Bloodshed on the Common



"A policeman's lot is not a happy one."
Pirates of Penzance

mrs. coolidgeOn a pleasant evening in June, 1920, Governor Coolidge took his usual stroll along the Boston Common from the Executive Mansion to his two-room, $27.50-a-month flat in the Old Adams House. Mrs. Coolidge waited for him there, but he had scarcely said "Good evening" before the telephone ranglong distance from Chicago. When the Governor hung up, as Grace Coolidge told it to Mark Sullivan years later, this conversation took place:

COOLIDGE: I have been nominated for Vice President.
MRS. COOLIDGE: You are not going to accept it, are you?
COOLIDGE: I suppose I shall have to.

coolidgeIt was as simple as that. Calvin Coolidge was not the emotional kind. The nation's second highest office came to him like the rain that falleth from the heavens. He accepted it that way. It was nothing to have a lot of chatter about. If his party wanted him to run with Ohio's Harding to balance the ticket with a wholesome, earth-bound Yankee, he would run. He never asked them; they asked him. He hadn't even set up headquarters in Chicago to stalk the backrooms in the pursuit of the nomination. He was happy on the Common.

To understand how Calvin Coolidge enjoyed such national eminence in 1920, you have to go back a year to the Boston Police Strike and the worst lawlessness any American city had witnessed up to that moment in the Twentieth Century. Since the bread-and-butter argument between the police and the Massachusetts capital was a local matter, the Governor stood aloof from it. While Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis was refusing to see his men or arbitrate their grievances, and the walkout approached, Coolidge left town for the weekend. Neither did he act when most of the force  1117 men out of 1534  struck on Tuesday. But when rioting and pillage swept the capital, the Governor shook the peace and quiet of the State House with decisive action indeed. He sent AFL President Samuel Gompers the 16-word wire that would make him famousand called out the 6000-man State Guard. It was strong stuff, but the mob was out of hand by then.


The cavalry had to ride down the hoodlums running wild on the sidewalks. As the looting went on in South Boston, the infantry opened fire, killing two men and wounding nine. In the Scollay Square section, 15,000 rioters defied the Governor's troops. The mob had been ravaging the stores for days and wanted one more fling. It took a six-hour battle to close the Square. The Boston Globe likened the scene to something out of "some ferocious pageant."

newspaperIn the mood of the day, the typewriter strategists assailed the strike and its effects as evidence that the revolution was just around the corner. Some papers compared the street mobs to the "mad coolidgeminority" that overthrew the Kerensky government in Russia. President Wilson called the strike "a crime against civilization." What everyone overlooked was that the police had gone into the American Federation of Labor because they couldn't feed their families on $1,100 per yeartwenty-two dollars a week, minus what their uniforms cost them. In the eventual settlement, police pay rose to $1,400 and the city bought the uniforms.

Coolidge came out the big winner. He drew plaudits everywhere for crushing a strike with one quick stroke while the entire nation was plagued by industrial warfare. The Republicans remembered this when it came time to pick up a man to run with Warren Harding in 1920. Coolidge's splendidly antiseptic name couldn't hurt. It was an even better name four years later, backed by a little practical experience in the White House.

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