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The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice

The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice

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by Chad Millman

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One hundred years ago, in July 1916, an act of terrorism in New York Harbor changed the world.

"A gripping account of conspiracy."—New York Times

"A ready-made suspense thriller."—Boston Globe

"Exhaustively researched... fascinating."—Entertainment Weekly, 50 Hot Summer Books

The attack in New York Harbor


One hundred years ago, in July 1916, an act of terrorism in New York Harbor changed the world.

"A gripping account of conspiracy."—New York Times

"A ready-made suspense thriller."—Boston Globe

"Exhaustively researched... fascinating."—Entertainment Weekly, 50 Hot Summer Books

The attack in New York Harbor was so explosive that people as far away as Maryland felt the ground shake. Windows were blown out uptown at the New York Public Library; the main building at Ellis Island was nearly destroyed; Statue of Liberty was torn into by shrapnel from the explosion, which would have measured 5.5 on the Richter scale. Chaos overtook Manhattan as the midnight sky turned to fire, lit up with exploding ammunition.

The year was 1916. And it had been shockingly easy.

While war raged in Europe, Americans watched from afar, unthreatened by the danger overseas. Yet the United States was riddled with networks of German spies hiding in plain sight. The attack on New York Harbor was only one part of their plans: secret anthrax facilities were located just ten miles from the White House; bombs were planted on ships, hidden in buildings, and mailed to the country's civic and business leaders; and an underground syndicate helped potential terrorists obtain fake IDs, housing, and money. President Woodrow Wilson knew an attack of this magnitude was possible, and yet nothing was done to stop it. Americans, feeling buffered by miles of ocean and burgeoning prosperity, had ignored the mounting threat.

That all changed on a warm summer evening in late July, when the island in New York Harbor called Black Tom exploded, setting alight a vast store of munitions destined for the front.

Three American lawyers—John McCloy, Amos Peaslee, and Harold Martin—made it their mission to solve the Black Tom mystery. Their hunt for justice would take them undercover to Europe, deep into the shadowy world of secret agents and double-crosses, through the halls of Washington and the capitals of Europe. It would challenge their beliefs in right and wrong. And they would discover a sinister plot so vast it could hardly have been imagined—a conspiracy that stretched from downtown Manhattan to the very heart of Berlin.

The Detonators is the first full accounting of a crime and a cover-up that resonate strongly in a post-9/11 America. And much of the atmosphere and rhetoric in play 100 years ago remains eerily similar to discussions surrounding national security and immigration today. As Millman deftly illustrates in THE DETONATORS, an island may have disappeared, but the resulting lessons have only grown stronger and more urgent, and history has a persistent way of stirring up its ghosts.

This is their story.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Detonators

"A gripping account of conspiracy."—New York Times

"A story with which fans of action thrillers will feel entirely comfortable ... (About) the deadliest and most brazen act of terrorism on American soil before Sept. 11, 2001, and Millman illustrates, subtly and effectively, the parallels between those events in both execution and reaction."—New York Daily News

"Gripping and fascinating ... If Millman didn't base so much of it on actual documents you'd swear it was fiction."—New York Post

"Absorbing ... A ready-made suspense thriller ... Millman recounts the story deftly."—Boston Globe

"Exhaustively researched ... fascinating."—Entertainment Weekly, 50 Hot Summer Books

"Fascinating ... Millman has delved into the story deeply and with verve ... this fast-paced, thriller-like tale makes for gripping reading."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The Detonators is more than an astonishing tale of espionage, keen detective work, and the American instinct for justice; it also calls to us from a past that looks stunningly similar to our futures."—Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers

"Fascinating and timely ... a legal thriller that spans two decades and three continents."—New York Observer

"A thrilling, splendidly written—and timely—tale of a forgotten conspiracy, when mysterious enemy agents lurked among us and plotted to force America to her knees. The Detonators is edge-of-your-seat history backed by impeccable scholarship."—James Swanson, author of Manhunt

"Millman deftly narrates ... an intriguing, bracing tale, and not just for history buffs."—Kirkus (starred review)

"Compelling enough to read ...insightful enough to make you think."—The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Publishers Weekly
Millman (The Odds; Pickup Artists), best known for his sports writing, tackles a fascinating but little-known episode in World War I history: the extensive plot by a network of German spies to wreak havoc in the U.S. Their one big success, he observes, was the massive explosion that blew up a spit of land in New York Harbor next to Liberty Island known as Black Tom, including an ammunition depot, and caused extensive damage throughout Manhattan and Jersey City, with reverberations felt as far south as Philadelphia. Millman has delved into the story deeply and with verve, basing much of this fast-paced, thrillerlike tale on affidavits, briefs, memos and letters from those involved in the plot and the long postwar effort to get to the bottom of it. Although the American government had plenty of clues about who was responsible, nothing of substance was done to solve the mystery until the early 1930s when three American lawyers-John McCloy, Amos Peaslee and Harold Martin-set out in earnest to investigate it. Millman's emphasis on the personal stories of the main characters involved in hatching the Black Tom plot and those who solved it makes for gripping reading. 8 b&w photos. (July 12) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1916, a group of German agents blew up an ammunition warehouse on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor near the Jersey shore. The explosion destroyed thousands of tons of munitions destined for France, shattered windows all over lower Manhattan, and triggered a 23-year legal battle. Millman (senior editor, ESPN The Magazine; The Odds: One Season, Three Gamblers, and the Death of Their Las Vegas) skillfully untangles the complex threads of diplomacy, tradecraft, chemistry, and treachery to show the sabotage ring's effects. His story then shifts to the legal battle, after World War I, to assess the damages and determine whether Germany's Weimar Republic was responsible. Millman makes the best he can out of the proceedings, but it was a lengthy legal battle fought out before a joint commission on damages, with the American lawyers trying desperately to prove sabotage and the German government trying equally hard to dismiss the matter as an accident. A cause c l bre in its day, Black Tom is forgotten now. The spy tale is lively, but the legal maneuvering eventually drags. While this is an interesting bit of history, reminiscent, needless to say, of a recent greater act of destruction in New York, this work may be of real interest only to specialists and World War I historians. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Before 9/11 there was July 30, 1916. On that day, German saboteurs lit up the skies around New York Harbor with a massive explosion at the Black Tom munitions depot in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty near what is now Liberty State Park. The fiery detonation, which could be felt as far away as Maryland, blew out the windows of lower Manhattan buildings as far north as the main New York Public Library branch on 42nd Street. It was the most spectacular (though far from the only) act of sabotage carried out by Germany's well-placed network of spies and bombmakers, determined to halt the shipment of ammunition from the still-"neutral" United States to its World War I Allies in Europe. Millman (Pickup Artists: Street Basketball in America, 1998), a career sportswriter, deftly narrates the story of the brazen German agents who planned the sabotage, then turns to the exhausting legal battle that ensued to get Germany to admit its guilt and pay for the damage. The effort wouldn't end until Hitler was in power and the Second World War had begun. Initially, the Black Tom explosion was branded an accident, and none of the German saboteurs was ever arrested for the crime. It wasn't until 1924 that the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which owned Black Tom, brought suit against Germany before the Mixed Claims Commission, a legal entity created to hear claims against Germany following the war. The exhausting legal case would consume the lives of both American and German lawyers, locked in a struggle to uncover or suppress the truth about Germany's role. In a clear, cogent narrative, Millman does a good job of navigating the complex issues and behind-the-scenes politics that fueled this marathon legal battle.He also proves adept at fleshing out the human stories of the main characters involved. Those include John McCloy, who risked his legal career to take on the case; John Larkin, a fiery Irish labor leader whose 11th-hour revelations proved crucial; and Fred Herrmann, an American citizen turned German spy who was tracked to Chile and talked into confessing his role. An intriguing, bracing tale, and not just for history buffs.

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
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6.25(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.12(d)

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From the Publisher
"James has a taciturn voice, and he punctuates the quotes with pleasant pauses. His leisure produces an engaging story." —-AudioFile

Meet the Author

Chad Millman is the Editorial Director of ESPN Domestic Digital. He is the author of The Odds and coauthor of The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, Iceman, Invincible, and Pickup Artists. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons.

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Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Meticulously researched story about the July 30, 1916 firebombing of the Black Tom Island munitions depot on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor. This long forgotten instance of a major terrorist act on American Soil is a tale that needs to be remembered, but unfortunately, Millman does not do it justice here. The 1st part of the book is a grabber, but part II gets bogged down in the legal details of the saga and throws the book off track. Millman is a former magazine writer, and a current senior editor, and it shows as he fires all of the facts at us in rapid-fire manner, but doesn't add any of the analysis or emotion that great history needs. The book is too clinical and dry, as well as feeling rushed, and that violates the cardinal rule of writing about history. The author needs to put the reader right into the middle of the story, and make him or her feel like they experienced it themselves. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in while I was reading this account, and at times the book dragged. Millman admits he was writing about topics that were new to him, and it shows as perhaps a more accomplished historical writer would have brought this story to life in a better way. I admire Millman's research, passion, and the way he identifies the tale's importance to post 9/11 America, but it is lacking in the telling. It would make a great movie if told in the right way, but 'The Detonators' is not a great book of history to recommend. As someone who was really looking forward to reading this book, that is a huge disappointment for me to say.