The Boston Police Strike of 1919

was Edwin Upton Curtis to blame?

On September 9, 1919, after a long battle over the right to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and to improve deplorable working conditions, over 70% of the Boston Police department deserted their post, leaving the city at the mercy of criminals. [8] Rioting and lawlessness ensued almost immediately after the police relinquished their badges and wouldn’t begin to subside until mayor Peters called in the state guard the following morning. Prior to the strike, valiant attempts were made by Boston mayor Peters, and the citizens committee appointed by him, to salvage the situation. These attempts, however, fell short primarily because of one man’s agenda. The newly appointed police commissioner, Edward Upton Curtis, claimed to favor the right of the police to form an independent union, [(1) page 13, 37, 40 ] but evidence suggest that he was being disingenuous. Curtis’s desire to stop the police from unionizing exacerbated the situation between the city of Boston and the police. He incited and used the events that unfolded on September 9, 1919 to identify and fire all the troublemakers who were attempting to unionize, thereby accomplishing his goal of permanently defeating the union.

Curtis strips the Boston social club of its bargaining power.
The Boston social club, the creation of which was encouraged by previous police commissioner Stephen O’Meara, would act as a union for the Boston police. [(2) page 38] Via this club the police could air out their grievances to commissioner O’Meara, and would lobby the state legislature for improved working conditions. On December 30, 1918 upon the death of Stephen O’Meara, Edward Upton Curtis was sworn in as police commissioner. [3] Soon after taking office, he worked to strip the social club of its powers. on February 18, 1919 commissioner Curtis, issued an order “forbidding members of the police department from urging the legislature to pass any legislation without consent of the commissioner.” [4] That same day Curtis would also file “a petition in the state legislature to take away the appeal rights of police officers.” [5] The passage of the amendment to chapter 257, section 93 of the general acts of 1918, was a major accomplishment of the Boston social club. It gave the police the ability to appeal decisions in a district or municipal court to lower their rank, lower their compensation, or suspend officers for disciplinary action. [5] Curtis’s order forbidding the Boston social club from lobbying for legislation, and his petition to remove the repeal rights granted to the police by the general acts of 1918, drastically reduced the power of the Boston social club to improve the policemen’s lot. These orders by Curtis, were an attempt to subjugate and minimize the collective bargaining outlet of the police. This made clear his desire to maintain complete control over the future of the department, and his disfavor of allowing a police union to exist, or at least to take action without the need for his direct approval.

The police take the next logical step.
Ironically Curtis’s attempts to subjugate the Boston social club, would directly lead to what Curtis would later describe as the sole issue of contention between the police and himself. Soon after Curtis’s actions the police would call an emergency meeting attended by over 1,000 patrolmen, where they would discuss affiliating with the AFL. [5] The Boston Herald reports “Boston Police organize as labor union, will receive local charter from A.F. of L. next Friday night.” [6] Curtis would act fast to prevent the union from being formed. On August 11, 1919 he proclaimed a change to rule 35, preventing the police from joining any outside organization composed of past or present police officers.[7] The police ignored Curtis’s new rule, accepted the AFL’s charter, and elected union officers on August 15th. Curtis dogmatically stuck to his position, and on August 29, 1919 a total of 19 elected officials of the new union would be tried for violating Curtis’s rule. [(8) page 11]

Curtis, a man without compromise.
On August 27, 1919 mayor Andrew Peters of Boston, appointed a citizens committee headed by chairman James J Storrow, to help resolve the situation. [(1) page 2] On September 6, 1919 the citizens committee drafted its plan, which was delivered to commissioner Curtis at 9am September 7. The provisions of the plan were for, the police to relinquish their AFL charter; the police to have their own union, independent of any outside influence; a panel of three citizens selected by the mayor, commissioner, and police union, to hear and make recommendations for the police unions grievances; and also would disallow Curtis to discriminant against any member of the police union, that was formally affiliated with the AFL. [(1)page 19, 20] The plan forbade the police from joining the AFL which Curtis described as the sole issue of contention, but he rejected it anyway. [(1) Page 21] In the Annual Report of the Police Commissioner of 1919, Curtis gives his reasons for rejecting the compromise “nowhere in the statute by virtue of which the police commissioner holds office is there any language that authorizes or permits him to divide his responsibilities with anyone… the plan was a reversion to the state of divided responsibility.” [(8) page 14] Curtis’s statement about the statute not allowing the commissioner to divide his responsibilities is moot, for this compromise merely created a course of action to pursue. Pursuance of changes to the statute which would allow the creation of the three person panel, could be made after acceptance of the plan. Given his earlier attempts at subjugating the Boston Social Club, and his dogmatic desire to punish the 19 elected officials of the new police union, the most logical reason for Curtis’s rejection of this plan, is its refusal to allow him to discipline the 19 men charged with violating his rule, and for the allowance of an independent union to be formed.

Curtis has everything under control.
September 8, 1919 in spite of the clear belief made known by Mayor Peters and the Citizens Committee, that “finding the 19 men guilty” would “at once precipitate a strike,” [(1) page 4] Curtis found the 19 elected officers of the new union guilty of violating his rule and preceded to suspend them. That same afternoon the Boston police took a strike vote, and the majority of the force would abandoned their post the next day at 5:45pm. [(8) page 5] Curtis’s actions in response to the strike were peculiar. The State Guard had not been called in preparation for the strike, because according to Curtis “The secrecy of the proceedings on the part of the men… made it impossible to have the troops on the scene.” [(8) page 19] This statement is contradicted by actions taken by Mayor Peters and the Citizens Committee. September 8, 1919 mayor Peters and members of the citizens committee arranged a meeting with governor Coolidge, where they “emphasized the prospective seriousness of the situation which would result from the absence of the great majority of the patrolmen… the following day at 5:45 p.m.”[(1) page 8] A New York Times article published September 10, 1919 reports “Policemen, apparently without distinction as to whether they were union members, were jeered and followed by crowds… when they left their stations.” [10] How is it that Mayor Peters, members of the Citizens Committee, and large crowds of civilians, were able to predict the day and time of the strike, yet commissioner Curtis wasn’t privy to that information? Furthermore calling out the State Guard is not the duty of the commissioner, it is the duty of the mayor; [(8) page 16] on September 9, prior to the strike mayor Peters asked commissioner Curtis if he needed the State Guard on hand, but the commissioner replied that he “did not need it and did not want it.” [(1) page 8] Regardless if the State Guard should have been activated in preparation for the strike, the fact that lawlessness ensued almost immediately after the police left their post should have been grounds for the Guard to be called, but commissioner Curtis ensured mayor Peters that “he had the situation well in hand, and had ample means at his disposal for the protection of the city.” [(1) page 8] As darkness fell on September 9, it became evident that Curtis’s provisions were not adequate to protect the city which he would later admit in the commissioners report of 1919. When discussing the need to call the State Guard, Curtis writes “No such conditions contemplated by the statute appeared until the night of the 9th or the morning of the 10th.” [(8)page 19] Despite admitting that conditions of riot and tumult appeared the night of the 9th, the commissioner would allow lawlessness to ensue all night before calling his volunteer police force and requesting the State Guard from the mayor. On the morning of the 10th after taking control of the situation from commissioner Curtis, mayor Peters called in the Guard which began the process of restoring order. [(1) page 29] However the question remains, why would Curtis allow lawlessness to ensue all night before calling his volunteer force or requesting mayor Peters to call in the State Guard? One likely explanation is Curtis was using the lawlessness to turn public opinion against the police which it surely did. [(1) page 9]

What were Curtis’s true intentions?
Evidence presented by Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, when speaking at the chamber of commerce after the strike, suggest that “police commissioner Curtis... provoked the police strike.” Gompers cited an affidavit from Paul Harris Drake, which claims that in an interview ex-superintendent Pierce stated that “neither his volunteer force nor policemen who stayed on duty were to be called until next morning no matter what might happen.” [11] Given Curtis’s actions directed toward the police’s former independent union, and his refusal to allow the police to affiliate with the AFL at all cost, it is plausible to conclude that his actions were indeed motivated by a desire to stop the police from unionizing period. That no union, whether independent or affiliated with an outside body was acceptable to him. Regardless if Curtis intentionally allowed the lawlessness to get out of hand one thing is for certain, the rioting that ensued the night of the 9th turned public opinion firmly against the police union.[(1) page 9] The strike would allow Curtis to do exactly what he always wanted to do. It gave him the perfect means and public support, to identify and fire all of the troublemakers within the force that wanted to unionize. Curtis would use this situation to permanently defeat the union, not only for the rest of his lifetime but for decades to come. [12] This event first caught my attention because of its direct lead up to the eventual presidency of Calvin Coolidge, the battle it represented between two opposing political ideologies, and the fact that my grandfather was a Boston police officer. This event had massive consequences for the nation. It was one of the major union strikes that compelled the people to support republican presidential candidate, Warren Harding’s, call to normalcy eventually winning him the election. It is the reason Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, was picked as Harding’s VP which lead to Coolidge’s presidency when Harding died in office. [(13) pages 195, 196, 201, 251] Not only did the police strike of 1919 help lead to the election of two presidents, it would also be used as an argument against public employee unions for decades to come. [12] The strike catapulted Coolidge’s career into the stratosphere, however, researching this event has change the way I view his leadership. Coolidge’s role was minimal. He refused to offer any solutions and instead relied on others to solve the situation. [(1) page 23, 24] He emerged as the figure head largely because of his position as governor, and because of his publicly firm stance taken against the striking officers. [(13) page 176] My research leads me to believe the recognition Coolidge received was not warranted. Future research could explore the political landscape of the country, to come to a fuller understanding of why those who defeated the police union were held to such high regard. Researching the political motives of all individuals involved, including the individual officers who were pushing hard for a union will provide a more thorough overview. To further pursue Curtis’s motives the historian should look into his background as governor of Massachusetts, for indications of being anti union. This future research can provide further context for Curtis’s ulterior motives.

[1] Storrow, J. J. (1919). Report of committee appointed by mayor peters to consider the police situation. Boston, MA: City Of Boston.
storrow report

[2] Russell, F. (2005). A City in terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston police strike. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

[3] Curtis issues first order as police commissioner. (1918, December 31). Boston Globe. Retrieved from Scrapbooks of clippings related to Edward U. Curtis; Volume Scrapbooks 058, Sept. 1895-Jan. 1896, 1909-1920. Mass Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[4] Police Breach widens. (1919, February 19). Boston Post. Retrieved from Scrapbooks of clippings related to Edward U. Curtis; Volume Scrapbooks 058, Sept. 1895-Jan. 1896, 1909-1920. Mass Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[5] Unidentifiable newspaper article. Retrieved from Scrapbooks of clippings related to Edward U. Curtis; Volume Scrapbooks 058, Sept. 1895-Jan. 1896, 1909-1920. Mass Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[6] Boston police organize as labor union. (1919, August 10). Boston Herald. Retrieved from Good Government Association records, 1900-1936, Martin Lomasney papers. Mass Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[7] Forbids police to join union. (1919, August 12). Boston Herald. Retrieved from Good Government Association records, 1900-1936, Martin Lomasney papers. Mass Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[8] Curtis, E. U. (1920). Fourteenth annual report of the police commissioner for the city of Boston year ending November 30, 1919. Boston, MA: Wight & Porter Printing CO, State Printers.
commissioner report

[9] Good Government Association records, 1900-1936, Martin Lomasney papers. Mass Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[10] Boston police force out on strike; mobs smash windows and loot stores; steel workers confer on strike plan. (1919, September 10). New York Times. Retrieved from NY Times

[11] Resent Gompers' slap at Curtis. (1920, January 9). Boston Globe. Retrieved from Good Government Association records, 1900-1936, Martin Lomasney papers. Mass Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[12] Slater, J. (Winter96/97). Public workers: labor and the Boston Police strike of 1919. Labor History, Vol. 38(Issue 1, p7-27. 21p). Shapiro Library

[13] Shlaes, A. (2014). Coolidge. Harper Perennial.

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