The Fight For Free Speech in Tarrytown

In one of his best stories, Washington Irving, the famous American author, records the fact that a sequestered spot in the neighborhood of Tarrytown-on the Hudson has long been known as Sleepy Hollow. "A drowsy, dreamy influence," he says, "seems to hang over the land and to pervade the very atmosphere." These words were written nearly a hundred years ago, but have lost none of their freshness. Tarrytown is still sunk in deep slumber, and if it shows faint signs of awakening, the signs are very recent and can be traced to outside pressure.

Early in May, Arthur Caron, one of the men who was "beaten up" by the New York police in connection with the recent unemployed demonstrations in Union Square, and one of the active spirits in the "Free Silence Movement" inaugurated by Upton Sinclair in front of Rockefeller's office at 26 Broadway, went with a group of friends to Tarrytown to carry the anti-Rockefeller protest to the very gates of the Rockefeller home in Pocantico Hills. Out of his visit grew a plan to hold a public meeting in Tarrytown at which Rockefeller and the situation in Colorado were to be discussed. Mr. Caron appealed to the Free Speech league for co-operation, and the League addressed to Mr. Pierson, the village head, a request for a permit for an out-door meeting. No reply was received. Mr. Caron and the head of the Free Speech League then had a personal interview with the Chief of Police in Tarrytown, and repeated the request. The chief promised a reply, but failed to keep his promise.

It was not until after these peaceful overtures had been rejected that "direct action" was resorted to. On Saturday evening, May 30th, twelve of our comrades went to Tarrytown, namely: Rebecca Edelson, Arthur Caron, Charles E. Plunkett, Jack Isaacson, Frank Mandese, Louis Pastorella, Maurice Rudome, Charles Bergh, Adolph Aufriecht, Joseph Secunda, Vincenzo Fabriciano and Jack Butler. The group went over to Fountain Square, the recognized our-door meeting place at Tarrytown, where Socialists and Salvation Army speakers have been heard, and tried to start a meeting. The first speaker was arrested, and as one followed another in attempts to speak, each was arrested. Rockefeller and the Colorado outrages were the subjects on which the speakers tried to talk. One speaker is quoted as calling Rockefeller a "multi-murder" and as saying that "the only thing the Standard Oil Company ever gave away was oil to burn the miners' tents at Ludlow." The entire group were arrested and locked up in the Tarrytown calaboose, charged with disorderly conduct, blocking traffic and endangering the public health. The list of those arrested, as given above, is an interesting one and significant of the character of the movement. Intellectual and proletarian, Jew and Gentile, are represented. The nationalities of the men include American, (with even a touch of aboriginal Indian!), Russian, Italian, French and Swedish. The position of pluck Rebecca Edelson, one woman imprisoned with eleven men, recalls the plight of Suga Kanno in Japan.

On the following day, Sunday 31st, Alexander Berkman, accompanied by Helen Harris, Dave Sullivan, Harry Wilkes, Joe De Rosa and others came out from New York and tried to speak. He set a chair in the street. "Fellow citizens," he said, "I know you all admire a man who is fighting for his rights. We are fighting for free speech, which the Constitution gives us. I care not what the police say. John D. Rockefeller may own this town, but he can't stop free speech." At this point Berkman was grabbed by the police and prevented from continuing his speech. All day long he and his companions kept on trying to speak. De Rosa, Sullivan and Wilkes were arrested, and the first-named was badly bruised by police violence.

On the same evening, a band of about twenty more, mostly Italian and Spanish comrades, reinforced Berkman and his group. They went to Fountain Square and tried to speak, but were pummeled and pushed about by the police, and finally taken to the railway station and placed aboard a train for New York.

On Monday, June 1st, De Rosa and Sullivan were brought before the magistrate in Tarrytown and sentenced to three months' and thirty days' imprisonment respectively. Following these outrageous sentences, the head of the Free Speech League, who had been in Court, sought a conference with Mr. Pierson, the village President. He asked again for a permit for an out-door meeting in Tarrytown. The request was refused.

On the same day, Rev. J.E. Cates, of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Tarrytown, challenged Berkman to debate the issue of free speech and the situation in Colorado in the church-yard of St. Paul's. Berkman promptly accepted the challenge, but Cates later withdrew it, on the ground that his fellow-clergymen in the town and the trustees of his church objected. Berkman then asked Cates to debate the issues in New York.

On Wednesday, June 3rd, Marie Yuster and a committee of women distributed 500 hand-bills throughout Tarrytown. These circulars carried such headings as "Free Speech in Tarrytown Suppressed by Policemen's Clubs," "A Demand for Free Speech," "To the Workers of Tarrytown;" and they were signed by the Free Speech League, the Anti-Militarist League and the Francisco Ferrer Association.

On the following Saturday, June 6th, eleven of the prisoners arrested a week before were brought before the Magistrate in Tarrytown. Upton Sinclair came into the fight at this juncture and was present in court. The prisoners were represented by Justus Sheffield, the New York lawyer who recently defended Tannenbaum, O'Carroll, Caron and Adolf Wolff and others who were arrested for activities in behalf of the unemployed. Mr. Sheffield succeeded in winning a week's delay for the prisoners, and on Monday, June 8th, they were released on bail.

Such, in brief, is the history of the free speech fight in Tarrytown as MOTHER EARTH goes to press. The whole affair has aroused nation-wide and even international interest, not only because of the free speech principle involved, but also because everyone realizes that the "speech" suppressed was in the nature of an attack upon Rockefeller in Rockefeller's home town. It was an attack, that is to say, upon the richest man in the world, calling him to account for crimes that he has committed against humanity, and in especial, for crimes committed against the coal miners in Colorado.

It is an inspiration to know that men and women are still willing to fight, to go to prison, and if necessary, die for freedom. Those of us who were present in the little court-room at Tarrytown on June 6th knew that we were participating in an historic occasion. It was Tarrytown, its officials and magistrate and police, who were on trial that day, not Miss Edelson and her companions before the bar. Intelligence and idealism were on the side of the prisoners.

By the time this issue of MOTHER EARTH is in the hands of the reader, our comrades may have been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Their imprisonment can only cover them with glory. All honor to them and to all who take their attitude! To such we owe whatever liberties we possess. The fight in which they have enlisted is never-ending, and is always victorious.

"Who is it speaks of defeat,
I tell you a cause like ours
Is greater than defeat can know,
it is the power of powers."

by Leonard D. Abbott 

From: Mother Earth, June 1914.