Superintendent Michael Crowley with machine gunners at BPD headquarters, May Day 1920. Photo by Leslie Jones, courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

REMEMBERING THE MAY DAY RIOTS

Boston has a robust history of crushing left-leaning dissent

By Peter Roberge


Leftist groups and causes have made major headlines of late, in the Hub and elsewhere, especially as they’ve responded to far-right and neo-Nazi demonstrations popping up across the country. A most sensational such brush went down on Boston Common last August; and while the events that transpired were far less violent than in Charlottesville, where clashes shocked the nation last July, the media attention was still prevalent and took on many of the tones that coverage in this realm has taken for more than a century.

Consider the Workingmen’s Party. Though started in New York and Philadelphia, one of the Marxist outfit’s strongest factions in New England was based in New Bedford, where in 1834 some disillusioned laborers began to speak about “the only true party for the working man.” The capitalist press wasn’t having it; as various demonstrations occurred from Boston to the South Coast, with documented rallies also taking place in Lynn, Lawrence, and Brockton, the establishment fought back. As Workingmen momentum sped up over the next hundred-plus years, so did the negative coverage.

As Leninist Russia made waves in the international press at the beginning of last century, socialists in Boston and elsewhere were persecuted for their so-called un-American values. Coinciding with the Russian Revolution breaking out in 1917, a judge in Mass issued “John Doe” warrants for demonstrators at a Workingmen’s rally on Boston Common, serving as an extreme scare tactic and worse.

As tensions grew between authorities and socialist types, one infamous standoff in Roxbury in 1919 showed just how grisly things could get. At Monroe Avenue and Humboldt Street, activists and Boston cops fought hand to hand until police backup led to more than 100 arrests. Reports from the scene described overcrowded holding cells that were “splashed with the blood of protesters.”

Those clashes, along with many others like them all across the country, would come to be labeled the May Day Riots, and the fallout was memorable. Old headlines show that Judge Albert Hayden, who oversaw the Roxbury cases, was even targeted by a rogue anarchist group that attempted to murder him by placing a pipe bomb in his home, almost entirely destroying it. Hayden and his family were vacationing in Plymouth at the time and managed to avoid what the press described as the “Bolsheviki bomb.” In the wreckage, police recovered a note that read, “You will never get all of us — we multiply.”

Such violence added fuel to the fire against left-leaning groups, and led to more negative coverage of their causes. In time, the Workingmen’s Party dissolved, though affiliated and comparable groups still endure. With the 100th anniversary of those significant events coming next year, you can count on us to dig deep in the archives for an all-out tribute. Until then, here’s a short excerpt from the May 14, 1919 Boston Herald:

William James Sidis, who was graduated from Harvard at the age of 15, told Judge Albert F. Hayden in the Roxbury Municipal Court yesterday that he is a Socialist, a believer in the soviet form of government, that he believed in evolution, that he does not believe in a god, that his god is evolution, and that he believes in our form of government to the extent of the Declaration of Independence. Sidis and 11 other persons who were arrested during the May Day riots in Roxbury were given jail sentences, the so-called Harvard prodigy getting a year and a half.

This throwback is a collaboration between Dirty Old Boston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and DigBoston. For more throwbacks visit facebook.com/dirtyoldboston and binjonline.org.


Originally published at digboston.com on May 1, 2018.