Ted Mathys in the Stacks: A Streetcar Named Riot

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the third in a series; see below for previous entries. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

At the corner of Washington Avenue and North Broadway, four blocks from where I now sit in the St. Louis Public Library, 116 years ago, on Sunday, June 10th, 1900, William Reedy was huddled in the barracks of a posse of men wielding shotguns. The citizen brigade was made up of over 2,000 members of St. Louis upper crust society – lawyers, bankers, businessmen, vestrymen from churches – who’d been tapped by the Sheriff to restore order to a city wracked by a streetcar strike gone haywire. The police had proven ineffectual, and the posse wanted their businesses to get running again. Reedy was not in the posse. He was there, of course, to get the scoop.

Outside, a parade of striking union families and sympathizers were returning home after a picnic. They’d been on strike for a month, in protest of long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions. They had the backing of much of the citizenry. They were livid at the scabs who had taken their places. And they’d done everything imaginable to stop the cars – like rolling huge boulders and trash onto the tracks. Businesses were at a standstill. Fights were on the rise.

The parade wended past the posse barracks and, Reedy writes, the strikers “jeered the posse guard in front of the barracks. They attempted to pull a [scab] conductor off a car that was passing. Several of them resisted attempts to arrest them.” And then “A shot was fired, stones were thrown. Then the posse began pumping buckshot at the strikers.” Reedy was astounded at the bloodlust among his fellow society gents in the posse: “The scene in the barracks was thrilling,” he wrote four days later in the Mirror. “When the first shot was fired, the writer of this article realized, for the first time, that ‘the hunting of men is the greatest game sport in the world.’ The way the posse rushed to its guns, the sharp, metallic, clattering chorus of the filling magazines, the dash for the street of those already armed, and the evident impatience of those who were held back to fall in line, showed that the posse men were more than half glad ‘the music had begun.’”

The posse killed 3 strikers that day, wounded others, and dragged some strikers inside their barracks. The strikers “were not criminals,” Reedy wrote. “Many of them had families that might starve as a result of the strike. But when the prisoners were searched, a dozen revolvers, many wire cutters and brass “knucks” were found in their pockets.” Armed but innocent. The three dead strikers became for Reedy “a ghastly testimony to the fatuity of their leaders and the lack of foresight upon the part of the Mayor and the police in permitting a parade past the posse barracks.”

How had it come to this? Just one month before, as the strike began, Reedy had written a cheeky “Reflection” in the Mirror in which he surmised that spring strikes, here and elsewhere, were psychological and physiological evidence of spring fever! His deeper point in the piece was that “…unfounded strikes injure the case of Labor…The strike to dictate how the employer shall manage his own business is the strike that fails, and the strike that fails hurts every laboring man.” But Reedy gets carried away with the idea that spring literally causes strikes: “The influence of the sun and air and the burgeoning earth, these days, is not conducive to work. The halcyon time is the time for resting, and the vernal lassitude steals over the man with the hoe, or the man in the shop as much as it does over the man in the office, who begins to hear the ripple of fishing waters...” He lobs one at Whitman, saying that men in spring just want a good loaf. Spring is when “men generally have a tendency to sympathize with themselves. That’s why, as you notice, spring poetry is touched with sadness…The season softens men. It seems especially to soften their brains. So that we have strong reasons for suspecting that the strike is a symptom of the same lunacy which beholds the rarer iris on the neck of the dove and makes the young man’s fancy ‘turn to thoughts of love.’” Spring calls up some “long gone sense of freedom…Boys now begin to play truant. Older boys would go on strike.”

So what changed for Reedy between May (spring fever) and June (horror)? It wasn’t just witnessing the posse’s violence; as a young newspaperman, one of Reedy’s beats had been covering public hangings. No, it was that by mid-summer he had started to put together the political antecedents of the strike, to follow the money. In a feat of proto-muckraking, he untangled a huge string of corruption in Missouri politics. His spread on the corruption was published in the same issue as the posse anecdote and was subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet that went viral across the country, selling out multiple print runs. It reads like something right out of House of Cards:

Episode 1: Until 1899, there are ten independent streetcar companies in St. Louis, transporting rich and poor alike throughout the fourth largest city in America. Then, with the backing of the state legislature and the Democratic Party, a man named Edwards Whitaker moves to consolidate the streetcar lines into a syndicate called the St. Louis Transit Company.

Episode 2: The Transit Company treats workers like dogs. The workers threaten to unionize. We learn in flashback that out in bucolic Jefferson City, the state capital, the Democratic governor of Missouri, who ran on a platform of cleaning up and rooting out syndicates and trusts, has accepted a $50,000 bribe in return for getting behind the legislation that would allow Whitaker’s St. Louis streetcar monopoly to go forward.

Episode 3: Back in St. Louis, local publisher Billy Reedy, gamboling down Washington Avenue, greets merchants and street boys, mocking Whitaker’s new power: “Mr. Whitaker now rules supreme, and wields the scepter. Ave Caesar, be merciful to your helpless vassals!”

Episode 4: We’re introduced to a powerful Democratic Party gentlemen’s club called the Jefferson Club. The president of the club is a party operative named Harry Hawes, who is pals with the slimy Governor. Hawes and his Club are facing a primary election season and need a lot of manpower to help win their candidates’ campaigns.

Episode 5: Reedy’s Mirror: A Weekly Journal Reflecting the Interests of Thinking People hits the stands, predicting an imminent streetcar strike. In retaliation for increasing union activity, Whitaker’s St. Louis Transit Company has begun to arbitrarily fire conductors and replace them. “There are so many new drivers,” Reedy writes, “that wrecks with other vehicles and horses is way up…The syndicate…has a death grip on the community.”

Episode 6: The union votes to strike. Whitaker replaces every streetcar worker with a scab. Riots break out, with violence on all sides – fights, property destruction, attempted lynching, gunfire, women stripped naked and painted green. But the police are weirdly absent, ineffectual.

Episode 7. Episode set in pre-Civil War St. Louis. In the lead up to the War, sentiment in the northern leaning city is at odds with pro-Confederate minds in rural Missouri and in the state capital. State leaders, fearing that the St. Louis Police force will turn on them, take control of the St. Louis police, putting the city’s police under state control, an odd arrangement that will last 152 years, until 2013 when Mayor Slay signs an executive order to bring the force back under local control.

Episode 8: Back to 1900. Reedy learns that the bill that the bribed Democratic governor signed allowing the streetcar monopoly to go forward was attached to another scheme in which, unbelievably, the St. Louis Police management has been handed over to the Governor’s friend Harry Hawes, president of the Jefferson Club. Hawes then literally pulls the St. Louis police off the streets and withdraws officers from streetcar trolleys during the strike in order to work on Democratic party primary campaigns for his Jefferson Club.

Episode 9: Citizens in St. Louis are desperate. People ask the Governor to send in a state militia to restore order after the police force leaves to work on campaigns. The Governor refuses, punishing the city and its newspapers for treating him so harshly in his own recent campaign.

Episode 10: The strike’s economic toll has now filtered down to the Mirror. “The strike has simply paralyzed the great retail dry goods stores,” Reedy writes. “The patrons cannot get down town. These great stores have stopped advertising. That cuts off the newspaper revenue. It cuts THE MIRROR pretty deeply each week.”

Episode 11: The posse is formed. Things get ugly.

Episode 12: A federal court passes an injunction requiring the streetcar lines to start up again, in the name of ensuring that the U.S. mail can travel on the streetcar lines. “The people of St. Louis have seen too much rioting, have seen too many cars smashed, too many innocent people killed and maimed,” Reedy writes. “The Federal Court injunction has put a stop to the obstruction of traffic and the displays of disorder.”

Episode 13: In a private club called The Noonday Club at the top of a downtown skyscraper, Reedy returns to his private luncheon group with some powerful men. In a twist, we learn that one of them is Harry Hawes, the Democratic party operative who pulled the police from their jobs. Another is James Campbell, a man worth $60 million who also helps bankroll the Mirror. Reedy has been playing all sides or has been played by all sides.

Episode 14 (Finale): The strike wears on until finally petering out in September, leaving 14 dead, hundreds injured, and the city in shambles. At the Noonday Club, the conversation turns to the bankruptcy of the two party system, the rampant corruption that precipitated the strike, and the need to fix it if the city is going to land the deal for the upcoming World’s Fair. Reedy wants a third party to get into politics. Campbell instead decides to buy up both parties, pay for everybody’s campaigns, and demand the right to choose the slates. This appeals to Reedy’s love of the absurd. It happens. The strike is over, and the municipal reform movement is born out of bribery.

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