Labor Day parades, rallies in favor of birth control and suffrage—Union Square in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was ground zero for demonstrations that advocated progressive causes and reform.
But only one rally turned deadly, thanks to a police-hating anarchist who brought a crude homemade bomb to the park in March 1908.
Selig Silverstein (also known as Selig Cohen), a Russian-born cloak maker and anarchist living on Van Brunt Street in Brooklyn, was attending the Socialist Conference of the Unemployed.
The gathering attracted 7,000 participants to Union Square. But the city had refused the group’s permit to hold a public demonstration.
So hundreds of policemen were called in to help disperse the crowds, reported the New York Times on March 29.
At about 3 p.m., just as the crowds had mostly been cleared out of the park, Silverstein, standing by the fountain, raised his arm to toss the bomb at a policeman—but instead it exploded in his hands, blowing his face and fingers off and mortally wounding him.
“In a moment all was pandemonium,” wrote the Times, adding that windows a block away rattled and shook, and pedestrians were “thrown to their knees.”
An innocent bystander lay dead, and parkgoers were driven to the surrounding streets by mounted officers.
Cops used their bully clubs on the crowd, and “the fleeing throng started in to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ and jeer at the police.”
Car traffic was stopped, visitors to the theaters that still existed on Union Square stumbled out the exits to find out what had happened. Rumors circulated that dozens of cops had been killed.
Silverstein, a member of the Anarchist Federation of America, ultimately died of his injuries at Bellevue Hospital two weeks later.
Before he did, however, he supposedly proclaimed, “I came to the park to kill the police . . . I hate them,” states New York at War, by Steven H. Jaffe.
[Photos: LOC; Find a Grave]