Powder Waiting for the Fuse

The story of the 1906 Lower East Side school riots

June 27th, 1906 was an otherwise uneventful Wednesday morning in the Lower East Side. In the neighborhood predominantly peopled by Jewish immigrants from Germany and Russia, the kids were off at school and their parents were going about their daily routines.

Press and Sun-Bulletin – 27 June 1906

It was around 9:30 that morning that the rumor first began to circulate—throughout the neighborhood schools, doctors and nurses put in place by the Russian Government were instructed to begin cutting the throats of the children and were going to bury the bodies in the playground. Panic set in and quickly spread. Distraught mothers began running through the streets to one of eight schools in the area where the majority of their children attended classes.

Thousands of women descended on the buildings, yelling so that their children might hear, so that anyone around might help. They threw rocks at the windows and broke through locked doors to save their children from what seemed a certain death. The teachers, caught completely off guard, did the only thing they could think of—they dismissed classes. As the some 25,000 school children streamed from the buildings unharmed, the panic subsided.

The rumor was ultimately proven to be untrue. In all likelihood it was started by one of the many unqualified “doctors” that preyed on the poor immigrant populations throughout the city. But to understand how the rumor started and why the panic was so immediate is to understand how two otherwise disparate elements were at play in the community.

The first involves the city’s Department of Health’s push to bring better healthcare to the public schools. The second taps into the very real fears that the immigrant population was dealing with, both in the countries they left behind and the new one they were trying their best to become a part of.

A dire rumor
The New York Times – 28 June 1906

In 1897, the Department had begun to send doctors and nurses to the city’s public schools to examine and treat the students. By 1906, it was fairly common for doctors to have diagnosed a child, alerted the parents, and, in many cases, treat the student for a host of illnesses and afflictions. Such was the case in June 1906, as some 80 children throughout the Lower East Side were selected to have their inflamed tonsils removed. The parents were notified and, due to the fact that the majority of families couldn’t otherwise afford the procedure, the Department decided to have the school doctors perform the operations.

Enter the quacks. The free healthcare that the Department was doling out was putting  a dent in their business and they were none too pleased. It’s thought that one of their number started the rumor in the hopes of driving their potential patients (and their patients’ money) back into their seedy offices. It was, without a doubt, a foolish and reckless prank. By all accounts, however, the riots that took place were well beyond the intended effect the pranksters were looking for.

But what was it about the rumor that brought about such a visceral reaction?

They were powder waiting for the fuse

To better understand why the mothers in the neighborhood reacted as they did, it’s important to contextualize the world as they most likely knew it. The majority of the predominantly Jewish population of the Lower East Side had immigrated to the United States only five to ten years prior to 1906. They’d come from cities across the Russian empire—cities like Kishinev, Odessa, and Bialystok. seeking safe harbor as much as anything else, as eastern Europe had become a hotbed of anti-Semitism, persecution, and abject violence. In addition to a number of massacres of Jewish people throughout Eastern Europe in 1903 and 1905, news of another pogrom occurring in Bialystock had hit papers only weeks before the riot.

Buffalo Daily News – 20 June 1906

And the New York they’d relocated to was a fairly unfriendly place for a lot of immigrants—due in large part to the native New Yorkers’ perception that the immigrants were refusing to assimilate*. It’s a challenge that a lot of immigrants surely face. At what point are you to let go of your history and completely embrace your new homeland? And should you ever have to relinquish those connections totally? It’s that difficult balancing act that many of the Lower East Side residents were likely trying to navigate.  

So, here was a population that was largely feeling unwelcome in the U.S. and had only recently fled abusive governments.  In that context, the rumor that their children were being killed by government officials doesn’t seem to be as wild as it first appeared.

In the aftermath, the vast majority of news outlets took general swipes at Jewish people and reported the riot as being one borne from ignorance and as another example of why the immigrants needed to better assimilate. Only a few papers appeared to recognized the connection between the horrors the immigrants had left behind and the current rumors of the same.

As for the school-children, there was some hand-wringing about whether the procedures should continue, but ultimately doctors did continue to offer free health services to the mostly underprivileged students.  And interestingly enough, the doctor (a John J. Cronin) that reported on these procedures and the riot briefly ran afoul of then President Teddy Roosevelt on the ever-prickly subject of race suicide, a topic we’ll dive into in a forthcoming post. 

*There is much to be said about what constitutes a “native” New Yorker, considering that today’s native is more often than not yesterday’s immigrant. For the sake of this piece, “native” refers to the population that saw themselves as more established and treated others as such. This isn’t to condemn or condone their behavior, but rather to illustrate how the world looked for both parties in a city that has been (and is) rife with change.

The American Monthly Review of Reviews – April 1907
Brooklyn Daily Eagle – 29 June 1906

Are You Sick? Are You Poor? Are You Unhappy?

He sits behind a desk. He wears a dark suit, crisp, bright tie. His face radiates joy and peace. He tells you that the coming year is sure to bring untold riches. All you have to do is “support God’s work.*” He justifies his asking for money through the liberal use of Bible verses, finding plenty of ways of interperting the words to fit his purpose.

Or perhaps he puts his own spin on things when he instructs that “just like planting a seed in the natural [sic] yields a harvest of increase, when you sow finances to God’s work, you’ll receive an abundant harvest in return.**

No matter the words or the preacher spouting them, the message is clear—the more money you give to the church, the more you can expect in return. It’s a message that particularly resonates with those that buy into the Prosperity Gospel, or the belief that your faith in God (and regular contributions to your church) entitle you to financial success. It’s a system of thought popularized by the likes of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and the president of the United States.

These ideas can all trace their roots back to the turn of the century when American religions were running wild and the money was flowing like the wine at a wedding at Cana. One such religion was an offshoot of Emerson’s sublime Transcendentalism. Named New Thought, it was a belief system that took all of the mystical and vaguely occult elements of Emerson’s philosophy and threw out all the annoying introspection and moral grounding. It wasn’t so much the Over-Soul as the Hand-Over-Your-Money.

Nowhere is this personified better than in the Mystic Success Club, the brainchild of two New Thought leaders Helen Van Anderson and Hubert A. Knight (two amazingly interesting people in their own right). Promising “health, wealth, a long, useful and blessed career,” the club worked as a sort of pyramid scheme / self-help-by-mail series.

Once enrolled, the prospective soon-to-be-wealthy member could expect four booklets to arrive over four months. Each book represented a “degree” to attain through dutiful study and by signing up three of your friends. The details beyond that are scarce, but the gist seems to be that once you master the four degrees, you too will have the ability to swindle people out of their money.

At its heart, the Mystic Success Club and its ilk couch their success plan within the language of spiritual fulfillment. Believe in God, give money, receive his blessings in return. The really clever thing about this sort of scam is it manages to simultaneously take the credit for any success a person might achieve while deflecting blame for any failure. So you gave money and prayed and got a promotion at work? All glory to God and the Mystic Success Club! Did you send in your check and, uh oh, got fired? That’s probably due to a lack of faith—send in more money to make up for it!

Echoes of this sentiment can still be heard today. Often we’ll hear leaders make grand promises of job creation or tax relief or national unity. And often those same promises will be preceded or followed by two simple words: “Believe me.” If, by some chance, unemployment drops? Your belief has been rewarded and this is only the start. When, as is more often the case, those promises don’t come through? There wasn’t enough faith or a lack of support from other entities. The system works, these charlatans will tell you, it’s your lack of faith that is the problem.

As for the Mystic Success Club, it eventually petered out after one of the founders, Hubert Knight, killed himself after being found guilty on extortion charges. The other, Van Anderson, spent the rest of her life lecturing on the various esoteric teachings of New Thought, but never again threw herself into as complete of a swindle as the Club.


*Binny Hinn’s Greatest Wealth Transfer
**Joel Osteen – Today’s Word – March 18, 2015
†Arguably, Trump is one of the most irreligious presidents the country has seen. That being said, the preacher that has had the most impact on his life, Norman Vience Peale, literally wrote the book on success through belief—The Power of Positive Thinking. [Washington Post]
‡New York Magazine of Mysteries – Volume 4, Number 4, February 1903

The Boston Craze Gets Raided

It’s safe to say that turn-of-the-century Boston was a bit eccentric.

Indeed, Massachusetts in general can lay claim to being home to some of the country’s more forward-thinking thinkers. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (of Boston and Concord respectfully) were instrumental in bringing one of the few truly American philosophies to life in the form of Transcendentalism. Mary Baker Eddy, the mother of Christian Science, eventually made her home in Newton, MA. In fact, the entire concept of curing one’s ailments using only the power of the mind that Eddy and her ilk came to embrace was known as “the Boston craze.”

Needless to say, seances were all the rage. And, if you were on the hunt for a place to talk to your dead relatives, you could do a lot worse than Boston. It very well could have been that reputation that brought a Dutchman named Billfledler to a Union Park Street séance on an otherwise unassuming Sunday night in April 1904. It’s unfortunate, however, that his conversation with his deceased wife Gretel was so rudely interrupted by a full-on police raid.

A newspaper report of the raid tells of the police barging in and finding “ a strange scene” that consisted of “May French, a large blonde,” standing on a small stool in front the distraught Billfledler. To make matters even more awkward, she was clad in only “a long flimsy robe with a phosphorescent cross on her breast” and was performing for an audience of 16 men.

The majority of the men apparently knew that the whole thing was a fake, but kept showing up “because they liked the women who ran the performance.” They also took various pseudonyms such as “Evening Star,” “Blue Bells” and “Water Lily” because what would a fake séance be without vaguely poetic fake names to give to the police?

The gag was set into motion through a combination of physical effects and a healthy dose of willing suspension of disbelief on behalf of those most likely to go to this sort of thing with an open mind. There was the aforementioned pedestal, the flimsy and ghostly robe, and a button-operated cabinet that would cast light on whichever of the deceased happened to show up that night—a list that largely depended on who could bring in the largest crowds. It was reported that the spirit of recently deceased Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks also made an appearance and was a bonafide hit with the “religious minded women who occasionally attended.”

This particular evening ended with the arrest of both women and the charge of “being idle and disorderly persons.” No word was given on what the hapless Billfledler thought of the whole evening.

[Source: Boston Post 25 April, 1904]