On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.—Matthew 16:18
ANARCHISTS TRY TO BOMB ST. PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL
On Tuesday, March 2, 1915 Frank Abarno was surprised when a “scrubwoman” suddenly turned into a man and grabbed him by the arm. He had just lit the fuse of a bomb (one of two) he had planted under a pew in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Another man lurched forward and pinched out the fuse.
The men were part of a contingent of fifty disguised NYPD policemen who had been lying in wait. They had been tipped off by one of their own–undercover detective Emilio Polignani. Hundreds of worshippers were attending morning Mass which continued “entirely uninterrupted,” according to an article published in The Bowery Boys—New York City History.
UNDERCOVER WORK FOILS THE PLOT
Detective Polignani was twenty-five years old when he was designated to go undercover and mingle with anarchists. He had been a patrol officer for a mere four months when the boyish-looking policemen was fingered for the undercover assignment. According to a 1915 article in the New York Sun the young detective had “little by little… got acquainted with the anarchists” during his four-month undercover operation.
Within hours the 24-year-old Abarno confessed to the crime. His accomplice, eighteen-year-old Carmine Carbone who helped make the bombs was also arrested.
According to the New York Evening World, Abarno told detectives that two former archbishops were buried under the floor where he placed the bombs. “It was my hope,” he said, “that the explosion would open their graves and show the contempt we felt for them and their church.” He also related that four years before the bombing he “regularly went to Mass…at St. Loretta [Catholic church in New York City].”
THE ANARCHISTS, ABARNO AND CARBONE
“I…began to study anarchy…[then decided it] was the proper means of settling the wrongs of the poor.” [He grew to hate the church because] “it is the enemy of the poor…[and asserted he] spit in the face of nuns as they were leaving the church.”
Both Abarno and Carbone were linked to two previous New York City bombings—one at St. Patrick’s seven months earlier and another at St. Alphonsus. The two bombs exploded but fortunately no one was seriously hurt.
A month later the two men were tried. Their defense attorneys argued that their clients were entrapped by Detective Polignani. An article in the New York Tribune related that Abarno and Carbone:
“denied making the bombs [asserting] that Detective Polignani had [purchased and helped] mix the ingredients and…bought the steel rods used in their manufacture.”
ABARNO’S DEFENSE: THE COP DID IT
While Abarno admitted helping make the bomb, “[he asserted] he hadn’t lit the bomb [claiming] one of the [undercover] detectives [did it].” He also claimed Polignani “rented the room” in which the bombs were made and “retained the key.”
Abarno insisted that Polignani also threatened him when they arrived at the church and he expressed his concerns that what they were about to do was “inhuman but [Polignani] threatened me, and urged me on. I tried to turn and leave…but he pushed me.”
Additionally, Abarno testified that Polignani had
prompted him as to the responses he should make if arrested…[and once arrested] the police pushed him around…[and] told him if he admitted guilt he would get off.”\
Carbone asserted he had no “anarchistic inclinations until he met Polignani [who persuaded him to become one].”
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
On April 13, 1915, six weeks after the bombing attempt, Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone were found guilty “with a recommendation for mercy” by a jury that spent five hours deliberating. The jury’s recommendation for “mercy” suggests the jury was concerned about police overreach.
Just before delivering their verdict, the jury asked the judge for direction “as to the culpability of a police officer who was an accomplice in the commission of a crime.” The New York Tribune reported that the judge responded “the police in preventing a crime…is [frequently] obliged to assist in the preparation [of the] crime.”
The maximum sentence they could face would be twenty-five years.
Six days after the guilty verdict, according to the New York Evening World, the judge sentenced both men to a term of not less than six nor more than twelve years. The judge noted:
“the crime was directed against a church, a building dear to the hearts of many in the city [but]… there was something in the status of these defendants which called for a certain degree of clemency.”
TERRORISM AND JUSTICE, THEN AND NOW
There are a few secular takeaways from this story. Firstly, justice moved a lot faster in those days. Secondly terrorism was and is a constant threat to civilization. While terrorist causes may change, terrorism continues on. What is past really is prologue.
On March 17, 1915 New York City celebrated “the greatest St. Patrick’s Day parade [New York City] had ever seen,” reported the New York Tribune. Fifteen thousand men, women and children marched past the reviewing stand in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral which only two weeks before had been the subject of the bomb plot. Elsewhere in the city celebrants dined, danced and, of course, imbibed.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade was a thoroughly New World invention—the first being held in 1601 in St. Augustine, Florida—then a Spanish possession. New York City’s first parade was in 1762 while it was still a British colony.
ST. PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL AND JOE DIMAGGIO
St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s construction began in 1858 and in 1879 the completed edifice swept open its doors. At the time Archbishop John Hughes declared it would be “a public architectural monument [for]…the American continent.” It indeed is the most famous Catholic church in America.
Thousands of world leaders and dignitaries have visited and worshipped at the cathedral. One of its regular visitors was baseball great Joe DiMaggio. According to an article by Beliefnet’s Greg Kandra, DiMaggio “loved to celebrate [Mass] in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and felt [it] was more sacred than the Vatican.”
DiMaggio always used the 51st Street side door wearing sunglasses—believing he wouldn’t be recognized. Despite being banned from communion because of his divorces [Dorothy Arnold and Marilyn Monroe], he was a regular worshipper.
On one occasion after The Lord’s Prayer when parishioners extend their hands to one another offering the sign of peace, a man to his left, after muttering “Christ be with you,” asked DiMaggio to sign a picture for him. Kandra relates “Joe was flustered and flabbergasted…took out his sharpie” and signed the picture. He told the man he wasn’t sure that “Pope John Paul would be too happy if he knew I was signing my name across his forehead.” It was the last time he wore sunglasses in St. Patrick’s. In 1999, his funeral Mass was held there.