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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
At that Peters made a rush for him, swinging his arms wildly and somehow landing a punch square on the Governor’s left eye. Coolidge did not attempt to strike back, nor did he make any move to retreat, but merely stood there with his hand to his face. Troopers at once seized the gesticulating Mayor. It was fortunate for the Governor that he was not called on to make many public appearances that week, for those who saw him could not fail to notice his obvious shiner.
Peters, Curtis, and Coolidge were all at their desks on Tuesday morning. At one o’clock in the afternoon the Mayor called the Commissioner, who assured him he had ample means to protect the city. Four hours later—just as the policemen were ready to walk out— the three key figures held a last acid conference. To Peters’ renewed plea to call out the State Guard, Coolidge ironically replied that the mayor had the power to summon local units. But Curtis still insisted he did not need the State Guard.
Of the 1,544 men in the Boston police department, 1,117 went out on strike. There was no authority on hand to replace them. Although a force of citizen volunteers had been enrolling in the preceding weeks, the Commissioner did not use them. Years later, Coolidge wrote in his autobiography that he felt afterward he should have called out the State Guard as soon as the police left their posts. “The Commissioner,” he added as an apologia, “did not feel that this was necessary.” Peters, faced with a sudden decision, could not bring himself to muster local guard units. The strike was left to follow its own pattern unimpeded.
As the police left the station houses, still in uniform but minus their badges, they were cheered by some, and a few furtive adolescents crept up to throw mud against the station doors. At first nothing more happened. Then in the twilight little groups began to start dice games all over Boston Common. From the top of Beacon Hill they looked like mushrooms springing up on the slope by the Frog Pond as they formed circles to shoot craps under the shadow of the Statehouse. It was harmless enough at first, a naïve gesture against authority. But with the darkness crowds began to gather on the other side of Beacon Hill in the vicinity of Scollay Square with its honky-tonks and flophouses. For some time they milled about restlessly, as yet uncertain, waiting only for that unifying act of violence that would turn them into a mob. Then it happened. As with all such events no one could be quite sure afterward how it started—a store window was broken, a truck overturned, a woman screamed, and the mob was off.
The Boston mob that first night was truculent but aimless. Around Scollay Square plate-glass windows were smashed and stores looted. Pedestrians had their hats knocked off, there were scattered hold-ups in open view, and later in the evening several women were dragged into doorways and assaulted. Some of the streetcar lines were blocked with mattresses and railroad ties. In the Celtic matrix of South Boston the unfocussed rowdyism confined itself to such japes as stoning the empty police stations and pulling the trolleys off the wires. But there was a sinister air about the carnival in those milling streets.
Tuesday night Peters vanished as effectively as Coolidge had over the weekend. Then late Wednesday morning he finally called out the State Guard in Boston, and before the end of the afternoon the guardsmen were patrolling the streets. Peters soon after issued a statement to the press remarking plaintively that in this crisis he had “received no co-operation from the Police Commissioner and no help or practical suggestions from the Governor.” Now, with the authority he claimed to have found under an old statute, he removed Curtis and began calling up citizen volunteers.
To those businessmen who received badge and revolver from the downtown police stations the strike was an adventure. For once again, if briefly, the old Bostonians had achieved physical control of their city. As one leafs through the old newspaper files one sees them in faded rotogravure, smiling, self-assured faces, the younger men dressed in trench coats copied from those of wartime British officers. Here and there one finds a sterner note: some Beacon Hill relic of the Civil War days patrolling the financial district with golf cap and night stick. Ex-Harvard athletes-turnedbroker are abundant.