One hundred years ago this week, sword-waving cavalry charged into a jeering, stone-throwing crowd of 15,000 people in downtown Boston. Roaming mobs robbed bystanders and looted stores. Part-time infantry from suburbs and small Massachusetts towns fired into crowds, fixed bayonets against Bostonians, and shot eight people dead over four tumultuous days.
Those spasms of violence — from today’s Government Center to the streets of South Boston and Jamaica Plain — followed an overwhelming vote by Boston police on Sept. 8, 1919, to walk off the job, striking for better working conditions and the right to form a union.
It was the country’s first major police strike, and it caused a national uproar, feeding fears of revolution and communist infiltration at a time of growing labor unrest.
And when it was over, after Boston had been placed under military watch for the first time since the Revolutionary War, the police union was smashed and the governor who fielded troops against the strikers, Calvin Coolidge, was on his way to become one of the least memorable presidents in US history.
A century later, the Boston Police Strike still resonates — as a watershed event for organized labor, a defiant stand that heralded future breakthroughs, and a painful but proud milestone for the descendants of 1,142 officers who were summarily dismissed and never regained their jobs. Even today, it is felt in the ranks of the Boston Police Department, which is thinned every 30 to 35 years in a retire-and-hire cycle that began with the mass firings.
“They were very brave to take that step,” said Evelyn O’Neil Kiley, whose father, Dan O’Neil, lost his job after striking. “They were strong, they were committed, and they had a mission.”
The mission was to end brutal exploitation by the city: Many officers worked more than 80 hours a week without overtime, were guaranteed only one day off in 15, and received starting pay of 25 cents an hour — one-third less than city laborers were paid.
They slept in rat- and lice-infested station houses where vermin ate the leather off their helmets. They weren’t paid for court appearances, couldn’t leave the city without a pass, and were used by higher-ranking officers as errand boys to pick up groceries and newspapers.
“They had no other recourse. The pay was garbage,” said police Officer Michael Leary, current president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. “They stood up and believed that what they were doing was right.”
Nothing like the police strike had ever been seen in the city, and nothing like it has happened since. Panicked residents fled with their valuables. Shopkeepers placed barbed wire in the windows and armed guards at the doors. And the police, scorned by the political establishment as Bolshevik radicals and “agents of Lenin,” were completely restaffed after the strike and would not form a union until 1965.
“Lawless Throngs Surge Through Unprotected City, Demolishing Property,” a Boston Globe headline announced Sept. 10. “Washington Street Stores Sacked . . . Plundering Everywhere; Hoodlums Roam South Boston Streets.”
The Globe reported that hundreds of outraged citizens had volunteered to police the streets. At Harvard University, president A. Lawrence Lowell urged all students to do their duty and help restore order.
Governor Coolidge, a taciturn Republican Party loyalist from Northampton, also took a hard line against the strikers. He denounced them as “deserters” and “traitors,” was praised across the country, and used his new-found fame to begin a once-unthinkable journey from Beacon Hill to the White House.
Despite breathless newspaper coverage, the strike’s first night was relatively calm. A few minor injuries were reported, mostly from flying glass, while city and state officials seemed thrown off-guard that the strike had actually occurred.
Much worse lay ahead.
An uneasy political balance
Less than a year after World War I ended, Boston was on edge. Soaring inflation had hollowed out the average family’s buying power. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had spurred fears that local radicals would turn to violence. And a surge in immigration added to a sense that the city was changing in ominous, unpredictable ways.
In January 1919, the devastating Molasses Flood killed 21 people in the North End, and anarchists were wrongly suspected in the explosion of the molasses tank. In February, thousands of textile workers in Lawrence walked off the job and workers in Seattle drew national attention by launching a general strike. In April, female telephone operators went on strike against the New England Telephone Co. Later that spring, a May Day riot erupted in Roxbury.
On the Boston police force, starting officers were paid a $21.90 weekly salary that had not risen since the Civil War, according to police Officer Robert Anthony, the department historian. Even at that meager pay — half the wages of a Boston carpenter or mechanic — a new officer was required to spend $207.25 for his uniform and equipment when he joined the force.
“The strike had much more to do with labor organization than radical politics,” said Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Many of the police were Irish-Americans and Ireland-born immigrants. But there also were Canadians, Italians, Swedes, Germans, and other officers from foreign stock who walked a cobblestone beat for 12 hours a day.
Even with the paltry wages, the job offered a thread of security and a source of pride. Boston was a teeming, sooty, industrial city of 750,000 then — about 50,000 more than today — where crowded tenements dwarfed the number of grand townhouses in upscale Back Bay.
“There were three jobs that an Irish mother wanted her kids to have: priest, politician, or policeman,” said police Officer James Carnell, who edits the union newsletter.
The state’s Republican power brokers, many of them Yankees of Colonial lineage, harbored suspicions about the reliability and allegiances of the police force’s ethnic mix. Partly as a result, they shifted control of Boston’s police from the city to the state and placed them under a single commissioner who answered to the governor.
Such was the uneasy political balance in the months before the strike: a heavily Democratic city largely policed by immigrants and the sons of immigrants, pitted against a conservative state hierarchy determined to maintain control of Massachusetts and what it regarded as a corruption-ridden capital, where the roguish James Michael Curley had just completed his first term as mayor.
Boston police had asked for better working conditions for years, only to be rebuffed or told to wait. But when Edwin Upton Curtis, a hard-line union foe and former Boston mayor, was named commissioner in December 1918, their grievances grew from a simmer to raging boil.
On Aug. 9, 1919, the Boston police requested a charter from the American Federation of Labor, which recently had begun recognizing police departments around the country. Two days later, Curtis forbade officers from joining any “organization, club, or body outside the department,” with an exception for patriotic groups such as the new American Legion.
The police received their AFL charter on Aug. 15, which prompted Curtis to suspend 19 of their union officers and schedule disciplinary hearings for them. Curtis declared the officers guilty on Sept. 8, in proceedings that lasted a total of eight minutes, Anthony said.
That night, at a packed union meeting in the South End, Boston police voted to begin striking at the evening roll call on Sept. 9. The vote was 1,134 to 2.
Overnight, Boston lost three-quarters of its police force, and Coolidge soon ordered nearly 5,000 State Guard troops to the city.
“Through Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain, Newton men were patrolling the streets, alert and anxious,” wrote one soldier from A Company of the 11th Regiment Infantry, based at the West Newton Armory.
“It was all new,” the soldier added. “They were observing everything within sight and hearing and had begun to assimilate the lessons of the street.”
The soldiers came from a volunteer force that had been posted at home during World War I while the Massachusetts National Guard fought in France with the Yankee Division. The State Guard brought machine guns and shotguns to Boston. They also brought Springfield .45-caliber rifles from the 1870s that had been obsolete two decades earlier during the Spanish-American War.
The old rifles were put to deadly use.
Arthur McGill, a 31-year-old from the South End, finished supper Sept. 10 and traveled downtown to see the excitement. At 7 p.m., he was shot dead on Howard Street, near present-day Government Center, as State Guard cavalry and infantry cleared Scollay Square on the second night of the strike.
Witnesses at the time described McGill, who worked in a shipping office and lived with his mother, as an innocent bystander. Just over four hours later, three men were shot dead or fatally wounded as the State Guard confronted a large crowd near West Broadway and C Street in South Boston.
The day of Sept. 11 brought four more fatalities. Early in the morning, a striking police officer, 36-year-old Richard Reemts of Roxbury, was shot dead by a civilian on Columbus Avenue near Back Bay Station after he allegedly stole a pistol from a volunteer police officer.
At 11 a.m., Raymond Barnes, 18, of Cambridge, was killed at Tremont and Boylston streets as the State Guard moved more than 30 men playing craps off Boston Common. Barnes, a merchant seaman, wasn’t involved in the game but “paid the penalty for his curiosity,” witnesses told the Globe.
At 9 p.m., two young men, 18 and 20, were fatally shot in Jamaica Plain when Guardsmen reportedly either saw them playing craps or prying open a manhole cover near the current location of the Stony Brook MBTA Station.
The final fatality occurred Sept. 13, when Latvian immigrant Gustave Gaist of Dorchester, a 20-year-old US veteran of World War I, was shot dead at 11:30 a.m. after he tried to seize a soldier’s rifle at Tremont and Boylston streets.
The strike ended that day, when Curtis announced that all the strikers would be dismissed and replaced with 1,500 new officers at higher wages. Each of the strikers’ personnel records was closed with a brief, stark message stamped in blue: “Abandoned his duty, Sept. 9, 1919.”
‘A dramatic and a traumatic event’
George Curtin, his mind awash in memories, paused for several seconds the other day as he gazed at a faded, century-old photograph of his father, Timothy, an Irish immigrant from Tralee.
“I loved my father,” said Curtin, an 89-year-old who lives in Worcester. “Living honestly and living straight was his way of life. He couldn’t imagine taking money he didn't earn. He loved being a policeman.”
Shut out of police work after the strike, Timothy Curtin went door to door in Roslindale “trying to sell vacuum cleaners to people who couldn’t afford them,” his son said. He cleaned downtown offices at night. He raised vegetables in the backyard to help feed seven children.
None of the strikers was rehired by the Boston police. Their families suffered, too. The six children of James Gillespie, an Irish immigrant from Donegal, were raised in extreme poverty in Dorchester after their father was fired, said Joseph Gillespie, the striker’s grandson.
But the love of policing endured. Joseph Gillespie is a Boston police captain who commands the Hyde Park district. John Gillespie, the striker’s son, was a career Boston police officer with 40 years of service.
“Dad’s siblings would talk about being poor. It always reverted back to that,” Joseph Gillespie said at the Hyde Park police station. “The strike was always in the family.”
Decades after the strike, fired officers still commiserated after their annual Mass and Communion breakfast, Evelyn O’Neil Kiley said.
“When they left the church, they’d always say, ‘Wasn’t that terrible what happened to us?’ You could see the hurt in their faces,” Kiley, 80, recalled. “And then they would stop and say, ‘How are you doing? Do you have a job?’ ”
But outside of family memory, the story of the Boston Police Strike has been obscured, if not forgotten. Bringing that story to life has been the goal of a seven-year collaboration led by Boston police archivist Margaret Sullivan and library dean Joanne Riley at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Their project resulted in 90,000 hours of research by 82 volunteers, students, and staff from the police and city archives, and the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston. The result has been an unprecedented trove of biographical detail for all but four of the 1,142 strikers.
The information, painstakingly retrieved from city, draft, and census records, among others, is now available at www.bpstrike1919.org. There, the public and scholars can search for a wealth of data on the strikers: where they lived, the size of their families, their country of origin, even their median age.
On Saturday, more than 200 descendants of the strikers gathered at UMass Boston to commemorate their sacrifice.
“The strike was both a dramatic and a traumatic event, and it just sat with people,” Riley said. “This will be an opportunity to release themselves from that.”
Over time, Sullivan said, she hopes the project will increase awareness “that 1,100 men and 1,100 families took a stand for what was right and suffered for it.”
“What happened to these men? What happened to their families?” she asked. “This is a real Boston story.”
And it is 100 years old.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.