April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
One of the country’ more bizzarre labor disputes pitted a crowed of outraged newsboys against two powerful opponents—Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolf Hearst
Joseph Pulitzer, nearly blind, suffering from bouts of depression, and so sensitive to sound he exploded when the silverware was rattled, managed his newspapers in absentia for the last twenty years of his life. Nearly every day he received memos from the New York World office providing him with the information he required: financial reports, circulation figures, summaries of lead stories and features, lists of headlines in the World and its rivals, office gossip, and evaluations of key personnel.
In July of 1899 a new subject appeared in the memos. Don Seitz, managing editor and Pulitzer’s chief informant, noted that the paper had “had some trouble to-day through the strike on the part of the newsboys.” A July 21 memo headed “On the Newsboys Strike” reported further that the strike would “probably be sporadic for some days” but assured Pulitzer that “we have the situation well in hand.” Twenty-four hours later the tone of the memos had changed: “The newsboys strike has grown into a menacing affair.… It is proving a serious problem. Practically all the boys in New York and adjacent towns have quit selling.” By the twenty-fourth, panic had set in. “The advertisers have abandoned the papers and the sale has been cut down fully 2/5.… It is really a very extraordinary demonstration.”
Indeed it was. The New York City newsies had formed their own union and gone out on strike against not only Pulitzer’s World but also William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal . A confederation of children was challenging the two most powerful publishers in the nation.
In 1899 the New York City newsies were in the enviable position of being virtually irreplaceable. Although there had always been newsboys selling papers in American cities, their numbers had been increased enormously by the boom in the circulation of evening papers—three evening papers sold for each morning one by 1900. As people began to live farther from their jobs and to ride home instead of walking, newsboys found that they could sell them afternoon papers to read on the trip.
Nor was the new generation of newsies like its earlier counterparts. As the superintendent of a “newsboys’ lodging house” explained to Jacob Riis in 1912, these children were not street waifs. They were eleven- to fifteen-year-old boys who went to school and then at four in the afternoon picked up their papers to sell during the rush hour. “The newsboy of today,” Riis was told, “is a commercial little chap who lives at home and sells papers after schoolhours.” He was also the newspapers’ major distributor.
The event that led to the newsies’ strike of 1899 was the wholesale price increase Hearst’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World had instituted the year before at the height of the Spanish-American War circulation boom. The publishers, especially Hearst and Pulitzer, had been spending far more money competing with one another in extra editions, splashy front pages, and eyewitness reports than they could recoup on advertising and sales. In hopes of reducing their losses to more manageable levels, they raised prices to the newsies from five to six cents for ten papers.
As long as the boys were making money hawking extra editions with horror stories on the front pages, they did not protest the price increase. They sold each paper for a penny, and though they got nothing back on the papers they could not sell, returns were low in wartime and did not cut into their profits very much. By the summer of 1899, however, as the news grew tamer and the headlines shrank, they began to feel the pinch of the penny increase. And by now it was apparent that the temporary increase would become a permanent one unless they did something about it.
It is difficult to say where or precisely how the strike began. The first reported actions took place in Long Island City, where the newsies discovered that the Journal deliveryman had been cheating them by giving a short count on their bundles of papers. On July 18 they took their revenge by tipping over his wagon, running off with his papers, and chasing him out of town. Flushed with success and in a fighting mood, the boys “ decided to make a stand against the World and [ Journal ] for 50 per hundred,” as Don Seitz reported to Pulitzer. They demanded a price rollback to the pre-war level and gave notice to their suppliers that they were no longer going to buy the Hearst or Pulitzer papers. The news of the Long Island City action traveled quickly into Manhattan, Seitz told Pulitzer, where “a young fellow named Morris Cohen, who sells about three hundred Worlds a day in City Hall Park got hold of the boys and got them to strike.”
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.)
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.’”
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.”
The publishers badly needed police protection for the army of scabs, thugs, and assorted toughs they had hired to get the papers on the streets. When their supply of available adults was exhausted, they sent their agents to the Bowery lodging houses with the offer of two dollars a day plus commission for any man who would sell Worlds or Journals . The boys followed the agents into the flophouses to explain their case. According to a story in the July 23 Sun , the bums agreed to support the boys: “I’m a Bowery bum … and one of about a hundred that’s signed to take out Worlds and Journals to-morrow. But say, we ain’t a-going to do it. It’s all a bluff. We told them scouts that we’d do it when they offered $2 a day, but everyone of us has decided to stick by the newsboys and we won’t sell no papers.”
Those few who appeard at the newpaper offices the next day did so only because they found a way to make their two dollars without breaking the strike. As they left the offices with their papers in the streets; then, after a short while, they returned to the publishers, demanding their money. “Say, dis is easy,” one of them told a Tribune reporter, “it’s a reg’lar cinch. But don’t give it away. I wouldn’t be doin’ it but 1 needs de money.”
The only trouble the boys had was with the women who owned their own stands. Though Annie and “Mrs. Cry Baby, the only name by which they have ever known the eccentric German newspaper woman who is a familiar figure at the [Brooklyn] bridge entrance,” were with them, other newswomen around the bridge entrance, while pretending to support the boys, had “been caught selling the boycotted papers, hauling them out from under their shawls when they are called for by customers. This base deceit has angered the boys very much, but they are at a loss to find a remedy,” the Sun reported.
” ‘A feller don’t soak a lady,’ said Kid Blink, ‘and yer can’t get at them women’s scab pape’s without soakin’ them.’” The best they could do was to threaten the women and try to coax customers away from them.
The boys we’re well aware of the value of public support. To publicize their cause, they took up a collection and, with the eleven dollars they secured, printed up thousands of circulars to stuff in the nonstruck papers and to distribute in the streets and at the bridges, train stations, and ferries.
For the boys and the public who read about their strike, the highlight of the two weeks was the mass meeting held at New Irving Hall on Broome Street. Some five thousand boys from all over the city shoed up to shout their support. The two thousand who were able to squeeze into the hall were greeted by Frank Woods, a former newsie who had become the Polo Grounds announcer. A few local politicians saluted the strikers, songs were sung, striker cheered, and scabs booed.
The newsboys speakers played to the larger public through the reporters from the nonstruck papers. Early in the evening the chairman, conscious of the effect favorable reports might have on building public support, asked the reporters present to please refrain from qouting the speakers as saying “ ‘dese’ and ‘dose’ and ‘youse.’”
Bob the Indian, one of the first speakers, predicted victory but pleaded with the boys to keep the violence down. “Now I’m to tell yer that yer not to soak the drivers any more. … No you’re not to soak ’em. We’re a goin’ to try to square this thing without violence; so keep cool. I think we’ll win in a walk—on the level I do.”
Kid Blink, one of the strike organizers, urged the boys to stick like “glue” and, a moment later, like “plaster.” “Ain’t that ten cents worth as much to us as it is to Hearst and Pulitzer who are millionaires? Well, I guess it is. If they can’t spare it, how can we? … I’m trying to figure how ten cents on a hundred papers can mean more to a millionaire than it does to newsboys, an’ I can’t see it.”
The boys cheered speaker after speaker. Crazy Aborn told how the circulation managers had tried to bribe him; Newspaper Annie shouted her encouragement; Dave Simons, president of the union, presented the assembly with a set of resolutions to vote on; Warhorse Brennan, the oldest newsie, and Jack from Park Row saluted the boys. Racetrack Higgins reported that the Brooklyn boys had hired a band to lead them over the bridge to Irving Hall but were prevented from “parading” by the police commissioner, who denied them a permit. The last scheduled speaker of the evening was “hungry Joe Kernan, the newsboy mascot [who] sang a pathetic song about a one-legged newsboy.” When the meeting ended, reporters covering it felt that the boys were reinvigorated and ready to carry their strike to its conclusion.
The boys held together for the rest of that week and the next. Though there were rumors that a strike leader had succumbed to bribery and been removed from office after a hasty trial by his peers, the boys continued to keep the World and Journal off the streets. Seitz, summarizing the effects of the strike for Pulitzer, admitted that the “loss in circulation … has been colossal.” The press run had been reduced from over 360,000 to 125,000, while returns more than doubled from the customary 15 or 16 percent to an average of 35 percent. “It is really remarkable the success these boys have had; our policy of putting men out [adult scabs] was not helpful, yet it was the only thing that could be done. We had to have representation and the absolute disappearance of the paper was appalling.”
The publishers concede defeat in the second week of the strike by offering the boys an advantageous compromise. The price would remain where it was, but the World and Journal would henceforth take back all unsold papers at a 100 percent refund. The boys agreed to the offer, which not only reimbursed them for returns but also allowed them to take the risk of buying more papers in the first place. On August 2 they began to sell the banned papers again.
The newsboys’ union did not survive long enough to take credit for the victory. It had done yeoman work in getting the strike started, arranging the mass meeting, and spreading the word to the boys and the public. Once the boycott took hold, however, its days were numbered. The strike was so decentralized that the citywide organization had little to do. Each group of newsies policed its own district: the Harlem boys patrolled theirs, the Jersey City boys theirs. Though each considered itself part of the larger whole, none felt obligated to accept decisions arrived at outside the local district. Toward the end all that remained of the union were the leaders and their statements to the press.
Had the publishers formally negotiated with the union, the organization might have been strengthened or at least given something to do. But the publishers ignored the union; when they decided to compromise with the boys, they simply spread the word—through the circulation and branch-office managers—that they were going to accept 100 percent returns. The boys, without formal vote or decision, accepted the agreement and queued up to buy their papers.
So the New York newsboys’ union turned out to be an ephemeral organization. But for two weeks in the summer of 1899, the children who joined together to do battle with Pulitzer and Hearst proved, to the delight of some and the astonishment of practically everyone, that they could organize, and win, a strike.