How we Reacted to the Unexpected 75 Years Ago

A 1934 story from the International Herald Tribune:

Dynamite Found On Track

SPOKANE Discovery of a box of useless dynamite on the railway track two and a half miles southwest of this city led to special precautions being taken to guard the line over which President Roosevelt’s train passed this morning [August 4] en route to Washington. Six deputy sheriffs guarded the section of the line near which the discovery was made. The President’s train passed safely at 10 a.m. Officials are skeptical about the dynamite having any connection with a possible plot against the President.

Imagine if the same thing happened today.

Posted on August 5, 2009 at 1:46 PM23 Comments


James August 5, 2009 2:01 PM

Quick clarification, in case it is not clear from the title (the formatting is a little misleading) the story is from 1934, not that there was dynamite from 1934 found recently.

Tynk August 5, 2009 2:10 PM

They must have cut out part of the article, what happened in Congress that pushed through a bill outlawing all sales and possession of more then 1/4 stick of dynamite by non-law enforcement officials?

moo August 5, 2009 2:11 PM

Totally off-topic: I was on Slashdot today and the bottom of the page contained this randomly-selected quote:

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature… Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller

Clive Robinson August 5, 2009 2:14 PM

“a box of useless dynamite”

That is an interesting turn of phrase…

One you most defiantly would not hear today (especially in Boston 😉

Clive Robinson August 5, 2009 2:41 PM

On hunting for more information on the “box of useless dynamite” I came across this,

Looks like 120years ago today Spokane had a very very serious problem with a fire at railway ave that did considerable damage because the man in charge of the water system was out of town….

Also whilst hunting I found this,

So you can now “Beat Bruce” to one his tomorrows blog posts 😉

clvrmnky August 5, 2009 2:44 PM

@Clive, well a simple case of dynamite is pretty useless. Most dynamite, anyway (I’m no explosives expert.) There are all sorts of additional steps requiring cutting or piercing the top and inserting some sort of higher explosive that is used to actually arm it.

I suspect they were alluding to that in the article — that a box of dynamite is hardly a weapon, and is barely dangerous unless it is let to moulder in a damp environment for years.

I further suspect that the box simply fell off a work train that was shipping dynamite to some rail works somewhere.

Now, a proper bomb would have had the dynamite all wired up with blasting caps, along with a percussion cap on the track that was set to fire a timed charged that, at some train speed, would put the box right under the President’s car.

Al August 5, 2009 3:25 PM

I think the only difference today, is that the media would hype up the story and sensationalise that the police are putting the President’s life at risk, there would be a public outcry, followed by a public inquiry. Then in similar situations the Police would totally over-react.

Also, would the average train worker & local policeman have more direct / indirect working experience of dynamite than the equivalent actors today?

Guy August 5, 2009 4:30 PM

The dynamite that would have been found on the tracks by Spokane, WA in 1934 may have been defined as “useless” because it was exposed to the elements. If it had been in place for some time, the paper casings on the sticks were probably cracked and the interior material may have had water intrusion. While the dynamite would not have been rendered completely stable due to exposure, it may have been judged safe enough to justify not messing with it.

However, the primary composition of dynamite is nitroglycerin, which is extremely unstable. Dynamite can be detonated with a very small electrical charge or explosive (blasting cap).

Old sticks of dynamite can sweat. The sweat is nitroglycerin. Simple vibrations or rough handling can cause it to detonate.

My personal favorite explosive is C4, and I still have all my fingers.

John F August 5, 2009 5:12 PM

I can almost hear the conversation…

LE #1 “Look, there’s a case of dynamite…”
LE #2 “Don’t worry about it – it’s useless – there’re no wires sticking out of the box.”

Daniel Franke August 5, 2009 11:54 PM

In fairness, our track record since 1934 at keeping our presidents intact is only 83%. So perhaps this incident exemplifies somewhat less paranoia than is warranted.

Roger August 6, 2009 1:50 AM

At first it seems that way back in 1934, people were already doing security theatre and movie plots!

Either the explosives were part of an assassination plot or they were not. If not, then there was no point in sending deputies to guard a stretch of railway line. But if they were, then was still no point guarding the stretch of line where the explosives were found, since the attacker would simply attack at another part of the line, or use a different strategy altogether.

There are various more rational approaches, but whatever you did, you wouldn’t tell the Press because that would eliminate your advantage of having (possibly) detected a plot without the plotters knowing. So whatever appeared in the newspaper would omit the details — and back then, I suspect the Press would be more likely to play along.

Of course, your response would be informed by the details of the discovery: if it appeared to have been mislaid a long time ago, then perhaps security theatre is all that is warranted. However the description “dynamite ON the railway track” (emphasis added) is either inaccurate, or in itself conclusive proof of a highly malicious act — it is extremely likely that dynamite would explode when crushed by locomotive wheels.

stevelaudig August 6, 2009 3:33 AM

We saw it at the airport with homeless lunatic and his backpack with wires hanging out.

BF Skinner August 6, 2009 5:11 AM

@Clive “”a box of useless dynamite”

Good point Clive and one that I see people keep missing. If a vulnerability can’t be exploited by a threat to make an impact…it is ZERO risk and shouldn’t be controlled for.

Zorg: A case with four stones in it! Not one or two or three but four! Four stones! What the hell am I supposed to do with an empty case?
Aknot: We are warriors, not merchants.
Zorg: But you can still count. Look it’s easy. Look at my fingers, four stones, four crates, zero stones, zero crates! Pack everything up we’re outta here.
Aknot: [Mangalores hoist their guns with a roar] We risked our lives! I think a little compensation is in order.

Zorg: Oh, so you are merchants after all. Leave them one crate for the cause.

CGomez August 6, 2009 6:42 AM

People hadn’t yet realized the power of the future media to conduct on-air witch trials against those “who should have prevented it.”

If you are a local police chief and you don’t respond to every single thing, no matter how silly or stupid, what happens when you are an unfortunate victim of a random act of violence? You get pilloried, lose your career, and have to figure out how to support your family when no one else will hire you for your expertise.

Stop conducting the witch hunts and ruining people’s lives and they won’t overreact to make sure they’ve “done everything they could.”

dued August 6, 2009 7:16 AM

media in the US got crazy after the cold war, they like the paramilitary forces, needed some new devil to fight. Amy fischer only lasted for about 10 months, but was quickly followed by OJ who had the added element of race. always a rabblerouser. then the repuglicans got on the clinton bj thing. the media lost all sense of reasonable ness and is now the province of such as limbaughoriellydobbs types. Emotional stories can sell papers without trying very hard, to cover real issues and not do a one sided job as happend to gin up gwb’s hobby war and CNN’s ratings is hard. to simply rewrite whitehouse propaganda is easy. Thats all the media did during the bush debacle.

V August 6, 2009 7:47 PM

Imagine if the same thing happened today:

“Man arrested for reading blog post mentioning president and dynamite. Post’s author still on the run. Update at eleven…”

Neighborcat August 7, 2009 7:24 AM

I hope someone is following up on this incident. After all, 9/11 was preceded by an attack on the towers using explosives. Could the connection be more obvious?

Sure it was 1934, but terrorists ™, being villains, are very patient, and can often be found, shoulders hunched, rubbing their hands together with an evil anticipatory chuckle. It’s a dead giveaway once you know what to look for.


Forgotten History August 7, 2009 7:28 AM

That was an interesting time in the USA, 1934.

Major General Smedley Butler had a thing or two to say about a thing or two.

Given the context of that woefully neglected history, concern about the safety of FDR was not unreasonable.

Those that skip history are bound to repeat the class.

CGomez August 7, 2009 8:33 AM

All we have to do is refuse to be sensationalized. Stop responding when the media conducts a witch hunt to ruin people’s lives. Change the channel. Cancel the news subscription. Cancel the cable subscription. Vote out the representatives who hold committee hearings and demand a local police chief is fired and his life forever ruined.

Call and tell their staff specifically: I didn’t vote against you for any other reason than the sensationalism has to stop. I want someone who deals in facts.

It won’t be easy. It will take boatloads of one term Senators, Representatives, and Presidents (in the US) before they all get the message that the people want it to stop.

But I think most Americans don’t really want it to stop. I hear too many people make comments like, “Well why DIDN’T they check on the DYNAMITE! DON’T THEY KNOW THEY HAVE TO KEEP US SAFE?!? You HAVE to assume EVERY 911 call is DEAD SERIOUS!”

So in reality, our leaders, who we like to blame, are just reflections of the masses who vote for them.

Davi Ottenheimer August 7, 2009 1:26 PM

Just one event?

Is your point that we are smarter about risks today, or is it that we were smarter about risks back then? The story could be taken either way (as Daniel Franke points out above).

Here’s another example of how “we reacted to the unexpected” for a US President…with a different outcome:

“By the time Garfield died on September 19, his doctors had turned a three-inch-deep, harmless wound into a twenty-inch-long contaminated gash stretching from his ribs to his groin and oozing more pus each day.”

@ Forgotten History

“Those that skip history are bound to repeat the class”

Hmmm, remember the fear of terrorism in America during the 1880s? The testimony of Eugene Seeger (a carpenter from Chicago) included passages related to explosives that explained how/why dynamite was considered useless at the time.

Also see “Anarchy and anarchists: A History of the Red Terror, and the Social Revolution in America and Europe”
by Michael J. Schaack

dmx August 10, 2009 12:15 AM

It is funny how things have changed in perceptions.

As a teenager in the 80s, like many kids, I liked making things that blew up. Mostly just a few harmless chemicals and you ended up with a visually impressive but not particularly dangerous compression blast that we’d throw in rubish bins at school and blow the rubish up into the air.

I remember getting caught and having my parents dragged in, a world of pain there. But my dad confessed he did the same, and so did my grandfather (Although my grandfathers joke was “Here in Oz kids blow up the policemans letter box, back in belfast kids blow up policemen”). That said the clip around the ear I got for my father emphatically convinced me not to do that again.

And even police knew all about teenagers and cherry bombs, you’d get a clip around the ear and a warning not to do it again. A friend was telling me a while back that in the southern town he grew up in, it was practically a tradition to stick cherry bombs in the local cops letter box so he’d run outside and shake his fist at the pesky kids.

I don’t think its the same now. I still remember panic stories after 9/11 about “teenage terrorists on mad bombing sprees” leading to big man hunts against terrified 14yo boys. Almost certainly pesky kids blowing up letterboxes with cherry bombs.

Although kids really really need to understand that its not cool and very dangerous to go doing that sort of thing, teenagers will be teenagers, and its sad to think that an illconcieved juvenile prank can wreck a kids life with terrorism charges.

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