Friday, September 18, 2009

Farriery Forensics: Who Shod the Wall Street Bomber's Horse?

The scene on Wall Street in 1920 after a wagonload of explosives became a horse-drawn bomb in front of the New York Stock Exchange. 
When the 9/11 tragedy happened in 2001, few people knew that it was not the first terrorist attack in lower Manhattan on a September day. Anarchists had tried it way back in 1920, and the only clue detectives had to go on in that case was a  horseshoe that survived the blast.

This is the story of that horseshoe.

September 18 is a dark day in New York history. It's also the day when horseshoes made the headlines of the New York Times...and the story had nothing to do with good luck.

It was 100 years ago that a horse and wagon ambled down Manhattan's Wall Street and exploded into bits in front of the Morgan Bank. The goal: to assassinate financier J.P. Morgan. But Morgan survived. Instead, the heinous act killed 38 innocent people and injured at least 300 more.

The only traceable clues to who was behind the attack was a shoe from what little was left of the wagon horse that pulled the load of dynamite. The investigators set a high reward for information and set off on a manhunt to find the farrier who had shod the unfortunate horse that hauled the bomb.

Farrier forensics was born.

The police combed all the stables and blacksmith shops in New York City looking for clues to identify these horseshoes. It's not clear whether the farriers they interviewed were helpful or not. The unions in New York were very powerful. The journeyman farriers didn't want to give away union secrets and they had pledged to protect their brothers. But they knew how to look at a horseshoe and they were able to read what the clues that were right in front of them.

This is one of the hind shoes that survived from the dead horse. The initials stamped in the shoe indicate journeyman union membership; it was a protection mark used throughout the United States in the early 20th century. The union mark was stamped into at least one shoe on every union-shod horse so that another union farrier might help out and reset the shoe if it was loose. This was a code of honor among union horseshoers. A horseshoe that did not show the JHU mark might not get replaced, so farriers could pressure horsemen into using union shoers. The NOA mark identifies the shoe as shod by an employee of a shop owned by a member of the Master Horseshoers Association.

Because the farrier had stamped the initials of both his own union ("JHU") and the "NA" mark for the Master Horseshoers Protective Association of Borough of Manhattan on the branch of the shoe, the NYPD detectives, Department of Justice (this was before the FBI) and Secret Service hoped the shoes could be traced back to horseshoers who worked in a shop that required both marks. The NA mark confirmed that the horse had been shod on the island of Manhattan.

They said they just wanted to know who the owner of the horse was.

The story of the bomber's horseshoe was front page news in the New York Times.

To quote from the December 1920 edition of the Horseshoer’s Journal: "Of course, no onus is attached to the shoer, but the link of evidence is of greatest importance. (The horseshoer’s identity) lead to the arrest of the party responsible for the awful calamity which shocked not merely the whole of America, but the entire world."

The headline in the New York Times read "200 Detectives Canvass Farrier Shops for Clue to Identity of Bomb Driver". The detectives began by enlisting their own mounted police farriers to analyze the horseshoes and tell them everything they could about them and the horse that might have worn them.

Finally the shoes were traced to the farrier shop of Finnegan and Kyle at 85 New Chambers Street and a farrier from the Bronx named John Heggarty.

How did Heggarty pick the shoes out as his? How would a farrier know his own shoe? Heggarty told the Times that he "found on the fore shoes the horizontal line just above the heel clip," The Times continued, "He always has put on his handiwork as the sort of secret identification mark which all horseshoers use, largely for the purpose of knowing their own work in case of complaint. Haggerty is a non-union man and called attention to the absence of the JHU...from the front shoes, though they were on the hind shoes."

What's going on at the site of the shoeing forge at 85 New Chambers Street in Manhattan today, thanks to Google Maps

Unfortunately Heggarty couldn't (or wouldn't) remember who brought the horse in, and said as way of explanation that he shod eight to 12 horses a day. The shop is near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge and the dock for the Fulton Street Ferry, so police speculated that the horse had come from off Manhattan.

Interestingly, farrier unions are among the oldest in America, and in the 1920s, farrier unions espoused what sounds today like extreme left-wing rhetoric. An editorial in the same edition of the Horseshoer's Journal calls on local unions to "oust their Bolshevik members". Was Heggarty a Bolshevik sympathizer? Did he re-use someone else's shoes who was a union member for the hind feet of the horse? What happened to him?

This story raises many more questions than it answers, but it offers many great history insights into immigrants, unions, politics, and city life. World War I had just ended. Heggarty was probably Irish. The anarchists are believed to have been Italian. The targets of the bomb were elite, wealthy financiers.

The right of the journeyman to put their stamp on their shoes had been the thorn that led to the long and violent New York City horseshoers strike in 1903.
In Boston, also in 1920, the JHU struck against the Master Horseshoers Association; employee farriers (journeymen) had walked out of the large city farrier shops owned by the powerful master farrier owners. The city stopped.

The year 1920 was also the height of the horse population in the USA: an estimation 25 million horses, perhaps even more, were hard at work in the cities and on farms, compared to less than 10 million today. (Estimates range from 6 to 9 million horses.)

To this day, the crime has never been solved, but the scars in the concrete on Wall Street have never been repaired. They remain as a solemn reminder of the day a horse and wagon became the first suicide bombers in the neighborhood. But not the last.

--Fran Jurga

Portions of this article originally appeared in Hoofcare and Lameness #75. Thanks to the New York Times archives and especially to Cornell University's Flower Sprecher Library at the College of Veterinary Medicine for help in preparing this article.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing. No use without permission. You only need to ask. Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site,, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to