The Harvard Professor Who Shot a Financial Titan and Fomented Anti-German Sentiment in a Pre-WWI America

Readers on July 4, 1915 learned the story of a would-be assassin who said he was trying to keep the U.S. out of the European conflict

Would-be assassin Frank Holt, also known as Erich Muenter (Public Domain)
smithsonian.com

The breaking news of July 4, 1915, shocked New Yorkers and the rest of the country. A shooting at the home of America’s most powerful banker J.P. Morgan, the son of the financial giant (and tyrant) with the same name, exposed tensions that could barely be kept under wraps as the United States—with about 15 percent of its population born abroad—struggled to remain neutral in the the war tearing apart Europe.

On the morning of July 3, 1915, while Morgan and his wife, Jane—known as Jessie--took  breakfast with the British ambassador and his wife in the Morgans’ three-story mansion near Glen Cove on Long Island, their butler, Physick, opened the door to a lanky man who demanded to speak to the financier. When Physick demurred, the man pulled two guns from his coat and forced his way inside. Keeping his cool, the butler led the way to the library, allowed the intruder to enter before him and slammed the door shut before racing down the hall, calling for the Morgans to hide.

The Morgans hurried upstairs. The intruder, who later told the press his name was Frank Holt, realized that he’d been duped and quickly followed after them. Morgan and Holt came face-to-face on the second floor landing, and the bullish banker charged. Holt fired twice, and Morgan, who weighed about 220 pounds, toppled forward, knocking his assailant to the floor. Mrs. Morgan pried away one of Holt’s guns while he remained pinned beneath her husband. Physick arrived on the scene and finished off the job, striking Holt on the right temple with a lump of coal. Shot in the groin and thigh, Morgan was rushed to hospital while Holt was carted away to the police station.

The truth emerged quickly: Holt had set off bombs at the Capitol building in Washington D.C. on the evening of July 2, and had then taken the night train to New York. No one was killed or hurt, but the bombs unleashed considerable damage on the reception rooms outside the vice-president’s office. In a letter mailed to various newspapers ahead of the attacks, Holt claimed that he hadn’t intended to cause any harm; all he wanted, or so he said, was to bring attention to his cause. He justified his actions saying, “Unusual times and circumstances call for unusual means,” and offered similar reasons to explain his visit to Morgan, maintaining that he had hoped to “convince” the banker to use his “great influence” to halt the United States’ exports of arms and ammunition to Europe

When reporters asked Holt whether news of the Morgan Bank’s recent $100 million dollar loan to the British government had precipitated his actions, he replied: “That was only a detail … I had decided upon my course before that… You think my sympathies are pro-German. That is not the case. I am merely against wholesale slaughter.”

Given the public furor over the death of 128 Americans when a German U-boat sank the passenger liner Lusitania that May, and concerns that Berlin had dispatched saboteurs and spies to America, the press were predisposed to pile on with anti-German sentiment. In headlines that stretched across the front page of the July 4 paper, The New York Times reported: “J.P. Morgan Hit By Man Who Set the Capitol Bomb, Hit By Two Bullets Before Wife Disarms Assailants; He is Frank Holt, Ex-Teacher of German at Cornell; Physicians Say the Bullets Touched No Vital Spot.”

Stories and letters poured into newspapers questioning the loyalty of so-called “hyphenated Americans,” especially German-Americans, who were looked upon with suspicion in the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats earlier in May. The Times ran a story on page three on July 4: “Holt an American of German Descent,” describing him as a “rather reticent person,” but decidedly “pro-German.”

An editorial in the Herald attributed the act to “the preaching of… mouthpieces of the pro-German propaganda. If Germany had control of the seas, the shipment of these arms would be all right according to the creed of these German-Americans.” Another in the Tribune called German submarine warfare “inhuman,” and went on to say that “[n]ow the example has spread. German partisans in this country are beginning to take their cue from the barbarity and lawlessness of the German government.” Some, like the Denver Herald, veered on the side of moderation: “On this anniversary of the day of Independence we should also pray for a safe and sane press.”

The papers covered the Morgans sympathetically. After all, this was “Jack” Morgan, not his feared father (the first J.P. Morgan had died in 1913) and the Morgans had been waiting to welcome home their recently married son when Holt attacked.

It turned out that ‘Holt’ was an alias for Erich Muenter, a Harvard professor who had gone missing after police began to suspect him of murdering his wife in 1906. (As seen in the headline mentioned earlier, the reporters originally thought Muenter taught at Cornell.) The press then ascribed Muenter’s motive to temporary insanity and “cracked brains.” He had gone on to marry again, have a child and settle in Dallas. 

Despite his questionable mental state, Muenter was on to something when he targeted Morgan in his misguided call for peace. Historian Robert Zieger estimates that between 1915 and 1917, Morgan and Company and its subsidiaries bought more than $3 billion worth of goods on behalf of the Allies, and that by 1917, the Morgan financial juggernaut carried nearly a half-billion-dollars-worth of British debt. A study conducted by Britain’s Treasury Department in 1916 found that Britain was dependent on the United States for the financial ability to conduct the war, and other historians have estimated that without American financing, Britain would have exhausted its reserves of gold and securities by 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to keep the country neutral would eventually fail, but as the news of the Morgan attack hit the streets, American participation in World War I wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The resignation of Williams Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State a few weeks earlier may have moved the country one step closer to siding with the Allies but maintaining a cohesive national spirit amongst a divided immigrant population remained a priority. In New York City, Independence Day celebrations had been planned to welcome all comers and to foster a sense of American identity. A long weekend of festivities (the Fourth fell on a Sunday that year) included a naturalization ceremony at City College Stadium in which local and state officials welcomed 20,000 immigrants as U.S. citizens. Parades exuded patriotism in parks and playgrounds across all five boroughs, and special events extolled the virtues of the United States, such as movie screenings featuring the nation’s natural wonders sponsored by the League of Foreign-Born Citizens. It is a testament perhaps to the “safe and sane” voices that the U.S. only entered the war in 1917, almost two years after Morgan was shot.  

As for the banker and his attacker: Morgan recovered from his wounds and returned to business that August, while Muenter committed suicide just two days after the Fourth.

Radha Vatsal is a writer based in New York. She is the author of the recent novel A Front Page Affair.

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