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‘Police Station Bomb of 1917’ Rocks Bay View

Robert Tanzilo’s book explores a piece of Milwaukee history

Jan. 10, 2011
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A troubled neighborhood as America entered World War I, Bay View numbered many Italian residents facing ethnic discrimination and zealous Protestant missionaries bent on converting them. They also included a circle of anarchists determined to destroy all authority. A march by the missionaries into Bay View triggered a deadly riot in September 1917. Two months later, a bomb was found in the Protestant mission; when a parishioner carried the bomb to police headquarters, it exploded, killing 10.

Milwaukee journalist Robert Tanzilo, whose side career has included several bilingual academic works on Italian immigration to the United States, published a book-length account of the Bay View riot and the ensuing bombing in Italian four years ago. Last fall, the History Press brought out an expanded English-language version, The Milwaukee Police Station Bomb of 1917.

How did you become aware of this incident?

I read a line about it in a history of Milwaukee and thought, “What was that about?” At the time I was a Milwaukee Sentinel sportswriter, and during downtime in the office I pulled reports from the paper’s library. With the basics of the whole story in front of me, I wrote an article on the 75th anniversary of the incident for the Sentinel.

And 18 years later you turned it into a book?

My interest kept growing. At first no one seemed to know anything about it, and that was really intriguing. You don’t read much about Italian anarchists in Milwaukee or Italian Protestants anywhere. Also, much of the story took place in Bay View in places that I know. The anarchist clubhouse is now the Cactus Club. It was close to home—not an abstract theme in an abstract place.

What is the relationship between your book and today’s reality?

First, people were quick to judge the defendants in the bombing trial based on ethnicity. Obviously, terrorism is still an issue. And then there is the pressure new immigrants face to conform.


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