Jack El-Hai | Longreads | March 2015 | 14 minutes (3,509 words)

A New York City stockbroker named M. Leopold was working in his office at 84 Broadway shortly after noon on December 4, 1891, when he sensed vibrations, an odd rumbling. Looking outside, he saw flames and a cloud of smoke shooting out from a window of the Arcade Building directly across the street. A man’s body then flew out through the opening, landing on Broadway. Leopold raised his window and smelled the tang of dynamite.

The blast echoed from the Battery in the south to Twenty-Third Street in the north, and frightened crowds poured out of the Arcade Building. “The people came out in a solid mass, almost as if shot from a cannon,” a reporter observed. “They ran all ways, with shouts and confusion, and occupants of the offices of the building swarmed to the fire escapes.” This stream hit the street and neared another cataract of terrified people that had spilled onto Wall Street. The crowds collided and combined, blocking the streets and causing some people to scale the iron fence of Trinity Churchyard and trample the graves as they sought safety.

Leopold and many other people working on the block knew that the exploded window belonged to the office of Russell Sage, a wealthy financier. Often collaborating with fellow tycoon Jay Gould, Sage had built railroads, invested in industry, cleverly weathered financial panics, and reportedly had more ready cash at his disposal than any other person in the U.S. What nobody yet understood—except for the unfortunate occupants of the financier’s wrecked office—was that a crazed man had just targeted Sage for attack. Even though Sage survived it, the assault had an effect that the assailant never intended: a remarkable redistribution of the vast riches of one of the most notorious robber barons of the Gilded Age. It was also America’s first suicide bombing.

’The people came out in a solid mass, almost as if shot from a cannon.’

Russell Sage
Russell Sage

* * *

Long before the bombing, Russell Sage met a woman named Olivia Slocum. She grew up in Syracuse, New York, and her father Joseph Slocum suffered hard luck as a merchant. He was frequently short of cash, and in 1852 he and a business partner learned that one of their investors, the young and lanky Sage, had cheated them. At the time, Sage was a wealthy speculator based in nearby Troy; Olivia had probably met him at local events years before her father’s troubles with him. She was working as a domestic for wealthy families, possibly as a governess, and barely got by.

Meanwhile, Sage was more than getting by. He expanded his interests in land speculation, railroads, and money lending. He won election to the U.S. Congress, served two terms, developed a railroad network extending from the Northeast to the Midwest, manipulated stock markets, and accumulated millions of dollars. The death of his first wife had left him a widower in possession of houses in Troy and on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Olivia, lively and talkative, continued to cross paths with Sage over the years, and a courtship developed. In 1869, at the age of 41, she married the man who had cheated her father.

Olivia Sage
Olivia Sage

By making a union with Russell Sage, who was then 53, Olivia did not gain access to his great fortune, although her standard of living certainly improved and she presided over a Manhattan mansion. Sage, meanwhile, was renowned for his frugality. He insisted on making few ostentatious purchases, living simply, and keeping strict control of his money. His life with Olivia consisted of horse-drawn drives through New York’s Central Park, games of whist, summer trips to Saratoga Springs, and evenings by the fireplace with newspapers, numerous pets, and friends. Olivia, sympathetic to a variety of causes that included Christian missionary work, women’s education and suffrage, and American Indian education, had to rein in her charitable urges. Spare with his language and his emotions, her husband steered away from any behavior that could be called philanthropic. He believed he owed society nothing.

Over the following decades, the two followed their separate interests: He lent money, directed railroads, and traded securities for profit while she managed their social activities and devoted time to a multitude of charities. This living arrangement worked well for years, giving the couple a comfortable domestic routine, until the events of December 4, 1891, and their unexpected aftermath.

New York Times coverage of the bombing.
New York Times coverage of the bombing.

* * *

The Arcade Building was a somber brownstone rising six floors over Broadway, and it was where Sage had worked for years. On December 4, a man walked into Sage’s offices. The press would later describe the man as “an insane crank,” “a dangerous maniac,” and “a man of unbalanced mind.” A clerk greeted the visitor, who was grasping a bulky handbag and said he was a representative of John D. Rockefeller, the immensely rich magnate of Standard Oil. He had urgent business to discuss in-person with Sage. When told about the visitor, the 75-year-old Sage examined him through a window in an office partition. “I saw a young man sitting on the bench,” Sage later said. “He had a dark beard somewhat pointed.” Sage did not recognize him, “but I felt instinctively a distrust of the man.”

Even so, Sage approached the man, who was dressed in a silk hat, black overcoat, and worn-down pinstriped pants. “Do you want to see me?”

The stranger handed over a calling card bearing the name H.D. Wilson and listing the cardholder’s connection with Rockefeller. Then he gave Sage a sheet of typewritten paper. Sage later couldn’t remember the exact wording of the note, but it demanded $1.2 million in cash (more than $30 million in today’s dollars) and threatened that any delay in handing over the money would cause the visitor to detonate ten pounds of dynamite in his bag, “sufficient to blow this building and all its occupants to instant death,” as Sage recalled.

Sage immediately decided that he was dealing with a lunatic—“because any sane man knows that no man, however wealthy, has a million dollars about him.” He decided to stall and summon help from a guard stationed in the outside hallway. Sage read over the typed message a couple more times and racked his brain for an excuse to retreat to his private office, from which, he hoped, he could escape to the hallway. “I have an appointment here to meet a gentleman that I made yesterday,” Sage ventured. “It will not take more than two minutes for me to attend to it. If you will wait until then—”

The visitor grew impatient. “I understand then that you refuse,” he declared while lifting his handbag with his right hand. Sage long remembered the dramatic pose that the stranger struck. “I have but to throw down this valise to kill everyone in the building,” the visitor said.

Sage begged the man not to act rashly. Before the visitor could reply, another man made an unfortunate entry into the office. Normally, Sage would have ignored the comings and goings of this clerk, William Laidlaw, 35, who worked for a Wall Street firm with which Sage often dealt. But this was no normal afternoon. Sage said he felt relief at the arrival of someone who could perhaps distract the stranger from his homicidal intent.

As Sage later insisted, Laidlaw’s arrival did not faze the visitor, who stared at the rich man and, without waiting further, threw the handbag to the floor.

* * *

An enormous explosion destroyed the office, shattering the glass of every window, blowing a hole in the floor, and leaving the ceiling in splinters. It injured Sage, Laidlaw, and seven others. The blast also shot Sage’s junior clerk Benjamin Norton through the front window and into the street. A heavy typewriter that Norton had been using, along with other wreckage, landed on top of him, and he soon died. The bomber himself was blown to fragments.

Ten years earlier, a Russian revolutionary named Ignaty Grinevitsky had sacrificed his life while assassinating Tsar Alexander II with a bomb in St. Petersburg. No other suicide bombing had ever before occurred, and there would be no more in the U.S. for many years.

This bomber’s crime, then, was nearly inconceivable. After the blast, Sage found himself able to walk and somehow made it out of the building to a nearby drugstore, where a doctor administered first aid. The clerk Laidlaw, whose body had been riddled with shards of glass and was more seriously hurt, also received treatment there, although it’s unclear how he got out of the Arcade. The explosion had ripped his clothing from his limbs, and he bled from numerous lacerations.

Laidlaw required hospitalization, and he would never fully recover from his injuries. He intimated to his caregivers that something more sinister than a bombing had occurred in the office. An upset Laidlaw revealed that when the blast erupted, Sage “had hold of my hand and I was standing between the stranger and Mr. Sage.” Laidlaw accused Sage of trying to pull the clerk into a position that would block the financier from the explosion of the bomb, all while Laidlaw had no idea of the imminent danger in the office.

The implications were shocking: that Sage had not given an honest account of the incident and that in the moments before the explosion he had used Laidlaw as a human shield.

Meanwhile, rumors spread around Wall Street that Sage had been killed, even though his injuries were minor and he returned home that same afternoon. Jay Gould, who had learned of the bombing by telephone, had broken the news to Olivia Sage, and she met her shaken husband at the threshold of their home. She helped him up a flight of stairs to their bedroom, where a physician demanded that he rest. Sage ordered the crowd of servants and aid-givers out of the room.

He was recuperating upstairs a while later when a team of police officials arrived at his house with a wicker basket—it was undoubtedly the most gruesome delivery Olivia had ever allowed into her home. It contained, the police believed, the charred head of the bomber, which the explosion had torn from his body and dropped in the rubble of the office. Sage examined it and without emotion identified it as the head of his attacker.

Olivia soon directed her domestic staff to turn away visitors and well wishers, but at least one invader challenged her defenses. The man pushed his way past a servant and threatened to blow up the house unless he was given $2,500. When the servant called out that she could not expel him, Olivia appeared in a rage and said, “I can.” In no time, she shoved the intruder out the door and onto the street. (In another account of this incident, Olivia fainted into a lifeless heap on the stairs and scared the crank away.)

Sage eventually made a recovery, suffering only from hearing loss. Within a week, he returned to work under the temporary protection of bodyguards (New York Governor David Hill and many other frightened political officials and businessmen followed his example and sought protection, too). Olivia traveled to Far Rockaway to represent Sage at the funeral of clerk Benjamin Norton.

Aside from the head and a pair of mangled feet, the only other remnants of the bomber that police recovered from the blast scene were a distinctive Brooks Brothers suspender button and some shredded clothing. This evidence eventually led them to the Brooks store in Boston, where they narrowed the identity of the bomber to an unsuccessful loan notebroker named Henry L. Norcross. He had not been seen at his home in Somerville, Mass., for about two weeks.

During the ten days since the explosion, the bomber’s head in storage at the New York City morgue had decomposed to the point that some of Norcross’s friends could not positively identify it. Norcross’s mother, however, recognized it with certainty after noticing a scar on the back of the head—“Oh, yes, that is my boy!” she wailed—and her husband joined her in believing Norcross to be the bomber. After learning of the alleged bomber’s identity and his mother’s anxiety over his fate, Olivia Sage burst into tears.

Norcross, a quiet and moody free thinker in his late twenties who spoke out against the excesses of wealthy people, had hoped to patent a railroad invention of some kind, and he needed to gather money for the project. Sage maintained he had never heard of him.

Beyond Norcross’s family and acquaintances, one person claimed to have important knowledge of the bomber: the extraordinary Mary Edwards Walker, a physician, suffragist, feminist, political activist, and the only woman ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, for her bravery in crossing Civil War battle lines to treat injured soldiers. She believed that Norcross, whom she had once employed as a laborer and considered an imbalanced Nihilist, had murdered a woman named Christie Warden in New Hampshire five months before the attack on Sage. Walker protested the itinerant felon George Abbott’s conviction for the crime, offering evidence that Norcross had shot Warden and that he had also made spoken threats against Sage.

She had not relayed these threats to Sage, she later said, because the financier had angered her by earlier refusing to respond to her letters requesting support in her battle for a federal pension.

Few people took Walker’s assertions seriously, and Abbott was hanged for Warden’s murder in 1893. The New York City bomber’s remains were buried in Boston without service or ceremony.

* * *

After the bombing, Russell and Olivia Sage’s peaceful lives began to unravel. For starters, two women were separately preparing to sue Sage for alleged romantic dalliances. To recover her bearings, Olivia retreated to resorts and friends’ homes.

There was more. Within weeks of the suicide bombing, the maimed clerk, William Laidlaw, filed a lawsuit against the financier alleging his injuries stemmed from Sage using him as a human shield. To represent him as special counsel, Laidlaw hired Joseph H. Choate, a celebrity of the New York Bar (and later U.S. ambassador to Great Britain) who had been involved in some of the era’s most important court cases and had helped oust the Tweed Ring from City Hall. Laidlaw, via his attorneys, wrote a letter to Sage offering to settle for a cash sum to avoid litigation. Outraged, Sage flung the letter into the trash.

And so, in 1892, Laidlaw v. Sage went to court. Nobody guessed that this legal struggle would become, at the time, one of the longest-running civil lawsuits in U.S. history. The case was heard numerous times in court and in judicial review over the next seven years, during which it was dismissed, a decision laid aside on appeal, a mistrial was declared, and a decision was overturned on a technicality. At trial Laidlaw won awards of $25,000 and $43,000. Jury members seemed sympathetic to the clerk’s story of his innocent entry into Sage’s office, the wealthy man’s diabolical hiding behind the younger man to avoid injury and Laidlaw being crippled in the blast.

Russell and Olivia Sage’s peaceful lives began to unravel.

Coverage of the trial.
Coverage of the trial.

Only with difficulty could the public keep track of the crooked path of the case from trial to appellate court and back to trial. But the public easily saw the entertainment value of the ongoing legal contest. Choate, by turns righteous and puckish in the courtroom, had vowed to tarnish Sage’s reputation even if it took ninety trials. He used every trick he knew to make Sage—already notorious as a skinflint and opponent of charity—look guilty on the witness stand. He wanted Sage to feel shame and pay damages to Laidlaw.

Choate went even further: he schemed to torture the financier under cross examination, to heap upon Sage public ridicule for his grasping wealth, parsimony, and supposed cowardice. At one point in the proceedings, when a juror complained that he couldn’t hear Sage’s responses under cross-examination, Choate remarked, “There, Mr. Sage; you see what these gentlemen are losing. Speak up. Just imagine you are in the Stock Exchange selling Western Union on a rising market.” To this Sage neither smiled nor replied.

During the fourth and final trial, Choate grilled Sage about his financial position at the time of the explosion:

Choate: You then held some Missouri Pacific collateral trust bonds?

Sage: Yes.

Choate: How many?

Sage: Can’t say.

Choate: Can’t you tell within a limit of from ten to one thousand?

Sage: No.

Choate: Nor within one hundred to two hundred?

Sage: No.

Choate: Is it because you have too little memory or too many bonds? How many loans did you have out at that time?

Sage: I can’t tell.

Choate: Can you tell within $200,000 the amount then due from your largest creditor?

Sage: I — any man doing the business I am —

Choate: Oh, there is no other man like you in the world. Now you can’t tell within $200,000 the amount of the largest loan you then had out, but you set up your memory against Laidlaw’s?

Sage: I do.

Sage, however, proved to be an obstinate opponent equally adept at verbal parrying. During the same trial, he and Choate had this exchange:

Choate: Mr. Sage, can you read without your glasses?

Sage: Sir?

Choate: Can you read without your glasses?

Sage: I can read with my glasses.

Later, Choate made Sage furious by bringing up a statement attributed to Olivia, that her husband would never pay Laidlaw a penny. Sage shot up in the witness box, shook his fist, and shouted, “You have mentioned her name! You are bringing her name in. You are bringing in those outside things and it is proper for me to protect my wife. I would believe her in preference to this clerk [Laidlaw].”

The outcome of this fourth trial, a judgment in Laidlaw’s favor, was overturned in 1899 by the Court of Appeals of New York, which declared that there was not enough evidence that anything Sage did had caused Laidlaw’s injuries. The court granted yet another trial.

That fifth trial never happened. Laidlaw, now out of work for years and nearly destitute, lacked the energy and wherewithal to continue. Sage never did pay a penny to the clerk who had dragged him through court for seven years. Joseph Choate at last had to accept defeat. The famous lawyer had succeeded, though, in soiling Sage’s reputation.

Regardless of the unsettled status of the lawsuit, people on and off Wall Street believed that the trials had shown the octogenarian financier to be venal, cheap, and self-absorbed—a man who compared the acquisition of money without limit to the childhood hoarding of marbles.

Olivia Sage, meanwhile, had to live with her husband’s reputation.

* * *

In 1904, when Sage was 88, yet another lawsuit alleging sexual wrongdoing shook his marriage. A judge quickly tossed out the woman’s claim, but Sage never denied his guilt.

With Sage’s death in 1906 at the age of 90 from natural causes, he slipped beyond the reach of any decision in Laidlaw v. Sage. Sage’s passing also sprang Olivia from her confinement in a marriage to a wealthy man known for his aversion to charity and philanthropy. Even before Sage died, Olivia had been considering how to make good use of the vast fortune she would inherit. By the time Sage’s estate was settled, leaving her with $75 million (about $2 billion in today’s dollars), she knew what she wanted to do. Henry Norcross’s bomb and William Laidlaw’s lawsuit may have cast her husband as a parsimonious Scrooge, but Olivia could use his money to revise his legacy.

In short order, Olivia Sage went on a rampage of philanthropy that for years kept her on pace with the generosity of Carnegie and Rockefeller. Attaching her husband’s name to her charitable projects whenever possible, she funded Russell Sage Halls on college campuses across the country and donated money to women’s associations, religious organizations, hospitals and old age homes, animal protection groups, and civic causes. Perhaps the two most visible philanthropic creations of Olivia Sage that remain today are Russell Sage College, a women’s institution in Troy, and the Russell Sage Foundation, which revolutionized public improvement by using the new field of social work to reduce poverty and accomplish moral reform.

Sage’s legal nemesis, the disabled clerk William Laidlaw, died in 1911, having spent an agonizing period broke and alone in New York City’s Home for Incurables. A city newspaper reported that he was tormented during his final days by dreams of the bombing that maimed him for life. He seems to have received none of Olivia Sage’s charitable bounty.

* * *

Jack El-Hai is the author of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WW2 and The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness. He lives in Minneapolis.

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Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Brendan O’Connor