A city in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike by Francis Russell

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A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike

by Francis Russell
A Book Review by Andrew Peralta

March, 2009

In his book, A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike, Francis Russell decides to take no sides on the issue but rather tell the tale that he feels is too forgotten within history books and ignored in the classroom. As a school age child during this time period, Russell remembers looking up to the police officers that strolled by his front yard, their uniforms demanding respect and their badges shining on their chest. Citizens saw these men as heroes in the community, people to be respected. Russell examines the events, history, politics, and social events of the time period that center around the Boston Police Department. He also explains of how the events of that terrible Tuesday in September raised Calvin Coolidge to higher office and dismantled any police department’s hopes of striking in a major city to this very day.

To further recount the drama that was the Boston Police Strike, Russell uses a number of sources. His research material included 32 novels and many scholarly papers. This period of history was also researched by using a number of primary sources. These include numerous articles from ten different newspapers, unpublished materials such as person papers, clippings of the Governor, Mayor and Police Commissioner, miscellaneous circulars, pamphlets, journals in the State House Library, annual reports of the police commissioner, Harvard class reports, and so forth. Most of these books were published in the thirty-five years or so ranging from 1935-1970, but also include books published in the 1800s up through the 1972. The author utilizes footnotes sparingly throughout the story, using them only to explain side notes or points that the reader might find interesting. Russell did not however, display where certain information could be found outside of this work. I do wonder if this lack of citing takes away from the accuracy of this book, but I do enjoy that the author seemed more interested in retelling the events, rather than proving points. Sources that are included illustrate the lives and viewpoints of Bostonians who lived through this turbulent time period that helped to shape our views on labor, civil servants, politics, and the extent that public safety needs to be in the forefront of everyone’s agendas.

A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike is organized in a chronological fashion. This meets Russell’s goal of personalizing the Boston Police Strike and seeing the issues at hand from many different point of views. He included the history of the Boston Police Department to the ramifications of the strike, the study of the characters involved and the run up towards the walkout, and the details of the terror that happened during those few days.

Mr. Russell begins with his personal reflection on the days of the strike, I am drawn to how his recollection becomes so personal and how this event that I learned from only a few lines in a history book, affected the entire community. He speaks of Mr. Fitzgibbon, an officer of Boston Police Force. This officer walked by his house everyday on his way back from his duty and inspired the children of the neighborhood to hopefully one day follow in his footsteps. He speaks of his father work in the State Legislature and how the events of the strike drew him to introduce the bill proposing the Massachusetts State Police. He talks of his parent’s fear of leaving the house during these few days and how it was the first time he had seen his parents scared of anything. And finally, he writes of the fourth grader sitting on his front step and seeing the Massachusetts State Guard line his street with their rifles and bayonets.

The section titled “The Year of Disillusion” discusses the economic and labor issues that surfaced in Boston after the First World War Whether it was the influx of workers into the work force when they have completed the service in the military and felt that their homeland owed them a job, the workers who “patriotically” worked for less while the war was being waged and now looked for the much deserved raise, or the fact that cost of living was rising and citizens were feeling the crunch, Bostonians were at a crossroad. The Communist party within the U.S. saw this as an opportunity and looked to push the labor movement of the time.

The Boston Police Force was not immune to these sentiments as they felt as though they have been taken advantage of for quite some time. As Russell discusses the history of the Boston Police Department, he speaks of Commissioner O’Meara, an Irish man who led the department in growth and management. He was greatly respected by the officers who he led and fought for their rights and wages. Towards the end of his tenure, the men looked the other way as he was unable to match their pay with the growing cost of living because he was one of them, above the political fray. This was not the case as a new commissioner, Edwin Curtis, a Yankee, continually overlooked officers needs such as work condition such as 80+ hour weeks, low wages, and dilapidated and pest infested station houses.

Curtis is not the only political figure that pushed the police force towards joining the American Federation of Labor. The mayor at the time was Andrew Peters, another Yankee and a gentleman that was more focused on the social aspects of the mayoral responsibilities as opposed to the actual governing involved. Seen as lightweight intellectually, Peters left the job for the months leading up the strike and ignored the problems as he vacationed through the summer. Calvin Coolidge, the Governor of Massachusetts at the time, was also discussed by Russell. He described Coolidge as a quiet, reserved, and scholarly man who, even with the support of the labor unions, supported the police commissioner with the idea that public officers do not have the right the strike.

This stand and lack of interest by the necessary parties angered the Police Department causing them to look into membership of the AFL. Boston was one of the first charters given to a police force and this through the civil leaders of Boston for a loop. Curtis decided to take a stand of this action and instituted Rule 35, section 19 of the rules and regulations of the police force which stated that no member of the force can join an outside organization. The two sides continued to posture on pay, hours, conditions, but most of all, over union representation. By the time Peters came back from his vacation, the two sides has come to an impasse and there was little the mayor could do to stop them.

Mayor Peters, who tried to politically take advantage of the situation, assembled a commission to study the problem and realized the terrible working conditions that the police force endured. While meeting at the Parker House, this committee offered a compromise that involved the force beginning their own union, without the AFL. This was denied by both the force, but more importantly, completely ignored by Commissioner Curtis. This set the stage for the largest police strike in national history. On September 9, 1919 at 6 p.m., the Boston Police Force walked off the job.

Russell describes the riots that took place on the Boston streets and simply mob violence. Without the fear of police interference, craps games began to shoot up all over town, a window was broken, a cigar shop looted, and general violence followed. People were robbed on the street and stores were destroyed. With a skeleton police force from those officers that stayed on, only the fear of brandishing weapons and shooting into the air broke up the mob. Even the next night, when Harvard and community volunteers (mostly Yankees) came to defend their city for the mob (mostly Irish), the threat of weapons seemed less persuasive.

It was not until Peters, and more importantly Coolidge, called out the Massachusetts National Guard, that the violence subsided and order returned to the city. Peters began the call, trying to take the politic advantage away from Coolidge, but the Governor took control as he called out the entire state’s militia and called on the Federal government for support if needed. Coolidge also backed Curtis in his decision to dismiss every officer that walked off the beat. This move, after the violence that was seen on the street, was seen as a hard stand against labor and positioned himself as a hardnosed, law and order type of governor.

Governor Coolidge used this public sentiment against the chaos involved in organized labor to help his political gains. In the coming Presidential election, Senator Warren G. Harding and the party leaders unexpectedly decided on Coolidge for Vice President. His reputation for decisive action and frankness appealed to the voter of our nation. Coolidge ended up finishing Harding’s term as he died in office and won the 1924 election with his victory over John W. Davis.

A City in Terror has helped to contribute to my background knowledge of the Boston area due to the importance of Boston in the Industrial Revolution and the labor movement of the early twentieth century. This text will help with my understanding of Boston and of the many locations that were addressed within. The State House, Governor’s Mansion, police station houses, and various halls throughout the downtown area will be of great interest to me as we tour the city. This book also addresses that the hotel that we are lodging, The Parker House, Room 29, was the location of meetings between the mayor’s representative and representatives of the Police Union and the AFL.

My ability to teach about the Industrial Revolution and the Labor Movement of the time period has been influenced greatly by this book. While I have always been interested in the inner workings of politics and social injustice, this particular event in history is something that was glossed over in the history classes. I now have many specific situations that I can share with my students on how even when people are mistreated and taken advantage of, case and point, the Police Department, responsibility must be taken when looking after your neighbor . I also have learned information about injustices of the time and how the conflict between Yankees and immigrants played a large part in the conflicts of the time.

In conclusion, I would enthusiastically recommend the book, A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike by Francis Russell. It is a well-written and strongly-referenced book that tells the story of Boston Police Strike. It shows the thoughts, politics, and fears of the people involved in this historical event and how the aftermath reflects the history of the White House and the current impact on labor union and rules. Through this book, Francis Russell allows us a glimpse of the idea that once you take an oath to protect, nothing can come between that oath and the obligation to the public. He showed what it would have been like to see our homes, businesses, and city threaten by an angry mob and how the worst in society can come out without protection from our neighbors.

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