In my tenth grade history class, we spent approximately three days on the Depression (1929-1941ish). And we learned the following things:
- The Depression was very depressing! Everything was sepia-toned and ill-fitting, one-shouldered overalls were the national uniform.
- No one in the U.S. had a job. Everyone lined up for soup or bread, but the wait was interminable because there were no soup- or bread-servers, either (serving food being a job, which no one had, you see).
- Because no one had a job, everyone understood that everyone else’s life really sucked, and Americans were totally sympathetic to one another’s poverty until
the WPA the CCC FDR a packed SCOTUSWorld War II came and got us all out of it. (PS: War is awesome for the economy.)
See Holly Metz’s Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression, which explores the death of Hoboken, New Jersey poormaster Harry Barck and the trial of Joseph Sculletaro – unemployed, father of two, literally starving, and on trial for Barck’s murder.
A quick history lesson: before the advent of the welfare state and social assistance as we know it today, local communities tended more or less (usually less) efficiently to their own poor. The person in charge of this job was known as an “overseer of the poor” or “poormaster,” and his or her (usually his) job was to pick out the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor and distribute benefits accordingly.
Like a lot of public positions, the spoils system usually assured this job got given to a friend of whichever mayor/alderman/city manager/etc. was in power at the time – which it did in Barck’s case. And, like a lot of public positions, the pressure was on most local poormasters to spend as little as possible – which Barck did.
/ history lesson
Sculletaro was also the last person to see Barck alive, during an argument between the two that ended with a paper spike stuck through Barck’s heart.
During the investigation and trial that ensued, attorney Samuel Leibowitz exposed not only what happened between Sculletaro and Barck that day, but the entire tangled web of corruption that kept Harry Barck in his position, blackballed the Sculletaro family from any kind of gainful employment, and funnelled funds from the mouths of the poor – many of whom were literally starving – and into the coffers of the city’s political bigwigs.
To say that the Depression wasn’t exactly a time of solidarity with the unemployed is a laughable understatement. In fact, those who needed benefits but couldn’t find work faced the same kind of stereotyping and derision that lies behind comments like GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s now-infamous “47 percent” line: the unemployed are “lazy,” they’re “entitled,” they’re “chiselers,” they’re trying to live high on the government hog because they don’t want to put in an honest day’s labour or “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Oh, and they should totally be able to survive on $5.90 per month. To feed a family of four.
Killing the Poormaster is fascinating on two fronts: it exposes our societal prejudices about poverty, unemployment, and assistance, and it traces the development of a criminal case whose roots dig far more deeply than “who killed whom.” In this second way, it’s not unlike Clive Stafford Smith’s forthcoming book, The Injustice System: A Murder in Miami and a Trial Gone Wrong (another book you should read if you are totally into crime and/or legal stuff). Both lay bare how corruption and the machinations of power literally take lives – whether one is the murderer or the corpse. But Killing the Poormaster adds a poignantly timed angle: is a society that allows its own members to starve one in which we really want to live?
Killing the Poormaster is exhaustively researched, vividly told, and all too timely. No matter where your politics lie when it comes to poverty and justice, you won’t want to miss this book.
Holly Metz, Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression. Chicago Review Press, 978-1613744185, $26.95 hardcover. October 1, 2012.