- Historic Sites
Dirty-faced David & The Twin Goliaths
One of the country’ more bizzarre labor disputes pitted a crowed of outraged newsboys against two powerful opponents—Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolf Hearst
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
Seitz notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Cohen by himself precipitated the strike in Manhattan. (His name was never to appear in any of the newspaper reports of the strike.) The boys who sold papers downtown in the City Hall and Wall Street districts gathered every afternoon outside the newspaper offices on Park Row, nickname Newspaper Row, and in City Hall Park. When word arrived about the Long Island City action, the downtown newsies, perhaps called together by Cohen, assembled in City Hall Park. That afternoon, July 19, they organized their union and announced a strike for the next day unless Pulitzer and Hearst rolled back their prices. Officers were elected, a “committee on discipline” chosen, strategy debated. Delegates went out to spread the word to the newsies at Fifty-ninth Street and in Harlem, Brooklyn, Long Island City, and New Jersey.
It was a propitious moment for a strike. The Brooklyn streetcar operators were already out, and though they would ultimately be defeated, in the latter part of July they had the police so busy that few patrolled the streets of downtown Manhattan. As Boots McAleenan, aged eleven, explained to a reporter from the Sun : “We’re doin’ it now because de cops is all busy, an’ we can do in any scab newsboy dat shows his face widout police interference. We’re here fer our rights an’ we will die defendin’ ’em. At de rates dey give us now we can’t make on’y four cents on ten papers, an’ dat ain’t enough to pay fer swipes.” (The progress of the strike was copiously reported in the New York Times , Daily Tribune , Sun , Herald , Mirror , People , and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle , none of which had raised their prices and none of which were struck. As might have been expected, these papers were gleeful, cheering the boys on in what they described as a mock epic struggle of dirty-faced Davids against the twin Goliaths.)
“The people,” his editor reported to Pulitzer, “seem to be against us; they are tipping the boys and refraining from buying papers …”
On the first afternoons of the strike, the downtown boys rallied in Newspaper Row to prevent the delivery wagons from leaving with papers for uptown and the suburbs. As the Sun reported on July 22: “Fully a hundred boys were gathered in Park Row at the hour when the first editions of the ‘yellows’ [the sensational evening papers] usually come out, and as soon as the wagons started there was a great howl and a shower of missiles which made the drivers’ jobs uncomfortable. The police came on the run and the boys scattered hastily, for an order from the Committee on Discipline had gone out, it is said, that the police are not to be injured. All the boys were armed with clubs and most of them wore in their headgear placards denouncing the scab extras and calling on the public to boycott them.”
The downtown boys were soon “scattered by the advance of the constabulary.” The trucks—with their newspapers —rolled out to the distribution points. The drivers who delivered to Columbus Circle were the first to discover what the newsies had in store for them. A crowd of four to five hundred boys had gathered at Fifty-ninth Street to await their arrival, the Sun reported: “They had decorated the newsstands and lampposts with banners inscribed, ‘Please Don’t Buy the World or Journal ,’ ‘Help the Newsboys,’ ‘Our Cause is Just,’ ‘We Will Fight for Our Rights,’ and other pregnant sentiments. As soon as the wagons came up the boys pressed forward and began to hoot and howl. … Though pushed back [by the policemen], they did not scatter. They formed a circle, and as fast as any man got his bundle of papers and tried to get away with them they sweeped down upon him with yells of ‘Kill the scab!’ mauled him until he dropped his papers and ran, then tore the sheets into small bits and trampled them in the mud.”
At other distribution points the scenario was much the same. In Brooklyn, according to the Brooklyn Eagle , the boys “appointed committees to meet the delivery wagons and every driver who dared to defy the newsboys was bombarded with a choice collection of stones, with which the pockets of the rebellious youngsters bulged.” The Jersey City boys met the wagons at the ferry and tore up the papers as they were thrown down. The Yonkers group sent delegations to the incoming trains to capture the papers as they arrived.
The newsies were in constant communication with one another. The strike committee, elected by the downtown boys, sent representatives to the outlying regions; the outer suburbs elected delegates to travel downtown to Park Row. The Sun , glorying in this successful strike against its two major competitors, reported in full the visit of Spot Conlon, District Master Workboy of the Brooklyn Union, who, attired in pink suspenders, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with “greetings an’ promises of support. … We have tied up de scab sheets so tight dat y’ can’t buy one fer a dollar in de street. Hold out, my gallant kids, an’ tomorrer I meself, at de head of free tousand noble hearts from Brooklyn will be over here t’ help youse win yer noble scrap fer freedom an’ fair play.’”