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Current events of 1910-11


There was a lot happening in 1910 and 1911, obviously, and St. Louis was involved in those events as citizens pondered meanings and reacted.  Some of those events occurred in St. Louis, as a matter of fact.  And they are wonderful milestones to be celebrated or mourned by characters in my novels.  Here’s a few national events of note.


President Roosevelt takes historic airplane ride in St. Louis


First off, one that did occur in St. Louis and that you can see unfold: on Columbus Day, 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt was the first chief executive to take a flight in an aeroplane. Columbus Day was a big event, a holiday for school children and many workers, and St. Louis activities centered on the visit of former President Roosevelt, often called Colonel Roosevelt for his military achievements (in the Spanish American war.) Colonel Roosevelt was scheduled to visit the air field that was later to become Lambert Field in Kinloch, as part of his political support for Missouri Republicans. (Alfred Lambert was an early aeroplane enthusiast and had actually gone up in a plane with early aviators during the holiday celebration. Check out Albert Bond Lambert, aviator, Olympic medalist in golf, supporter of Charles Lindbergh, founder of Lambert-St. Louis airport, (Check him out on Wikipedia and elsewhere.) 


Out at Kinloch, there were at least three early aviators in attendance. Arch Hoxsey was flying an early Wright biplane and invited the Colonel to go for a ride. Apparently Roosevelt declined at first, but in the excitement of the moment—some 10,000 were in temporary stands, cheering—decided to take Hoxsey up on the offer.  The plane only held two, of course, and the Colonel’s weight made a difference.  So did his exuberant waving to the crowd.  It is reported that Hoxsey had to ask him to calm down. The flight didn’t last long, but it made history.  


I was visiting the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC as I was preparing to write the third book in my series, a novel that takes place in the fall of 1910.  In a small viewing room in the museum, I stumbled on the video that portrays the event.  The Library of Congress has since put it on YouTube, of course.


In the novel, one of my characters also takes a ride with Arch Hoxsey, before TR gets in the plane. That is not what happened, but it does have some grounding in a later reality.  The early pilots were big on publicity stunts, but I have no indication that they would take a news reporter up for the publicity.  However, in mid-century, the US Navy flying exhibition squad, the Blue Angels, had hit upon the notion of inviting local news reporters to fly with them.  It was a matter of willing reporters putting their names in a hat; one “lucky” reporter’s name was drawn and that person got a flight—not as part of the show, naturally.  (The Blue Angel’s shows are unbelievably intricate and dangerous.  See one if you ever get the chance.) In the early 70s, my husband was a television reporter in Joplin, Missouri, and eagerly put his name in the hat. He still has a photo of an F-4 Phantom, signed by the Navy pilot with whom he flew. I transferred that scenario to 1910 and had my character, who is a reporter for the Globe-Democrat, get the flight with Arch Hoxsey. 



Jack Johnson defeats the Great White Hope in Reno, Nevada, prizefight


There are several books out there about the fight, along with a number of autobiographical works by Jack Johnson. I used three books when I was writing, but the two most useful are The Last Great Prizefight, by Steven Frederick, which I have found only online, and Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, by Randy Roberts, 1983, The Free Press.


July 4, 1910, was a big day for fans of prizefighting along with many more Americans who cared about race relations, one way or the other.  In Reno, Nevada, the former white heavyweight champion came out of retirement to fight the current, black, heavyweight champion. The white man, Jim Jeffries, was referred to as the Great White Hope. The black champion was Jack Johnson, an exceptionally skillful fighter—and one whose confidence, attitude, and extra-curricular activities infuriated many white Americans. Some people contended that Johnson was not actually the champion because he had never fought Jeffries before Jeffries retired.  Of course, that would have been impossible, since Jeffries, like white champions Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan, refused to fight blacks. The men designated by Jeffries after his retirement did take on Johnson and lost, the most famous championship bout happening in Australia in 1908.  There was clearly no white boxer who could defeat Johnson. The press and his acquaintances begged Jeffries to give up his alfalfa farming long enough to dethrone Jack Johnson. 


The background to this has two major elements: Jim Crow and the generally negative view of prizefighting. Even progressives who might have been the most liberal (though not by modern standards) on the race issue thought prizefighting was barbaric and drew audiences of ne’er-do-wells. The fight was opposed by the clergy alliances and many other organizations in every city suggested as a venue. That wasn’t many cities because prizefighting (as opposed to the collegiate-style boxing matches) was illegal in most states. 


Even more important is the strength of Jim Crow sentiment. Much of the American populace was intensely racist, assuming that nothing good could happen involving a black man—unless subservience was good.  The most recognized black spokesman of the day, Booker T. Washington—who had shaken the nation by dining at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt—was greatly offended by Jack Johnson or by any black who would assume to challenge white supremacy. Washington thought that Jackson’s antics along with the possibility of his maintaining the championship would further tarnish the image of the black man in American society.  


Steven Frederick says, “Johnson had the unique ability to antagonize white people on many different levels and from many different angles.”  The opposite of Booker T. Washington, Johnson was never deferent to whites, never humble. In fact, he was the personification of what was called a “sport”: a man who drank heavily, gambled, and visited prostitutes. Johnson’s greatest passion was fast cars, possibly edging out his passion for prostitutes. The fact that almost all of Johnson’s women were white might have been the last straw for majority white America. Johnson was so good in the ring that he would taunt not only his opponent, but also the whites at ringside. In fact, he was as cocky as the greatest white fighter, John L. Sullivan, but as ** notes, it was “an era long before equal opportunity arrogance” for athletes.


Jim Jeffries, on the other hand, was a quiet giant of a man, one who had never really liked the boxing world, but one who had gotten relatively rich because of his size, speed, and heart.  Jeffries was both big and fast, and one of his nicknames was the California Grizzly. The idea that he would leave not only his California alfalfa ranch, but the fishing and hunting and solitude that he loved to come back into the ring—110 pounds above his fighting weight—to fight a black man seems ridiculous in hindsight. The public insisted, though, and ultimately, Jeffries couldn’t say no.  Evidence seems to indicate that he knew he stood a good chance of losing. He did however, get back to within six pounds of his fighting weight of 220 pounds. There were many people, mostly white, who thought he couldn’t be beaten.


Reno was finally settled upon for the Fourth of July contest, amid fears of race wars. Roberts quotes a New York Times editorialist as saying, “If the black man wins thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.”  In the South, an official said, “Why, some of these young negroes are now so proud that it’s hard to get along with them, but if Jeffries should be beaten by Johnson they will be crowding white women off the sidewalks and there are plenty of towns where such action as that would cause deplorable troubles.” He was certainly right about the latter part of that statement. Lynchings could follow in Jim Crow America. 


The early film industry was on hand to film the fight, which meant that there was a value, particularly to the winner, of a longer fight.  A longer film would draw larger audiences. Fight historians think the fight only went fifteen rounds—and a prizefight in those days could go into forty-something rounds—because Johnson was aware of the length of the film.  In the fifteenth round, Johnson knocked Jeffries down three times before the fight was stopped.   


You can watch highlights of the fight, thanks to it being filmed for profit, on You Tube. Not as many people saw the film as hoped to because city after city banned it.  As for live reports, those came from wire stories, literally “blow-by-blow” stories sent out from Reno through the news wire services.  In cities, citizens gathered at newspaper offices to hear the wires read. After the fight was over, newspapers rushed to publish the reports put out by big-name reporters.  Rex Beach, a popular novelist of the day, wrote a review, as did former lawman turned New York City sportswriter Bat Masterson and still-popular novelist Jack London. (It was such a big affair that the search for a referee included President William Howard Taft and the British author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle.)  


But the action soon turned to the average man, or at the least the average fight fan, on the street. Disappointed whites apparently drank heavily and then looked for a good fight themselves. Blacks who had won by betting on Johnson—who was not favored by the odds-makers—had money to spend on beer and an attitude to match.  Deaths and beatings were reported across the country.  A few whites were hurt, with the only white deaths reported in Washington D.C. Wilmington,Delaware had a “lynching bee” after blacks attacked whites, reportedly. One black died and many were beaten in New York City; three blacks died in Shreveport, LA. The numbers on deaths and injuries are all over the place, but include many leading cities in the reports as well as small towns, mostly in the South. In St. Louis, only one significant injury was reported, the knifing of a black man by a white man.  However, there were disruptive incidents all over town, including on the streets, where blacks rented autos and drove about in celebration and ran beside street cars yelling taunts. All in all, St. Louis had less personal and physical damage than most cities. In the weeks that followed, the upper class railed against prizefighting.  Theodore Roosevelt, who had supported prizefighting as yet another manly pursuit, turned against the sport. 


Johnson went on to a career of challenging white society, sometimes with serious consequences for his personal life. Jeffries retired once again. For good.  


I first saw the potential of this event as a set-up to the race issues in my novel St. Louie Slow Drag.  For those references, I used St. Louis newspaper reports. But I wanted more detail for a short story on the changes taking place in 1910. The books filled in what I needed and, more importantly, revealed a fascinating piece of early 20th century history. Had you mentioned “the big prizefight” to anyone in 1910 or for years after, they would have known exactly which event you were talking about. 



And the saddest public event of 1911, surely. . .  


More than 100 die in fire at Triangle Waist Factory in New York 

Many jump to their deaths to escape flames


The setting for this tragedy is New York City in particular and the garment industry in general.  Like much of early 20th century manufacturing, the garment industry was not subject to regulation of workplace safety. The presence of lots of lints and fabric waste made for an easily combustible workplace—and the fact that the few men who worked in the factories routinely smoked cigars on the job provided a spark in some cases. Labor unions, management, and non-union workers, all knew the risks.  The unions had consciously chosen to fight for higher pay and shorter hours in a huge 1909 strike. Management chose to fully insure the workplaces. That assumed, of course, that they could survive a fire themselves, and then move the entire operation to a new location on the insurance money.  The great majority of workers were young, often immigrant, women. They assumed the risks in return for the pay.


The Triangle Waist Company, located in Greenwich Village, had been very involved in the shirtwaist strike of 1909, hiring “scabs” and organizing a management association. The local socialist newspaper had editorialized that the Triangle’s name would be written in blood in labor annals. The strike ended in December of 1909.  The Triangle rehired some workers at higher wages and shorter hours, but rejected the idea of a closed shop. 


Once that strike had been settled, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris settled into trying to make even more money off the shirtwaist craze. As you’ll know if you’ve read the section on clothing, a shirtwaist was the staple of women’s clothing—the word often shortened to “waist.”  Because the industry had become so efficient, meaning in part that it used low-paid labor efficiently, most women chose to buy waists instead of make them. See the clothing section for a description.  


The Triangle was located on the three upper floors of a fairly new ten-story skyscraper. It was located about half a block from Washington Square in Greenwich, at the intersection of Washington and Greene streets intersection to let in light. The ceilings were quite high and the factory floors were wide-open spaces that could be filled with rows of electrically-power sewing machines. Large windows lined both streets of the Workers got to their machines and ironing boards and cutting tables via the The New York City fire chief watched eight hundred of these new factory buildings being built between 1901 and 1911 and warned of tragedy. Six floors was certainly the highest fire department equipment could reach.


March 25, 1911, was a Saturday, and workers would normally leave about five. Management was working as well, on the upper floor. It is believed that the fire started in a scrap bin near a cutting table. Cutters were skilled workers who cut the fabric according to patterns. That process generated scrap that went into bins under the cutting table.  Several hundred pounds could have been in any one bin.  Some 180 were working on the floor, the eighth. Maybe another 250 worked at sewing machines on the ninth floor, just finishing up their day at about 4:45, when the fire started. 


The fire spread from one bit of lint or cotton to another, sealing off exits quickly. Efforts to extinguish the blaze on the floors were futile. The elevators could only carry a dozen people each. Of course, the elevators shafts were also conducting air to the flames. The elevator operators were heroes, making every run they could, but the elevators stopped working quickly—because of the heat and because of the burning bodies of workers who had thrown themselves down the shafts and landed on top of the cars. There was a fire escape, but it not designed for the number of people who crowded onto it and died when it collapsed. At least some doors were locked, a common practice because workers were checked on the way out to make sure they weren’t stealing fabric or scissors or such. The luckiest workers—and the management—fled up the crowded stairs within minutes, before the stairs were cut off by flames, and were rescued from the roof.  Part of the rescue crew was students from the New York University Law School which was next door. 


The fire department arrived within two minutes, and worked valiantly to carry hoses up the stairs and extinguish the fire.  Their ladders wouldn’t reach, and they put out nets to catch jumpers. In hindsight, that may have encouraged more people to jump, although there was really little choice. The nets tore almost immediately from the weight of so many jumpers.  One of the images that remains with us is young women and a few men jumping from the eighth and ninth stories. The first ones simply died from injuries in hitting the pavement. The later ones were burning as they fell. By 5 p.m., the fire department had the blaze under control, but the fifteen minutes of fiery chaos had taken 146 lives, 123 of them women.


One result of the fire was better, if not good, safety regulations.  Another was a more subtle shift of sentiment toward workers and away from the upper classes that had political consequences.  You can find many references to the fire, but the absolute best book on the subject is by David von Drehle: Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, 2003, Atlantic Monthly Press.  He actually has the first full listing of everyone who died in the fire, published almost a hundred years after it happened. Everything above is taken from his book. I was stunned the first time I read it, even as I learned a tremendous amount about labor history and, for that matter, early 20th century society.


The fourth book in my series takes place in March of 1911 and involves labor struggles in St. Louis as part of the setting. Reports of the horrific fire are a dramatic episode in the book, changing the perspective of several characters. 

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