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Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depressionby Holly Metz
Synopses & Reviews
On February 25, 1938, in the early days of the welfare system, the reviled poormaster Harry Barck—wielding power over who would receive public aid—died from a paper spike thrust into his heart. Barck was murdered, the prosecution would assert, by an unemployed mason named Joe Scutellaro. In denying Scutellaro money, Barck had suggested the mans wife prostitute herself on the streets rather than ask the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, for aid. The men scuffled. Scutellaro insisted that Barck fell on his spike; the police claimed he grabbed the spike and stabbed Barck.
News of the poormasters death brought national attention to the plight of ten million unemployed living in desperate circumstances. A team led by celebrated attorney Samuel Leibowitz of “Scottsboro Boys” fame worked to save Scutellaro from the electric chair, arguing that the jobless mans struggle with the poormaster was a symbol of larger social ills. The trial became an indictment “of a system which expects a man to live, in this great democracy, under such shameful circumstances.”
We live in a time where the issues examined in Killing the Poormaster—massive unemployment, endemic poverty, and the inadequacy of public assistance—remain vital. With its insight into our social contract, Killing the Poormaster reads like todays news.
"Despised as a miser, Hoboken, N.J., poormaster Harry Barck — responsible for doling out relief to the poor — died on February 25, 1938, after an altercation with Joseph Scutellaro, one of the city's many unemployed citizens. Barck was known for turning away starving families, assuming the men were too lazy to find jobs. President Roosevelt's relief program, the Works Progress Administration, did little to ease the situation, as the unemployed far outnumbered available jobs. Complicating matters was the deep-seated corruption of both City Hall and the police department, which kept anyone outside the inner circle from finding work. Scutellaro — who'd repeatedly applied for aid and received a paltry .70 a month to feed a family of four — claimed the poormaster fell on a sharp desk spindle and died, but he was still charged with murder. Journalist Metz recounts Scutellaro's trial — represented by famed Scottsboro Boys attorney Sam Leibowitz — and paints a sad picture of the lives of the poor in Depression-era Hoboken. Metz also focuses on Herman Matson, whose efforts to organize Hoboken aid seekers met with mixed success. While Metz's well-rounded historical portrait possesses a genuine human center, she fails to whittle down her wealth of interesting material into a streamlined narrative. Photos, map. Agent: Michael Carr & Katherine Boyle, Veritas Literary." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Reflecting on a sensational murder trial from the late 1930s, this chronicle focuses upon the death of Harry Barck, a poormaster who was granted the authority to decide who would and would not receive public aid in Hoboken, New Jersey. Unemployed mason Joe Scutellaro was said to have stabbed Barck in the heart with a paper spike after the poormaster suggested that Scutellaros wife prostitute herself on the streets rather than ask the city for aid. A legal team led by celebrated defender Samuel S. Leibowitz of “Scottsboro Boys” fame swooped into Hoboken from Manhattan to save Scutellaro from the electric chair, arguing that the jobless mans struggle with the poormaster was a symbol of larger social ills. The book details Leibowitzs transformation of the Scutellaro trial into an indictment of public relief as a tool for imposing social and political control nationwide. Grappling with issues that are still vital now—massive unemployment, endemic poverty, and the inadequacy of public assistance—this examination lends insight into the current social contract, relaying a gripping narrative that shockingly reads like todays news.
About the Author
Holly Metz is a writer and journalist on law, culture, and social issues. She is the coauthor of How to Commit Suicide in South Africa. She has contributed to Democracy in Print: The Best of the Progressive Magazine as well as Labor History, Metropolis, the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, and the American Bar Association publication, Student Lawyer. For her work as a journalist and a public historian, she has been recognized by the Dick Goldensohn Fund, the New Jersey Historical Commission, and Project Censored.
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