midnight on July 31, 1916, an explosion shook the city of New York, audible as far away as Philadelphia. Over 1000 tons of ammunition and explosives had been set off near the island of Black Tom, near the Statue of Liberty.

The explosion carried the force of a 5.5-magnitude earthquake. Across New York, windows were shattered by the sound. Just months after a bomb had gone off in the U.S. Senate, the city faced its most severe terror attack yet, with ten dead and dozens injured. The Statue of Liberty suffered $100,000 in damage from the explosion and the shrapnel.

In the aftermath of the explosion, the first finger was pointed at the local security guards, who set small fires in “smudge pots” to ward away mosquitos. But investigations showed the unlikelihood of the fires reaching the ship. The idea that a transnational alliance of German spies, Irish nationalists and anti-colonial Indian rebels, could have been involved would have been stranger than fiction at the time.

But it took many years for the whole plot to be uncovered. Only in 1939 was enough evidence raised for the United States to win a settlement against Germany in the International Court of Justice – for $50 million. By then, it was clearly too late.

America went to war with Germany in 1917. The Black Tom explosions, as well as the sinking of the Lusitania, served as the final straw, forcing a reluctant American hand to intervene in what was viewed as an “old-world war”. Military action replaced what counter-intelligence could not achieve – getting rid of all the German saboteurs in America.

For many years, German spies had been sabotaging American weapons caches. The United States, though neutral in the war, supplied a disproportionate amount of arms to Allied Forces such as Britain, France and Russia. Meanwhile, many German ships were trapped in neutral American territory by an Allied embargo.

German intelligence had its strongman based in the United States since the onset of the war – Franz von Papen was the German military attache to the United States. In his life, he helped conduct a string of espionage campaigns in America. One of his tactics was to employ enemies of the British empire in his activities – including the Clan na Gael ( a sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood) and the Ghadar Party (a largely Sikh militant outfit whose aim was to start an armed revolution in India against the British.)

American intelligence agencies were still in their infancy at the time. But keeping their ears to the ground was the pan-global intelligence network of the British. It was thanks to British and Allied intelligence that many of these revolutionary groups within the United States were stamped out towards the end of the war.

The Ghadar Party and German mission worked closely in a failed ploy to send arms to India, a debacle later known as the Annie-Larson Affair. Franz von Papen’s transnational network was revealed only when British intelligence helped foiled this.

Warehouses destroyed by the explosion (Image: National Archives/ Public Domain)

But as far as the Black Tom explosions were concerned,  the perpetrators were never captured. At the time, three Germans were held principally responsible – Kurt Jahnke, Lothar Witzke, and Michael Kristoff. But while Jahnke and Witzke were seasoned saboteurs, they operated in the West Coast. And Kristoff was found to be mentally-challenged – certainly unable to coordinate a bomb plot by himself.

For these reasons, the first commission on the bombings ruled in Germany’s favour in 1930. It was only after the war that scale of German interference in the United States was made apparent – with a Congressional Hearing suggesting 300-500 Americans had been killed in similar sabotage attacks across the country. The cause of the fires was likely deemed the “pencil bombs” developed on order of Franz von Rintelen – small cigar shaped capsules that contained a delayed fuse. It was capable of starting fires long after being planted – believed to have caused fires in 36 ships, and millions of dollars in damage in the course of the war.

Much like the modern day response to terror attacks, the American administration was loath to point fingers along ethnic lines. Millions of Germans had migrated to the United States, serving as first, second and third generation Americans. The Woodrow administration did not want to question their patriotism – and on declaring war against Germany, went to pains to point out that the war was not against the German people.

The 1939 commission mentioned the extent of von Papen’s activities, linking Sinn Fein and East-Indian nationalists as well. They sought $50 million in damages from Hitler’s Germany – on the very eve of World War II.

Needless to say, Hitler did not pay up. The final settlement was only renegotiated in 1950 – with payments completed in 1979. In the meantime, the Russians demanded millions in compensation for their lost firearms, which included key supplies for their campaigns on the Eastern Front. Picturing an arms trade between the two countries grew into a dim prospect with the twentieth century.

A ring of flags surrounds the site of the explosion, with the statue visible in the background (Image: PaigePhault/ Creative Commons)

And to this day, the torch in the Statue of Liberty remains closed to the public. A small plaque in the Liberty State Park commemorates the attack:

You are walking on a site which saw one of the worse [sic] acts of terrorism in American history.

It may have been the last time that an Irish, German and Indian collaboration resulted in terror attacks on the United States. But the parallels between 1916 and 9/11, as precursors to war, ethnic nationalism and greater state controls, remind us that terrorism can have any religion and any nationality.

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