This Month Marks 100th Anniversary of Fatal Franklin Bombing

Alan R. Earls
Issue Date: 
February, 2019
Article Body: 

The world of 1919 was in some ways not that different from today...With the end of the “Great War” (World War I), America was again at peace but also bitterly divided...Inspired by the success of the Russian Revolution, socialists and anarchists in America hoped the same thing might happen here, while other Americans clung to the vain hope for a return to simpler times.
Franklin, then a small farming and manufacturing town, ended up “on the front lines” of this tense standoff.
On the evening of Feb. 28, 1919, four Italian-American anarchists decided to try to damage or destroy the Ray Mill of the American Woolen company (today, the Franklin Landing apartments on Union Street), where they were on strike. Unfortunately for them, something went wrong and the bomb they had constructed went off prematurely, killing all four men and bringing national attention to Franklin. Aside from the fatalities, the bombing mostly broke windows, notably of the homes on Ray Hill Road, where the men had lived; and human remains were scattered across a wide area.
One current resident remembers his grandfather recounting being in the Morse Theater at the time (on the corner of Summer and Central Streets). Around 8:30 in the evening, the building suddenly shook and though he wanted to put his arm around his future wife, he couldn’t – his future mother in law was playing chaperone and was seated between them!
In no time, Concetta DiChellis, a widow of one of the bombers, recalled that the town was full of police – “police were hanging from the trees.” Morbid curiosity seekers joined the crowds of police and medical examiners. And some local men were hired on a piece-work basis, to search the swamp adjacent to the mill and gather the scattered fragments of the bombers for burial.
Concetta herself was arrested and held for many weeks as the authorities tried to get information about the bombers and about any plans for future bombings. Mills in Franklin and other New England towns were placed under armed guard to prevent attacks and anyone with anarchist sympathies was under suspicion. In fact, within weeks, 36 letter bombs reached prominent Americans, deemed to be oppressors by the anarchists, killing several unintended victims– and in June, eight more large bombs went off in cities around the country.
While the attempted bombing in Franklin was not specifically linked to those other events, the underlying motivations were stoked and articulated locally. Luigi Galleani, one of the most prominent anarchists in the world at the time, had been living with his family in Wrentham and was well known to the four Franklin bombers – James Tarzin, Eustachio and Silverio DiChellis, and Dominic Palumbo.
In fact, all the bombings that year – including a devastating blast on Wall Street in September that killed 38 people – were credited to the “Galleanist” branch of the anarchist philosophy.
That summer, two of Galleani’s children graduated from Wrentham High School and he was deported to Italy, where his views quickly got him in trouble with the authorities --- especially, after 1922, with Mussolini.
In Franklin, life slowly went back to normal for most in town and many tried to put what had happened behind them. Concetta DiChellis moved to Malden with her young child to escape the accusing glares. Others moved out of state. One widow remarried and raised her children locally and some of her descendants still live in the area.
Galleani himself died in the early 1930s, but many in his family continued to follow a similar path. His eldest daughter became a medical doctor and not only helped anarchist causes but also pioneered in providing birth control information to women from her clinic in Boston – a legally risky activity. Galleani’s youngest daughter embraced communism, married a similarly inclined Irish playwright, and raised a family. They, in a now familiar pattern, ran afoul of American authorities in the McCarthy era; which led to his being blacklisted from work in Hollywood and a relocation of the family to the UK.
Today, their son – Luigi’s grandson – teaches the political philosophy of Marx and other radicals at the University of Kent.
In Franklin, the bombing is not well remembered. Many older Italian-Americans who grew up in the decades after the event have not even heard of it. But for a few, there are threads of recollection. One man recalls meeting his aunt Concetta when she was in her eighties and another person, related to an anarchist not directly implicated in the bombing, also knows the story well.
(Alan Earls writes and speaks about Franklin history. This article is based on a presentation given at the Franklin Historical Museum on Jan. 13, 2019)