TWO 

NEIGHBORHOOD WEEPING

Boston, Wednesday, March 15, 1916; 4:30 a.m.

Martin Clougherty locked the heavy wooden front door of the Pen and Pencil Club in Dock Square and started home in the early morning chill. Another good night, especially for a Tuesday. The club was a waterfront gathering spot for Boston newspaper reporters, and Martin made sure that in addition to an ample supply of liquor, his establishment had the appropriate accoutrements to satisfy his clientele: a billiard room, a recreation room, and a library with overstuffed chairs so the conversation and debate flowed as freely as the whiskey. Martin took good care of his customers, and with their regular patronage of the Pen and Pencil, they were taking good care of him.

For the past three years, he had owned the club with two other partners, but finally in January, Martin had scraped together enough money to buy the Pen and Pencil outright. A risk worth taking; since the beginning of the war in Europe in 1914, the club had been hopping every night. Newspapermen loved nothing more than to enjoy a few drinks and smokes when there was important news to discuss and debate. Each night, amid the clink of glasses and the swirl of haze from thick cigars, Martin listened to the city’s top reporters argue about German aggression, the future of Europe, and the role the United States should play in the European war. The heartier the conversation, the more his customers ate and drank, and, particularly since the sinking of the Lusitania last year, Martin could not imagine livelier banter taking place anywhere else in the city. His patrons imbibed and swapped barbs until he closed the bar at 2 A.M., which meant that Martin could not begin cleaning and sweeping in earnest until closer to 3 A.M., when the last of them vacated the Pen and Pencil Club.

Walking home now along Atlantic Avenue, he heard the clip-clop sound of a single-horse wagon echoing a short distance away, most likely delivering fresh fruit or vegetables to the pushcart peddlers in Haymarket, the city’s busiest produce district. It was still dark, but when he glanced out at Boston Harbor he could discern the faintest hint of pink brushed low across the eastern sky. In a few hours, sunlight would sparkle off the gray-green water, but he loved this time of the day best, just before dawn. He loved the stillness of the city’s waterfront, the odd incongruity of his day ending while most of the city’s working men were just beginning theirs, the immense satisfaction he felt from another successful night at the club.

Martin knew the Pen and Pencil Club represented an enormous opportunity, a liberating opportunity, for him and his family. At the age of thirty-six, he lived with and supported his widowed mother, Bridget, his sister Teresa, and his feeble-minded brother, Stephen, plus two boarders, in a three-story wooden house at 534 Commercial Street, on the corner of Copp’s Hill Terrace. The family had lived there for nine years, and while it had served them well after Martin’s father passed away, it was time to look elsewhere for a more suitable home. The boxy house was neat, clean, and modernized with a new plumbing and gas system that he had installed himself, but it sat directly across the street from what had become Boston’s busiest and noisiest center of commerce—the Commercial Street wharf and the North End Paving Yard.

All day long, stevedores shouted as they unloaded ships, and horse-drawn wagons and motorized trucks clattered onto the wharf to deliver goods that would be shipped across the world. Sometimes the cargo would be live animals, pigs or chickens, and squealing would fill the air, punctuated with the screeching of seagulls overhead. From the paving yard came the sounds of the stonecutters splitting rock to be used in the construction of subway platforms and sidewalks across the city, and the clanging of the blacksmith’s hammer at the adjacent city stables, ensuring that the city-owned horses were properly shod. Adjacent to the Clougherty house was a poultry slaughterhouse, which the Italians in the neighborhood would visit early to select fresh chickens for their evening meal. The incessant clucking and squawking from inside, muffled by the wooden walls of the building, reminded Martin of the steady din of debate that took place inside his club.

The worst of the noise, though, came from the trains. Locomotives hauled boxcars and tank cars along Commercial Street in front of the Clougherty house, groaning as they turned onto the spur track that led to the wharf. Directly above Commercial Street, the Boston Elevated Railroad passenger trains traveled between North Station and South Station, every seven minutes all day long. Martin considered it a minor miracle that he was able to get any sleep at all during the day. When he lay his head on his pillow, he was no more than thirty feet from the trains and eighty feet from the interminable wharf racket that began before 7 A.M. and continued for the next twelve hours, every working day.

The noise was only part of the problem. Martin hated the smell and the dirt and the darkness, too. The coppery stench of blood from the slaughterhouse mixed with the pungent odor of manure from the horse stables could make his eyes water if the wind was blowing right. And Martin hated to watch his sixty-three-year-old mother hang wet laundry out to dry on the front porch, only to see her white linens coated with a thin layer of soot a few moments later, as fine black dust from the street and the trains clung leech-like to the damp fabric. Each day when he climbed into bed, he crawled between sheets gritty with Commercial Street dirt.

But the darkness was the worst. His mother woke at 5 A.M. each morning to prepare breakfast and begin her household chores, but she never got a real chance to see the sun rise over the harbor. For years, the overhead train trestle blocked most of the light, and now, within the last few months, the five-story steel monstrosity that contained millions of gallons of molasses snuffed out the rest of the morning sun. Prior to the tank’s completion two months ago, Martin could look out the kitchen window and glimpse patches of ocean between the support girders of the overhead train trestle. Now, when he looked out that same window, he had a full frontal view of the gray molasses tank.

All of this made Martin ready to move his mother and siblings somewhere else. It had been their home for nine years, but the pace of activity at the Commercial Street wharf had made living conditions close to intolerable. Besides, the neighborhood had changed so much that it didn’t even feel like home anymore. Most of the Irish were gone. The few that were left huddled in small pockets near Battery Street and Salutation Street along the waterfront, or near Thacher and Endicott streets on the northern side of the neighborhood facing Charlestown. The Italians had virtually taken over the North End, and while Martin had never encountered any problems with them, he had to admit their bizarre customs and strange language were unsettling. His mother, who had emigrated from Ireland and whose brogue was as heavy today as it was when she arrived forty years ago, had told him many times that living among the Italians made her feel as though she were the foreigner.

Martin thought he would like to move to Quincy or Revere, somewhere close enough to give him easy access to the city, the club, and his friends, but far enough removed to enjoy occasional peace and quiet. He had seen advertisements for homes costing between $2,000 and $3,000 that were large and comfortable enough for his family. He had been working hard to save while paying all of the Clougherty household bills. A powerfully built and athletic man, he had once been a club boxer, and now was a boxing referee. He worked bouts between Irish fighters or Irish and Italian fighters (the Italians usually changed their names to Irish names to attract the predominately Irish crowd that patronized boxing matches), and the income he received had supplemented the money he and his partners had made at the Pen and Pencil Club. Now that he owned the club, he believed he could accelerate his timetable for moving out of the neighborhood—perhaps within three years.

It was nearly 5 A.M. when Martin approached his house. He had made the mile-and-a-half walk at a brisk but unhurried pace, savoring the early morning silence. He paused on the top step. Wharf deliveries had not yet begun. Boat traffic was still. No trains moved. The horses were asleep in the city stables. This was how quiet it would be all the time once he moved out of the city. He inhaled deeply; the strange combination of horse dung and seawater and molasses hung on the damp air, an oddly pleasant mixture at this hour. The early-morning stillness made everything better. He nudged the door open and stepped inside, hoping sleep would come before the Commercial Street waterfront awakened and interrupted his dreams.

Boston, Later That Morning

Thirty-four-year-old Boston firefighter George Layhe stepped off the ferryboat from East Boston and onto the Commercial Street dock. The ferry had fought the late winter Atlantic chop all the way across the inner harbor, and the morning papers had forecast cold rain or snow, but today neither turbulent water nor inclement weather could dampen his spirits. Today was his fifth anniversary as a member of the Boston Fire Department, and his knowledge of marine engineering and boats made him one of the most valuable members of his company. His latest pay raise had brought him up to $1,400 per year, and save for a three-day suspension for fighting with a hoseman one night in 1913, his record was unblemished, and he had the full respect of his superiors and colleagues. His deputy chief, Edward Shallow, would say later that Layhe was a “strong, able fellow, in good condition, who attended to his duties strictly, all the time.”

For his part, Layhe loved the camaraderie he shared with his buddies in the department, men like William Connor and Paddy Driscoll. There were always spirited discussions or a game of billiards or cards during the noon hour. George had been assigned to Engine 31, the fireboat headquarters, since he began working for the department on March 15, 1911, and he considered these men his brothers. He was proud to be part of their family. He was especially close to Connor, who was George’s age and had started his service on the same day. Today, after the shift was over, they would celebrate their anniversaries by dropping in to one of the dockside taverns for a beer.

A handsome man with soft, intelligent eyes and an angular face, Layhe had other reasons to be grateful today. He and his wife, Elizabeth, owned their home on Saratoga Street in East Boston, and with the addition of their infant daughter, Helen, who arrived just two months ago, they now had three beautiful children. The boys, Francis, eleven, and George, eight, were growing fast, and the tight-knit Irish community in East Boston seemed the ideal place for them to make friends and remain safe. It reminded him of the neighborhood in which he had grown up in Fort Plain, New York, where his parents, Daniel and Elizabeth, had settled after emigrating from Ireland.

The difference, of course, was that George Layhe was a widely respected man outside of his neighborhood and he had the opportunity to work at something he loved. His father, like so many Irish immigrants arriving in America in the aftermath of the Great Famine, had been the victim of intense discrimination and had little opportunity to do anything but to perform unskilled labor as he struggled to support his family. George had discussed this topic often with Bill Connor. The worst of the treatment against the Irish was mostly over now, but it had taken place not so long ago. Their good friend, John Barry, a stonecutter for the city who was twenty years older than Connor and Layhe, recalled firsthand how he had been denied work, insulted, and spat upon because of his heritage.

But times had changed rapidly. Now, Boston had elected two Irish mayors in the last six years, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in 1910 and James Michael Curley in 1914, the latter of whom proclaimed himself the “mayor of the people” and enjoyed widespread support within the fire department. Curley had tweaked the Yankee Brahmins immediately after taking office when he proposed that the city sell the famous Public Garden for $10 million. Half the money would go into the general fund and the other half, Curley suggested, would be used to purchase new public gardens in various neighborhoods of the city where they would be more accessible to the public.

George thought the idea made sense and hoped that Curley’s idea would become a reality—East Boston could use a public garden. But it quickly became clear that Curley’s proposal was a mischievous attempt to draw the battle lines between the old “downtown” bluebloods and the new Irish leadership that focused more on the ethnic neighborhoods. He sharpened those lines to a point shortly thereafter when he boasted publicly: “The day of the Puritan has passed, the Anglo-Saxon is a joke, a new and better America is here. (The Brahmins) must learn that the New England of the Puritans and the Boston of rum, codfish, and slaves are as dead as Julius Caesar.”

George and the other firefighters felt as though someone at City Hall was fighting for them and looking out for their welfare. This was reinforced when Curley, with a flourish, ordered long-handled mops for all the scrubwomen at City Hall and announced that the only time a woman would go down on her knees in his administration would be when “she was praying to Almighty God.” The firefighters had cheered, and the Curley legend was born. An Irishman was mayor of Boston, George Layhe was a respected firefighter and a new father, and just about all was good with the world.

As George walked along the pier to the firehouse, he took in the early morning scene around him and marveled at the increase in activity since he began work five years ago. Commercial Street now was one of the main arteries in Boston. It linked North and South stations and supplied the piers and wharves on the north side of the city. From these wharves departed practically all of the coastal shipping out of Boston, as well as the passenger ferries to Charlestown and East Boston, the latter of which Layhe took to and from work each day. From the big freight sheds on the dock everything from leather goods to livestock to beer would be loaded on ships and transported to destinations along the East Coast or to Europe. It was barely 7:30 A.M., and already George saw teamsters, stevedores, railroad messengers, freight handlers, and delivery boys beginning their day in the crowded, noisy wharf area. Adjacent to the firehouse, at the North End Paving Yard, he exchanged quick greetings with John Barry, the stonecutter for the City of Boston Street Department. Barry worked in one of several contiguous wooden buildings that included an office, a blacksmith shop, a stable with more than twenty horses, a wagon house, and a carpenter shop.

Dominating this scene, since the beginning of the year, was the giant molasses tank. The tank towered over everything in the area, including the wharf itself, the tenements across Commercial Street, even the elevated tracks that ran above the busy thoroughfare. It sat just three feet from Commercial Street and fifty feet from the firehouse, which gave George a clear view of the tank every workday. It was painted a depressing charcoal gray color, but depending on how the sun slanted over the harbor, there were hours and moments when the huge receptacle gleamed and seemed to be almost inspiring in its size and power.

It would be hard for anything to ruin George Layhe’s day today, but he became a little queasy when he stared up at the tank and witnessed a sight that had become all too familiar in the two months that it had been standing.

Thick lines of molasses oozed down its walls and painted rust brown stains across its charcoal gray steel face.

Boston, That Same Day, 8 p.m.

Giuseppe Iantosca trudged into the kitchen of his home at 115 Charter Street in Boston’s North End, dirt caked around the knees of his heavy work pants and etched into the lines that ran from the corners of his eyes. He would be forty-one years old in three months, but he felt much older after working for ten hours laying and repairing track for the Boston & Maine Railroad. Lifting and maneuvering the heavy steel rails and swinging a pick and sledgehammer most of the day left his shoulder muscles aching and sharp pain shooting across his lower back. After his shift today, Giuseppe took the train back from Cambridge, then had to stop at the market to pick up some vegetables for dinner. The B&M paid Giuseppe forty cents an hour, and the $4 he earned for today’s long labor seemed especially meager. Worse, the railroad had already announced it would be cutting back the shifts to eight hours, meaning Giuseppe’s pay would drop to $3.20 per day, less than $20 a week even when he worked six days. Giuseppe barely spoke English, but he could add and subtract, and he knew that the new pay schedule would bring him and his family less than $1,000 per year. He and his wife, Maria, had six children—the youngest, Josephine, born just two days before—meaning the dollars he earned would be stretched further than ever. Meat and fresh milk, virtually nonexistent during the week, would now be a rarity even at Sunday dinner, and Maria’s pasta dishes and lentil soup would be the family’s food staples. His children would forgo new shoes this year; each of them knew how to jam wads of newspaper into the holes in the soles.

Maria sat at the kitchen table now, the infant unmoving in her arms. The child was so still that he was alarmed at first.

“Josie?” he said, unsure.

“Asleep,” Maria smiled and nodded to the child. Giuseppe stepped over to them, reached down, stroked his wife’s cheek, and then the baby’s, with palms rough as sandpaper, hewn from years of pick-and-shovel labor. Maria’s face was pale and drawn; she was exhausted from the rigors of childbirth on Monday. She had delivered Josephine with the help of Carmela Distasio, who lived upstairs, but since then Carmela had been able to provide Maria with only limited help. Carmela had four children of her own that needed care. The two Iantosca boys, Pasquale, seven—whom they called Pasqualeno or “Little Pasquale”—and Vincenzo, five, often played together with Maria Distasio, eight, and her six-year-old brother, Antonio.

Giuseppe bent, pain clawing his back, and kissed his wife softly so the baby would not awaken.

“The other children?”

“Asleep,” she answered. “Pasqualeno had a busy day.” She thrust her chin toward the ceiling to refer to the upstairs apartment. “With Maria.” Giuseppe stood silent, waiting for more of the story. “Look over there,” his wife said, nodding to the kitchen counter.

Giuseppe saw three large cans standing uncovered on the dingy countertop. He shuffled over and peered inside. All three were filled with thick, brown molasses.

“They went over to the tank after school,” Maria Iantosca said. “Pasqualeno, and Maria and Antonio. They bring the cans. The molasses leaks from that tank all day long and they go there and scoop it up. We can use it. Otherwise it goes to waste.”

“Can the kids get in trouble?” Giuseppe asked. “Can they get hurt?”

“If the railroad men see them they just chase the kids away, so there’s no trouble,” Maria said. “I don’t see how they can get hurt.”

“No, I guess not,” Giuseppe said. He dipped his finger in one of the cans, tasted the molasses, turned to his wife and smiled.

In her mother’s arms, Josephine stirred, scrunched her face, yawned, and continued to sleep.

Giuseppe was ready to do the same.

The North End in which Martin Clougherty, George Layhe, and Giuseppe Iantosca lived and worked was one of America’s oldest, most historic, colorful, and crowded neighborhoods.

In the early years of the country, the North End had been Boston’s most fashionable address, home to colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson and the city’s most famous midnight-rider, Paul Revere. It was a springboard for the settlement of Boston in Puritan and colonial years, it was the nexus of activity during the American Revolution, and later it became a center of shipping and commerce in a growing city.

By the mid-1800s, however, the economic condition of the North End had deteriorated, as successive waves of German and then Irish poor had settled there. The Irish potato famine of the mid-1840s provided the impetus for this flood of poor immigrants, and by 1850, the North End had become Boston’s first slum neighborhood. John F. Fitzgerald, “Honey Fitz,” a future mayor of Boston and grandfather of a president of the United States, was born in 1863 in a small wooden North End tenement, the son of a grocery store owner. (John’s daughter, Rose, who would one day become the mother of President John F. Kennedy, was born twenty-seven years later on Garden Court Street in the North End.) In 1880, there were about twenty-six thousand people in the neighborhood, and the Irish still made up the vast majority of the population—about sixteen thousand. The combined Jewish, Portuguese, and Italian populations numbered only about four thousand.

Those numbers changed dramatically over the next forty years. More than 4 million Italians came to America between 1880 and 1920, 80 percent of them from southern Italy and Sicily, a great influx that altered the ethnic makeup of American cities in general, and the North End population in particular.

Like the Iantoscas, who hailed from the town of Montefalcione in the province of Avellino, most Italians settled in urban neighborhoods in tight-knit enclaves with others from their particular region, or paese, in Italy. These became not so much Italianneighborhoods as a collection of individual enclaves of immigrants from Sicily, Abruzzi, Calabria, Avellino, and Genoa. Giuseppe Iantosca and Vincenzo Distasio were paesani, as were their families. They lived in the same building, kept an eye on each other’s children, socialized together, and often shared meals. Like Giuseppe, Vincenzo worked to support his family as a laborer, the most common occupation among Southern Italians, who had high rates of illiteracy and were largely unskilled.

As Irish and Jews assimilated and earned more money, both ethnic groups moved out of the North End to better areas of the city, although small enclaves remained in the neighborhood well into the 1930s. The Cloughertys were among the few Irish families that still lived in the North End by the First World War. Most other Irish had moved to South Boston, across the Charles River to Charlestown, or to East Boston, where George Layhe settled after he moved to Boston from New York. The Italian population in the North End continued to soar—by 1910, after a decade of unprecedented immigration, the neighborhood’s population approached thirty thousand people, of whom more than twenty-eight thousand were Italians.

The North End became the center of Italian life in the Boston area. The narrow streets pulsed with vitality, as hacks, pushcarts, delivery trucks, and people competed for right of way. Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, authors of La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian-American Experience, described the general Italian neighborhood in America: “Above the streets, the fire escapes of tenements were festooned with lines of drying laundry, while housewives exchanged news and gossip with any neighbor within shouting distance. The roofs became the remembered fields of Italy where residents could visit one another on summer Sundays while the young played in the tar-filled air.”

But the colorful culture of the neighborhood belied the mostly miserable housing conditions endured by thousands who lived in the congested sections. Tenements were cold and dark. City investigators found the buildings adjoined so closely together that sufficient air and light could not enter inside rooms, except for those on the top floors. Crowding in the North End had become horrific. The inhabitable portion of the neighborhood is only about a half-mile square—only about eighty acres. In 1910, the neighborhood rivaled Calcutta, India, in population density, according to historian William DeMarco.

Arthur P. Jell’s decision to build one of America’s largest molasses tanks in one of its most congested neighborhoods was not due solely to the North End’s prime geographic location. Yes, the tank’s proximity to the inner harbor and to railroad routes were major factors. But other waterfront locations in the city had rail access, including the nearby Irish strongholds of South Boston and Charlestown, and there is no evidence that USIA discussed or even considered these areas to build an aboveground receptacle capable of holding more than 2 million gallons of molasses.

Instead, Jell and USIA saw an opportunity to travel down the road of least resistance with their selection of the Commercial Street site.

Two overriding realities no doubt played a part in their thought process and ultimate decision—social attitudes toward Italians and a lack of political participation among Italian immigrants to control events in their own North End neighborhood.

One of the lesser known and most unseemly aspects of the Great Immigration period is that Italians, especially those from southern Italy, and including those who settled in Boston and the North End like Giuseppe Iantosca and Vincenzo Distasio, were among the most vilified immigrant groups ever to arrive on America’s shores.

The scope and breadth of discrimination against Italian immigrants was remarkable, ranging from physical mob violence in the early years to less overt, yet extremely damaging anti-Italian pronouncements and writings from politicians and journalists. Italian immigrants were lynched more frequently in America than any other group except African-Americans.

The worst single day of lynchings in American history took place in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Sicilian immigrants, nine of whom had been acquitted and two of whom were awaiting trial, were killed by a mob in retribution for the murder of nationally prominent police chief David Hennessy. The killing of the Italians produced enormously serious repercussions, leading to the near-impeachment of President Benjamin Harrison and bringing the United States to the brink of war with Italy. It also began a period of more than thirty years—bracketed by the trial, conviction, and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—of systemic discrimination against Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans.

Leading “respectable” voices often led the way. Shortly after the New Orleans incident, Henry Cabot Lodge said: “Southern Italians are apt to be ignorant, lazy, destitute, and superstitious. In addition, a considerable percentage of those from cities are criminal.” In 1902, the five-volume History of the American People, written by Woodrow Wilson, who would later become president, gave his bias against southern Italians the status of a scholar’s judgment. These immigrants, he wrote, came from the “lowest class of Italy … They have neither the skill, nor energy, nor initiative, nor quick intelligence. The Chinese were more to be desired.”

At the heart of the discrimination against southern Italians and Sicilians, considered inferior to their countrymen from the north, was the widespread view that immigrants from southern Italy belonged to a different race entirely. This perception was prevalent for many reasons: their darker complexions, their tendency not to speak English, and their tendency to be illiterate in their own language. Discrimination against southern Italians during this time was as much racism as xenophobia. The Bureau of Immigration reinforced these entrenched biases, classifying Italian immigrants as two different “races”—northern and southern. One official U.S. immigration report stated: “While industrious, Southern Italians … and Sicilians are less steady and less inclined to stick to a job, day in and day out, than other races.” There were other reasons for discrimination against southern Italians, the ethnic group who made up about 80 percent of the North End’s population by 1915. Most were not citizens, and many traveled seasonally between Italy and the United States, a migratory pattern that earned them the disparaging label “birds of passage” from other Americans, many of whom perceived Italian immigrants as uncommitted to the United States.

The net result of this discrimination angered, frustrated, and discouraged Italians, especially during the first decade of the twentieth century, causing some to return to Italy and others to insulate themselves more tightly within their own ethnic enclave. Italians focused on working hard, supporting their families, creating a support network of paesani, opening small businesses, and avoiding conflict whenever they could. They dedicated themselves to their immediate and extended families, and in most cases, la famigliawas the sole social unit to which they belonged and, together with paesani, the only people they felt they could trust. Italian immigrants created thriving neighborhoods, in Boston and other urban areas, but most were neither community activists nor particularly civic-minded. Quite simply, Italians paid little attention to what was happening outside of their immediate families and circle of friends.

The exception to this rule, of course, were the anarchists, whose violent preachings and activities contributed to the negative perceptions of Italians. Years of poverty and government oppression in Italy fueled the passions of Italian anarchists, shaped their revolutionary philosophy, and drove them to be among the most radical of all ethnic anarchists. Italian anarchists, more fervently than any other group, believed that capitalism and government were responsible for the plight of the working class and the poor, for the “poverty and squalor in the midst of plenty,” in the words of Nicola Sacco years before his arrest. Historian Paul Avrich pointed out that Italian anarchists like Sacco were sure that, “in the end, truth, justice, and freedom would triumph over falsehood, tyranny, and oppression. To accomplish this, however, would require a social revolution, for only the complete overthrow of the existing order, the abolition of property and the destruction of the state, could bring the final emancipation of the workers.”

While the overwhelming majority of Italian immigrants were apolitical, the radical anarchists and their followers frightened Americans and made them even more suspicious of the entire ethnic group.

The discrimination Italian immigrants faced in America fueled their disdain for politics, their suspicion and distrust of government, and their aversion to civic activism. This, coupled with their very high illiteracy rates and inability to speak English, had a profoundly negative effect on the assimilation of southern Italians into American life. Most importantly, these factors discouraged Italians from swearing allegiance to their new country by acquiring citizenship, a necessity if they ever were to vote and wield political power. By 1910, only about 25 percent of Italians in Boston had been naturalized.

“The Italians without doubt take the least interest in politics of any nationality,” historian Frederick A. Bushee wrote in 1903. “They are at the foot of the list by every mode of calculation. Migration of single men (back to Italy) helps to break up organized political work among the Italians, but the chief reason is that Italians themselves have developed little interest in politics.” Immigrant leader Gino Speranza wrote in 1904: “As a nationality, Italians have not forced political recognition. Though numerically strong, there is no such ‘Italian vote’ as to interest politicians. They have no representative press outside of their neighborhoods and well-organized movements among them for their own good are rare.” Little had changed in Italian enclaves by 1915.

Italians continued to marry, have children, buy property, start businesses, and create bustling commercial and residential communities, including the North End. But because most were not citizens and could not vote, they had little recourse when external forces reached into their neighborhoods and threatened their quality of life. And because of the persistent bigotry that labeled southern Italians as an inferior people, few allies were willing to stand and fight with them.

All of this was good news for U.S. Industrial Alcohol.

The plight of North End Italians emboldened USIA to construct its mammoth molasses tank in Boston’s most congested neighborhood. The company expected and received virtually no opposition—the poor, vilified, mostly illiterate, and politically toothless Italian immigrants who lived and worked in the shadow of the tank day and night had neither the inclination nor the political power to offer organized resistance.

A few Boston-Irish city workers who labored adjacent to the tank did comment on its size during construction, but offered no real protest. They left the North End at night, and their homes and families were far removed from any danger. These men worked on the waterfront, but work and home were two decidedly different places. Boston city workers were grateful for both their jobs and the fact that the molasses tank did not stand in the middle of their neighborhood.

So it was understandable that when the tank started to leak shortly after its completion—save for the warnings of Isaac Gonzales—the North End once again remained silent.

By 1916, the munitions companies were on a roll and, by extension, so were the companies that supplied them. Big Munitions and Big Steel, the sinews of war, had rescued America from the widespread business recessions that shook the country during the first two years of the Wilson Administration. When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the outlook for economic recovery in America was gloomy. Factories were working at 60 percent capacity, estimates of the unemployed reached close to a million, and hundreds of thousands of unemployed were near starvation level.

Hard times continued into 1915, but the rapid growth of the munitions trade revitalized the U.S. economy. The value of explosives exported from the United States increased from $2.8 million in March of 1915 to $33 million in November. But 1916 was truly a watershed year for the war industries and the companies that supplied them. In August of that year, the value of explosives exported from the United States reached $75 million, compared with only $14 million the previous August. Some estimates put the total value of munitions exports—explosives, firearms, ammunition, and related equipment—at an astounding $1.3 billion for the calendar year 1916.

U.S. Industrial Alcohol rode the coattails of the munitions companies to its own meteoric growth. From 1915 to 1916, its net profit more than doubled; from 1914 to 1916, USIA’s net profit increased nearly ninefold. In 1914, USIA stock returned investors just under 2 percent; by 1916, it generated a return of more than 36 percent. Twice in 1916, USIA filled its Commercial Street tank to nearly 2 million gallons, just barely less than capacity, in its efforts to keep up with the industrial alcohol production necessary in the manufacture of high explosives—and this was beforeAmerica entered the war.

Munitions factories began operating three shifts, unemployment was dropping, and financiers like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were loaning money for expansion and capital investment. President Wilson firmly believed that the United States should assist the Allied governments to the greatest extent possible within the bounds of American neutrality, a bonus for Big Business, which initially viewed Wilson’s inauguration and liberal policies with apprehension.

“America was already well advanced on the road to war, and she was not to be checked by the weak barriers of neutral obligations,” historian Charles Tansill wrote in 1938.

Nor was her munitions industry to be checked.

Italian immigrants in the North End had remained silent when the USIA molasses tank was built, and afterward, once it started to leak. Realistically, though, even if they had the political strength to speak as one, by the middle of 1916, their voices likely would have been drowned out by the roar of the munitions industry juggernaut.

Boston, Early June 1916

Patrick Kenneally, a boilermaker by trade, sat on a rigging chair suspended twenty feet above the ground, wiping away dark molasses that leaked from the tank’s seams. The chair hung suspended from ropes that were fastened to the top of the tank, and guidelines dropped to the ground to allow Kenneally’s partner to move the rigging apparatus around the tank once he signaled down that he had finished working on one section of the steel wall.

Kenneally worked with a soft rag, a light caulking tool, and a hand hammer. After wiping away the molasses, he would use his tools to flatten the steel on each side of the leaky seam to push it closer together, and then press the steel to seal the leaks.

This was his third day at the Commercial Street tank. They had begun their work on ladders, caulked as high as they could, and then staged the rigging chair to reach the spots that were further up the tank. Kenneally was unaccustomed to working so far above the ground. When he caulked boilers to make them watertight, his work was most often done in a shop. He knew from his decade of experience as a boilermaker that it wasn’t unusual for a newly constructed tank to weep. Although you did what you could to ensure that a new tank was watertight from the beginning, you never really knew whether it would leak until you filled it with water and watched.

What struck him about this tank was that some of the leaks, especially on the harbor side, started high where the walls met the conical-shaped steel cover and seeped molasses all the way to the bottom. They created a series of brackish, fifty-foot streams that meandered to the ground and pooled around the base of the tank.

This didn’t seem right. This tank was doing a lot more than weeping, Patrick Kenneally thought.

It was crying—long, thick tears of brown molasses.

USIA Facility, Brooklyn, New York, June 24, 1916

Millard Fillmore Cook, Jr. assumed the unsigned letter was a hoax. He never actually expected to find a bomb.

Since 1912, when he had become supervisor of USIA’s Brooklyn facility, Cook had operated the large plant expertly, supervising molasses shipments into the five tanks on the site and managing a hundred men in the industrial alcohol distillery on the same property. The tanks were nowhere near as large as the company’s new Boston tank; Cook was responsible for two 630,000-gallon tanks, two 180,000-gallon tanks, and one tank that held approximately 140,000 gallons of molasses. Cook also was under pressure to meet production quotas for the plant’s big customers, the du Pont Powder Company and the Hercules Powder Company. USIA considered Cook one of its best plant managers. This supervisor, whose parents had named him after the thirteenth president of the United States, never seemed to get rattled, even when the plant added a third shift to accommodate the demand for industrial alcohol production after war began in Europe in 1914.

Now, though, Millard Fillmore Cook was rattled. The package the policeman had given him was about five inches wide and eight inches long, wrapped in thick paper, and carefully tied and knotted with cord. From the end of the package extended a three-inch-long fuse that had, thankfully, malfunctioned and fizzled out before it burned down to the three sticks of dynamite wrapped inside. Police had discovered the bomb under one of the tanks, exactly where the letter had instructed them to look. USIA’s Brooklyn tanks rested on a crib-work of wood, which in turn was supported by concrete columns. This left a gap of about eighteen inches between the tank and the concrete, and it was there that police found the bomb.

USIA had operated the Brooklyn plant since 1902, but Cook knew it had never been as busy as it was now, nor was its work ever as controversial, especially in the minds of the anarchists and radicals who were becoming more daring, not just in Boston, but in New York and around the country. Police had found the bomb under the tank that was closest to Greenpoint Avenue, the main street that led to a bridge connecting the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn with a small settlement across Newtown Creek in Long Island City. Cook knew the Long Island City enclave was thickly populated with foreigners. The warning letter he received was written in broken English. You didn’t need to be a detective to know that the letter most likely had been penned by some radical from the other side of the creek.

The only positive aspect to all of this was that the letter had been mailed and the bomb discovered before any damage had been done. Next time, USIA might not be so fortunate. Corporate officials in New York City ordered Cook to question all of his employees and double the guard in Brooklyn to prevent further unauthorized access.

They did not have to tell him twice.

Boston, Monday, December 18, 1916

What shocked William White most was the extent of the destruction. A dynamite bomb explosion had ripped a gaping hole clean through the three-foot-thick brick wall of the North End’s Salutation Street Police Station, shattered every window on one side of the building, blew out the window sashes, and split the window casings. White had heard from people on the street that the bomb had been placed in a jail cell in the basement of the station, directly under rooms in which three policemen were sleeping early yesterday morning, a Sunday. They were fortunate to have escaped injury when the direction of the explosion blew outward against the station’s lower wall rather than upward toward the basement ceiling and the first-floor sleeping area. Police officers had told him that inside the station, floors and walls had cracked, furniture had splintered, and ceiling plaster covered everything.

But the damage stretched far beyond the station house. The bomb had smashed every pane of glass in the tenements across Salutation Street—from Commercial Street to Hanover Street—as well as those in several homes on Battery Street, Commercial Street, and North Street. It had exploded just a few short blocks from the molasses tank. White was USIA’s supervisor of the waterfront structure, and he had walked up here today to see for himself what these North End rabble-rousers were capable of, and what additional precautions he needed to take to protect the tank. He was not naïve; he knew the tank was the neighborhood’s most inviting target for antiwar radicals and anarchists operating in the North End who seethed about USIA’s close relationship with the munitions companies.

Now, kicking rubble and glass out of his way as he walked along the debris-strewn street near the police station, he knew that these lawbreakers needed to be dealt with harshly. It was a stroke of fortune that the explosion had taken place so early on a Sunday morning; the streets surrounding the station were deserted and no passersby had been in the blast’s direct path. Still, police officers inside the station and innocent civilians living in the nearby tenements could have been injured or killed by this cowardly act. The state chemist on the scene, a man named Walter Wedger, told police that eighteen to twenty sticks of dynamite had been used to fashion this bomb, and that the explosion could be heard and felt across the harbor in East Boston. “This is without any question the biggest explosion of this character which has ever happened in Boston,” Wedger said.

White knew that anarchists had been active in the North End during the last few months, knew also of the bomb that had been found at USIA’s Brooklyn plant in June and that yesterday’s explosion had been much too close for comfort. White also theorized that the police station bomb was planted in reprisal against Boston Police for the arrests of several anarchists after a violent antimilitary preparedness riot in North Square in early December. The newspapers called it the “liveliest riot” the neighborhood had ever seen. More than twenty-five shots were fired by police and protestors, though no one was hit by gunfire. Ten demonstrators were arrested, including Alphonsus Fargotti, who was charged with assault with intent to kill for slashing a police officer with a fifteen-inch knife blade. The Friday before the explosion at the police station, a judge bound Fargotti’s case over for action by a Suffolk County grand jury, a decision Saturday’s newspapers reported. White believed that Fargotti’s allies made a bold and violent statement in response, striking at law enforcement’s heart—a station house where police worked and slept.

What White did not know was that Fargotti was a militant anarchist, and that dozens of his allies, who were disciples of Italian anarchist leader Luigi Galleani, had taken part in the early December North Square demonstration. The event had been organized by the International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the “Wobblies,” who had engaged in protests across America, sweeping eastward from the Rocky Mountain states, demanding economic justice for the country’s lowest paid workers. Their efforts began in 1905 with miners in Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, and then grew to include unskilled, semiskilled, and migratory workers of all stripes, many of them blacks, women, and immigrants. Wobblies led strikes in mines, in lumber camps, and at textile mills. One of their goals was to organize workers into one giant union that would one day topple capitalism, a mission that suited anarchists just fine.

The Wobblies found particularly sympathetic ears among poor wage-earners who worked at dangerous jobs and unskilled urban immigrants who struggled to make ends meet, even amidst a robust war economy, and returned from work each day to substandard living conditions. The Wobblies and the anarchists both believed that the war was producing exorbitant profits for business at the expense of downtrodden workers. Though their agendas were not precisely the same—Wobblies favored a Socialist form of government while anarchists believed in no government—their staunch anticapitalist stands made them practical ideological bedfellows. It was no surprise that they often joined hands in protest movements around the country.

The early December North End riot began with an IWW meeting held in North Square, in front of the Italian immigrant Church of the Sacred Heart. Police officers had seen the rally beginning and warned IWW leaders not to speak and to refrain from distributing radical literature. One of the officers cautioned some of the audience to move along and not block the sidewalk, and the riot began. Fargotti slashed at patrolman William Cogan with a butcher’s knife, slicing the officer’s overcoat and severing a tendon in Cogan’s right hand. Close by, a few people in the crowd started shooting. One police officer wrested a .32 caliber automatic from a demonstrator. The sound of the riot was heard blocks away. Additional officers from the Salutation Street and Hanover Street stations arrived quickly, dispersed the crowd, and made arrests. Police found a fully loaded pistol in Fargotti’s pocket after they arrested him.

The North Square riot and the Salutation Street Police Station bombing proved to White that the IWW and the anarchists had grown bolder. They preached passionately against government, Big Business, and the war in Europe, and the USIA tank on Commercial Street was an instrument—and a symbol—for all three. “Continue the good war,” Galleani had written, “the war that knows neither fear nor scruples, neither pity nor truce … When we talk about property, State, masters, government, laws, courts, and police, we say only that we don’t want any of them.”

William White’s assistant at the Commercial Street tank, Isaac Gonzales, had been suggesting for months now that USIA erect a chain-link fence around the tank property. The idea was for the tank itself to be fully surrounded by fencing and for two large swinging gates to be installed on the Commercial Street side to allow railcar access to the pumping area. The gates would be padlocked at the close of business, effectively sealing the property. White had resisted Gonzales’s suggestion, believing a fence was costly and unnecessary. Police officers guarded the tank property day and night and, up to now, their presence had provided a strong deterrent against trespassers.

But this police station bombing, a few blocks from the molasses tank and just a week before Christmas, had changed things. Authority meant nothing to these people, White thought, nor did the spirit of the season. If they were capable of sneaking a bomb into a police station and exploding the device during the holiest season of the year, they were capable of most anything.

Now White believed Gonzales was right about the fence. He would talk to Mr. Jell in the morning about authorizing the expense. USIA had signed contracts with the country’s largest munitions producers, and the company could face financial disaster if its Commercial Street operation were sabotaged.

A fence around the molasses tank would be one added level of precaution. These days, you couldn’t be too careful.

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