My Path to Memorial Day Goes Through the 1919 Boston Police Strike

Monday, May 31, 2021

I've heard politics described as the way decisions are made on who gets what.  Its hard to dispute that.  

Nearly 102 years ago, in September of 1919, four out of five members of the Boston police force took a big political gamble: they went on strike to win official recognition of their right to form a union.  They wanted more pay, shorter shifts and better working conditions. 

Not only did the strikers not succeed, they all promptly lost their jobs.  

Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge declared, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime," a popular stance that made him a national figure and inspired the Republican Party to put him on its national ticket the next year as Warren Harding's running mate.  When Harding died in 1923, Coolidge became president.  

There's nothing like a crisis to boost (or break) a political career.  Were it not for the Boston Police Strike, Coolidge never would have become president.

My family has a link to that milestone event in the history of Boston and of the nation.  My mother's older brother, John F. Doyle, was in a Yankee Division National Guard unit activated by Coolidge during the strike to restore order to a city suddenly lacking most of its police officers.  Rabble- rousers, hooligans and looters had quickly come out of the woodwork.  

Here's how Brian MacQuarrie of The Boston Globe, writing two years ago on the centennial of the strike, memorably described what was happening on the streets of Boston at that time:

"...sword-waving cavalry charged into a jeering, stone-throwing crowd of 15,000 people in downtown Boston.  Roaming mobs robbed bystanders and looted stores.  Part-time infantry from the suburbs and small Massachusetts towns fired into crowds, fixed bayonets against Bostonians, and shot eight people dead over four tumultuous days."

MacQuarrie wrote that the event "was the country's first major police strike, and it caused a national uproar, feeding fears of revolution and communist infiltration at a time of growing labor unrest." The strike, he noted, was the first time Boston "had been placed under military watch" since the Revolutionary War.

Private Doyle was only 19 when called to strike duty.  He had enlisted in the Army after graduating from Revere High School, wanting to serve in World War I, but the war ended before he could be sent overseas.  He then became a reservist.

I never knew my Uncle John.  He died long before I was born.  I heard a lot about him, however, from my mother, who was one of 13 Doyle children.   He was known for his devotion to his mother and father, his kindness to all of his siblings, his smile and naturally good disposition.  He was not a big guy or a tough guy.  I have always had trouble squaring that reality with the image of a young, untested soldier carrying a rifle on the streets of Boston, with orders to shoot looters on sight.  If he ever fired his weapon during the strike, I think it would have become part of family lore.

There is an anecdote about Uncle John's service that has always stuck in my mind.  His father, Joseph Doyle, an immigrant from Ireland, had returned home from work on the second day of the strike to learn that his second child (and the oldest of his six sons) had been activated and was already likely in Boston.  Worried that his son would not be warm enough if he had to sleep on sidewalks or in doorways, my grandfather took his winter overcoat from a closet and headed to Boston on foot. He hiked from his home on Central Avenue in Revere, down Broadway and all the way through Chelsea, where at the shore of Boston Harbor he caught a ferry to the North End.  Having no idea where his son might be, he started asking the soldiers he encountered if they knew where his son's unit was stationed.  In time, he found the unit and his son.  "Pa," as he was called, handed John the overcoat, shook his hand, and turned right around toward home, not getting there until just before midnight.  Whenever I think about his long walk into and out of a city filled with danger, I'm impressed anew by the love he had for his children.

Within months of the Boston Police Strike, Uncle John became ill with respiratory problems.  The eventual diagnosis was one of the grimmest for that era: tuberculosis.  Because of his youth and vigor, he was able to put up a good fight for a long time.  There were times when he felt better and seemed to be on the verge of a cure.  But he never got clear of the TB.  Uncle John died on a summer morning in 1933 as the nation he had served staggered through the Great Depression.  By then, his father had been dead for almost two years, also from TB.

The U.S. Army determined that Private Doyle's fatal illness was service-related and granted a small survivor's pension to his mother.  When it arrived in the mail, my grandmother would always refer to the monthly stipend as "John's check."   It turned out to be a critical support to the family he left behind.

After his death, the City of Revere dedicated a triangular strip of land at the intersection of Suffolk and Prospect Avenues as John F. Doyle Square.  In 2013, the members of my extended family managed to have the square re-dedicated.  John's only sibling alive at that time, my Aunt Arlene, astonishingly quick of mind and step at age 86, was the heart and soul of that event.

Since then, on every Memorial Day, I and a first cousin of mine, Christine, have planted flowers around the stone erected for the rededication of "John's Square," as we all call it. That is what we will be doing later today, hoping the while that there's no more rain to fall this weekend.  

Although neither of us ever knew our Uncle John, the example of his life has always been very alive and real to us -- and to all of the other many Doyle family survivors out there.  We remain grateful to our grandmother, who lived into the late-1960s, and to John's brothers and sisters, for inculcating in us an appreciation of all that he was -- not a hero, but certainly a patriot, a strong-hearted, citizen-boy-soldier willing to put his life on the line for his country and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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