Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

Wall Street's Bad, Bad Fall

Oct. 29, 1929

Reports of suicides have been grossly overstated. But it was a day that shredded fortunes. The preceding week had already seen such huge waves of panic selling that Police Commissioner Grover Whalen stationed an extra 500 cops on the increasingly rowdy streets of New York City's financial district. On Oct. 29, the panic that had possessed speculators and individuals was joined at the opening bell by traders for giant institutions. Blue chips like Standard Oil and Westinghouse gapped lower on massive trading volume. On a whim, a messenger bid for 100 shares of White Sewing Machine at $1—and in the absence of any other buyers, got it. The stock had been as high as $48 some months earlier. The heads of New York's biggest banks had pledged $20 million each to support prices. But at a noonday meeting, they concluded that they could not stop the declines. In fact, one of the bankers, Albert Wiggin of Chase Bank, in a personal account had quietly sold the market short. The Dow would ultimately fall 89% — 12% the day of the crash—ushering in the Great Depression.