No Rest for the Weary: Unemployment During the Great Depression

The Great Depression took much more than a crippling financial toll on the American people. Find out how unemployment during the Great Depression, propagated by an unfair system riddled with corruption and injustice, resulted in a man being accused of killing a poormaster.

| October 2012

Reflecting on a sensational, Depression-era murder trial, Killing the Poormaster (Lawrence Hill Books, 2012) by Holly Metz chronicles the events that lead up to—and follow—the death of Harry Barck, a poormaster who was granted the authority to decide who would and would not receive public aid in Hoboken, New Jersey. The conditions that plagued the American people during the Great Depression—massive unemployment, endemic poverty and the inadequacy of public assistance—still trouble our world today. Find out how the conditions of unemployment during the Great Depression, from denied bread tickets to brutal abuse from corrupted officials, lead the American people to their last straw. This excerpt is taken from Chapter 1, “Waiting for Nothing.” 

The morning the poormaster was killed, twenty-three men and women were waiting for him outside his office. Just a few weeks earlier, a nationwide recession had returned them to the desperation of the Depression’s early days, when millions had been forced to scavenge for scraps of food. Grim, already exhausted despite the hour, they lined the reception room and the walls of the narrow adjoining hallway. They waited to plead with Harry Barck for some bread tickets, or a check for a few dollars. Their spouses and children waited, too, on the other side of town from city hall, in tenement rooms gone cold and dark through unpaid bills.

The poormaster made quick work of the line that morning. In fewer than fifteen minutes he had dismissed six aid-seekers, not even bothering to fill in the section on his printed Relief Client list that called for the number of relatives dependent on each interviewee. “Next case!” the waiting men and women heard him shout each time his door was opened by a rejected applicant. “Next!”

Around 9:30, at the sound of the interior door suddenly yanked ajar, sixteen men and women turned their heads expectantly, listening for the seventy-four-year-old poormaster’s customary dismissal of the last applicant and his summoning of the next. Instead, there was a woman’s indistinguishable shouting and the huffing sound of someone moving quickly. Young, dark-haired Lena Fusco rushed from Barck’s inner office into the reception room penned in wood and pebbled glass. The towering, thickset poormaster followed immediately behind her, pausing to wipe the woman’s spit from his face before summoning patrolman Thomas Carmody. The officer had been posted in the hallway ever since an altercation between Barck and a relief applicant two weeks before.

“Lock her up!” Barck ordered Carmody, who grabbed Fusco’s elbow as she swore in an Italian dialect he didn’t understand. The elderly poormaster’s face was colored with anger, and flecks of the woman’s spit were splattered on his tweed suit. He had removed his round, wire-frame glasses. “Take her out!” he demanded. Then he added, starkly, “I won’t give her any more [bread] tickets.

The clutch of aid-seekers outside Barck’s door would have known what that meant: the only person who could approve aid to Lena Fusco had just cut her off.