The police officers donned dark blue overcoats. Their bright brass buttons and badges glowed in the morning light. They gathered at the corner of Howard Street and Fifth Avenue. A captain barked orders, steam pouring from his mouth. Men stationed themselves at each exit of the luxurious new Androy Hotel.
The town was Hibbing, Minnesota. The date: January 4, 1922.
These police officers were about to conduct a raid. This operation came as a surprise to them. Not an hour earlier, these cops were conducting routine patrols on what was otherwise a normal Wednesday in the “iron mining capital of the world.”
Not only was this raid unexpected, but its motives were unusual. Police raids became common during the new national Prohibition law as officers sought to remove illegal alcohol from a fast-growing underground economy. But this raid had nothing to do with booze. Rather, it was about soup.
And by soup, I mean nitroglycerine.
The officers poured into the building seeking three men who were reportedly carrying suitcases full of explosives. Word spread rapidly throughout town, so frightfully that authorities felt they had to act quickly.
Some worried these men were anarchists or labor agitators. “Bomb-throwers” was the term used in the next morning’s Hibbing Daily News. Others may have guessed their aims based on recent news blared across the front page.
Mussolini’s black-shirted “fascisti” had gained power in Italy, capturing the attention of the town’s large Italian population. Meantime, the Ku Klux Klan made the front page of Hibbing’s two daily newspapers almost every day, inspiring the terrorist group’s growth across the country. A Klan rally would be held on the Range later that year.
Indeed, these dangerous characters at the Androy could have been any brand of fanatics. This made their presence all the more frightening to all who heard the rumors of these explosive suitcases. Each person imagined bombs in the hands of their worst enemies.
At once, the officers rushed into the hotel lobby, stopping and questioning each person they found. They checked bags and posed sharp queries to hotel staff and management. Each officer kept his right hand on a holstered gun as he darted about the facility.
This level of concern would prove unnecessary, however. Police found the men reclined on a divan in the lobby, the objectionable suitcases in plain view.
Here’s what really happened. Three traveling salesmen for the Dupont Powder Company had arrived in Hibbing from Wilmington, Delaware. The sleek new Androy Hotel offered much more than rooms and a restaurant. It also included a gallery where salesmen were encouraged to hawk their wares to passing crowds. This also provided a place for interested customers to meet specialty sales representatives like these guys.
Throughout the morning, mining contractors visited their booth. Each time, the men opened their grips to reveal samples of blasting power, caps, fuses and other goods associated with blowing the smithereens out of large rocks. Someone thought the men looked suspicious and an imaginary story quickly spread.
This was a different time. You might think it unusual that such men needed jars of actual explosives to make a sale. But just five years earlier, the U.S. Navy decided that a live torpedo made for an excellent recruitment tool. They even parked it outside a Hibbing theater showing a naval war picture. When some expressed concern that the ship-killing bomb might fall into the hands of the Industrial Workers of the World, the lone Navy recruiter agreed to wheel it inside at night.
Indeed, the story that prompted all this tension was fake. Nevertheless, these officers brandished real guns and the salesmen carried grips packed with real explosives. It’s not hard to imagine how this could have gone wrong. Fortunately, hotel manager Andrew Dolan produced evidence the men were who they claimed, and the officers stood down.
For language to exist, one person long ago spoke words understood by another. I presume, however, that ever since a third person learned the same words, gossip has been a part of human existence.
In the winter of 1922, gossip spread through town in an hour, passed on the lips of people walking down the street. Today it spreads on the vanguard of racing electrons.
In 1922 no one was hurt by this amusing, if mildly disturbing, situation. Rumors today, however, are no less threatening. False witness and imagined dangers arguably pose a greater threat. Stories like this no longer appear in the newspaper because police rarely reveal their own mistakes. Additionally, fewer newspapers report less news to fewer people. Instead, insidious assumptions are jabbed into our eyes from the phones we carry based on algorithms few actually understand.
This situation is no less a threat than a suitcase bomb. When we lose our ability to objectively check out claims before making a conclusion, we become subjects to every whim of an increasingly angry and misinformed mob.
If our object is to stop guns before they fire, and bombs before they detonate, we each bear tremendous responsibility for the information we share. The question of our times will be whether we can collectively handle this burden, or whether the bombs in our pockets go supernova.