Remembering the 1913 Ipswich Riot

On June 10, 1913 in Ipswich, MA a labor demonstration unexpectedly turned into one of the most explosive riots in American labor history. Asserting that union picketers were “jostling” workers leaving the Ipswich Hosiery Mill the local police read the riot act, raised their clubs and marched into the crowd. Accounts vary widely on what occurred in what official reports claim was only a five minute period. Clearly raw emotions rather than cool reason ruled the day.

It appears the marching police were met by flying bricks and other debris. At that point the police began firing their pistols into the air and directly into the crowd. Ultimately, 1 person was killed, 6 were shot, 50 badly beaten, and 15 others were injured. Reports exist of seeing Greek men shot and being carried away by other Greeks. And we must assume something of this sort also happened with the Polish and Italian immigrant strikers, so how many suffered that day may never be really known.

Nicoletta Paudelopoulou, identified in the vast majority of newspapers and other reports as a bystander, was killed during the riot. But as subsequent events report, evasion rather than justice became the focus of official investigation. For the officials of Ipswich, circumstances were crystal clear: the whole event was caused by outside labor organizers. After that, any and all wrong doing fell on the labor leaders or the local strikers. Officially, then, the killing of Nicoletta Paudelopoulou was the result of strikers firing back at the police.

Over the next few months, with tensions ruling high on all sides, a grand jury investigation was finally convened. A great many things happened during the investigation.

Here is a glimpse of the testimony of one man, John Baker: “I got half way up the street,” he testified, “when I saw an officer grabbing two women. A little further I saw a man from the mill wearing, I believe, a special officer’s badge, with a revolver in his hand. Soon after I saw a policeman pull his gun and I think both began to shoot.

“I saw one officer near the Bancroft House ducking bricks and a moment later he fired four or five shots into the air. I started to walk up the street again when I saw some men behind a house and a woman with a bloody hole in her cheek. She was fighting with Chief (of Police) Hull. A moment later another officer grabbed her by the arm.

“The tall woman had a brick in her hand. I do not know whether she was going to throw it or not. While they were battling, another woman rushed over. The officer saw her, aimed at her, fired, and the woman fell.

“In answer to a question by Judge Charles A. Sayward, who is presiding at the hearing, as to whether the woman was facing the officer or standing sideways, the witness testified that she was facing him directly. This tends to collaborate the finding of the medical examiner in regard to the positions of the victim and the person who fired the shot which killed her.”

It was impression of the witness, according to his testimony, that the woman who was shot down had intended to rescue the woman who was grappling with the officer.

“Have you seen the officer since?” asked the judge. “Yes,” answered Baker, “I saw him on the street today. Asked if he saw him in the court room, Baker said “No” (Lewiston Daily Sun July 14, 1913).

Now, a “Mrs. Flora Cornelius, shot through the right leg, was exhausted from loss of blood when she reached the hospital. Mrs. Pahagiova Panganus was shot in the side of the head. The bullet came out through her teeth (Newport Mercury June 14, 1913).”Did Paudelopoulou know Panganus? Why is the news report so vague about the identity of the woman shot by the police officer? Given this evasive writing, we are compelled to wonder: was Paudelopoulou the woman Baker was referring to in his testimony?

Finally, was Baker ultimately asked to identify the police officer he’d seen fatally shoot the unnamed woman? No. In fact, John Baker stated it was his intent to leave town so he could find work. And after considerable protest by various lawyers, no effort was made to detain or question Baker further.

Paudelopoulou was buried less than 24 hours after the riot. “After the funeral service 150 persons followed the hearse for more than a mile from the church to the cemetery. “There was no disorder (Chicago Tribune June 12, 1913).”

“The 27 year old Paudelopoulou was buried at the local Immigrant Cemetery, which is part of the Highland Cemetery Annex on Fowler’s Lane, where there are over 300 immigrant graves, many unmarked. Once Baker testified lawyers for the defense made various efforts to have Paudelopoulou’s body exhumed to determine the precise angle of the bullet. Given that the police reported the bullet that killed her came from the windows of tenements across the street of the riot scene the angle of entry became a key point. I have not found any reports that this avenue of investigation was ever pursued.

“Judge Sayward, in the days and weeks that followed, focused all investigations and testimony onto the roles of the outside labor organizers. Sayward clearly wanted to find them guilty of murder and instigating a riot so that he could put them in jail. Sayward’s actions mirrored those of other city official’s. Following the riot all public demonstrations and “parades were forcibly stopped, meetings in the [union] hall were suppressed and the town passed an ordinance against free speech and public assemblage. Some labor reporters were denied admission into the court room. An editor of a Boston weekly was forcibly ejected from the town hall where the trials were held (Commonwealth July 17, 1913).”

Official precautions did not end with these fundamentally illegal actions. “In readiness for any developments an armed force of 600 officers has been recruited from the state police and the police of nearby cities (Chicago Tribune June 12, 1913).” Until this time Ipswich had been a town which had no more than 30 police officers. Given the available news reports it is often unclear whether the 30 officers were all part of the regular police force or this number during the riot included mill guards as well.

As it turned out only the space between the fence of the local Greek church yard and the front door of that church could serve as a place where Greek strikers and assorted others could meet.

Between 1913 and 1914, Greeks were being attacked and killed all across the country. Not every attack was due to labor issues, but the common underlying fears and prejudices were very often the same. This riot has not disappeared from the pages of history. But rather than an occasion for reflection about basic American rights and the strict limits of public authority other more curious twists and turns have occurred. As we shall see official historical sources often continue to follow the direction town officials threaded in 1913, while others have sought to learn the truth.