Author and Hoboken resident Holly Metz will appear at the Hoboken library on Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. for a free lecture to discuss her recent nonfiction book, “Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression.”
“Killing the Poormaster” offers an in-depth look at the events that led up to and followed the death of Harry Barck, the Hoboken poormaster, who was known for his cruelty in determining who would and would not receive public aid. Unemployed mason Joe Scutellaro was said to have stabbed Barck in the heart with a paper spike after the poormaster suggested that Scutellaro’s wife prostitute herself on the streets rather than ask the city for aid.
The incident made national headlines and has lived on in the memories of many older Hoboken residents who never forget the trial. In tackling this saga, Metz addresses issues that persist today such as massive unemployment, endemic poverty, and the inadequacy of public assistance.
Searching for testimony
“I first heard about this story a year after I moved to town,” said Metz during an interview in December.
Metz, 55, has lived in Hoboken for over 30 years. As the founder of the Hoboken Oral History Project, she had just begun the work to document people’s recollections about their time in Hoboken. The first version of the poormaster story that she heard wasn’t completely accurate – it was told to her by a handyman visiting her home to upgrade her electricity – but his telling piqued her interest in learning more about the case.
“I felt that as the city changed and became more of a place for people with higher incomes, the past in which Hoboken had a very large population of working class or poor was disappearing, and their direct experience would not be available,” said Metz. She said newspapers and official records didn’t often detail what was happening with the poor population in town, but the poormaster’s case would have led to court testimony.
“There would be direct testimony from people who had lived under the poormaster’s shadow,” noted Metz.
Metz received two New Jersey Historical Commission grants to research poor relief and the Scutellaro trial. “Killing the Poormaster” is the result of that research.
It took her eight years to complete the book, which she worked on diligently while also writing as a freelancer.
“To complete any book project you really need to be dogged,” said Metz. “For any writer [that] spends eight years on something…you are doing it because you believe in it.”
Metz said that the research process was long and involved. She had to understand the role of the poormaster and the history between 1896 and 1938. Through her research, she discovered that Barck had been president of the Poormasters Association and had also helped shape state law.
She also had to retrieve the Scutellaro file from the Hudson County Prosecutors’ Office.
“Ed DeFazio and his office were amazing,” noted Metz. DeFazio served as the former Hudson County prosecutor.
“It was a really incredible journey,” said Metz.
Shedding light on attitudes toward poverty
Metz said that the book will be of interest to anyone who wants to know how poor people lived in this country.
“I also think that the story is bigger than Hoboken,” noted Metz. “It tells the story of the attitude that our society has long held in terms of poor people – that it is their fault [and] that they are to blame.”
Metz said she did not believe that attitude has shifted significantly since the time of the poormaster.
“This attitude is so old,” said Metz. She said that the United States inherited the philosophy in regard to the response to people living in poverty and the poor laws from the English.
“This is a 15th century perception.”
Metz said that people still hold onto what she described as an “irrational” belief that people who live in poverty don’t try to get out of their situation.
“There is a belief that people could get work if they only tried,” said Metz.
She quoted Earl Shorris, who said that people living in poverty have “the surround of force,” meaning that they spend all of their time reacting and unable to make their perspective known.
“You spend all your time…applying for aid, to the police in your neighborhood,” noted Metz.
“Being able to exercise your rights as a citizen and make your perspective known…there is no space for that.”
A freelance writer since 1985, Metz has written extensively on legal, cultural, and social issues for the American Bar Association and for a number of publications. Metz will speak at the Hoboken Public Library on Feb. 20.
The book is available at all major booksellers and online. For more information, visit: http://thepoormaster.com.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt from ‘Killing the Poormaster’
Feb. 25, 1938
City Hall, Hoboken, New Jersey
Around 10:15 a.m.
The metal spike, propelled with weight and force, punctured the poormaster’s striped dress shirt at center chest, slicing through his undervest. It tore through downy chest hair and age-toughened skin, the accumulated fat of years, cut through membrane to pierce muscle. The skewer punctured bone; with great velocity it clipped through the cage meant to protect the heart and lungs. The spike tip continued, lancing the sac enclosing Harry Barck’s heart, and then, with its sudden, sharp withdrawal, ripped a jagged hole in his aorta.
Now the swift gush of blood could not be routed but flooded into the gap between Barck’s flailing heart and its fibrous sheath. Blood rushed and pooled inside the girdling case, pounding the contained muscle, desperate to work and failing.
This was the deadly sequence determined at autopsy, for the body’s exterior had displayed little of the violence the medical examiners later found within. The puncture wound to Barck’s chest, an eighth of an inch in diameter, had issued virtually no blood. But inside, the doctors discovered the cause of the poormaster’s death: the massing force of his own blood had compressed his heart and choked it, until its beating ceased.