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WWI-Era Terrorism: Black Tom Island and Anti-German Hysteria

The following guest post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division.

The German act of terrorism on Black Tom Island was one of a series of events that came to a head with the infamous Zimmermann Telegram and pushed America to declare war on Germany in April 1917.  These hostile acts fueled anti-German hysteria that was so great that nearly all aspects of life associated with German culture, ranging from food to music, were renamed or banned.

In retrospect, a 1915 Rand McNally map for Liebmann’s Sons Brewing Company illustrates the intersection between political and social issues. Prior to the war, German-American community composed some nine percent of the American population. Among them was the Liebmann family who opened a brewery in 1855, and like many other German-American companies and institutions, they faced enormous prejudice and financial hurdles, because of the war. Their products, as listed on the map, included, “Rheingold, Teutonic and Conqueror Beers.” These and other German-inspired goods increasingly fell into disfavor, as many Americans made negative associations with them and the actions of the German Empire.

•Map Caption: S. Liebmann’s Sons Brewing Co. of Brooklyn, New York boasts of “61 years of Scientific Progress Brewing” (New York: 1915, Rand McNally). Map depicts Jersey City, New Jersey. From the Geography and Map Division Titled Collection.

S. Liebmann’s Sons Brewing Co. of Brooklyn, New York boasts of “61 years of Scientific Progress Brewing” (New York: 1915, Rand McNally). Map depicts Jersey City, New Jersey. From the Geography and Map Division Titled Collection.

In 1916, Black Tom Island served as a munitions depot.  Although originally a small island in New York Harbor located next to Liberty Island, by 1880, it was connected to the mainland by a causeway, and later, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the owner of the depot, added landfill between 1905 and 1916.

The munitions shipped from Black Tom and other American depots, however, only reached Allied countries despite outward American neutrality, because of the successful blockade by Allied fleets of Germany.  In turn, Germany planned and executed many sabotage operations to balance the scales.

On July 30, 1916, agents employed by Germany struck at Black Tom Island. They ignited the munitions, and people as far away as Maryland felt vibrations from the explosions, which many mistook for an earthquake. Property damage from the attack was estimated at $20 million, and the damage to the Statue of Liberty was estimated to be $100,000 that included damage to the skirt and torch.

The damage on the Jersey City Pier after the munitions explosion at Black Tom. From Library of Congress online collections.

The damage on the Jersey City Pier after the munitions explosion at Black Tom. From Library of Congress online collections.

It took many years and several investigations to prove that Germany was responsible, but in the meantime,President Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned on a platform of neutrality, remained silent on German involvement despite knowing that German spies were in the country. In 1939, the German-American Mixed Claims Commission ruled that the German Empire had been responsible and ordered that damages should be paid. It was not until 1953, however, that a settlement in the amount of $50 million was reached. More than twenty more years passed before the last payment was made in 1979.

One Comment

  1. Mary Kay
    May 7, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    This is very interesting content related to WWI that also is written about in the book Dark Invasion: 1915 Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America by Howard Blum. Check it out!

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