Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"Killing the Poormaster" by Holly Metz (2012)

They say to never choose a book by its cover – but with a cover like this – how could you not? Looking at the photo doesn’t evoke anything other than sympathy for the guy in handcuffs. Without any foreknowledge of who he is; and what he may have done; this photo is a stark depiction of everyone’s worst fear; that of being shackled and in the “custody” of the state. Of course, the man in the photo may be a monster; accused of some unspeakable crime; which changes the perception of the photo, leaving the viewer with a sense of safety, and comfort. But, not this one.

Joe Scutellaro is the man in custody of the Hoboken Police in the photo above, taken after his arraignment in February 1938 for the murder of the city’s “Poormaster”, and perhaps that title itself is a good place to begin this review. Whoever thought of that title for the position of dealing with the underprivileged, clearly had no sense of the shame felt by ordinary people, who, through economic circumstance, were forced to turn to their government for help. In fact, the term probably kept many from ever setting foot in the doorway of the “Poormaster’s” office to begin with.
In 1938 the nation was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. It had been almost 9 years since the “crash” which became known as Black Tuesday, when rich men hurled themselves from the windows of their offices on Wall Street as they saw their life’s fortunes disappear in an instant. (Actually there were only one or two of those, but it was a dramatic flourish which I couldn’t resist.) On the other end of the scale were men like Joe Scutellaro, the hard working son of an Italian immigrant in Hoboken, New Jersey. The author briefly gives a history of the city and how it became the corrupt and raw place it was at the time of the murder.

From its beginnings, when it was dominated by Germans, through to the power shift that came with the influx of the Irish in the mid-19th century, Ms. Metz paints a very vivid picture of what life was like for the working-poor. Some were skilled workers and flourished; while others worked at whatever they could; essentially living off the scraps of the more fortunate. When the Depression came along, the poor were hit the hardest, as the state abolished its direct relief programs in 1936, which placed the burden for this function upon the already cash starved local cities and towns throughout the state. In places where corruption had already flourished before the Great Depression, any relief money was quickly gobbled up by local political machines and their cronies.
One of these men was Harry Barck, a man so cruel and entrenched in the “machine” of Hoboken politics, that he actually asked Joe Scutellaro if his wife was not above “swinging her purse down on Washington Street” the week before his murder. That remark alone, delivered when Mr. Scutellaro came to Barck’s office to apply, again; for aid which amounted to about $5.70 for a family of 4 for 2 weeks; would have been enough to send any man into a rage. Yet, Mr. Scutellaro was so beaten down by the system at this point, that he did nothing.

After another week had passed by, Joe again appeared at the office to inquire of Mr. Barck about his relief check. After waiting for several hours he was again insulted and told to go “check the mail”, a common tactic of the “Poormaster” when dealing with his “clients.” At that moment, all of the rage pent up in Joe Scutellaro burst forth, and he struck the Poormaster, sending him reeling. When he momentarily recovered enough to stagger towards the door, Joe saw something sticking from his chest, which he removed and tossed to the floor. It was one of those metal spikes which people used to use as a way of temporarily filing papers on their desktops. Apparently, Mr. Barck had fallen against it when Joe struck him. Barck died of his wound, and Joe was charged with murder.
The chief witness was Eleonore Hartmann, who changed her story several times in order to cover up what she hadn’t seen, even after giving a statement to the police on the day of the murder. In that statement she claimed to have seen Joe commit the crime. Apparently she didn’t really see the crime itself; only the aftermath and her conclusion form what she did see; which served as her statement.

Joe’s counsel was the celebrated criminal defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, of the famous “Scottsboro Boys” trial. In that case, 9 young African-Americans stood accused of raping 2 white women, facing the death penalty. Leibowitz; as in all his trials; won their acquittal. Could he do the same for Joe Scutellaro?
With a keen eye to history, as well as an aptitude which enables the reader to contrast the issues of the Great Depression with the same social ills of today, the author has created a portrait of an era long gone, but looming ever closer to a return as the struggle between the very wealthy and the working poor continues, unabated. This is a very compelling, and informative book.
 Patti Page - "The Tennessee Waltz"

This is one of the first records I ever heard. Along with “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window”, and “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” by Betty Hutton, and many other 78 RPM recordings which colored my early years. This one really got to me at the age of about 4 years old. I remember putting the record on and watching it going round and round, marveling at the voice. In this version from TV, Ms. Page is singing on her own.
The recorded version was double tracked, which was a signature of Ms. Page’s works. The double tracking stemmed from her not having enough money to hire additional backup singers; and although overdubbing had been done before by other artists, Ms. Page brought the practice to the forefront; influencing the sounds of the 1950’s; as well as the 1960’s.

Ms. Page passed away yesterday, on New Years Day;  leaving us a legacy of wonderful music; for which she received, in turn, the love of a 4 year old boy who was captivated by her many years ago. RIP Patti...


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