Big Jim and Black Tom - An Irishman’s Diary about an attack on America in 1916

Jim Larkin was in New York when a massive munitions explosion caused huge damage

Writing last week about the San Francisco bombing of 1916, for which the Irish-American labour activist Tom Mooney was framed, I mentioned in passing another like-minded member of the diaspora, Jim Larkin.

Larkin too might have been implicated, because he was touring the US at the time and had been in regular contact with the accused just before the attack.

In the event, he was to play a big role in Mooney’s marathon campaign for justice.

Those were dangerous times in America because this weekend marks another centenary of another explosion there: this time on the east coast, in New York harbour. And extraordinarily, Larkin was again part of the backdrop.


Just after 2am on July 30th, 1916, he was walking along Broadway in Manhattan, when the city was rocked by an explosion at a munitions plant on Black Tom Island, near the Statue of Liberty.

The result had the force of the earthquake, measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, and was felt for a radius of 90 miles. A rain of shattered windows fell all over Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Ellis Island had to be evacuated.

Debris attached itself to the skirts of Lady Liberty, and did sufficient damage to her torch – then a viewing platform – that it has never been reopened to the public.

Property damage

Property damage was vast. The death toll, by contrast, was remarkably light – fewer than the 10 who had perished in San Francisco.

Again, Larkin had nothing to do with the attack. But in this case, he had a good idea who might have. Since arriving in the US, he had been playing a dangerous game with Germany, which was funding his anti-war activities.

And although by his own account, he always stopped short of active sabotage, he knew enough about the Black Tom incident to feature in its legal denouement many years later.

The summer of 1916 was in general a traumatic time for Larkin. He had been shocked – and upstaged – by the Easter Rising. And being a man with a big ego as well as strong principles, he had especially mixed feelings about the martyred fame of his former comrade James Connolly.

An incident at a public meeting in Chicago in late May 1916 suggests his volatile mood. It was precipitated by a Polish speaker who had accused the British authorities in Dublin of murder, but who was then heckled by one Matthew Thomas Newman, who called the comments “bally bunk” and “drivel”.

The setting was an opera house, and there was something operatic in the effect of Newman’s provocation, as reported in the New York Times: “Larkin, who was sitting far back on the stage, arose, and in a frenzy of anger, ran to the footlights. He jumped, clearing the orchestra and a high brass railing with apparent ease. A woman in the back of the theatre shrieked. When she started down the aisle she was recognised as Mrs Larkin. ‘Be careful what you do to him!’ she shouted to her infuriated husband. ‘Jim, Jim! Think!’”

Big Jim

Perhaps moderated by her intervention, Larkin settled for grabbing Newman by the throat, ripping his collar off, and then dragging him to the exit and ejecting him, after which the meeting resumed.

That may have been as far as Big Jim’s commitment to the physical force tradition took him in the US, but he was certainly in close contact with those who went further.

During his subsequent years there, he worked tirelessly to reverse the miscarriage of justice that had first sentenced Mooney to death, and later life imprisonment. The campaign finally succeeded in 1939, by which time Larkin was long back in Ireland.

Meanwhile, as in San Francisco, the perpetrators of the Black Tom Island incident had also gone unpunished, although it was beyond doubt eventually that they were German saboteurs. The legal struggle in that case centred on the attempt to hold their country responsible for compensation.

To this end, it was necessary to tie the incident to official German policy. This was impossible for many years. But in 1934, lawyers persuaded Larkin to swear an affidavit naming names and linking them to events of the period.

He testified to having known of German plans to attack munitions on Black Tom Island. He further claimed that, later in 1916, in Mexico, he had heard agents boasting of their role in the attack.

The affidavit helped tip the balance of proof, and the by-now-Nazi Germany finally admitted liability, to the tune of $50 million.