No Rest for the Weary: Unemployment During the Great Depression

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Cover Courtesy Lawrence Hill Books
In “Killing the Poormaster,” author Holly Metz explores the social and political circumstances surrounding a poormaster’s death and how it brought national attention to the degradation suffered by the jobless and poor during the Great Depression.

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.

Not that this power was new. Harry Barck had been Hoboken’s gatekeeper of poor relief for forty-two years, and like local officials in municipalities, townships, and counties all across the country, he had been authorized to determine how much aid was to be granted the destitute of his region. And Barck and his colleagues were not inclined to be charitable. Harsh treatment of the jobless poor had been, from colonial times, a deterrent against claims on public funds, as well as an established expression of community disapproval. Local politicians had long extolled their poormasters’ meanness, portraying it as both a benefit to taxpayers and a way for the poor man to regain self-worth. “Under the philosophy of this ancient practice, the applicant is in some way morally deficient,” protested Harry L. Hopkins, who sought to eradicate that notion when he became federal emergency relief administrator during the Great Depression. Despite cycles of economic downturn and unemployment during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local overseers had maintained, as their predecessors had done, that work was always available for any able-bodied man who truly wanted it. If a man was poor, they insisted, he had only himself to blame: he drank too much or he was lazy.

Even when the Depression struck and made millions of men and women jobless, traditional overseers like Harry Barck persisted with their entrenched beliefs and practices. During a cross-country tour of local relief offices commissioned by Hopkins, writer Lorena Hickok repeatedly encountered these hardliners and noted with disgust their habitual withholding. Aid-seekers in Calais, Maine, she reported, were subjected to treatment that was “almost medieval in its stinginess and stupidity.” More than two thousand miles away, Hickok had found more of the same. “They think there is something wrong with a man who cannot make a living,” she wrote of relief administrators in Bismarck, North Dakota. “They talk so much about ‘the undeserving’ … “

But the knowledge of shared misery would not likely have comforted the Hoboken relief applicants who waited for the poormaster that February morning. All who heard Harry Barck’s sharp retort to Lena Fusco would have been able to picture its consequences. Without Barck’s authorized tickets for day-old bread or a grocery order from his office–a check, to be redeemed at a specific local store for explicitly prescribed portions of rice, meat, coffee, vegetables, or milk–Fusco’s survival, and the survival of her children, would be left entirely to chance, and their odds were pitiful. Every day, for lack of supplies to meet the ever-increasing need, hungry men and women were turned away from Hoboken’s few clergy-run soup kitchens. And Fusco’s family was already near ruin. Her three children had rickets. Her husband spent his days lining up with thousands of other men to apply for jobs that didn’t materialize. The family had no savings, no money even for necessities such as kerosene for the single stove they used for cooking and heat. When one of the Fuscos’ children had outgrown her clothes, Lena had salvaged an empty flour sack and covered her. When she could find no substitute for stockings, her children had gone without.

Just a few years earlier, it must have seemed to unemployed workers and their families that the “new deal” offered by their newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would dispel such misery. Certainly they had seen the failure of local relief efforts. When the Great Depression had taken hold, needy applicants had swiftly overwhelmed private and public aid offices nationwide, and most agencies were virtually bankrupt by the time of Roosevelt’s inaugural. But under the new administration, the federal government had become–for the first time–directly involved in the distribution of poor relief. And aid, mercifully, had come quickly. Within one month of the passage of the Federal Emergency Relief Act in 1933, Hopkins, as the federal relief agency’s new administrator, ushered through grants to forty-five states, keeping millions of people from destitution.

And then, almost as suddenly as that intervention had been initiated, it was terminated. By 1935 the federal government had essentially withdrawn from what the president called “this business of [direct] relief.” In its stead came “work relief” through the Works Progress Administration, a public works program. For as Roosevelt explained, jobs created by the government would “preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed, but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.”

But for most of the jobless, the promise of work relief went unfilled. There were simply not enough WPA jobs for all of the able-bodied and unemployed–not in Hoboken, not in cities and towns all across the United States. The vast majority of those eligible for work relief could not get it. And though the states were meant to pick up responsibility for “the dole” when the federal government withdrew, most could not do so adequately. California and Texas offered needy families less than “a subsistence budget.” Some states offered nothing.

In 1936 New Jersey abolished its direct relief program, shunting responsibility for the “employable unemployed” to hard-hit municipalities and to public agencies administered by local poormasters. For Harry Barck, it meant the restoration of his uncontestable power to grant or to refuse assistance. He returned to authority with vigor, cutting off aid. His New Jersey colleagues proved to be stingy when they, too, resumed control–the average relief family was made to live on about half the minimum amount required for mere survival–but Harry Barck denied more, with swifter actuation, than any of his fellows. Within a few weeks of his return to complete command, the Hoboken poormaster had slashed relief rolls from two thousand cases–representing more than seven thousand jobless men, women, and dependent children–to ninety, insisting to incredulous reporters that most applicants were “chiselers.”

Barck’s cast-off relief clients could not expect much from state bureaucrats. Although New Jersey had been the second state, after New York, to set up an emergency relief administration in 1931, Trenton only allowed municipalities to apply for reimbursement of a percentage of their relief costs if they first met the state’s standards for adequate relief. Hoboken would do neither. County officials, no longer involved in the distribution of aid, declared themselves powerless to intervene–though several, including the Hudson County supervisor, went on record to object to Barck’s purging of clients and his drastic cuts in relief to those who remained on the rolls. “You cannot keep a family of nine alive with $1.90 worth of food orders a week,” the supervisor complained. “The great majority of people on relief today are respectable working people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. They would rather have jobs than relief, but they must live.”

“I’m in favor of giving the old American pioneer spirit a chance to assert itself . . . ,” Barck replied, adding that the lack of any rebellion in response to his actions was proof that he had been right to cut off aid to so many. There had been no food riots or public disturbances in Hoboken, he’d boasted to reporters–not like other places.

For the unemployed had taken to the streets from the earliest days of the economic crisis. They had orchestrated “hunger marches” to state capitols and rallied for aid at relief centers and municipal buildings across the country. In Chicago, organized groups initiated “rent riots,” countering evictions by reversing landlords’ curbside dumping of delinquent renters’ furniture. In New York City–just a brief ferry ride across the Hudson River from Hoboken–over a hundred thousand demonstrators crowded Union Square to call for relief.

Though leftists often organized their public meetings, jobless protestors included in their ranks penniless Americans of every political stripe. They were mostly peaceful, but reaction to them, fueled by fear of their potential to upturn the established order, was not. On one march to Capitol Hill, three thousand marchers were detained on a highway, while jeering, armed policemen, empowered by their superiors to “open fire” on insubordinates, dared the marchers to leave their enforced encampment.

Some relief officials and politicians responded to demonstrators as nineteenth-century industrialists had reacted to trade unionists: they called in squads of police to brutally subdue them. But such confrontations made reporters take notice of the protestors’ demands. “Bleeding heads converted unemployment from a little-noticed to a page one problem in every city in the United States,” one writer later noted. “No one could any longer afford to ignore it.” Aid was then stepped up, to quell dissent. Later in the Great Depression, a survey of relief officers in New York City determined that when organized groups of jobless men and women shouted demands and picketed relief bureaus, administrators readily made concessions.

But that was not about to happen in Hoboken–there would be no demonstrations to receive widespread attention, no ground to be gained by anyone who disagreed with the way things were done in the city. For what Harry Barck did not say to reporters when he’d noted the absence of street protests in Hoboken was that Mayor Bernard McFeely, known to all as “Boss,” did not tolerate dissent in his city.

Though many in Hoboken whispered that the city’s true boss was the chief of police–who also happened to be the mayor’s brother Edward– Boss McFeely had earned his title. He had followed the direction of other urban bosses–cunning men who ruled cities and states after the Great War. And like them, he had outfoxed, bullied, enticed, or beaten all who stood in his path. Across the country, tin pot municipal dictators had seized control of local governments weakened by public apathy and postwar cynicism: Tom Pendergast in Kansas City, Ed Crump in Memphis, Jim Curley in Boston, and, in neighboring Jersey City, Frank Hague. Through his ability to deliver hundreds of thousands of votes, the blustery Jersey City mayor was the state’s ultimate wirepuller. He commanded power over New Jersey legislators, judges, and governors; and Boss Hague’s political sway and attention-grabbing suppression of free speech and assembly in his own city had kept reporters from troubling much with goings-on in Hoboken.

“Barney” McFeely, like some of the other reigning urban bosses, had found opportunity in the widespread lawlessness of the Prohibition era. These men steered elections and often enriched themselves and their cronies as their political forefathers had done before them, but they were also frequently in cahoots with or influenced by gangster rumrunners, and they used force to gain their ascendancy. When they did not use baseball bats, they used police muscle to punish and dominate their cities’ populations. They eagerly claimed or rewrote the law for their own purposes.

McFeely cleaved to this newer model, and Hoboken’s poor, weakened by hunger and worry, took note.

Few in the city would forget McFeely’s punishment of a lone protestor, a downtown resident named Anthony Bezich who had been handing out leaflets on an uptown street not long after the Great Depression struck. His flyer had announced a march on Washington and had called upon his neighbors to “fight against starvation” and to reclaim their government.

A report by a McFeely ally likely set Bezich’s arrest in motion. He was tossed into the city jail before he could circulate all of his leaflets and was charged with violating an ordinance that made a permit mandatory for the distribution of handbills. Such a permit, all of Hoboken knew, was never going to be approved. No one was going to organize the poor in Boss McFeely’s city.

And after a cursory visit before a Hoboken judge, Bezich was removed to the county penitentiary. He had appealed for leniency because of his wife’s poor health, but the judge had imposed the maximum sentence– three months. That was meant to teach him a lesson. But Bezich was also physically frail, and while in prison he contracted pneumonia and died. Days later, his wife died of heart failure.

Outraged by the result of near-starvation combined with repression, a few neighbors appeared on Hoboken streets with leaflets protesting the “miserable conditions imposed upon [Bezich] by the bosses and their henchman in City Hall” that had made two children orphans.

McFeely again called out his police and had the new protestors hustled off the streets. They too were charged with violating the city ordinance. The First Amendment to the US Constitution and its promise of freedom of speech, as well as the rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances, were not extended to the dissenters. A Hoboken judge sentenced them to serve time in the penitentiary.

The streets were cleared for a while. Then, as the economic slump continued and deepened, a few protestors cried out, attempting to roust fellow sufferers. And then McFeely and his supporters rallied, too, sometimes subduing dissenters with fists and boots as well as jail time. No claims of democratic process were to be tolerated, no mercy shown.

For many, the threat of beatings alone had not been sufficient to maintain their silence, for these longshoremen and masons and shipyard workers had seen their share of scrapes and battles. No, it was McFeely’s thorough domination of virtually every vehicle of survival and redress that had each poor resident standing alone during the Depression years. What good would it do them to object? To speak up was to be publicly marked as an enemy. How would they ever get any work then? Even if someone could hire them, the neighborhood McFeely men would turn against the employer. No permits or permissions would ever be granted them to do business in the city. The police would hound them. They would go to jail and their kids would have nothing.

Relief from the poormaster, already in short supply, would be even harder to come by for those who sided against Boss McFeely. The city’s poorest residents had nothing to offer the mayor but their obedience. And so they narrowed their sights on the little bit of aid eked out by Poormaster Barck, on the bakery seconds granted through tickets from his office. Yes, the bread was so stale it had to be soaked in water to eat–but it was bread. They waited on line to beg for it. For what was the alternative? To die?

Patrolman Carmody tightened his grip on Lena Fusco’s elbow and quickly led her away from the other aid-seekers. He stopped in the corridor, just before stairs that led to a ground-floor exit. From there steps led to the dingy basement headquarters of the Hoboken police, and the chilly confines of the city jail.

A few weeks prior to Carmody’s posting outside the poormaster’s office, Fusco had had another run-in with Barck and had knocked over an inkwell on his desk. Barck had later sworn she had threatened him– “I haven’t got a crowbar on me,” he’d claimed she’d shouted, adding, “but I’ll use my fists on you”–but the poormaster had not called for the woman’s arrest. Rather, she’d been taken down to police headquarters and detained until they’d quieted her. Then she had been released.

On the morning Harry Barck was killed, Carmody had again tried to calm a raging Lena Fusco, as twelve applicants were speedily dispatched from the poormaster’s inner office. Four men remained waiting, gazing fitfully at the secretaries who walked in and out of the nearly cleared room. The women would have been looking forward to the noon lunch hour when the office closed, and their rooms were cleared of the insistent, needy crowds.

Only one of the waiting men had some work lined up–John Galdi Jr., a factory hand. The others had described themselves on their applications by the work they could no longer find: Ralph Corrado, baker; Nicholas Russo, laborer; Joseph Scutellaro, mason and carpenter.

To most observers, Joe Scutellaro would have seemed a beaten man. And indeed, the previous five years had been especially rough for him. There had been almost no work in construction in the state for quite some time–not even for skilled carpenters like his father, Frank, who had developed a reputation for fine craftsmanship before launching his own successful contracting business. During the construction boom that had flourished in New Jersey after the Great War, Frank had trained his son to do building estimates and masoning, and they had worked together. Many of their jobs had been for the city, back when Frank was still in McFeely’s favor. But then, just before the nationwide financial collapse, Frank had taken a notion to support the mayoral aspirations of a paesan, a man named Bartletta, who had dared to challenge the political machine. After McFeely crushed his opponent, the Boss made sure the city assignments that had sustained the Scutellaros were withdrawn and handed over to loyalists. For a time, father and son had cobbled together their livelihoods with little carpentry jobs and cement work for neighbors, but now, with the Great Depression entering its eighth year, there was nothing for either of them, and builders and masons all over were on relief.

Joe sat in the waiting room. At thirty-six, he had lost the sinewy strength of his youth, when he had been fit and purposeful. Always a small man, he had been rendered frail and hollow-eyed by joblessness, worry, and hunger.

The poormaster’s shout–“Next!”–issued from inside his office as another man left. Ralph Corrado now headed the line, but he turned to Scutellaro and said, “Joe, you go in first.”

Scutellaro nodded and ran his hands down his drab suit, shiny with wear. He crossed the dull linoleum floor and entered Barck’s private office. It was just after 10:00 am. Within a half hour, Harry Barck would be dead.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression by Holly Metz, published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, 2012.

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