Welcome to America, 1920

What a country! In America, gangsters controlled the ballot box. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the featured cartoon in the Jewish Daily Forward from Election Day, November 2, 1920. Republican Warren Harding beat Democrat James Cox that day, but the Forward rejected both of them. It’s candidate was the Socialist, Eugene V. Debs, running his campaign from prison, serving a term for wartime sedition. Debs would get over a million votes.

November 1920 was also the month that my grandfather landed at Ellis Island, having fled Eastern Europe a step ahead of the law (see prior posts). Having left wife and children behind, he found himself rootless and moniless, stranded in the biggest, freest city on earth — a far cry from backwoods Poland. It would take six years to bring over the rest of the family.

It wasn’t just politics that must have seemed strange to him. Here’s a cartoon that month from another Yiddish Daily, The Day (Deer Taag). Here, the corrupt goon is the fat, rich landlord squeezing pennies from his impovished slum tenants.

Want more goons? Try the police. Earlier in 1920, New York coppers backed by Justice Department agents had rounded up over 5,000 recent immigrants in the notorious Palmer Raids, holding them for weeks on vague charges of disloyalty, deporting almost a thousand, then freeing the rest. “Third degree” tactics were normal back then; “civil liberties” was mostly still just a fancy word on college campuses.

Did I mention organized crime? Let’s see. There were the gangs under Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, and Legs Diamond, not to mention Albert Anastasio and Murder Incorporated over in Brooklyn. And they were just the celebrities.

Want to cross the street? Try walking through this: Driving around New York.

We have built a ridiculously nostalgic image of life for immigrants reaching America in the early Twentieth Century. Don’t be fooled. It was hard, raw, painful, and unforgiving: the back- breaking strain of sweatshop labor, the squalor of tenements, and disdain of the native born. By 1921, “old” Americans grew so hostile against newcomers that they imposed the most restrictive peacetime immigration quotas in history.

Psychologists use a phrase to describe how people can take a painful experience and color their own memory to justify it by turning it into something glorious and honorable — cognitive dissonance. That’s the American immigrant experience.