Chapter IX 1. Force and Violence
It is one of our proudest boasts that the American working class has, generally speaking, the highest standard of living of any working class in the world. How did our workingmen achieve this position? Only through struggle, intense struggle against bitter opposition, and especially through the struggle of organized labour. — From a speech by Rockwell Kent, September 1948
Those who call for violence against radicals, strikers and Negroes go scot-free. Not a conviction, not a prosecution in fifteen years . . .. But the reactionaries not only incite violence; they practice it … It is plain . . . that those who defend majority prejudice or property rights may not only advocate but practice violence against their enemies without fear of prosecution. — American Civil Liberties Union Report, 1936
I understand sixty or seventy-five shots were fired in Wednesday’s fight. If this is true, there are thirty or thirty-five of the bullets accounted for. I think the officers are damned good marksmen. If I ever organize an army they can have jobs with me. I read that the death of each soldier in the World War consumed more than five tones of lead. Here we have less than five pounds and these casualties. A good average, I call it.
R. W. Baldwin, president of the Marion Manufacturing Company, as quoted in the “Asheville Citizen” after the killing of six unarmed strikers at his plant and the wounding of eighteen by deputies on October 1, 1929
I. King of the Strikebreakers
In JANUARY 1935, Fortune magazine featured an article describing the remarkable career of an American millionaire whose fame and fortune had been, according to the magazine’s editors, “in a business that is permitted to exist nowhere except in the U.S.”
The millionaire’s name was Pearl L. Bergoff. His business was professional strikebreaking.
The opening sentences of the Fortune article posed this hypothetical problem to the reader:
You are the president. It says so on your office door. A week ago your workers — your “boys” as you used to fondly refer to them — served notice on you that you had just seven days in which to make up your mind to raise their pay from $4.00 to $4.50 a day. Either that or else . . . You are within some twelve hours of the deadline . . . your head has not stopped aching for four days and four nights.
How much did that guy say he wanted? For fifty thousand dollars he’d give you an absolute guarantee that he would break the strike, smash the union, and leave you undisputed master of your plant. For fifty thousand dollars and how many broken heads?
The article went on:
The foregoing is meant to convey some slight idea of the mental confusion into which the average executive falls when he is confronted with the appalling crisis of a strike … if, at last, he decides to face the issue and fight it through, the probabilities are that he will rise up and telephone one Mr. Pearl L. Bergoff, of Bergoff Service, in New York City. For Mr. Bergoff is the oldest, toughest, hardest-boiled practitioner in the field of professional strikebreaking. There is nothing indecisive about Mr. Bergoff.
For more than two decades, Pearl Bergoff had enjoyed national fame. Newspapers throughout America referred familiarly to the redheaded strikebreaker as “The Red Demon.” Thousands of professional gunmen and petty racketeers respectfully called him “The General.” Bergoff’s own preference in titles was one that he himself had coined — “King of the Strikebreakers.”
There had been other widely known strikebreakers before Pearl Bergoff, and he had a number of eminently successful contemporaries. But for the ruthless smashing of major strikes, for unrestrained bloody violence and for distinguished clients, there was no strikebreaker in America in the early 1930’s to equal Bergoff’s record. It was Pearl Bergoff who put strikebreaking in the United States on a modern, mass production basis.
“Money is my sole aim,” stated Bergoff when, as a tough, bull-necked, quick-witted young man he arrived in New York City at the turn of the century, opened up a detective agency and began offering his services as personal bodyguard to wealthy New Yorkers. In 1907 he decided that there was, in his own words, “more money in industrial work.” By “industrial work” Bergoff meant strikebreaking.
With the country entering a period of depression and intense labor strife, there was an immediate widespread demand among employers for the “industrial services” of the Bergoff Detective Bureau. In the words of Fortune magazine: “An exquisitely profitable decade stood ahead of him.” . . .
As his reputation for effective strikebreaking grew during the next years, and more offers of work than he could handle poured into his office, Bergoff became extremely particular about the jobs he accepted. Sometimes, as a personal favor for some important concern, Bergoff agreed to break a small strike, provided of course that the fee was adequate. But ordinarily, Bergoff specialized in breaking major strikes in key industries. “Others may break a button-hole makers’ strike,” said Bergoff. “When it’s a steel strike they call on me.”
These were some of the numerous American firms which employed Bergoff’s services during 1907- 1935:Pressed Steel Car Company Erie Railroad Munson Steamship Line Holland-American Line Postal Telegraph-Cable Company Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Baldwin Locomotive Works Southern Pacific Railroad Pennsylvania Railroad New York Central Railroad Interborough Rapid Transit of New York City Standard Oil of New York Standard Oil of New Jersey Wells Fargo Express Company Trenton Street Railway Morgan Steamship Line Wilson Steamship Line Havana-American Steamship Line American Smelting and Refining Company
The fees that Bergoff received for breaking strikes were commensurate with the prominence of his clients in the business world. By 1925, the net profits of Bergoff ‘s firm had totalled $10,000,000. His own income at the time was $100,000 a year in salary, plus several hundred thousand dollars in dividends and bonuses. His personal fortune was then estimated at $4,000,000.1
“The preparation for breaking a strike,” Pearl Bergoff told a journalist in 1934, “resembles the mobilization of a small army for actual warfare.”
To aid in mobilizing his strikebreaking army and directing its operations in the field, Bergoff hired as special aides a group of hand-picked ruffians, most of whom had prison records and all of whom were adept in the use of fists, guns, knives and blackjacks. Bergoff called these aides his “nobles.”
For his “army reserves,” as he termed them, Bergoff relied chiefly on derelicts, hoodlums, petty criminals and professional strikebreakers. Their function was to fill the jobs of striking workers, and, if not actually to work themselves, to give at least the appearance of active production by such devices as keeping smoke pouring from factory chimneys. These men were known as Bergoff’s “finks.”
It was understood that the few dollars a day which Bergoff’s finks were paid did not represent their full remuneration and was to be supplemented by whatever tools, factory equipment, clothing and other goods they could steal while on the job. “Bergoff’s finks,” wrote Edward Levinson in 1935 in his book I Break Strikes! The Technique of Pearl L. Bergoff, “have stolen everything from plumbing fixtures to $50,000 worth of furs.”
Classifying them according to “training and experience,” Bergoff maintained a huge list of the “finks” and “nobles” he had employed throughout his years of strikebreaking. “This list,” he said, “is my most priceless stock in trade, the core of my business, and could not be duplicated or retraced because it is the product of time primarily, combined with the exercise of discrimination and grilling experience.”
Here are the names and records of typical “nobles” on Bergoff’s list:
James Francis O’Donnelly alias Two-Gun Jim O’Donnell: Grand larceny, 1917, New York City, term at Blackwell’s Island; manslaughter, 1926, Dumont, N.J., sentenced to eight years in New Jersey State Prison.
James Weiler, alias Joe Spanish: manslaughter, 1919, New York City, term at Dannemora Prison; assault, 1925, New York City; felonious assault, 1934, discharged.
John B. Baron, alias Jesse Mandel: Petty larceny, 1903, New York City; petty larceny, 1905, New York City, sent to Reformatory; grand larceny, 1909, New York City, sent to Elmira Reformatory; grand larceny, 191 o. New York City sentenced to five years in Sing Sing.
James Tadlock: drug addiction, 192 r, Philadelphia, Pa., two years and six months confinement; impairing morals of a minor, 1934, New York City, penitentiary term.
William Stern, alias Kid Steinie: petty larceny, 1911, New York City, three months sentence; homicide, 1920, New York City, ten to twenty years in Sing Sing.
Joseph Cohen, alias Joe Pullman: robbery, 1924, Cleveland, Ohio, pleaded guilty to assault and battery, fined; assault and battery, 1930, Cleveland, Ohio, discharged; carrying concealed weapons, 1930, Cleveland, Ohio, discharged; violation of Harrison Narcotic Act, 1931, sixty days in jail; assault, 1932, no disposition recorded; assault, 1932, St. Louis, Mo., no disposition recorded; disorderly person, 1934, Jersey City, N.J., ninety days in jail.
“When we put a man on strike duty as a guard,” stated Bergoff, “we want a man of good habits. At the same time we cannot have any Sunday School teachers working for us.”
Violence and bloodshed invariably accompanied Bergoff’s strikebreaking activities. “Injuries and fatalities,” reported Fortune, “were of only minor concern to him. His aim was psychological.”
Since local law enforcement agencies usually worked in collusion with the powerful corporations that employed Bergoff, his strike- breakers committed innumerable crimes with impunity. His armies of derelicts and gunmen descended on city after city, like hordes of medieval mercenaries, robbing and terrorizing whole populations, and leaving in their bloody wake a mounting toll of injured and dead.
The deliberate provocation of violence was a regular practise with Bergoff. A Bergoff gunman, “Frenchy” Joe, told the Collier’s writer, John Craige, during one strikebreaking operation:
“You give me twenty-five good guards with clubs and guns, and put ’em in wagons, and give me a couple of stool-pigeons with guns to run through the crowds and fire at the wagons to give us a chance to start, and we’d run through the crowds in this town in a day . . . We’d gentle ’em. We’d give ’em such a taming they’d run every time they saw an express wagon, or else they’d get down on their knees and say their prayers. And look at the things we could shake out of this town if the thing worked right.”
“For those who preferred the unexpected,” relates Edward Levinson in his biography of Bergoff, “there were the two Bergoff lunatics, Francis W. Magstadt and Joe Schultz, — one escaped from an asylum and the other on his way to one. Turned loose among a group of unsuspecting strikers, they could be counted upon to slug and shoot, unfettered by the cramping bonds of sanity.” 2
On October 24 and 25, 1934, in a series of two signed articles in the New York Post, entitled “I Break Strikes,” Bergoff reviewed his record as a strikebreaker with the pride of an eminently successful self-made businessman.
“Strikebreaking is my profession,” wrote Bergoff. “I have been a leader in the field for more then thirty years, almost without interruption. I have mobilized small armies on a few hours’ notice answering the call of railroads, traction and steamship companies in scores of cities . . .”
According to Bergoff, the basic techniques of strikebreaking had changed very little since he first entered the profession. The chief objective was still to undermine the morale of the strikers and “persuade” them of the hopelessness of their cause. There had, it was true, been some developments in the instruments of persuasion:
In the old days we maintained an arsenal. We had 2,500 rifles with plenty of ammunition. A couple of thousand nightsticks and clubs were always on hand. Today we keep pace with the modern requirements. We sent tear gas to Georgia in the recent textile strike . . . 3
Noting that the net income derived from any business enterprise was the ultimate test of its success, Bergoff observed: “The profits of strikebreaking have been large.” But success could not, of course, be measured in financial terms alone. He had other causes for gratification:
… I have come to look upon the services rendered by my organisation to commerce and industry as basically similar to those of the physician to the ailing individual. I believe there is an academic or collegiate degree of “Doctor of Economics” but I feel that I can justly lay claim to that of “Doctor of Practical Economics,” without exposing myself to undue criticism.”
There were others in America who had come to share Bergoff’s own estimate of his importance as an American citizen. Newspapers in the early 1930’s quoted the millionaire strikebreaker’s views on national and international affairs. Financial journals commented on the phenomenal success of the Bergoff Service Bureau. A grand jury investigating riots connected with one of Bergoff’s strikebreaking operations extended a vote of thanks to him “for saving the city from disaster.”
Among Bergoff’s friends and social acquaintances were well- known politicians and prominent businessmen. Bergoff played golf at fashionable country clubs, donated impressive sums to charity, and joined the Catholic Church. In Bayonne, New Jersey, where he had settled with his family, Bergoff financed the construction of an office building with his initials, “P.L.B.,” carved in gothic letters on the facade…
In December 1934, after twenty-seven years of transporting armies of desperadoes about the countryside, terrorizing whole cities and causing the deaths of scores of citizens, Pearl Bergoff finally appeared in a court of law. The charges against him were brought not by any state or federal agency, but by a group of ex-convicts and professional strikebreakers. Their complaint was that Bergoff had hired them to help break a strike and then failed to reimburse them for their services. They were suing Bergoff for wages and traveling expenses.
The trial took place in the Municipal Court of the City of New York, with Justice Keyes Winter presiding.
Bergoff’s attorney sought to discredit the testimony of his client’s former employees by challenging their credibility as witnesses. “Were you ever convicted of a crime,” he asked Harry Borak, a swarthy young man wearing spats.
Borak turned indignantly to Judge Winter. “Judge, I’m not a stickup man,” he protested. “I was going with a girl. She wouldn’t marry me and I shot her. I was a young man and I was in love.”
When another of the plaintiffs, Bennie Mann, took the witness stand, Judge Winter leaned forward, staring at a prominent bulge in one of the man’s pockets. The judge asked Mann, “Have you a gun on you?”
“Sure,” said Mann.
“And why do you come into this court with a gun?” demanded Judge Winter.
“I was expecting to go to work this morning,” Mann explained.
When Bergoff testified, he proudly informed the court, “I’ve served American industry, north, south, east and west. I’ve been thirty years in harness to American industry. I’ve shipped armies of men to Cuba and Canada. Railroad strikes, dock strikes, transit strikes and textile strikes, I’ve broken them all in my time, and there’s still plenty of demand for my services . . .”
The charges against him, snapped Bergoff, darting venomous glances at his accusers, were absolutely false. His professional ethics, he declared, were highly esteemed among business leaders. “Railroad presidents, I know them all and they’ve all used me,” Bergoff told the judge. “In the history of my campaigns I’ve never cheated a man out of a penny. I’m the best known of any strikebreaker in the country.”
Notwithstanding Bergoff ‘s eloquent plea, the decision of the court went against him. Judge Winter ruled that Bergoff must pay the strikebreakers the wages and expenses that were due them.
The wording of the court’s decision mitigated the blow to Bergoff’s prestige. In it Judge Winter spoke of Bergoff as “the active genius of his profession” and made flattering reference to his “fame as a leader in Industrial Service … his masterly activities on behalf of large corporations . . .”
Bergoff’s “masterly activities,” however, were drawing to a close.
With the rapid growth of the trade union movement, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, and the enactment of federal legislation forbidding the transport of strikebreakers across state lines, the bonanza days of Bergoff’s profession were over.
In 1936 Pearl Bergoff, self-styled King of the Strikebreakers, closed his office and went into permanent retirement.4
1. In 1925, following a sharp unexpected decline in his business, Pearl Bergoff went into temporary retirement. “I closed the office,” he subsequently related, “and went to Florida . . . and took a flier in real estate.”
After dropping $2,000,000 in Florida land speculations, Bergoff returned to New York City and reorganized his strikebreaking firm under the name, Bergoff Service Bureau.
Bergoff’s new headquarters occupied four rooms on the fourteenth floor of the Fred F. French Building at 551 Fifth Avenue. In the sparsely furnished reception room there hung a sign, which read: “No loud noise or profanity.” Before being admitted to the inner office, visitors were carefully scrutinized through an iron-grilled peephole. Bergoff’s own private office was adorned with framed newspaper clippings of his exploits and testimonial letters from leading business executives.
Following the stock market crash of 1929, the Bergoff Service Bureau, together with other outstanding business concerns, temporarily encountered difficult times. Said Bergoff later, “Business was so rotten we had to sell our arsenal. Conditions were terrible. I’m not blaming Mr. Hoover, y’understand.”
2. A typical if early Bergoff campaign was that which took place when the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company hired him in 1910 to break a strike of 5000 motormen and conductors seeking an increase in their 21-cent an hour wage. For weeks a reign of terror gripped Philadelphia. Bergoff’s strikebreakers robbed shops, broke into private homes and shot strikers and other Philadelphia citizens. On one occasion a gang of drunken Bergoff strikebreakers piled into two trolley cars, and took them on a mad rampage of the city, shooting wildly at people in the streets and wounding about a dozen people, including a sleeping infant.
“The first day of the strike two of our men were killed,” Bergoff subsequently related. “I buried one of them at our own expense. He was a man with a family.”
The journalist, John Craige, who was in Philadelphia during the strike, reported in an article in Collier’s: “Never before were there such systematic, wilful, brutal, unprovoked assaults upon an unoffending populace in an American city. There has never been such wholesale pilfering and looting. If you gave the strikebreaking conductor a coin you got no change. If you protested you were thrown off the car and clubbed, and if you resisted you ran a fine chance of being shot. I will never forget the sight of a mother with a child in her arms . . . staggering along, blood pouring from three jagged cuts in her head, administered by one of these guards.”
The Philadelphia police made no attempt to prevent the outrages committed by Bergoff’s strikebreakers.
During the two months taken by Bergoff to break the Philadelphia Rapid Transit strike; sixteen men, women and children were killed.
Fatalities frequently accompanied Bergoff’s strikebreaking activities. For example, in his attempt to smash a strike at The Pressed Car Steel Works at AlcKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, in 1909— a venture which first gained Bergoff national repute — there were twenty-two deaths. Among the dead were two Bergoff gunmen. “We paid four or five thousand dollars for each of our men killed,” said Bergoff afterwards. “The income was so large that this expense made no difference.”
3. The article on Pearl Bergoff in Fortune magazine had this to say about his arsenal: “He values his current arsenal at $14,500 and replenishes it from time to time as fresh bargains come along. Tear gas he buys from Federal Laboratories, Inc. in Pittsburgh, [For data on Federal Laboratories, Inc. see next chapter] Nightsticks he buys by the gross from police supply houses, of which there are many in Chicago and New York, with Cahn-Walter Co. of Lafayette Street, Manhattan, getting the bulk of Bergoff orders. Brass knuckles are available from numerous sources. As to machine guns: a recent federal statute requires that owners of them be registered — but a considerable bootleg traffic goes on in them nonetheless, and they can usually be had by anyone who puts his mind to it.”
4. On August II, 1947, Pearl L. Bergoff died in the St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. The hospital records reveal a final gesture of vanity: on entering the hospital a week before his death, Bergoff had claimed to be eight years younger than he actually was.
“I knew him a long time,” wrote Westbrook Pegler in his syndicated column in the Hearst press. “Pearl Bergoff was never on the Communist side. He was a law and order man. Pearl was a wonderful strikebreaker … I think he was cleaner and more honest than any union boss in the U. S. A. Breaking strikes was a straight business with him. He never rumbled about democracy or human rights.”