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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
The Journal and World did not, at first, take the strike very seriously. Their opponents were after all only children, too inexperienced and irresponsible to win a contest with adults. It was not until the advertisers began requesting “allowance on their bills on account of the strike” that the publishers realized the gravity of the situation. The newsboys were not only cutting down street circulation; they had won a public relations battle. “The people,” Seitz reported to Pulitzer on July 24, “seem to be against us; they are encouraging the boys and tipping them and where they are not doing this, they are refraining from buying the papers for fear of having them snatched from their hands.”
The strike closed down distribution of the papers in downtown Manhattan and, within days, spread uptown to Fifty-ninth Street and to Harlem and across the rivers to Long Island City, Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Newark, where, according to Seitz, “the paper was completely obliterated.” In Mount Vernon, Staten Island, Yonkers, Troy, and Rochester, New York; Plainfield, Trenton, Elizabeth, Paterson, and Asbury Park, Fall river, Massachusetts; and Providence, Rhode Island, local newsies joined the strike.
The names reported in the papers suggest that boys of every background participated. Among those arrested for assault of disturbing the peace were Abe Greenhouse, Ike Miller, Joe Mulligan, Frank Giasso, Donato Carolucci, “Grin” Boyle, Albert Smith, Edward Rowland, Mikki Fishler, William Reese, and John Folk (the last two identified by the Sun as “Negroes”). The elected strike committee included not only Barney Peters, Jim Galty, and Crutchy Morris, but Abe Newman and Dave Simmons. The boys, all of them, were in dead earnest about their strike. The fact that the publishers refused to take them seriously just spuured them on.
Every day they met the delivery wagons at the distribution points, pelted them with stones and rotten fruit, captured as many bundles as they could, and then paraded cheering up and down the streets with banners, leaflets, and songs, proud of their accomplishment but on the constant lookout for any scrab papers that might have gotten through.
The children used their wits—and numbers—to advantage. On the third day of the strike, the Sun reported, a small boy appeared in front of the Journal office with a stack of papers and a policeman by his side. The strikers, poised outside to make sure no one got away from the office with papers to sell, were at a loss as to what to do. “Bare-faced defiance by a mere ‘kid’ would demoralized the rank and file if left unpunished. Yet there was the policeman with a night stick and there was the lesson of three of their number already sent to juvenile asylum for assaulting scabs …
“Up spoke Young Myers, sometimes called Young Mush, on account of his fondness for taking his girl to Corlears Hook Park Sunday evenings.
“ ‘That Cop’s too fat to run fast an’I’ll get him after me if you’ll tend to the scab when he gets away,’ he said.
“The leaders promised to attend to the scab if Young Myers would remove the policeman. Walking innocently up to the Journal boy, Myers grabbed a handful of his papers and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. The Journal boy yelled for help and away went the policeman after Young Mush. The Journal boy watched the pursuit with interest. A second later he had other things to think about. Fifteen strikers surrounded him and the blows came in thick and fast. The Journals that he had were taken away and torn into ribbons.”
A second policeman rescued the boy, who retreated to Frankfort Street, where he was met by the strikers who “invited him to join them, which he did in a hurry. He was soon leading an attack on a boy who was trying to smuggle some Worlds and Journals over to Brooklyn.”
The “bluecoated servants of capital,” as the Sun called them, did their best; but they were overwhelmed by the persistence and sheer numbers of the strikers. They managed to arrest a boy here and there but were powerless against the huge crowds that gathered at the distribution centers and patrolled the main streets.
The publishers, at last fully aware that the strike was serious, called in their favors from politicians and police captains. As Seitz reported to Pulitzer on July 24, “I have been up to headquarters, arranging to break up certain strike points, with the help of the police, tomorrow.” The Journal , which had been running editorials condemning the police for their actions in other strikes, quickly reversed itself: offending editorials were “suppressed,” including a full-page diatribe against the police as “friends of monopoly.” With its editorial policy now favorable to the police department, the Journal ’s editor made his way “to see Mayor Van Wyck in the matter of better police protection.” According to Seitz, the “Mayor had expressed his friendly purpose towards us.”