In 1873 began my experience with financial crisis. The one that followed the Civil War occurred before I was old enough to watch with understanding. As a New York workman in 1873, I first watched the the crisis and depression of what we now call the business cycle. It is a frightful thing to watch a period of unemployment, but it is infinitely more terrible to watch it when your friends and fellow-workmen are hungry and in dire need because denied the opportunity to earn a living
Economic organization crumbled under some primeval upheaval. Business enterprises faded over night. Financial power was paralyzed. Though materials and the mechanical means of production were at hand and men begged for a chance to work, factory doors remain closed. I knew what was in the minds of those men and what was happening in their homes for I was one of them. Physical hunger is a powerful agency for degeneration. The experience eats into the moral fiber of the man and his family. More than one of my fellow-workers was ground under by forces which were beyond his control. Unemployment is the great horror of a workman with family dependent upon him.
During the summer of that year we heard rumors of pending financial troubles. The goldbugs were getting a tight clutch on the gold supply -- and this is the cigar manufacturers gave as their reason for dismissing the workers and reducing wages. The crash came in September when the Jay Cooke Company and Fiske and Hatch announced failure. The scenes downtown were wild on that rainy day.
The Northern Pacific Railroal was tied up. The Erie went into the hands of a receiver and shook the foundation of our industrial fabric. Thousands in New York City were walking the streets in search of a job. As winter came on the misery grew to appalling proportions. Public officials made gestures which might have had a value for political purposes, but did not give food to the hungry or solve the rent problem for those facing eviction. But the workingmen of New York had to find the necessaries of living and the labor movement took up the problem of rent and food for those out of work . . . .
Meanwhile the Tenth Ward according to the plan of the Arbeiter Zeitung had been divided into four sections, and men sent out to take the census of unemployment. The same plan was followed in other wards. The result gave a definite basis upon which to form a plan for relief. The following fundamentals were endorsed by ward meetings and were urged upon the public: (1) employment for the unemployed on public works; (2) maintenance or money for a least one week for the needy while out of work; (3) Mayor and Governor to prevent evictions of unemployed because of failure to pay rent. This was frankly an emergency program -- a prototype followed in practically every succeeding crisis . . . .
Christmas in New York was not festive that year. The whole city stirred uneasily under the burden heaped up by conscienceless speculators. Many street meetings followed to burn into the hearts of all-tragic demonstrations of human need. . . . The unemployed filled the city's streets and squares, and marched to conferences with Aldermen and Mayor at the City Hall. It was a folk-movement born of primitive need -- so compelling that even politicians dared not ignore. There is something about a marching folk-group that rouses dread. Those in authority did not rest comfortably. The press began hinting at the "Commune."
[Next: The Tompkins Square Riot]