Stories produced by St. Peter's Journalism Students
By Natalie Castillo, Class of 2014 —
(originally published in the The Pauw Wow)
— It’s 1938 and you’re standing in line outside of your town’s city hall. You watch the men walking into the building with their tidy suits, slicked-back hair, and round stomachs. Just last week, the poormaster (who determines whether or not applicants receive public aid) gave you a stack of applications, and yet your family is still at home, hungry and weak. This was the everyday life of the working poor in Hoboken, New Jersey.
On October 21st, 2012, at 4 p.m., freelance writer and Hoboken native, Holly Metz, author of Killing the Poormaster, will be at the at the Hoboken Historical Museum to discuss her new book with a question-and-answer session as well as a book signing.
“An electrician told me the story not long after I moved to Hoboken,” said Holly Metz. “He and his brother had been called in to repair the wiring in my rental apartment. While his brother made the repairs, the storytelling electrician sat at my kitchen table with me and shared a cup of coffee. He told me he called all his female clients “Marie,” so he didn’t have to remember a lot of names.”
““Marie,” he asked me, “why would a young woman like you be home during the day instead of at work?” I explained that I was a freelance writer and worked from home. I wrote about social issues,” I said, “including the problems of poor people.” He asked me if I’d heard the story about the Hoboken poormaster. I hadn’t. He told me what he remembered.”
During the Great Depression, Americans were desperate for work, food, and public aid. “Prosperity is just around the corner,” said the hopeful headlines. “But around the corner winds the lengthening bread lines. And a whole new class of citizens appears in American society, the new poor.”
At this time in Hoboken, there was an enormous divide in the town. The German power brokers lived uptown along with the ascendant Irish. The downtown area had a large population of Italians and was where the working poor lived, in the lowlands in their wood-framed homes. The mayor at the time, Bernard McFeely, obtained his position for over a decade. At a time of such desperation, the mayor was known for seizing public funds for himself and putting “campaign donations” into his personal bank accounts. The city’s budget for public aid estimated to $16,000. Mayor McFeely gave more than six dozen of his relatives and loyal followers municipal posts; $39,000 was distributed to just 15 of them.
“There was no equality of rights. If you were a friend of ‘the boss,’ you could get anything you wanted. If you were not his friend and he didn’t like you, you’re out on a line,” recalled Judge Charles DeFazio.
Harry L. Barck was the poormaster in Hoboken for 42 years. He was more concerned with “protecting the public purse” than helping people in need. He discouraged those who sought public aid by making them shameful of receiving it. Harry L. Barck was murdered in his city hall office on February 25th, 1938. Joe Scutellaro, who was unemployed, knew very well where Mr. Barck’s office was because he had filled out stacks and stacks of applications every other day with no response. He was accused of killing Mr.Barck when he was told that his wife should work as a prostitute rather than seek public aid. An autopsy reported that Harry Barck died of a hemorrhage following a puncture wound to his chest. The weapon of choice? A sharp metal file on which the poormaster rejected stacks of public aid applications.
While many of the new poor continued to suffer, some gathered in meetings, protests and “hunger marches.” Herman Matson, an out- of- work laborer, decided to organize the unemployed. He printed protest flyers, called meetings in his apartment, and joined forces with the Workers Defense League. He held a public meeting in the center of Hoboken and made his case to 600 residents. But just at the start of the meeting, he was beaten by thugs who wanted to prevent his battle for civil liberties.
“It was a challenge; you had to be up to it. You could only go so far because they had the strengths, they had the resources, they had the police, the fire department, the majority in their favor, so you had to go carefully. If you tried to fight them physically, it was unfair competition. You didn’t stand a chance,” said Judge Charles DeFazio, who once was a supporter of McFeely but overthrew him in the 1947 election.
The issues in the book, Killing the Poormaster, are not that different from issues that poor people face today.
“A young woman who was living in public housing told me that she and her peers felt they were “an endangered species.” She predicted that soon there would be no poor people in Hoboken,” said author, Metz. “Certainly no working-class or poor person could afford to move here now. That’s when I had one of those moments: I understood in a powerful way that Hoboken’s long history of offering housing and opportunity to poor, working families (native-born and immigrants) was coming to an end.”
Holly Metz is also the founder of the Hoboken Oral History project, which documents the city’s working class history.
“Since the lives of poor people, the everyday lives of working people are recorded with far less frequency—if at all—in history books and newspapers, I realized that their way of life, their perspective, might disappear,” said Metz. “That’s when I remembered the poormaster’s death, and recalled that poor people had testified to how they had been treated. Their accounts would be unaffected by nostalgia. “If I could find those records,” I thought, “I could restore those lived histories to our common past.””
History always repeats itself and that has been proven with the recent recession and high unemployment rates. And with the new presidential election currently occurring, how are you standing up for your civil liberties?
“I’m reluctant to call my writing ‘activism,’” said Metz. “Mostly because I have such a deep respect for the progressive activists I have interviewed or researched—men and women who have dedicated themselves to the hard task of building social movements over many years, who create organizations and coalitions, who strategize over actions.”
On October 21st, at the book signing for Killing the Poormaster, consider asking questions on how to get involved in organizations like the Hoboken Oral History Project.
“It is an attempt to record the city’s disappearing identity as a working-class city and its tradition of multi-ethnic living,” said Metz. “We also create small booklets out of some of the transcribed, edited interviews and then we distribute them, without cost at public events. It’s a way to bring the stories back into circulation and into a community that is now comprised of old-timers and newcomers.”
So this upcoming November, who will you be? An activist like Herman Matson, who fought for equality, or exploiters like Harry L. Barck and Mayor Bernard McFeely, who knew they were better off without the working class?
Hoboken Historical Museum
1301 Hudson Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030
201.656.224 – info@hobokenmuseum
(The event is free, not including book purchase; reservations are not necessary)