Killing the Poormaster, the new book by Holly Metz, brings vividly to life 1930s Hoboken, New Jersey, making it easy to envision classic brownstones with street vendors, milk trucks, and boys in knickers in the same neighborhoods now filled with stockbrokers and hipsters. The book’s great achievement, however, is to take us inside the walls of those houses, to place us among suffering people, mostly ignored in their time and all but invisible to us today, and to disturb us about their condition.
Killing the Poormaster:
A Saga of Poverty,
Corruption, and Murder
in the Great Depression
by Holly Metz
Lawrence Hill Books, 256 pp.
The Hoboken of the 1930s is as lost to us as the nineteenth-century whaling villages of Nantucket. (This is illustrated by the book’s title, which demonstrates that we are visiting a time before the invention of euphemisms.) Today, people with very low incomes are in general entitled to receive a variety of government benefits, from food stamps to housing vouchers to Medicaid. But in the early twentieth century, in Hoboken, the indigent received funds, intermittently and begrudgingly, from the city’s poormaster, a title that implicitly suggests a master-slave or master-servant relationship. In 1938, as Roosevelt’’s premature budget cutting refueled the Depression, Hoboken’s poormaster was seventy-four-year-old Harry Barck, who managed his office’s $3,000-a-month budget with a tight fist and a surly temperament. A big, bluff, irascible organization man, Barck—with his dismayingly apt Dickensian name—had held that office for forty-two years, through five political bosses and eight mayors. Barck was unchallenged in his administration of the funds, as his decisions about who got welfare and how much they received knew no appeal. For decades, the work performed by poormasters in New Jersey was administered at the state level. But with the Depression straining the state budget, power had devolved back to the cities, and Barck grabbed the opportunity. Armed with sharp disdain for “chiselers” and with statements like “I’m in favor of giving the old American pioneer spirit a chance to assert itself,” he zealously guarded the city’s coffers. At a time when Union City, a comparably sized town in the very same county (58,659 residents to Hoboken’s 59,261), was spending $6.34 per capita on relief, Hoboken was spending 90 cents.
Barck ran his office as a satrapy in the dominion of Bernard McFeely, the fifty-six-year-old mayor of Hoboken. Like James Curley in Boston, Tom Prendergast in Kansas City, and his neighboring municipal despot, Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, McFeely treated Hoboken like a plantation, using all the tools at his disposal—cash, appointments, favors, thuggery—to maintain control. Nepotism was rife: more than six dozen of McFeely’s relatives were on the city payroll, most conspicuously and usefully his brother, who, as chief of police, earned the same $5,000-a-year salary that the mayor did. Favoritism is a fairly oldfashioned means of maintaining power, but elsewhere, in the field of corrupt waste management, McFeely was a pioneer. The McFeely family cartage company had finagled control of Hoboken’s garbage contract in perpetuity, earning $1.5 million for services that, according to a New York Post exposÃ©, should have cost $600,000. (Note that the average annual income for a Hoboken family at the time was $500.) One not very sophisticated way that profits were optimized was that the streets of Hoboken were left filthy.
Harry Barck began his last day on the job in fairly typical fashion, by receiving supplicants in his office in Hoboken’s great pile of a city hall. Twenty-three men and women had lined up to beseech Barck for niggling amounts of money that would nonetheless allow them to fill some bellies or turn on the heat. Barck usually responded to these entreaties with a blunt refusal, even though less than two years earlier a three-year-old boy named Donald Hastie, whose parents were denied aid by the poormaster, had died of starvation. This morning was no different; within fifteen minutes he had already dismissed six applicants, sending them off with a booming “Next case!” The seventh supplication took a little longer, and ended more dramatically, with a young dark-haired woman named Lena Fusco, whose three children had rickets, running out in tears, followed by a stormy Barck, wiping her spit off his face. “Lock her up!” he bellowed. “I won’t give her any more [bread] tickets!”
The encounter with Lena Fusco, as it would turn out, was just the undercard to what would prove to be the main event of Harry Barck’s life: a meeting with Joseph Scutellaro, a thirty-six-year-old construction worker and father of two who had been out of work for more than six months. The shrunken Scutellaro—he had lost a visible amount of weight during his unemployment, and now carried less than 120 pounds—had not always had difficulty finding work. His father, Frank, an immigrant, had built a prosperous construction business, and had even benefited from a cordial relationship with the McFeely regime. But Frank made the crucial mistake of supporting an Italian candidate against McFeely one year, and although he made a public show of fealty and abasement after his man lost, the Scutellaros had no friends at city hall. When the economy collapsed, Barck made the terms of estrangement clear. Although Joe Scutellaro’s family received some relief from the poormaster, help was inconsistent and meager; the last check he’d been given, four weeks before, had been for $5.70. A month later, down to a handful of pennies, with fuel cut off, the food gone, and the children ill, Scutellaro was reaching the end of his rope.
As Metz tells it, Scutellaro began politely enough, but grew angry as Barck’s response escalated in insolence. “Watch the mail,” a gruff Barck initially said, an answer that had proved unreliable in the past. No, Scutellaro insisted, his children were sick and hungry, to which the self-satisfied Barck responded, “What’s the matter with your wife? Can’t she go down and swing her bag along Washington Street?” Scutellaro, not irrationally, inferred this as a suggestion that his wife take up prostitution. In very short order, voices were raised, punches thrown, and the junior featherweight Scutellaro clocked the heavyweight Barck right in the face. The poormaster may have acted a tough guy, but he apparently had a glass jaw, for he fell face-first across his desk. Unluckily, he landed on the spot where he kept a metal spindle on which he neatly spiked rejected applications. The hole in his chest was so small and tidy that for a while it went unnoticed, and at 10:25 he was pronounced dead without the wound being attended. So fast had been the police to arrest Scutellaro for assaulting Barck that they had already finished booking him for simple assault; Barck’s death forced the cops to amend the charges to murder in the first degree. Irony of ironies, at the exact time of the fight, a mailman had delivered to the Scutellaro home an $8 relief check and thirty coupons each good for a loaf of bread. Before these items could be used by Scutellaro’s wife and kids, however, they were seized as evidence by the police.
Scutellaro became a cause celebre, particularly in the Italian community, which saw his treatment as emblematic of the routine discrimination that group suffered. In time, the woebegone carpenter attracted two staunch champions: Samuel Leibowitz, one of the sharpest attorneys in America, who had acquired a national reputation with his historic defense of the Scottsboro boys; and Herman Matson, a thirty-seven-year-old father of six, WPA laborer, and leader in the local Workers Defense League. While Leibowitz maneuvered against the machinations of a McFeely prosecutor who aimed to tag Scutellaro with a death sentence, Matson, working quite independently of the defense team, agitated with his wife Elizabeth on the streets against the corrupt practices and cruel relief policies of the McFeely administration. When Matson attempted to speak at a rally in a park one evening, McFeely goons battered him and beat his wife, causing her to suffer a miscarriage. After the beating, McFeely police arrested Matson for inciting to riot, and he ended up with his own headline trial full of famous lawyers and McFeely hacks.
Spoiler alert: the good guys don’t win, or not exactly. Scutellaro escaped a murder rap and a death sentence but was convicted of manslaughter, the compromise verdict of a jury that initially polled eleven to one for acquittal. He was given a sentence of two to five years, and served eighteen months. Matson was convicted of being a disorderly person, and though he served no jail time, he was blackballed from WPA jobs in New Jersey and had to relocate his family to the Bronx. Although McFeely remained in office for nine more years, the trials marked a turning point, after which he faced more criticism of his administration, a federal probe into the distribution of relief and accusations against the police department over civil rights violations, and the disgruntlement of key voting blocs. In 1949, he lost the support of the police department, and he was voted out of office. A year later, the new mayor dumped the title poormaster in favor of director of welfare.
Holly Metz deserves tremendous praise for accomplishing the difficult task of evoking the pain and pathos of a long-forgotten incident, and allowing it to illuminate our own problems involving wealth and work and unemployment. We may not be seeing Scutellaro-like need on a massive scale, yet we still see unemployment mostly as a matter of individual initiative and skills, and not as a matter of justice. We are still in thrall of the power and might of the tycoon, and if we do not accept McFeely-class corruption in our city halls, we tolerate it among the financial class. The Simpson-Bowles plan, widely heralded as centrist, cuts benefits for the middle and working classes while protecting the interests of the rich. The New York Fed all but ignores LIBOR rate rigging, while the Federal Reserve Board, which is legally required to minimize unemployment, continues to study a festering 8 percent unemployment rate. Any effort to discuss inequality is labeled as an attempt to wage class warfare. Killing the Poormaster shows that it took a spindle through a man’s heart to set a movement toward justice in motion; one hopes that it will be something less lethal that pricks the consciences of today’s moneyed elite.
If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.