Terrorism Comes to Memphis Tennessee During WW 1

by Joe V Lowry

Based on what was occurring in other major cities in the US, especially those involved in manufacturing and warehousing of supplies and equipment destined for the WWI effort were being blown up, fire bombed, or set on fire by German agents and German sympathetic terrorists. Memphis Police and Federal agents of the Secret Service were convinced that a plot existed to cripple the war effort.

The First Terrorism Cell in America was German based.

July 30, 1916 New Jersey …. Black Tom Island New Jersey. More than 2 million pounds of explosives blew up killing 5 and injuring hundreds. The explosion set 100 rail cars and 13 warehouses on fire and created a crater 375’ wide by 175’ long. The explosion registered 5.5 on the Richter scale, shattered windows 6 miles away in Manhattan, and all over New York. More than 75% of Americas ammunition destined for the War in Europe was destroyed. The explosion was 30 times more powerful than what occurred at the World Trade Center.

President Woodrow Wilson would play it down in the media and after several days it had been considered as an industrial accident.

In the months after Black Tom more than 15 DuPont plants in New Jersey and more than 100 industries involved in the manufacturing of war related materials would be destroyed either by explosive or chemical incendiary device. These also included stockyards which supplied horses, mules and meat all destined for the war as well as lumber companies for aircraft and wing production.

In an article from the Nashville Tennessean Newspaper, Wednesday 11, 1917
One hundred and twelve people, mostly women were working at Eddy Stone Ammunition in Pennsylvania were killed and more than 121 injured in a deliberate explosion. Two people were arrested.

The News Scimitar, Memphis Tennessee, April 3, 1917
“Memphis Police Get Spy Orders “ Memphis officers and detectives receive special orders from the U S Justice Department to guard all government buildings in Memphis.

In an article from the Fort Scott Tribune and Fort Scott Monitor newspaper October19, 1917
10,000 cattle burned, more than half of the Kansas City Kansas stockyard destroyed by fire. 3000 hogs burned and 35,000 cattle are liberated to run through the streets of both cities resulting in a $170,000 loss. Carcass disposal becomes a problem. Several fire departments respond and dynamite had to be used to assist in extinguishing the fire.

In an article of the Evening Ledger (Philadelphia) Friday, November 1917
“Blame 13,000,000 Fire Losses on Enemy Agents”. New York and Baltimore report the heaviest damage from arson with some fires in other cities occurring on the same day at the same time.

The following major cities were reporting incendiary caused fires and explosions in chemical plants, warehouses, railroad yards, grain elevators and lumber mills.

Memphis was also part of this terrorism.

February 15, 1918
Tennessee Furniture Company, located at Grimes and the ICRR burned to the ground. Cause was determined to be incendiary and was investigated by the Feds.

March 9, 1918
Memphis Furniture Company at 715 S Camilla also suffered an incendiary caused fire, $150,000.00 loss investigated by the Feds.

March 25, `1918
*** This would have been a Russwood Park size blaze. ***
J. Rose Warehouse located at 767 Kentucky Street. This was a very large building that contained many tons of grain and food items, all destined for the war effort. The fire spread to several adjoining buildings and destroyed 38 rail cars loaded with flour. Every piece of fire equipment in Memphis except Engine 4 responded. There was a $225,000.00 loss investigated by the Feds and determined to be incendiary.

May 31, 1918
***this too would have been a Russwood Park size blaze ****
John Wade and Sons Food warehouse was located at East Virginia Ave and the ICRR tracks. It contained a large amount of food for horses and mules, hay and alfalfa all war destined foodstuffs. There was also a large supply of sulfur stored here. 12 hose streams and 3 alarms would be needed to extinguish the fire in the 120’ wide 220’ long building which was fully involved upon arrival of Engine’ 10, 2 and 5. Thirteen fire fighters including Fire Chief Fitzmorris and Assistant Chiefs Julius Venturini and John T Moore would all have to be taken home because of temporary blindness from sulfur fumes.Ten other firefighters were overcome by burning sulfur fumes. This fire was investigated by the Feds and determined to be incendiary.

June 1, 1918
Anderson Tully Lumber Company 1242 N Second also was the recipient of suspicious activity.

August 3, 1918
National Bedding Company located at Koehler Alley and Estevill Place was completely destroyed. It was also investigated by the Feds.

Based on what was occurring in other major cities in the US, especially those involved in manufacturing and warehousing of supplies and equipment destined for the WWI effort, authorities were convinced they were being blown up, firebombed, or set on fire by German agents and German sympathetic terrorists. Memphis Police and Federal agents of the Justice Department were convinced that a plot existed to cripple the war effort.

The bridges at Memphis were high on the list of targets to hit. Both Mississippi River bridges and the Second Street Bridge over the Wolf River were guarded by National Guard units from Tennessee and Alabama with entire companies of trained soldiers walking the bridge and sentries posted on both ends of the bridge.

Food and Mail trains were guarded by heavily armed machine gun companies. Trained and heavily armed men were riding the trains and stationed in mail cars was the norm.

The Daily Signal, Crowley Louisiana, October 25, 1917
8 are held in Memphis, in a plot to Kill President Woodrow Wilson on Thanksgiving Day.

January 10, 1918
Three trainmen are injured, as the engine of the eastbound freight train they were riding on blows up on the west end of the Harahan Bridge. Initially it is reported that dynamite was shoveled into the boiler. That was reputed and they said that part of the boiler came apart, sabotage is suspected. Several newspaper clippings say many things but it was investigated by the US Agents and no explanation was confirmed. There were thoughts that subversive agents were trying to blow up the bridge.

The Arkansas Gazette,  April 12, 1918
A presidential warrant was issued for the apprehension of Memphian Otto C Dohrmann, 29, a German citizen involved in a plot to cause destruction at Camp Pike in Arkansas. Camp Pike was the embarkation and training base for the Arkansas National guard. Later it would be called Camp Robinson.

From Wayne Dowdy’s book Hidden History of Memphis 1917

In 1917 17 year old Boy Scout Charles Wailes was listening to his shortwave radio station one night where he spent many days listening to Morse coded signals from boats on the Mississippi River and from railroads and other places. One night he picked up coded messages that didn’t sound right. He notified his scoutmaster who in turn contacted the US Authorities, who raided a home at 500 Vance Avenue. The owner was allowing a very elaborate radio station to be operated from her attic.” A person as arrested at this address.

To hear the rest of this story and more listen to our recent podcast on Memphis in WWI.

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