Reflecting on a sensational, Depression-era murder trial, Killing the Poormaster
chronicles the events that lead up to—and follow—the death of Harry Barck, a poormaster who was granted the authority to decide who would and would not receive public aid in Hoboken, New Jersey. 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.
News of the poormaster's death electrifies the city and soon makes headlines nationwide. Joe Scutellaro is one of ten million unemployed. Across the country, the poor are taking to the streets to demand jobs and aid controlled by tightfisted welfare agents and their political overseers. Prosecutors argue that Scutellaro must die if he is found guilty of killing the poormaster.
A legal team led by celebrated defender Samuel S. Leibowitz of “Scottsboro Boys” swoop in from Manhattan to Hoboken to try to save Scutellaro from the electric chair, arguing that the jobless man’s struggle with the poormaster was a symbol of larger social ills. At issue was not just Barck’s well-known penchant for cruelty; public relief had become a tool for imposing social and political control nationwide.
Grappling with issues that are still vital—massive unemployment, endemic poverty, and the inadequacy of public assistance—Killing the Poormaster
lends insight into the current social contract, relaying a gripping narrative that reads like today’s news.
Read an excerpt »
Reviews and Advance Praise:
“Imagine John Grisham with footnotes. Or Scott Turow with historical data instead of fictional criminal fact-finding. And this true legal drama takes place in Hoboken.
Holly Metz has produced a narrative literally torn out of the headlines — from newspaper clips and transcripts of the 1930s in New Jersey. "Killing the Poormaster" concerns the death of Harry Barck, who held the title of Overseer of the Poor in Hoboken and determined the amount of relief provided or withheld in the Mile Square City.
Metz, a longtime Hoboken resident, captures the many dramatic elements of the Depression-era case, beginning with how Barck was killed in 1938: by a desk spike that punctured his heart during a scuffle with aid-seeker Joe Scutellaro in the poormaster’s office.
Her thoroughly researched and entertaining legal story of Scutellaro’s arrest and trial for murder is layered with examples of Hoboken’s pervasive municipal corruption, the massive unemployment driving many to near starvation and Hudson County’s faulty and meager assistance programs.””
“Well researched...[Metz] takes what could have been a simple historical true-crime story and grounds it firmly in the era’s social history, illustrating the problems faced by the impoverished who relied on relief handouts that were themselves at the whim of a corrupt authority.”
—Amelia K. Osterud, Library Journal
“This well-constructed work of historical nonfiction is heart-wrenching and thoroughly absorbing.”
“It's a fine potboiler, but Metz is at her best when revealing what lives were then like, especially the pitilessness with which Hoboken's poor had been treated...The unemployed were shamed and blamed for their need, and Metz adeptly sketches their wretched circumstances.”
—Village Voice books blog
“Killing the Poormaster, the new book by Holly Metz, brings vividly to life 1930s Hoboken, New Jersey, making it easy to envision classic brownstones with street vendors, milk trucks, and boys in knickers in the same neighborhoods now filled with stockbrokers and hipsters. The book’s great achievement, however, is to take us inside the walls of those houses, to place us among suffering people, mostly ignored in their time and all but invisible to us today, and to disturb us about their condition..”
—Jamie Malanowski, Washington Monthly
“Holly Metz offers a grim and fascinating glimpse of Americans left to the mercy of petty bureaucrats and party pols once federal relief was withdrawn in the mid-1930s. Gripping history, Killing the Poormaster is also a warning to those who would continue to casually slash assistance programs today. A powerful and compelling book.”
—Stephen Pimpare, author of A People’s History of Poverty in America
“Holly Metz not only opens wide a window on a fascinating epoch in American history, she sheds light on the bitter class enmity that continues to plague us today. Killing the Poormaster is a meticulous and mesmerizing look at our past, the story of one man who struck back at an unfair system and in so doing, ripped the cover off a city’s legacy of corruption and injustice.”
—Anthony DePalma, author of City of Dust and The Man Who Invented Fidel
“A well- researched, engrossingly written book which in winning fashion tells a tale that needed to be told, and although unfortunately long overlooked has found a splendid chronicler in Holly Metz.”
—Daniel J. Leab, Professor of History, Seton Hall University
“Fifteen years before Hoboken gained international notoriety as the
violence-ridden site of the classic film On the Waterfront, a real-life
Hoboken killing exposed the tribalism, brutality, and menacing practices of
the ‘Mile Square City’s’ archaic political machine. In Killing the
Poormaster, Holly Metz vividly reconstructs the social milieu of
Depression-era Hoboken, a cauldron of ethnic resentment, passionate
loyalties, and profound human suffering, all on display in a murder trial
Metz recounts with the flair of a dramatist and the gritty facticity of an
—James T. Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York
“Rigorously researched and vividly recounted, this history of the death of a
Hoboken Poormaster in the 1930s brings back a time, not unlike today, when a
corrupt welfare system made poverty a crime, pushing honest citizens to
extremes in their efforts to survive. Move over reality TV, Metz tells a
story that rivals your best.”
—Fred Gardaphe, Distinguished Professor, Queens College/CUNY, and author of From Wiseguys to Wise Men
“A vivid and illuminating book. By focusing on particular events in the late 1930s Holly Metz manages to reveal the political dynamics of relief and the real tragedies our policy produces.”
—Frances Fox Piven, author of Regulating the Poor, and Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York