I had heard much and studied much of present-day living conditions, but I also wanted to see for myself certain definite examples of life under our present economic regime … I visited the western Pennsylvania miners’ zone . . . and there I found unbelievable misery. Miners receiving wages of but $14 to $24 for two weeks’ work . . . Their food was of the poorest; I studied their menus. One of their main foods at that time was a dandelion weed.
I chose to visit Passaic, New Jersey, because I believe it to be a fairly representative small industrial city … A local minister told me of instances of eight and ten persons living in one or two rooms . . . The minister also told me of many cases of unemployment for over a year; in particular he mentioned one woman who, trying to earn a living for her family (the husband out of work) by making artificial flowers at the rate of 15 cents for 24 flowers, could not possibly earn more than 90 cents a day . . .
… on January 3, 193 1, James Golden, aged 50, an unemployed tin-smith, went into a bakery at 247 Monroe Street, and asked for something to eat. As Rosenberg, the proprietor, reached for a loaf of bread. Golden fell to the floor and died . . . Then there was John Pitak, 43, of 183 High Avenue, who committed suicide, leaving a wife and three children, because he could not find work . . .
Describing the plight of Pennsylvania miners in 1931 who had been evicted from their company-owned houses after losing a desperate, futile strike for living wages, the writer Jonathan Norton Leonard related:
Reporters . . . found thousands of them huddled on the mountainsides, crowded three or four families together in one-room shacks, living on dandelions and wild weed-roots. Half of them were sick, but no local doctor would care for the evicted strikers. All of them were hungry and many were dying of those providential diseases that enable welfare authorities to claim that no one has starved.
We saw a crowd of some fifty men fighting over a barrel of garbage which had been set outside the back door of a restaurant. American citizens fighting for scraps of food like animals!
By 1932, hungry destitute masses of Americans were spread in a great dark tide across the land. Tens of thousands of ragged homeless children roamed the countryside. The number of unemployed was estimated at between thirteen and seventeen million.
American cities swarmed with beggars and hordes of gaunt hollow-eyed men and women who huddled at night in doorways, alleys and cellars, and ransacked garbage heaps for maggoty scraps of food. Everywhere, there were lengthening breadlines, silent crowds gathered in front of employment agencies and before closed factory gates, haggard men and women standing beside pitiful apple stands, and countless workers walking from house to house, from shop to shop, in an endless desperate search for jobs, of any sort, at any wage, to enable them to feed their starving families.
And in every state, like ugly festering sores across the body of the land, there appeared squalid settlements of makeshift shacks and hovels, built of tar paper, packing boxes, tin and scrap iron, in which thousands of dispossessed and poverty-stricken American families now made their homes. These man-dump heaps were known to the nation as “Hoovervilles.”
President Hoover petulantly regarded the Depression as a personal challenge to his reputation as the Great Executive. Failing in an initial attempt to persuade the American people that the crisis was simply a fleeting mirage and that “prosperity was just around the corner,” Hoover issued a series of pontifical declarations belittling the disaster that gripped the nation.
On December 14, 1929, Hoover announced it was apparent from statistics he had studied on the volume of shopping that American business was “back to normal.” In March 1930 he declared “the worst effect of the crash on unemployment will have been passed during the next sixty days.” The sixty days having elapsed, he told the nation on May 2:
We have been passing through one of those great economic storms which periodically bring suffering and hardship to our people. I am convinced that we have passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover.
That July the well-known attorney, Amos Pinchot, and a group of businessmen visited the White House to urge the President to take immediate emergency measures to relieve the rapidly growing unemployment. Hoover listened to their plea with marked impatience. “Gentlemen,” he then truculently told the delegation, “you are six weeks late. The crisis is over.”
Throughout the balance of his term in office, while granting huge Government loans to relieve the difficulties of banks, railroads and large industrial concerns. President Hoover obdurately balked at the idea of Federal relief for the mounting millions of homeless, jobless and famished Americans. Federal relief, asserted Hoover, would be nothing more than “dole” and would harm “the “character of Americans” by undermining their “rugged individualism.
Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., protested, “The relief of human suffering in this emergency should take precedence over the consideration of the interests of wealthy income-tax payers.”
“Demagogy!” scoffed Hoover in reply . . .
While the people’s anguish grew, President Hoover compiled elaborate statistics and charts on the economic state of affairs, formed commissions to “study” unemployment and industrial production, and periodically called conferences of mayors, governors and business executives to discuss diverse aspects of the crisis.
A typical White House conference on unemployment, attended by a group of governors, was described shorty afterwards in a private conversation by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York in these words:
We were to gather for dinner, and Mrs. Roosevelt went with me. We stood rigid around an immense table waiting for the President to come in. He was late, and we remained standing, silently, like stone images. Nothing at Buckingham Palace could compare with this formality. Mrs. Pinchot came around to my side of the table and said everybody would understand if I sat down at my place. A gold-braided aide whispered to her to please return to her place and stand until the President entered. When the President sat down the conversation was conducted in whispers.
After dinner the men were asked to go to the Red Room and the ladies to the Blue Room. The President and his wife softly padded in and greeted our party individually with a fleeting touch of the hand and whispers. We were then herded into the music room like prize cattle and sat on rickety chairs which undertakers use when they run out of seats. Beyond a wide expanse of polished floor nervous fiddlers played, with eyes cocked apprehensively on the aides with the epaulettes. As we were leaving, Mrs. Roosevelt recognized one of the musicians and spoke to me above a whisper for the first time since we entered the White House. From out of nowhere another aide with shivering epaulettes was at her elbow. He whispered to her that if she wished to greet the musician, he would have to arrange it near the doorway as we walked out. The musician greeted Mrs. Roosevelt in fear and trembling. We left in a daze. I cannot remember what was discussed about unemployment.
Abandoned by their Government, living in deepening poverty, misery and despair, more and more Americans began taking matters into their own hands.
Hunger marchers besieged one state capital after another. In city after city, angry men and women banded together to prevent evictions of their impoverished friends and neighbours. Auctioneers conducting forced sales of farms repeatedly found themselves surrounded by grim-faced farmers who kept outsiders from bidding, bought the property under sale for a few dollars and then promptly returned it to its original owners. Throughout the country, unemployed councils formed by the Trade Union Unity League, organized demonstrations demanding food, clothing and work or adequate relief.
Furious measures were employed by the Federal, state and local authorities to suppress the mounting rebellion of the people. Armed troops and police bloodily dispersed demonstrations of famished and jobless Americans. Describing typical police tactics used to break up an unemployment demonstration in New York City, a New York World reporter told of:
. . . women struck in the face with blackjacks, boys beaten by gangs of seven and eight policemen, and an old man backed into a doorway and knocked down time after time, only to be dragged to his feet and struck with fist and club.
. . . detectives, some wearing reporters’ cards in hat bands, many wearing no badges, running wildly through the crowd, screaming as they beat those who looked like Communists.
. .. men with blood streaming down their faces dragged into the temporary police headquarters and flung down to await the patrol wagons to cart them away.
But neither the savage violence of law-enforcement agencies, nor the horrified outcry that “Communist agents” were agitating the unemployed, nor congressmen calling for the immediate imprisonment or deportation of all “Reds”2 could dispel the gathering storm of anger and revolt. Across the land, the slogan spread: Don’t Starve — Fight!
1. The most active congressional committee crusading against “Reds” in America was, at the time, the House Special Committee to Investigate Communist Propaganda. Representative Hamilton Fish of New York headed the committee.