David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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The Straw Hat Riots

Who would have quelled the September attacks against those donning summer head attire if not the police? We're lucky the Torah commands a police force (Shofetim)
President Roosevelt passing through the Canal Zone. (Public Domain, Fishbaugh, Empire, C.Z./ Library of Congress)
President Roosevelt passing through the Canal Zone. (Public Domain, Fishbaugh, Empire, C.Z./ Library of Congress)

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal. The canal was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. It is an incredible feat of design and construction. Opened in 1914, the canal connects the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It takes eight to 10 hours to traverse, and saves weeks in travel time and allows ships to avoid the treacherous Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America. Over 15,000 vessels pass through the canal every year.

The canal was also a remarkable political victory. It was originally conceived and begun by the French in 1881. However, after a couple of years, the money dried up leaving the project unfinished. In 1904, the United States, under President Theodore Roosevelt, took over construction of the canal.

President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a Bucyrus steam shovel at Culebra Cut, 1906. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1906, Roosevelt went to visit the site, to see the construction for himself. In the hot sun of Central America, he placed on his head a traditional Ecuadorian hat known locally as a jipijapa hat.

Photography was still quite new at the time, and the president wanted to drum up support for the canal. Roosevelt posed for several photos to show off the construction of his greatest infrastructure achievement.

In 1904, this picture of a man wearing a suit made by ‘B. Kuppenheimer & Co.’ appeared in an advertisement for The White House Clothiers of Tacoma, Washington. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

When photographs of the president were published in the New York Times and elsewhere, the hat became known as a Panama Hat and everyone wanted one. Straw hats were all the rage as advertisements from the time testify.

During the summer months, men would ditch their regular felt hats and cloth caps and put on straw hats. Once the craze for straw got going, it wasn’t only Panama hats. There were straw hats with wide brims and straw hats with narrow brims, hats with peaks and flat-topped boaters. Everyone from factory workers to laborers wore a straw hat.

But once summer had ended, the straw hats were switched for the regular cloth hats. Nowadays we think of Labor Day as the last time for straw hats, but at the early decades of the 20th century, September 15th became the last day for straw hats.

Some people took this marker of the end of summer very seriously. Anyone caught wearing a straw hat after this date would very likely have the hat ripped off his head and smashed on the ground. Gangs of youths would roam Manhattan looking for violators of the unwritten hat rule, taunting them and destroying their headwear. In the days leading up to the end of summer, newspapers would remind readers to switch back to their winter head gear. In 1910, the Pittsburgh Post warned:

It is all right for stockbrokers on the exchanges to destroy one another’s hats if they like, on the principle that everything goes among friends. But no man likes to have his hat snatched from his head by somebody he has not yet been introduced to, and if the informality should become general there will sure to be a number of obstinate gentlemen (most likely with English blood in their veins) who will coolly proceed to treat the fun-making as a physical assault and defend themselves in a manner which will spoil the fun for all concerned.

Mulberry Street looking north to Bayard Street with Mulberry Bend on left, c. 1890. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1922, some of these hooligans couldn’t wait until the 15th.

Mulberry Bend, in lower Manhattan, was one of the worst areas of the city. Today, it is Columbus Park in Chinatown. But back in the the day, it was described as the “foul core of New York’s slums.” Alleys leading off Mulberry had evocative names such as, Bandit’s Roost, Bottle Alley and Ragpickers Row.

On September 13, 1922, some teenagers in Mulberry Bend began snatching straw hats from the heads of factory workers and stomping on them. But then they started up with dock workers, who fought back, starting a brawl. The fracas soon turned into a full-scale riot. Traffic on Manhattan Bridge was stopped and the fighting continued until police waded in and began arresting people.

However, that was not the end of the Straw Hat Riots, as the incident came to be known.

The next day, matters escalated, as thousands of teenagers were out prowling the streets for straw hat wearers. Many carried a long stick with a nail in the end, which was used to hook hats off the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. One man reported that there were thousands of youths lining Amsterdam Avenue snatching hats. Anyone who resisted or tried to hang on to his hat risked being beaten up and newspapers reported that on Amsterdam Avenue, Harry Gerber, 25, was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized.

On September 16, the New York Times headline read:

CITY HAS WILD NIGHT OF STRAW HAT RIOTS; Gangs of Young Hoodlums With Spiked Sticks Terrorize Whole Blocks. VICTIMS RUN THE GAUNTLET Youths Line Car Tracks and Snatch –Mob of 1,000 Dispersed on Amsterdam Avenue.

The article continued:

Gangs of young hoodlums ran riot in various parts of the city last night, smashing unseasonable straw hats, and trampling them in the street. In some case, mobs of hundreds of boys and young men terrorized whole blocks. Complaints poured in upon the police from men whose hats were stolen and destroyed. But as soon as the police broke up the gangs in one district, the hoodlums resumed their activities elsewhere.

Things were so chaotic that the NYPD accidentally arrested one of its own cops.

According to the New York Tribune:

Detective Rocco Brundizo… was enjoying the excitement along Third Avenue until a boy knocked his straw hat off and ran. Brundizo chased the boy from 109th Street to 116 Street, where he lost him. He declared he would have captured the youngster had he not been jostled by Sigmund Cohn, a special policeman.

Brundizo arrested Cohn for interfering with an officer in the discharge of his duty. Cohn was discharged in night court, however, where he explained to Magistrate Hatting that he had no idea that the excited man who bumped into him was a policeman until he drew his revolver and blackjack, and that then he submitted to arrest without objection.

Eventually, with great difficulty and some reluctance, the police were able to bring the chaos to an end. The riots has lasted for eight days. Many arrests were made. Most of those found guilty opted to pay the $5 fine, but a man named A. Silverman was sentenced by the magistrate to three days in jail.

Some of those arrested were too young for the courts to deal with. In many cases, police called the boys’ parents down to the precinct station and told them to punish their children. The New York Tribune reported that:

Boys who were guided by the calendar rather the weather, and most of all by their own trouble-making proclivities, indulged in a straw-hat smashing orgy throughout the city last night. A dozen or more were arrested and seven were spanked ignominiously by their parents in the East 104th Street police station by order of the lieutenant at his desk.

Straw hat window display. (Wikimedia Commons)

The only ones who benefited from the riots were owners of hat stores. They graciously kept their stores open late into the night to allow bareheaded men to buy felt or silk hats, thus saving them from attack.

The tradition of smashing straw hats after September 15 continued for another couple of years. In 1924, one man was even killed in a riot over a straw hat.

However, in 1925, another president effectively ended the practice. The New York Times headline that day read,

Discard Date for Straw Hats Ignored by President Coolidge.

There is no way of knowing how the 1922 Straw Hat Riot would have ended if there had been no police force in New York at the time.

The New York Municipal Police Department was formed in 1845 and replaced the night watch system that had operated since the city was governed by the Dutch and called New Amsterdam. In 1857, the force became the Metropolitan Police.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century there were many accusations of systemic problems with the New York police force. At various times the force was accused of failing to prevent riots, allowing gangs of criminals to rule the city, disappearing instead of quelling violence. There were also newspaper reports detailing police brutality (especially in poor immigrant neighborhoods) and corruption. In 1894, the Lexow Committee investigated corruption in the police department and made several suggestions for reform.

In “Psmith, Journalist,” first published in 1909, PG Wodehouse described the heavy-handed yet ineffective behavior of the NYPD.

The behaviour of the New York policeman in affairs of this kind is based on principles of the soundest practical wisdom. The unthinking man would rush in and attempt to crush the combat in its earliest and fiercest stages. The New York policeman, knowing the importance of his own safety, and the insignificance of the gangsman’s, permits the opposing forces to hammer each other into a certain distaste for battle, and then, when both sides have begun to have enough of it, rushes in himself and clubs everything in sight. It is an admirable process in its results, but it is sure rather than swift.

Ironically, it was Theodore Roosevelt, the soon-to-be Panama hat-wearing president, who instituted many of the much-needed reforms. Roosevelt became President of the NYPD Police Commission in 1895. He began to professionalize the force. He got the police to crack down on organized crime in the city and enforce the Sunday closing law.

Even today, there is plenty of room for improvement in police forces around the world, but when we look back 100 years, we discover that things have been pretty bad for a long time.

This week’s Torah reading, Shofetim, begins with an instruction to appoint judges and police officers (Deuteronomy 16:18).

You shall appoint for yourselves judges and officers in all your gates that the Lord, your God gives you for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

Rashi explains that the judges are for the courts, which must be set up in every city. And he explains the role of the officers based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 16b):

The officers are those who punish the people at the order [of the court]. They give them lashes or hit them with sticks or lashes until they accept the judgment of the judge.

The officers are not empowered to restore law and order or to arrest criminals. According to Rashi it seems that their primary role is to use violence to enforce the rulings of the court.

Halacha has no concept of jail as a deterrent or a punishment. According to Torah law there are only a handful of types of punishment for crimes that the courts can impose — the death penalty, monetary fine or compensation and lashes. They can sentence someone to remain in a City of Refuge if they caused death accidentally. If a thief cannot repay what he stole, the court can sell him into slavery until he has paid off the debt

The only time prison is mentioned in halacha is while awaiting a potential death sentence. Maimonides wrote (Hilchot Rotzeach 4:3)

Someone who injures another with a rock, his first or anything similar, we assess [the victim]. If he is expected to live, [the criminal] must pay five types of compensation [for damage, healing, pain, loss of income and embarrassment] and goes free… If they assess that the victim will die, they lock up the one who hit him in jail immediately and wait to see what happens. If [the victim] dies, the criminal is put to death. But if [the victim] improves and is healed completely… the one who hit him pays the five types of compensation and goes free.

There are other punishments that courts can impose rabbinically, including excommunication, changing someone’s status and standing or removing them from their job. And modern courts have been creative in the kinds of social control they impose.

But the role of a policeman to protect the public and keep law and order does not really exist in early Jewish sources.

When the nation had a king, it was his responsibility to care for the wellbeing of his subjects. He could instruct his soldiers to do whatever was necessary to keep the peace. But there was no concept of an organized police force to maintain law and order.

In fact, in the time of the Mishna, realizing that they had no effective way to deal with crime, corruption or violence, the rabbis relied on the non-Jewish kings and courts to protect the Jewish people (Avot 3:2).

Rabbi Chanina, deputy high priest, said: Pray for the welfare of the kingdom, for without fear of it, each person would swallow his neighbor alive.

There are many problems with the role of police in the modern world. But there are even greater dangers in a world without police or the rule of law and order. There are certain areas of Jerusalem (and other places in Israel) where the residents know the police will almost never enter. And it is often those areas and neighborhoods that have the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse and even murder.

Citizens of Western countries have come to expect the police and the entire legal system to work fairly to protect all members of the public equally. Sometimes individual police officers or entire forces do not live up to the high ideals we expect from them. And it is fair to work to improve those tasked with protecting the citizens of the country. But we must also remember that without any police force and without the legal system, we would see people eating each other alive.

My next class on WebYeshiva will be on September 6th. The series is entitled “The 6 Historical Events of Rosh Hashanah” and this is the second of four classes. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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