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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
During the day the city remained quiet, but Wednesday evening the mob gathered again, a harder and more menacing mob than the night before. Many of its members were armed, and the ranks were reinforced by professional criminals who had been heading toward Boston all the afternoon. Striking policemen moved through the crowd, encouraging the more violent. Behind the closed doors of the banks and the larger stores, blocked off now by barbed wire, employees stood ready with pistols and rifles. In Scollay Square, at the center of the disorders, steel-helmeted guardsmen advancing across the cobbles with fixed bayonets were showered with bricks, stones, and bottles. Not far from the site of the Boston Massacre, they finally opened fire on their assailants, killing three. Near Cornhill four Harvard undergraduates, acting as volunteer policemen, were almost lynched. On the other side of Beacon Hill several guard companies cleared the unruly Common in a flanking movement, rounding up the surly groups still gathered there. Somehow a sailor was killed in the scuffle. Two other men were killed in South Boston. After that the mob melted away.
The Citizens’ Committee reported that “by Thursday morning order had generally been restored in the city.” The strike was broken. Coolidge had been consulting with Murray Crane and the Republican elders, all of whom felt it was now time to take a stand. So, nettled by the Mayor’s statement and by the removal of the Police Commissioner, Coolidge belatedly acted. By executive order he called out the entire State Guard and assumed full control over the Boston police department, instructing Curtis to resume his post at once.
After the rioting the strike had overshadowed all other news, capturing the headlines and alarming newspaper readers throughout the country. By the time it had made its full impact Coolidge had taken over. At once this Yankee governor with the dour expression became a national figure. His pictures papered the land. Even President Wilson sent him a letter of congratulation. And when the Governor replied to President Samuel Gompers of the A. F. of L., who had asked reinstatement of the strikers, he proclaimed: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Whatever Peters and the members of the committee might think, Coolidge became, in the words of the Boston Herald , “the pilot who weathered the storm.”
On Friday the striking policemen, dismayed by the reaction against them, voted almost unanimously to return to work on the same basis as before the strike. They had counted on organized labor to back them up, but the two days’ rioting had made public opinion too hostile. Commissioner Curtis would have nothing to do with them. He issued an order that none of the striking policemen would ever be taken back—and none ever were. Instead he raised the minimum wage to $1,400 a year and began recruiting a new force.
Meanwhile the volunteers were sent home, and all Boston police duties were carried on by the State Guard. At the time, the Guard was still largely the temporary organization of overage and underage men who had joined when the regular Massachusetts National Guard—the Yankee Division—had been called to active service in 1917. The guardsmen’s aspect was ludicrously unmilitary. They scarcely knew the manual of arms, and they still wore the laced leggings and felt campaign hats of the Mexican Border Campaign of 1916 that had been replaced in the A.E.F. by spiral puttees and overseas caps.
By the end of the year Commissioner Curtis had recruited his new police force, and the olive-drab uniforms of the State Guard disappeared from the city’s streets. Before the strike the police of Boston still wore dome-shaped gray helmets like those of the English bobbies and high-necked frock coats above which protruded the ends of a wing collar. With their leather outer belts and long wooden night sticks they resembled the old Keystone Cops. The new police had different uniforms. The long coats and wing collars were discarded. Caps replaced the helmets. It was the close of an era, the end of the patrolman walking his beat under the gas lamps past the corner saloon, the beginning of prowl cars and bootleg gin.
For Calvin Coolidge it was a new beginning, too. In the 1918 election he had defeated the Democratic candidate, Richard H. Long, by less than 17,000 votes. Two months after the police strike the Governor overwhelmed Long, who had attacked his handling of it, by more than 125,000, the final tally being 317,794 to 192,673. There were whisperings of Coolidge as a dark-horse presidential candidate in 1920. “Jack the Giant Killer,” William Allen White called him.
To entrenched party elders like Henry Cabot Lodge, who were under no illusions about the actual role Coolidge had played in the police strike, the notion of their escalator governor as the Republican candidate for President was an absurdity. “Nominate a man who lives in a two-family house!” Senator Lodge exploded with Brahmin hauteur. “Never! Massachusetts is not for him!”