More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy

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In 1914 the United States was on the verge of revolution: industrial depression in the east, striking coal miners in Colorado, and increasingly tense relations with Mexico. In New York, the trouble began in January when a crushing winter caused homeless shelters to overflow. By April, anarchists paraded past industrialists’ mansions, and tens of thousands filled Union Square demanding “Bread or Revolution.” Then, on July 4, a detonation destroyed a Harlem tenement in the largest explosion the city had ever seen. ...

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More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy

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In 1914 the United States was on the verge of revolution: industrial depression in the east, striking coal miners in Colorado, and increasingly tense relations with Mexico. In New York, the trouble began in January when a crushing winter caused homeless shelters to overflow. By April, anarchists paraded past industrialists’ mansions, and tens of thousands filled Union Square demanding “Bread or Revolution.” Then, on July 4, a detonation destroyed a Harlem tenement in the largest explosion the city had ever seen. Among the dead were three bomb-makers—incited by anarchist Alexander Berkman—who were preparing to dynamite the estate of John D. Rockefeller Jr., widely vilified for a massacre of his company’s striking workers that spring.

More Powerful Than Dynamite charts how anarchist anger, progressive idealism, and plutocratic influence converged in that July explosion. Its cast includes celebrated figures such as Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, and Andrew Carnegie and the fascinating but heretofore little known, including Frank Tannenbaum, a teenager who insisted churches provide shelter for the homeless; 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 creates a fascinating portrait of a city on the edge of chaos coming to terms with modernity.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With tensions brewing in Europe at the start of “the first war to end all wars” in 1914, New York City was rife with continuing conflict between the haves and have-nots, shaping the future of national politics and culture, according to this atmospheric account. Jones, a former Newsday reporter, details the young, patrician, and anti-Tammany Hall mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, who tried to keep the lid on a metropolis being pulled apart by anarchists and unionists attempting to bring down industrialist John D. Rockefeller and his fellow plutocrats, while they also tried to maintain labor rights on the front burner. This pivotal year has its share of political promises, rebel-rousing rhetoric, and bloodshed, including the activitiets of anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, journalists Walter Lippman and Upton Sinclair, and dedicated radicals Frank Tannenbaum and Becky Edelsohn (reputedly America’s first hunger striker). Delving into the major players behind the dramatic events of 1914 in New York City, Jones (A Radical Line) draws parallels between 1914 and recent times in the social issues, moral dilemmas, and lack of political insight with intelligent research, fascinating characters, and striking tabloid color. B&w illus. Agent: Anna Ghosh, Scovil, Galen, Ghosh Literary Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Jobless, homeless, hungry, desperate.  Remarkable how those words resonate through the years in the richest and most powerful country in world history.  Their significance is dramatically highlighted in this compelling and vivid portrayal of the currents that swept the country a century ago, and have come back to haunt and inspire us once again today.  More Powerful Than Dynamite is an impressive piece of work."—Noam Chomsky

"Almost exactly a century before Occupy Wall Street launched a cause and gripped a nation, a different kind of radical movement in New York City was stirring, stunning, and scaring the country. Thai Jones, a brilliant historian and breathtaking writer, tells this compelling story in MORE POWERFUL THAN DYNAMITE. In his hands, the past is indeed prologue."—Samuel G. Freedman, author of Jew Vs. Jew

"New York was as divided by class, race, and ideology a century ago as it is in our own time.  That the city actually exploded in 1914 is not surprising.  What is surprising is how subtly, persuasively, and imaginatively Thai Jones has interpreted the period and brought a rich cast of characters to life.  More Powerful Than  Dynamite is an exciting book."—Kenneth T. Jackson, Columbia University, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City

"Thai Jones brings into vivid life a period of American history when the haves and the have nots were close to civil war, a fascinating recreation of people we have forgotten at our own peril.  An enjoyable and enlightening read."—Marge Piercy, poet, novelist, memoirist

"A compelling and layered portrait of a year, a nation, and a people on the verge, More Powerful Than Dynamite is filled with echoes that clamor in contemporary America. The writing itself is so rich and powerful, the selection of scenes so smart, the details so telling, that it reads like an epic novel."—Bill Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground and author of Fugitive Day

Praise for A Radical Line: 

"[T]his book begins with an intensely dramatic scene, and continues to fascinate the reader right through to the end. We follow a group of people—especially the notorious "Weather" people—who are at the center of the extraordinary events of the Sixties. Abstractions like "radicalism", "pacifism" "violence" are given a human face, as we see the characters in this book struggle, often in troubling ways, for a world free of war and injustice." —Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States

Library Journal
Soapboxes, raucous parades, hunger strikes, and dynamite. These tactics were among the methods of American protest in the early 1900s, and New York City was the epicenter. The titular year of anarchy for Jones (former reporter, New York Newsday; A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience) is 1914. Through the tensions between a circle of passionate radicals and John D. Rockefeller Jr., Jones examines the larger picture. Tensions exploded—sometimes literally—partially fueled by the Ludlow massacre of miners' families, killed by troops confronting strikers from the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. Jones discusses well-known radical favorites, e.g., Emma Goldman, as well as activists less familiar to a modern audience, among them Frank Tannenbaum, Arthur Caron, and Becky Edelsohn. He treats all with dignity, examining their motives and character and spinning a human story around historical events, a presentation that one would expect from a former journalist. VERDICT This book compares favorably with other works on 20th-century radicalism. Recommended for undergraduates and casual readers interested in the history of American labor and social-justice movements.—Laura Ruttum Senturia, Univ. of Colorado-Boulder Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
A messy conglomeration of personalities make up this ill-focused yet engaging portrait of New York City on the verge of anarchy and war, 1914. Chockablock with research and detail, journalist Jones' second work (after A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience, 2004) includes everything except a clear thesis. If there is anything he is proving, it is his passion and respect for the players of that roiling, revolutionary time: anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Beckman, reform-minded New York City mayor-elect John Purroy Mitchel, crusading journalists like Mother Jones and Uptown Sinclair and even the Christian idealist out of step with his plutocratic patriarch, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Jones moves chronologically throughout 1914, which opened after the relative harmony of the previous year. However, social evils in all facets of society were exposed by enlightened provocateurs like the young unemployed labor leader Frank Tannenbaum, who led fellow groups of unemployed into the city's churches for shelter during that extremely harsh winter and was eventually arrested. Anarchists were on the march as well, supported by union protestors, often to violent effect; they taxed the resources and good will of the new mayor and his broad-minded new police commissioner, Arthur Woods. Employees at the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, co-owned by Rockefeller but managed from a distance, went on strike, culminating in the so-called Ludlow Massacre, which prompted a sea change in Rockefeller Jr.'s antiquated views on collective organization and union rights. President Wilson struggled with turmoil in Mexico, calls for war in Europe and his own health, while a bomb probably designated for Rockefeller Jr. detonated accidentally in a Lexington Avenue apartment, killing three anarchists. Jones provides deep research and nicely fleshed portraits but only partial synthesis of the information.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Late on the morning of July 4, 1914, a peal of thunder rippled across Upper Manhattan. Pedestrians on Lexington Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets looked up to see an avalanche of powdered stone and splintered wood cascading down from the top floor of a tenement building on the west side of the block. When the air cleared, a young man's body was hanging from the balustrade of a fire escape far above the street, limbs akimbo. The name on the flyleaf of the address book in his pocket identified him as Arthur Caron, a onetime protégé of Upton Sinclair and a member of the anarchist community that regularly gathered uptown. Caron and two accomplices had accidentally detonated a cache of Russian nitroglycerine they were storing in the apartment of one of their comrades, the makings of a bomb intended for the Westchester County estate of the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It was the largest dynamite explosion New York had ever seen.

American radicals have never been particularly skilled bomb makers; half a century after the Lexington Avenue explosion, three members of the Weather Underground did the exact same thing, inadvertently leveling a townhouse in Greenwich Village with the explosives they intended to deliver to an army officers' dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. That symmetry was what drew the journalist- turned-historian Thai Jones, the son of members of the Weather Underground, to the 1914 incident. More Powerful than Dynamite is at once a narrative history of the explosion and something more ambitious: a panoramic evocation of a uniquely combustible moment in New York history, when the city was obsessed with transforming itself for the better but lethally conflicted over what that actually meant.

More Powerful than Dynamite advances in the manner of an Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu film, tracing the paths of the people and ideas that are fated to collide on Lexington Avenue. Jones toggles between three idealists, each bearing an irreconcilable vision of progress. John Purroy Mitchel, New York's youthful mayor, has just arrived in office with proto-technocratic visions of using social science to solve the city's myriad ills, only to find his ambitions swallowed by a series of disillusioning law-and-order crises. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the richest man in the world, Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, has thrown himself into philanthropy, leading crusades against societal evils — prostitution, intemperance, irreligion — with a patrician earnestness and condescension that the wags in the city newsrooms find hysterical. Alexander Berkman, an anarchist of some legend — his attempt to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892 was arguably the first act of modern political terrorism in the United States — now drifting unhappily into autumn, has become the éminence grise of Caron's circle of young radicals, aspiring propagandists of the deed who were bent on ending capitalism's terminal injustice through an act of transformative violence.

Jones is unequivocally a man of the left, but More Powerful than Dynamite is remarkable for the degree of humanity the author grants his entire cast of characters, plutocrats and radicals alike. He is an assured narrator with a knack for the throwaway character study, by turns sympathetic and biting. Describing the art collection in Rockefeller's Tarrytown mansion, Jones writes, "The money to build it may have come from his position in life, but nobody could accuse him of inheriting his taste." His portrait of Berkman is novel-worthy, capturing the pathos of an aging provocateur, his best years lost to prison, scoffing at the "halfway anarchists in the cafés" even as he frets over his waning relevance to them.

But Jones's most arresting character is New York City itself. Drawing heavily from the rambunctious New York newspapers of the era, he conjures a vivid image of a city in the midst of a wrenching and often terrifying transition into modernity, the sounds of progress often indistinguishable from the sounds of terrorism. "One rushes to the window at the first explosion with a mind revolving disaster," a visiting Londoner, describing the sound of the sandhogs dynamiting away the rock beneath the city to make way for new railroad tunnels, wrote in The New York Times in January 1914. "There is no disaster of any kind. It is New York growing; New York tearing down something big to make way for something bigger; New York expressing with all the violence of shattered rock its eternal dissatisfaction with the thing that is, its eternal aspiration toward the new and better."

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

Reviewer: Charles Homans

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781620405185
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 695,392
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Thai Jones is author of A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience. Formerly a reporter for Newsday, he is a graduate of Vassar College and the Columbia School of Journalism, and has earned a Ph.D. in U.S. History at Columbia University.

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Introduction: December 31, 1913 1


1 So the New Year Opens in Hope 17

Statistical Abstract 43

2 The Jobless Man and the Manless Job 48

The Social Evil 72

3 A New Gospel 77


The Possibility of a Revolution 103

4 "Three Cheers for the Cops!" 111

Chief-Inspector Judas 137

5 Somebody Blundered 143


The Lid 171

6 Free Silence 176

A Film with a Thrill 199

7 A Sleepy Little Burg 205

Safe and Sane 229

8 His Own Medicine 234


9 The War Has Spoiled Everything 257

10 Who's Who Against America 274

December 31, 1919 304

Afterword 317

Acknowledgments 339

Sources and Notes 341

Index 395

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2012


    Disappointed that the author did not know about or connect to the other radical movements throughout the country at the time.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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