Wednesday, January 30, 2013
KILLING THE POORMASTER, A Saga of Povery, Corruption and Murder in the Great Depression
In Hoboken, New Jersey in 1938, as in other cities in our country, thousands of people were unemployed and literally starving. The position of Poormaster was created and poormasters were given a budget and charged with doling out the necessary aid to assist people in their towns.
Unfortunately, Harry Barck, the poormaster for the City of Hoboken, New Jersey was one of the worst examples of someone entrusted with this power. He was a cold hearted, stingy and mean man who went out of his way to further humiliate those he was appointed to serve; proud when he denied aid to the neediest of families, while filling the pockets of town officials and family members with the aid money.
Joseph Scutellaro was just one of the many unemployed, struggling to even feed his family. On February 25, 1938, Mr. Scutellaro followed the rules of the time and applied to Mr. Barck for aid, for money and for coupons for stale bread to keep his family alive. Instead of doling out the very barest of assistance as he was charged to do, Mr. Barck suggested that Mr. Scutellaro's wife prostitute herself to feed the family, rather then asking for aid from the city. Driven by frustration, anger and fear for his family, Joseph Scutellaro wrestled with Harry Barck in the poormaster's office, and either by accident or on purpose, Mr. Barck died from having a paper spindle pierce his heart. Despite his claims of innocence, Joseph Scutellaro was arrested for the murder of Harry Barck.
But this true story deals with so much more than a death, even if it was murder. It's the story of desperate people and horrible events during the Great Depression. With no one looking over their shoulders, poormasters had free rein in deciding how to spend the aid money. Some did what they were supposed to do and helped the very poorest of their townspeople; and then there were the Harry Barcks, not even doing the barest minimum to keep people alive.
Mr. Barck's death and Mr. Scutellaro's trial turned the national spotlight on the City of Hoboken and the plight of everyone in the country suffering just trying to exist. Joseph Scutellaro was saved from the electric chair when his attorneys, led by prominent New York Attorney Samuel Leibowitz, argued that the struggle between Mr. Scutellaro and the poormaster was a symbol of the larger social ills of the time.
We've all heard stories from relatives who lived through the depression, but Ms. Metz has delved deeper and unearthed a heartbreaking story of despair and greed during that tragic era. The position of poormaster disappeared in the 1940s, replaced with social assistance programs that still exist today.
KILLING THE POORMASTER is a hard book to read and even harder to put down. Well written, it depicts the gut wrenching desperation and corruption that occurred in Hoboken, and it should be on everyone's "must read" list.
Pub. Date: October 1, 2012
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