Allentown
68° F
Light Rain
Light Rain

Terrorism touches Easton

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Aug 17 2011 09:25:01 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2011 10:01:37 AM CDT
Easton post office
EASTON, Pa. -

Eighty years ago the world was not a very happy place.

Economic collapse brought on by the stock market crash of 1929 had led to global mass unemployment. In Germany alone, according to press estimates at the time, there were 5,349,000 unemployed. And at least some of them were beginning to pay attention to a crazy politician named Hitler whose little square brush mustache reminded Americans of movie actor Charlie Chaplin.

In Italy tourists had to admit that although he was a dictator and had abolished democracy, Fascist leader Mussolini finally had Italian trains "running on time." And deep in Soviet Russia millions were already dying from a man-made famine created by a quieter tyrant with a bushy mustache named Stalin. He claimed to be building a Communist utopia.

The clerks working at the general delivery department at Easton's U.S. Post Office on Wednesday, December 30, 1931 probably had other things on their mind that day than the world's politics. But tragically it was about to arrive at their post office window.

Shortly after 8:30 that morning a car, later described in the newspapers as a "small coupe," pulled up out front. Rev P.T. Stengele, a local pastor recalled seeing two men with packages emerge. A third, the driver, remained inside.

Twenty eight year old postal clerk Edward W. Werkheiser was immediately on his guard. These men he later told a colleague were clearly "foreigners" and as such, he felt, not to be trusted. They presented him with six packages, each 5 inches wide and 10 inches long, that were addressed to either Italian diplomats or high level members of the Italian-American press.

After a brief argument with each other over their change, the two men hurried out of the post office, into the car and were gone.

Werkheiser told his fellow clerk Arlington K. Albert the whole thing seemed odd. These men, he said, were probably gangsters attempting to send liquor through the mails, which was illegal under prohibition, then the law of the land.

Picking up one of the packages the suspicious postal clerk placed it on a scale to inspect it. Gingerly he began to lift the lid.

Werkheiser had barely gotten it open when a huge explosion shook the post office, smashing glass, and shattering his body. Fellow clerk John B. House, 26, who had been standing near Werkheiser, was thrown to the floor. His arms and one leg were blown off and one eye blown out. Both lived long enough to die in Easton Hospital hours later. The doctors there were convinced the explosions that took their lives were powered by either dynamite or nitroglycerin.

Clerk Clarence Keller suffered serious wounds and his fellow workers David Garis and Arlington Albert were also injured. It would be weeks before general delivery service in the Easton Post Office would return to normal.

The Easton Police were called in. Explosives expert Charles V. Weaver and Northampton County detective George J. Ryan arrived and ordered the remaining packages (two had apparently blown up) removed to an old quarry on South Delaware Avenue.

One of parcels was detonated without incident. When another failed to go off Weaver began to walk toward it. Without warning it exploded, wounding him so severely that he later died in Easton Hospital. Ryan and Easton police sergeant Frank Suess, though injured, survived.

The story of the Easton bomb blast quickly became national news. And when bombs with similar addresses were found in post offices in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio it became clear that a national campaign was under way by terrorists opposed to Mussolini's fascist regime.

Congressional hearings were launched and both pro- and anti-Fascist groups across America quickly were drawn in.

On January 2, 1932, Marquis Augustin-Ferrante, the Italian Consul-General in Philadelphia arrived in Easton, driving up in what the press called "his own high-powered automobile," for the funerals of Werkieser, House and Weaver.

As Italian nobility were not a common sight in Easton, and perhaps for security reasons, as he entered town, a motorcycle escort of city and state police accompanied the counsel general. At the funeral the Marquis conveyed the condolences of his government, declaring the men "among the bravest."

Ferrante had an American wife and two daughters. In 2008 a long secret document released by the British Foreign Office claimed that in 1935-36 the Marquis, then Italian consul on the British-held Mediterranean island of Malta, was "at the centre of Italian spying" on the British naval base there. His chief spy was his elegant beautiful daughter, Virginia, who was welcomed in the officers' clubs and at high society receptions.

Communists and anarchists were the top suspects in the Easton explosions. A police hunt was launched for them, particularly among the local Italian community. Two men, who were accused as Communist organizers by the police, were tracked to the Northampton County town of Roseto. But they proved to be innocent traveling salesmen and the trail ran cold.

Whoever the terrorists were, they covered their tracks well. If the bombers were ever arrested and prosecuted, it never made it into the local press accounts at the time or later. In 1936, when a similar bomb was discovered in Wilkes-Barre, local Congressman Francis "Tad" Walter called on FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to see if there were any links to the 1931 bombings. But the G-man could find none.

Gradually the Easton bombing faded from local memory. In 1986 two years before his death, Arlington Albert showed off the pants he had worn that day that were torn in the explosion. By then it seemed merely an interesting historical footnote.