Last week I featured the work of New York’s Mad Bomber. This week we look at another case where radical students turned a New York townhouse into a bomb factory. But this time, the bombers themselves were the victims.
Explosions in Greenwich Village
West 11th Street at the edge of New York City’s Greenwich Village is normally quiet. Expensive townhouses crowd the picturesque, tree-lined street. But shortly before noon on Friday, March 6, 1970, West 11th Street shuddered with a violent explosion. The blast came from the quaint townhouse at number 18, which began to burn furiously.
Authorities first suspected that natural gas leak had caused the explosion. But they quickly determined that the ruptured gas mains were a result of the explosion, not its cause. Besides, the blaze didn’t look like a natural gas fire. As Chief of Detectives Al Seedman later remarked, the townhouse burned “like an ammo dump.”
Sorting Through the Rubble
After the firefighters finally extinguished the fire, investigators began to sift through the ruins. They discovered an improvised bomb factory in the basement of the townhouse. Cathy Wilkerson, the daughter of the building’s owner, belonged to the radical-left Weather Underground. Unhappy with the limited success of Molotov cocktails, Wilkerson and some of her colleagues decided to use dynamite bombs instead. To make them especially lethal, the bombmakers packed the dynamite with roofing nails so that deadly shrapnel would accompany an explosion.
There was some disagreement later as to precisely what the bombers planned to target. One candidate was a scheduled dance for non-commissioned officers at nearby Fort Dix in New Jersey. Another was the main library of Columbia University. The dispute was largely academic since the “factory” blew up before the Weathermen could plant any bombs.
The investigation revealed that on March 2, someone using stolen identification bought two 50-pound cases of dynamite in rural Keene, New Hampshire. The dynamite ended up at 18 West 11th along with blasting caps and a 1916 37-mm antitank shell.
Two young people, 28-year-old Diana Oughton and 22-year-old Terry Robbins were assembling crude bombs in the basement. Neither Robbins nor Oughton had any experience handling explosives. Nor did they have even a rudimentary knowledge of electricity. Consequently, they failed to incorporate any safety features in their bomb circuitry. As they taped nails to sticks of dynamite something went wrong.
Perhaps the inexperienced Robbins had crossed wires but for whatever reason, a bomb prematurely detonated, killing the pair instantly. A third person, Theodore “Ted” Gold died when the building’s exterior collapsed onto him. Wilkerson and a fifth person, Kathy Boudin, escaped with cuts and bruises and went into hiding.
Wilkerson remained underground for a decade before she surrendered to authorities in 1980. Boudin also remained underground and continued her radical activities. Police arrested her in the aftermath of a botched armed robbery in Nanuet, New York.
The lot at 18 West 11th remained vacant for a few years but a new townhouse was built on the site in 1978. Although it blends well into the tony neighborhood, it has a distinctly different appearance from the 1840s Greek Revival architecture of the neighboring buildings. In 2012, it sold for $9.2 million.