The Protester

On May 30, 1914, a group of eleven men and one woman—people affiliated with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, aka the “Wobblies”)—gathered in the public square in Tarrytown, New York. Their intention was to hold an open-air meeting to protest the recent Ludlow Massacre.

The massacre occurred the previous month when the National Guard, along with anti-striker militia employed by John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, attacked a tent colony of 1,200 people—striking miners and their families —in Ludlow, Colorado. An estimated 21 people, primarily women and children, were killed during the ensuing violence. It was widely believed that Rockefeller had orchestrated the attack.

Cellar at the Ludlow Colony where women and children were killed. (Denver Public Library Special Collections)

Rockefeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company, was the wealthiest man in America. His mansion, Kykuit, was located only a few miles from Tarrytown in Pocantico Hills.

The meeting’s organizers tried to get a permit, but local authorities rebuffed them and then ignored them when they tried a second time. They decided to hold the event anyway, despite the fact that the local police stood ready to shut it down. Each person who got up to speak was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, blocking traffic and endangering the public health.

Joseph Secunda, a twenty-three-year-old Brooklyn pocketbook maker, was one of the protesters in Tarrytown. Born to a Jewish family in Oleksandriya, Ukraine (then part of Russia), Joseph was familiar with the brutal anti-Jewish massacres—pogroms—that swept through the Russian Empire during his childhood. During pogroms, Jews were tortured, raped and murdered and their property was destroyed. It’s likely he drew a link between the massacre in Colorado and the pogroms in his homeland. The programs had forced the Secunda family to flee to America in 1906.

Joseph Secunda (lower left) with his brothers and father, Abraham, circa 1901. (New York University Library)

Becky Edelsohn, a well-known anarchist and fellow Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, was one of the organizers of the Tarrytown meeting. After her arrest, she refused bond and went on a hunger strike while she was held in jail. She was called as a witness at the trial of Joseph and his comrades (her trial was held separately from that of the men) in late July. She was so weak she had to be carried into the courtroom on a chair. By then two of the Tarrytown protesters had died when a bomb they were building meant for Rockefeller went off prematurely in a New York City apartment.

Becky Edelsohn (c. 1889 or 1892-1973) after her arrest for attempting to hold an open air mass meeting in Fountain Square, Tarrytown, New York on May 30, without a permit. (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Joseph and seven of his fellow protesters were convicted of disorderly conduct and given two-month sentences in the New York Penitentiary.

Police identification card of Joseph Secunda. (author‘s collection)

The day before Joseph was convicted, World War I broke out in Europe. Three years later, in June 1917, he registered for the military draft as an unemployed pocketbook maker, noting on his registration card that he was “against war.” By 1920 he was a factory worker in a bus manufacturing company. He died in 1973 and is buried in Queens with his parents and five brothers.

Almost exactly 106 years after the 1914 Tarrytown protest, demonstrators gathered again in the public square in Tarrytown. They were there to support Black Lives Matter and to protest the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minnesota police officers in May 2020.

An interesting side note: Joseph’s youngest brother, Sholom Secunda, was considered a “vunderkind” musical prodigy when he was a child cantor. As an adult he worked as a composer and conductor with the American Yiddish Theater. In 1932 he wrote the music for the song “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (“To Me You’re Beautiful”) as part of a Yiddish operetta.

Secunda had a long career as a composer, writing many musical works in a variety of genres, and didn’t consider “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” to be his greatest accomplishment. Nonetheless the song became a worldwide hit when it was recorded, with English lyrics, by the Andrews Sisters in 1938. My mom, who grew up in the 1930s, was a huge fan of the Andrews Sisters. I loved listening to Sholom’s catchy song while I was growing up.

Thank you, Stacy Waldman of House of Mirth Photos, for selling me Joseph Secunda’s mugshot photos and card. It’s a wonderful piece of Jewish history!

16 thoughts on “The Protester

  1. Living in Colorado and having been to that part of the state, I’ve learned about the Ludlow events. How interesting that it brought uproar in the New York Jewish community, and the parallels to protests today.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What an interesting piece of history! I love the connection with your mom’s fondness for the Andrews sisters’ song. I just listened to it, and I can see why you and she liked it; it is very catchy.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am interested in what reference there is that Joseph Secunda was a member of the I.W.W. As many groups were involved in the protests and his ID card does not indicate affiliation

    Liked by 1 person

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