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The Strike That Made A President
When Boston’s police walked out, a great city erupted in violence. By doggedly doing nothing, Governor Coolidge emerged as a national hero
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
On August 11 the American Federation of Labor granted a charter to the Social Club as Boston Police Union, No. 16,807. Curtis proceeded to charge the eight leaders and officers of the new union with insubordination and ordered them placed on departmental trial. The union countered by warning him that if these men were disciplined the police would strike. The union also maintained that Curtis’s regulation was “invalid, unreasonable and contrary to the express law of Massachusetts.” Curtis found the men guilty but postponed sentence. On August 29 he found eleven more leaders guilty but again suspended sentence—to give the men a chance to withdraw from the Federation, he later claimed. He then announced that he would pass sentence on September 4. This was the impasse at the end of August.
No one was more distressed at the prospect of a police strike than the mayor of Boston, Andrew J. Peters. By nature Peters was a more conciliatory type than the Commissioner. In addition, he belonged to the same political party as the policemen. He was that rarity, a Yankee Democrat. Here and there they were to be found in Massachusetts, of colonial descent, of inherited wealth, Harvard-educated, and yet by some twist of family allegiance standing outside the old Bay State Federalist tradition. President emeritus Charles W. Eliot of Harvard was such a Democrat, as were the Russells of Cambridge; Winslow Warren, the President of the Society of the Cincinnati and a descendant of the Bunker Hill general; and ex-Governor Eugene Noble Foss.
Peters was an interim mayor between the first and second administrations ot the flamboyant James Michael Curley. He had been elected with the help of the Good Government Association—Goo-goos to Jim Curley—while Curley and Congressman James Gallivan were at each other’s political throats.
To the more optimistic old Bostonians Peters had seemed a sign of the city’s redemption. The new mayor was in the Social Register, he was wealthy enough to be personally honest, and he was conciliatory, as befitted a Democrat. Unfortunately he was also ineffectual. In Woodrow Wilson’s first administration he had served casually as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. In Boston he was lost. While he sat in the mayor’s office, bagmen did business in the anterooms, and greenbacks were passed routinely in the corridors. Under the rule of John F. “Honey” Fitzgerald, mayor in 1906–7 and 1910–14, contractors had a habit of charging the city for each side of a granite paving block; under Peters they sold the foundations of City Hall.
Peters resembled an aberrant Scot more than a Yankee. He had a high forehead fringed by rufous hair that gave him the spurious look of a thinker, and curiously tufted, almost Mephistophelian eyebrows. He spoke in a high voice with a precise, exaggerated Harvard accent.
Politics was an avocation rather than a vocation with him: he preferred golf and yachting to long hours at his desk. Somehow he was able to shut both his mind and his eyes to the corruption of his administration. He gave the impression of an easy, superficial man, inclined to bore.
With dazed impotence, Mayor Peters watched the August days recede. The threat of the coming strike was too much for him, and like other weak men in a crisis he looked for some means of shifting responsibility. The safest and easiest way was, as always, to appoint a committee. So in the last week of the month the Mayor named a Citizens’ Committee of Thirty-Four to investigate and advise on the situation in the police department. The group was made up of old Bostonians, with a lacing of wealthy Irish and Jewish merchants. It was headed by James J. Storrow of the brokerage firm of Lee, Higginson & Company.
At the outset the committee opposed the police affiliation with the American Federation of Labor. Except for this, they felt a compromise could be worked out if Curtis did not force the issue. From August 29 to September 2 they met daily with the president and leaders of the Police Union. But the chief obstacle to any settlement was the Commissioner, whose adamant stand only stiffened the intransigence of the police.
On Wednesday, September 3, he refused Storrow’s request lor a few days’ delay in passing sentence on the leaders of the Police Union, but when Peters made the request formal, Curtis finally agreed to put off his decision until the following Monday.
Meanwhile Governor Coolidge sat aloof in his Statehouse office two hundred yards from City Hall. At this point, as Claude M. Fuess in his definitive life of Coolidge admits, “A single word from him [Coolidge] would probably have led to a compromise, but that word he would not utter.”