Black Tom explosion

Coordinates: 40°41′32″N 74°03′20″W / 40.69222°N 74.05556°W / 40.69222; -74.05556
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Black Tom explosion
Part of United States entry into World War I
Black Tom pier shortly after the explosion
LocationJersey City, New Jersey, U.S.
Coordinates40°41′32″N 74°03′20″W / 40.69222°N 74.05556°W / 40.69222; -74.05556
DateJuly 30, 1916
2:08:00 a.m. (EST; GMT−5)
Attack type
State-sponsored terrorism
PerpetratorsImperial German agents

The Black Tom explosion was an act of sabotage by agents of the German Empire, to destroy U.S.-made munitions that were to be supplied to the Allies in World War I. The explosions, which occurred on July 30, 1916, in New York Harbor, killed at least four people and destroyed some $20,000,000 ($560 million in 2024 dollars) worth of military goods.[1][2] This incident, which happened prior to U.S. entry into World War I, also damaged the Statue of Liberty.[3] It was one of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions in history.

Black Tom Island[edit]

colour map
Black Tom Island, lying off Jersey City, 1915.

The term "Black Tom" originally referred to an island in New York Harbor next to Liberty Island. The island was artificial, created by land fill around a rock of the same name, which had been a local hazard to navigation.[4] Being largely built up from city refuse, it developed a reputation as an unseemly environmental hazard.[5] On January 26, 1875, an accidental explosion in a powder factory killed four people.[6] By 1880, the island was transformed into a 25-acre (10 ha) promontory,[7] and a causeway and railroad had been built to connect it with the mainland to use as a shipping depot.[8] Between 1905 and 1916, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which owned the island and causeway, expanded the island with land fill, and the entire area was annexed by Jersey City. A 1 mi (1.6 km)-long pier on the island housed a depot and warehouses for the National Dock and Storage Company. Black Tom Island is now part of Liberty State Park.

Black Tom was a major munitions depot for the northeastern United States. Until April 6, 1917, the United States was neutral in respect to World War I and its munitions companies earlier in the war could sell to any buyer. Due to the blockade of Germany by the Royal Navy, however, only the Allied Governments were able to purchase American munitions. As a result, Imperial Germany sent spies to the United States to disrupt by any means necessary the production and delivery of war munitions that were intended to kill German soldiers on the battlefields of the Great War.[9]


View of the Lehigh Valley pier after the explosion.
Wrecked warehouses and scattered debris after explosion.

On the night of the Black Tom explosion, July 30, 1916, about 2,000,000 pounds (910,000 kg) of small arms and artillery ammunition were stored at the depot in freight cars and on barges, including 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of TNT on Johnson Barge No. 17.[10] All were waiting to be shipped to Russia.[11] Jersey City's Commissioner of Public Safety, Frank Hague, later said he had been told the barge was "tied up at Black Tom to avoid a twenty-five dollar charge".[12]

After midnight, a series of small fires were discovered on the pier. Some guards fled, fearing an explosion. Others attempted to fight the fires and eventually called the Jersey City Fire Department. At 2:08 am, the first and largest of the explosions took place, the second and smaller explosion occurring around 2:40 am.[13] A notable location for one of the first major explosions was around the Johnson Barge No. 17, which contained 50 tons of TNT and 417 cases of detonating fuses.[14] The explosion created a detonation wave that traveled at 24,000 feet per second (7,300 m/s) with enough force to lift firefighters out of their boots and into the air.[14]

Fragments from the explosion traveled long distances: some lodged in the Statue of Liberty, and other fragments lodged in the clock tower of The Jersey Journal building in Journal Square more than 1 mile (1.6 km) away, stopping the clock at 2:12 am.[15] The explosion was the equivalent of an earthquake measuring between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter scale[12] and was felt as far away as Philadelphia. Windows were broken as far as 25 miles (40 km) away, including thousands in Lower Manhattan. Some window panes in Times Square were shattered. The stained glass windows in St. Patrick's Church were destroyed.[16] The outer wall of Jersey City's City Hall was cracked and the Brooklyn Bridge was shaken. People as far away as Maryland were awakened by what they thought was an earthquake.[17][18]

Property damage from the attack was estimated at $20,000,000 (equivalent to about $560,000,000 in 2023). On the island, the explosion destroyed more than one hundred railroad cars, thirteen warehouses, and left a 375-by-175-foot (110 by 50 m) crater at the source of the explosion.[13] The damage to the Statue of Liberty was estimated to be $100,000 (equivalent to about $2,800,000 in 2023), and included damage to the skirt and torch.[19]

There were four confirmed fatalities in the explosion:[20][1] the barge captain,[21] Jersey City Police Department officer James F. Doherty,[22][21] Lehigh Valley Railroad chief of police Joseph Leyden,[23][24] and ten-week-old infant Arthur Tosson. One contemporary newspaper report estimated as many as seven deaths in the attack.[25] Immigrants being processed at Ellis Island had to be evacuated to Lower Manhattan.


Newspaper headline about the Black Tom explosion.

Soon after the explosion, two watchmen who had lit smudge pots to keep away mosquitoes were questioned by police but the police soon determined that the smudge pots had not caused the fire and that the blast had likely been an accident.[26] President Wilson remarked of the incident that it was "a regrettable incident at a private railroad terminal",[27][28] and Edgar E. Clark of the Interstate Commerce Commission was dispatched to investigate.[29]

Soon afterward, a Slovak immigrant named Michael Kristoff was suspected,[30][31] Kristoff would later serve in the United States Army in World War I, but admitted to working for German agents (transporting suitcases) in 1915 and 1916 while the U.S. was still neutral. According to Kristoff, two of the guards at Black Tom were German agents.[citation needed]

It is likely[according to whom?] that the bombing involved some of the techniques developed by German agents working for Ambassador Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, who acted covertly as a spymaster while using German Foreign Office cover, and Captain Franz von Rintelen of the intelligence wing of the German Imperial Navy, using the cigar bombs developed by Dr. Walter Scheele [de].[32] Von Rintelen used many resources at his disposal, including a large amount of money.[26] Von Rintelen used these resources to make generous cash bribes, one of which was notably given to Michael Kristoff in exchange for access to the pier.[26] German intelligence operatives Kurt Jahnke and Lothar Witzke were then suspected, and are still judged as responsible legally.[33][34] It is also believed that Michael Kristoff, a 23-year-old Austrian immigrant who'd served in the U.S. Army, was responsible for planting and initiating the incendiary devices that caused the explosions.[35]

Additional investigation by the Directorate of Naval Intelligence also found links to some members of the Irish republican Clan na Gael organization and far-left organizations.[36][37] Irish socialist and labour union leader James Larkin asserted that he had not participated with sabotage, but admitted to having encouraged work stoppages and strike actions in munitions factories, in an affidavit to McCloy in 1934.[38][39]

The United States did not have an established national intelligence service, other than diplomats and a few military and naval attaches, making the investigation difficult. Without a formal intelligence service, the United States only had rudimentary communications security and no federal laws forbidding espionage or sabotage except during wartime,[3] making the associations with the saboteurs and accomplices almost impossible to track.[citation needed]


This attack was one of many during the German sabotage campaign against the neutral United States, and it is notable for its contribution to the shift of public opinion against Germany, which eventually resulted in American approval for participating with World War I.[3]

The Russian government[40] sued the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company operating the Black Tom Terminal on grounds that lax security (there was no entrance gate; the territory was unlit)[41] permitted the loss of their ammunition and argued that due to the failure to deliver them the manufacturer was obliged by the contract to replace them.[11]

After the war, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, advised by John J. McCloy, sought damages against Germany by the Treaty of Berlin from the German-American Mixed Claims Commission. The Mixed Claims Commission declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had been responsible and awarded $50 million (the largest claim) in damages, which Nazi Germany refused to pay.[42] The issue was finally settled in 1953 for $95 million (interest included) with the Federal Republic of Germany.[43] The final payment was made in 1979.[44]

The Statue of Liberty's torch was closed to the public after the explosion, due to structural damage.[45][46] Access was not opened even after the 1984–1986 restoration which included repairs to the arm and installation of a new gold-plated copper torch.[47]

Kurt Jahnke escaped capture. He later served as an Abwehr agent during World War II. Jahnke worked as intelligence advisor to Walter Schellenberg. He and his wife were captured by Soviet SMERSH agents in April 1945 and interrogated. In 1950, Jahnke was put on trial as a spy, found guilty, and executed the same day.[48]

Witzke was arrested at the Mexican border on February 1, 1918, near Nogales, Arizona. Officials were not prosecuted for the bombing, but prosecuted him as a spy. A military court at Fort Sam Houston found him guilty of espionage and sentenced to death by hanging. While in custody, he tried to escape twice, once succeeding, albeit he was recaptured the same day. On November 2, 1918, Witzke's death sentence was approved by the Department Commander. However, he was not executed due to the November Armistice. In May 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted Witzke's sentence to life in prison. In September 1923, Witzke, due to heroic conduct in prison and pressure for his release by the Weimar Republic, was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge, and deported to Germany. Upon his arrival, Witzke was awarded the Iron Cross, First and Second Class, by the Reichswehr. Witzke later joined the Abwehr, and after World War II, lived in Hamburg. He was a monarchist who represented the German Party in the Hamburg Parliament from 1949 to 1952. Witzke died in 1961.

Kristoff was arrested by the Jersey City police on suspicion of involvement in the blast, but later released due to a lack of evidence. Over the next several years, he drifted in and out of prison for various crimes. Kristoff died of tuberculosis in 1928.[49]


The Black Tom explosion resulted in the establishment of domestic intelligence agencies for the United States.[50] The then Police Commissioner of New York, Arthur Woods, argued, "The lessons to America are clear as day. We must not again be caught napping with no adequate national intelligence organization. The several federal bureaus should be welded into one and that one should be eternally and comprehensively vigilant."[51] The explosion also played a role in how future presidents responded to military conflict. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Black Tom explosion as part of his rationale for the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.[51] In an interview with Jules Witcover, McCloy noted that as assistant secretary of the navy for President Wilson, Roosevelt "knew all about Black Tom". At the time President Roosevelt said to him: "We don't want any more Black Toms".[52][53]

The incident also influenced public safety legislation.[50] The sabotage techniques used by Germany, and the United States' declaration of war on Germany, resulted in the creation of the Espionage Act, which passed by Congress in late 1917.[3] Landfill projects later made Black Tom Island part of the mainland, and it was incorporated into Liberty State Park.[27] The former Black Tom Island is at the end of Morris Pesin Drive in the southeastern corner of the park, where a plaque marks the spot of the explosion. A circle of U.S. flags complements the plaque, which stands east of the visitors' facility.

The inscription on the plaque reads:

Explosion at Liberty!

On July 30, 1916 the Black Tom munitions depot exploded rocking New York Harbor and sending residents tumbling from their beds.

The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Maryland and Connecticut. On Ellis Island, terrified immigrants were evacuated by ferry to the Battery. Shrapnel pierced the Statue of Liberty (the arm of the Statue was closed to visitors after this). Property damage was estimated at $20 million. It is not known how many died.

Why the explosion? Was it an accident or planned? According to historians, the Germans sabotaged the Lehigh Valley munitions depot in order to stop deliveries being made to the British who had blockaded the Germans in Europe.

You are walking on a site which saw one of the worse [sic] acts of terrorism in American history.[54]

A stained-glass window at Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic church memorialized the victims of the attack.[55]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]