Calm Before The Storm In September 1911
Get into a conversation with a long-time Queens resident and you're likely to discover a subscriber of the Long Island Star-Journal, a daily paper that informed the community about local and world news until it folded in 1968. A banner across the Star-Journal masthead reminded readers that the newspaper's name came from the merger of the Long Island Daily Star (1876) and the North Shore Daily Journal--The Flushing Journal (1841).
Welcome to September 1911.
In 1911 the world was enjoying one of its last years of relative peace and before the decades of war, revolution, economic crisis and genocide that would soon follow. There were, however, hints of what was to come. In July, the deployment of the German warship Panther to the Moroccan port of Agadir, ostensibly to enforce the collection of debts owed to Germany by Morocco, precipitated a crisis. Both France, which considered Morocco to be virtually a colony, and Great Britain, which saw the growth of German naval power as a threat to the Royal Navy issued angry protests. In September, Italy declared war on the declining Ottoman Turkish Empire, seeking to add Libya to its own imperial holdings. And in October, revolutionaries led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing (also known as the Manchu) Dynasty that had ruled China since 1644, ushering in an era of revolution and civil war that would not end until the victory of Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Communists in 1949.
The big news in Queens during September 1911 was the upcoming Democratic Party primary election scheduled for September 26. Primaries were a relatively new phenomenon in 1911, part of a wave of progressive “good government” reforms that would hit the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. Previously, candidates had been picked at conventions and caucuses, in the proverbial “smoke filled rooms” where party bosses usually controlled decision-making. The reform-minded progressives believed that primaries would allow the people to have a real say as to who was nominated.
On September 2 a transparently partial Daily Star announced that insurgent “Union” Democratic forces were “Uniting to Eliminate Bossism” from the party, while on Monday, September 4 the Star informed readers that “reports from all over the borough” indicated that “Democrats everywhere” were declaring against bossism and emphatically proclaimed, “It is time that it was ended.”
The chief target of that tirade was party boss Joseph Cassidy. Known as “Curley Joe” because of his wavy hair, Cassidy assumed leadership of the Democratic organization in Queens after defeating legendary Long Island City Mayor Patrick J. “Battle Axe” Gleason. The latter dropped out of political life after his efforts to become mayor of New York City during the first citywide election after the consolidation in 1898 ended in spectacular failure. Although Cassidy was widely regarded as corrupt, and considered a dictator by many, he also presided over a period of great real estate and infrastructure development in Queens.
On Friday, September 15, the Daily Star took up another cause: the “scheme” by “wealthy corporations” of purchasing “land for cemeteries”. Land devoted to burials was exempt from property taxes. Today this might seem innocent enough, but for decades, local residents saw their tax base shrink as prime real estate was snapped up by cemeteries. In an era before income tax, property taxes were often a municipality’s chief source of revenue. As cemetery operators bought up more and more land, the property tax burden on homeowners had become progressively heavier.
The Star specifically cited a letter to the editor from a Queens resident alleging that a certain “Lyons”, one of the cemetery operators, was “trying to put another one over on the people”. The editorial claimed that he was exploiting a provision in the new city charter that allowed him to buy up more property before a bill just passed at the state level prohibited further purchases. The paper called upon Queens civic organizations to “act without delay” while the Star echoed support, noting: “The apathy of these civic organizations is inexplicable. If it is true that efforts are now being made to secure more land for cemetery purposes in Queens, then the people will be responsible for it.”
On September 15 the Star also reported on a dangerous pastime. Local youth took up a new sport of throwing stones at Long Island Rail Road trains as they passed through neighborhoods. Just the previous day, as a train on the Rockaway Division was leaving Woodside, a large stone crashed through a window, scattering pieces of rock and broken glass throughout the car. The lap and hat of a woman sitting in the seat were covered with glass. Other passengers were struck with flying pieces. Fortunately, the stone just missed the woman’s face, as it was large enough to have knocked her out. The LIRR claimed it was getting little support from police and city officials who were reputed often to let offenders off with just a warning. The railroad, desperate to put an end to this hooliganism, was adding a number of new recruits to its own police force.
Politics was back on the front page on September 18 with the Star reporting that the Democratic factions in Queens were “lining up for battle” and that the anti-Cassidy Union forces were daily gaining strength. Strong tickets were expected in each assembly district. It was also rumored that Governor John Alden Dix was ready in a few days to release a special commission report that alleged corruption by Queens Borough President Lawrence Gresser.
On September 26, primary day, the Star implored its readers to “Suppress Cassidyism.” The paper went on to claim that it was the most important primary election in Queens for years. But by the following day the paper was forced to concede, with exasperation, that Queens voters had decided to remain under the “Same Old Driver”. Reformers were elected in only one assembly district.
Borough President Gresser was not so lucky. The Star dropped a bombshell that Tuesday. Governor Dix announced that he had decided to support the special commission’s report that recommended Gresser’s removal. The report cited a damming litany of corruption going back as far as 1908. The sordid list included the extortion of political contributions, county employees terminated for political reasons, sewer construction unreasonably delayed and highways neglected or improperly repaired.
The early 20th century was also a time of great labor unrest. In March, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Lower Manhattan caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, most of them women, who could not escape the building because their managers had locked the doors to the building’s stairwells and exits. The fire led to legislation that improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.
The year saw a number of strikes and militant unions like the International Workers of the World, also known as the IWW or “Wobblies”. Queens was not immune to the trend. On September 2 the Star reported on a strike by Ravenswood marble workers that was “beginning to develop some interesting incidents”.
At Gray’s plant on Vernon Avenue, a number of strikebreaking “scabs” were quartered with meals being brought in. The previous evening a watchman was sent out to get a batch of hot suppers for the men. He was on his way back with a big basket of food in one hand and several pails of beer in the other. Three strikers stopped him at the corner of Vernon Boulevard and Washington (36th) Avenue. There were a few heated remarks. The watchman dropped the basket of food when one of the strikers threw a punch. Outnumbered, he soon took to his heels under a barrage of food that was intended for the strikebreakers.
After dumping the rest of the food on the street, the strikers drank the beer.
And that’s the way it was in September 1911.
The Greater Astoria Historical Society, located in the Quinn Gallery, 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City, is open to the public on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit www.astorialic.org. Visit the Society’s online gift shop, too.