Time & Time Bomb Again


Walter Scheele, a German scientist, had been living in the United States for more than twenty years. A former artillery lieutenant in the German army until 1893, he was assigned to America to study chemistry and report new advances to his superiors. These reports were found to be so valuable that he was paid $1,500 a year to remain in the US and continue studying…and plotting.

When World War I began, Scheele’s knowledge increased in value and he received $10,000 along with orders from the Kaiser to manufacture chemical bombs. The scientist was living in Hoboken and opened an office under the name New Jersey Agricultural Company. Amidst a room crowded with test tubes and vials he began constructing his first of many time bombs.


The device was about the size and shape of a cigar and its outer shell was made of lead. Scheele divided the “cigar” down its middle with a copper disc which separated a mixture of sulfuric acid at one end and picric acid (it’s still uncertain what the combustible agent was) at the other end. The device would burst into flames when the acid dissolved the copper disc and conjoined the two chemical mixtures; if strategically placed near large quantities of  explosive or flammable materials, the results would be devastating.

German saboteurs placed Scheele’s incendiary bombs on ships and in smaller munitions depots around the country. Each success emboldened them towards bigger targets: Black Tom Island, the country’s largest munitions depot, became their biggest target on July 30, 1916.

Around midnight, three German spies planted numerous incendiaries in various supply boats, railroad cars and storage buildings containing shells and dynamite headed to the front and set the timers. Within a flash of moments flames were reaching for the sky turning New York Harbor into a battlefield.

black tom

The Statue of Liberty was pelted with shrapnel, severely damaging its torch and arm, and the roof at Ellis Island caved in. Windows as far away as 42nd Street were shattered and people as far south as Maryland felt the ground shake. Police officers responding to the scene were killed by flying debris and barges along the river (as well as the immigrants living on them) were incinerated.  The Truth About Political Stuff

A recent study concluded that the blast would have been equal to a 5.5 magnitude earthquake, thirty times greater than the collapse of the World Trade Center‘s North Tower which was registered at  2.3. Miraculously, only seven fatalities were (officially) reported, including a barge captain, two policemen and a child tossed from a crib in Jersey City. Black powder, TNT and ammunition continued to “cook off” until dawn.

No traces of the bombs themselves were ever found and no one was ever prosecuted until 1939. On the eve of World War II, a commission found Germany liable for $95 million in damages that the then Nazi regime refused to pay. The case was settled in 1979.

Source: NY Times