The bombs we carry

The lobby of the Androy Hotel in Hibbing shortly after it opened in 1921. (Hibbing Historical Society, Paul Aubin collection)

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. 

Preparing dynamite at the mine. (Oliver Iron Mining Company)

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.

Androy Hotel staff (Hibbing Historical Society, Paul Aubin collection)

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. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Paul Marinkovich says

    Great article. I love these obscure history stories of the ranga

  2. Great reveal in humanity’s propensity to indulge the garish hawking of rumor and innuendo. Now to those who intentionally manufacture the same for their own ends. What did Bannon refer to it as …”flooding the zone with …” well you know. In this tale is also information that our world has not been all that careful with guarding against things that go boom. Yep. But in the end these days the danger is the efforts to “legalize” the booms anywhere at place. Thanks for the fun in knowing that the place where I got my got haircuts as a kid was the site of potentially a greater explosion then the booming of laughter in the barber shop.

  3. Your observations about the news media no longer being able or willing to do the work of finding out the truth about rumors and about mistakes made by authorities are on target.

    Back in the 1920’s, the police were not any more open about telling the truth than they are today; protection of their image and of individual officers were as central to the code for the police as they are now. The difference is that back in the 1920’s, every paper in the country and many ambitious radio news operations had a reporter assigned to “the police beat.” There was someone who devoted a large part of his day to keeping track of police activity and finding out about the details behind it.

    This is not to say that everything was reported. in most areas, the reporters were a party to keeping some things under wraps. Back when I was young, I met nurses and doctors who remembered the Friday and Saturday night rush at the ER of Black and Native men and women who had been beaten by the police for being “out of line” but hadn’t committed a crime that could be prosecuted. The weekly flood of head and facial injuries, broken bones, and internal injuries was something that the powers that be, including the press, didn’t want the public to see, so it was a secret known only to those who had to clean up the damage.

    But a major rush of police to the most luxurious hotel in town to conduct searches of rooms and guests would have been too juicy to ignore. The police openness about the raid would have been not so much based on an honesty not present today as on the knowledge that the story was going to be reported regardless and the desire of the police to get on top of the story and shape it to their advantage.

    The death of the news media is a major goal of authoritarian regimes everywhere. In the US, we’re letting financial forces — the combination of decline in advertising and of corporate owners burdened by debt and unburdened by any feeling of responsibility — do the work that at one time would have required secret police smashing presses and killing journalists but now occurs before our very eyes without causing a ripple.

  4. We call that calumny in my world. Calumny should not dictate how people communicate. The real issue is lying. People are free to speak the Truth. Of course, I never really had a cell phone or used one for much. Maybe it is different for technology? I would not know on account of the fact I am one of those people that just uses computers for watching movies and stuff. Speaking of that, we have a new season of Cobra Kai out this weekend. Cobra Kai is the best. I hope more people watch it because I don’t want them to ever stop making new seasons.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.