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Jews and Police Abuse in the Early 20th Century

Robert Slayton
March 27, 2017

by Robert Slayton

LAST SUMMER, before election fever took hold, the big headlines concerned accusations of police abuse and police killings. Jews weren’t making these claims -- but a century ago Jews were among the first “white” minorities to undergo this kind of treatment, and to protest it.

Rabbi Jacob Joseph was a leading figure in the Jewish world, a sage in Vilna, one of the cultural and academic capitals of Judaism. In 1888, a network of Orthodox New York Jews, hoping to grow their prestige and presence, arranged for Joseph to come to the New World as “chief rabbi” -- a new position.

The transfer did not work out. Other rabbis protested and refused to defer to Rabbi Joseph, who seemed hopelessly out of touch with a modern version of his faith. The future editor of the Forverts, Abraham Cahan, referred to him as a “man of the third century” for whom “the very notion of a man and his wife taking a walk together, like a gentile couple, would have shocked [the rabbi’s] sense of decency.” Joseph also opposed labor unions, which alienated him from Jewish workers. In a short time he was ostracized and shunned, left to contemplate the Torah before a dwindling congregation.

When the rabbi died on July 28, 1902, however, a huge response blossomed, possibly fueled by guilt over his treatment. On July 30, the funeral procession began, now a major event. Two hundred carriages transported the family and various dignitaries, jostling their way through a crowd estimated at between 50,000 ad 100,000. The New York Sun reported, “No Orthodox Jew was too old or too feeble to join” the procession. Police, however, assigned only twenty-five officers to handle the crowd, despite a call the night before from a reporter at one of the Yiddish newspapers, informing them that the crowd would be enormous.

By 1:00 pm, the procession was passing Hoe and Company, a printing press manufacturer, housed in a huge building. As the marchers proceeded, mayhem broke out. First, a stale loaf of bread hit the man driving the bier with the coffin, and then violence took hold. Some screws and hunks of iron, and then a rag doused in oil, dropped into the carriage behind the coffin, endangering its rabbinical passengers. The tempo increased to a veritable shower of screws, iron bolts, blocks of wood, and food, while water from buckets and hoses poured out of windows onto the crowd below. Police standing in front of the factory stood there mute, just watching. Most accounts claim the Hoe workers were Irish, but more recent investigations of census records and police reports indicate their ethnicity was German.

At 1:20, responding to calls from factory officials, police showed up in force, but the outburst had already begun to subside. Now two hundred strong, this police force, according to the official investigating commission, “Without a word of warning or any request to disburse . . . rushed into the remnant of the gathering, some of them with great roughness of language and violence of manner.” The New York Times reported, “It was evident from the actions of the officers that they considered the mourners in the wrong.” In charge of this battalion was Inspector Adam Cross, who had earlier received and ignored the reporter’s warning. According to one account, Cross wielded his club viciously, shouting, “Kill those sheenies! Club them right and left!”

Patrolmen followed his instructions, wading into the crowd and striking at random. After thirty minutes of bedlam it was over, with numerous Jews suffering injuries. An office worker in a nearby building saw police go after those trying to flee, catching and clubbing the ones they caught. In later testimony, a Jew said that after having been beaten, he was thrown into a police wagon where several patrolmen choked him. Another claimed that an officer repeatedly banged his head against the side of a police wagon; the New York Times commented that “his face looked as though he had been the loser in a prizefight.” Doctors now spent an hour at the scene, treating over two hundred for injuries. The police arrested eleven Jews, but no one from the Hoe factory. Leonard Dinnerstein, author of the pioneering and still definitive accounts of this incident, felt “the police went berserk,” and called it “the worst anti-Semitic police riot … in America.”

MAYOR SETH LOW, who had been elected, with support from Jewish voters, on a platform of reforming the police, promised an investigation. But as his first move he put in charge Colonel John Partridge, a former chief of police, who chose as his principal adviser none other than Inspector Cross himself. Cross conducted the review by speaking with a few people at Hoe and then turning in a perfunctory report that exonerated the police. When reporters spoke to him, the dialogue was more of the same:

Reporters: Then you do not intend to solicit such complaints [from Jews]?

Cross: No why should I?

Reporters: How, then, do you expect to get at the facts?

Cross: Never you mind. Leave that to me.

In his report, Cross claimed that “no clubbing was done in front of the Hoe factory . . .” He then went on to state instead that the mourners had come armed with projectiles, that the attack was their fault, and “premediated.” The New York Sun dismissed this bluntly as a “remarkable assertion.”

Mayor Low had also set up an independent citizen’s committee, made up of leading citizens, including the prominent Jewish attorney Louis Marshall. When they interviewed Hoe employees they got honest testimony, including from a foreman who said the riot had been pre-planned by his people. The final report concluded, “It is universally conceded that those who actually took part in the funeral procession are entirely without fault.” Cross’s attempt to blame marchers was “without any basis of justification,” and responsibility lay with Hoe employees. Nevertheless, Partridge ruled that any charges against his men were “without foundation” and hence none would be disciplined in any manner.

The story of Rabbi Jacob Joseph’s funeral revealed deep and longstanding abuse of the Jewish minority by New York’s police force. One historian commented that the city’s police had “a reputation for brutal treatment of East Side Jews.” The New York Times observed that “the police . . . regard the Jews of the Lower East Side not as claimants for protection but as fit objects of persecution . . . not only not protected by the police, they are in need of protection against the police.” The New York Tribune wrote that the police had “failed disgracefully” in carrying out their duty.

After the riot there were numerous protest rallies. One of the subsequent resolutions denounced “smoldering antisemitism, which if untouched, will lead to anarchy.” It is not clear if those last words relate to police conduct or reaction by Jews, but the whiff of violence is unmistakable.

Yet six years after the riot, New York Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham declared in the North American Review that Jews composed 50 percent of the city’s entire criminal class. Citywide authorities, as well as Jews, protested this falsehood and forced Bingham to issue a retraction.

The Black Lives Matter movement, of course, is protesting an abuse of black Americans by police and the criminal justice system that hails back centuries, to slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, race riots, and a pervasive culture of racist violence. In the early 20th century, however, poor and embattled Jews were among the first white minorities to share with black Americans the experience of police abuse -- and to protest it.

Robert Slayton is professor of history at Chapman University and author Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith. He previously appeared here with “America’s First Illegal Immigrants.”