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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: Civil Unrest—is this America?

July 26, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the seventh instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six.

While nothing about the Great Depression was easy, 1933 would prove to be especially painful for Milwaukee. Three years of economic downturn had lacerated the gross national product, and eliminated nearly 27,000 businesses. In 1933 alone, the Cream City weathered an eviscerating 51,000 job losses.

From the Depression’s inception, Milwaukee’s residents stretched every resource available to survive, often immolating savings accounts, insurance policies, and interpersonal relationships in the process. Mounting complaints over the city’s bureaucratically choked response to the crisis eventually transmogrified into violent protest. In February, 1930, a mob of 400 dirty and disheveled men paraded through Milwaukee’s streets to City Hall. According to historian Paul Glad’s extensive writing on the era, they carried with them a petition asking Mayor Daniel Hoan on behalf of unemployed workers to replenish bankrupt welfare services with funds from the city’s coffers. Such services ordinarily provided the destitute with free food, clothing, shelter, and medical services. Mayor Hoan ultimately rebuffed the demonstrators, telling them Milwaukee had no available money for relief. Outside, the demonstrators blocked traffic until the Milwaukee police dispersed them. Though several demonstrators were taken to the central police station a block away, only three of them were arrested and jailed. Later that day, Hoan asked Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer to release the three, observing that “there is a greater unemployment problem facing us now than in several years… men out of work are likely to make such demonstrations as this.”

Wisconsin’s trouble with demonstrators wasn’t just limited to Milwaukee. Just three weeks later, a small group of unemployed laborers and University of Madison students confronted Mayor Albert G. Schmedeman. Lottie Blumenthal, the leader of the group, interrogated Schmedeman about what the mayor intended to do about 3,000 jobless Madison workers. “What can I do?” Schmedeman retorted. “What power do you think I have to create work?”

Three weeks later, the Madison council of the National Trade Union Unity League staged a protest to voice their dissatisfaction with city officials’ dismissive responses to the unemployment crisis. The demonstrators soon clashed with an irate crowd of university students. In the ensuing melee, the students assaulted Lottie Blumenthal and other radical leaders, destroyed banners and signs demanding work, and scattered thousands of radical pamphlets all over the streets. Ultimately, Madison police arrested the five university athletes who had led the attack.

From 1929 to 1933, Wisconsin’s milk production declined precipitously. Farm prices were already in freefall, and the only way to maintain income was to increase production, something that required significantly larger quantities of hay and other feed. Unfortunately, weather during the 1930s was exceptionally dry, and these unfavorable growing conditions placed severe constraints on available feed. Consequently, many Wisconsin farmers lost substantial income. “Farmers have been agitated and unsettled as never before,” said Ernest L. Luther, Director of Wisconsin’s Farmer’s Institute. As protest movements began to take shape, Luther predicted social disruption if Wisconsin’s population learned just how buried in foreclosures and moratoriums the state really was.

National Guardsmen brought in Governor Albert G Schmedeman to combat striking farmers

In 1933, several Wisconsin dairy farms began withholding their milk from markets to secure higher prices. While the milk price index had been in decline for years before the stock market crash, the arrival of the Great Depression had sent the index into freefall. Dairy farmers were receiving less than a third of the price they once commanded just a decade earlier.

When a large group of farmers from the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool announced their plans to strike on May 13, 1933, newly elected Governor Schmedeman was ready for them, asking Adjutant General Ralph Immell of the Wisconsin National Guard to place 2,500 men under the command of local sheriffs. Crates of tear gas arrived from Washington, and according to Paul Glad, the extensive preparations brought back vivid memories of World War I for those involved. The nostalgia likely served them well, as the striking farmers abandoned their picketing for more guerrilla tactics like dumping the milk of an unprotected delivery truck, then scattering before guardsmen arrived.

Wisconsin Milk Strike

As one Waukesha County farmer reported, the striking farmers weren’t always so lucky: “Yesterday, they went through Richfield […] and there they ran into a bunch of National Guard and deputies [who] surrounded the truck while one man with a gun lined them up and the rest pounded the hell out of them, and I mean pounded. One man has a fractured skull.”

Waukesha County Sherriff Arthur J. Moran instigated an even more dramatic confrontation which came to be known as the “Battle of Durham Hill.” Moran even timed the affair to attract as many photographers and reporters as possible.

In confronting a small group of farmers, Moran’s forces first hit them with a torrent of gas bombs. Nearly 100 guardsmen then charged the farmers with fixed bayonets, driving the strikers over a hill. As Paul Glad recounts, a Wisconsin farm wife who witnessed the calamity asked “Is this America?”

The Battle of Durham Hill

Ultimately, the Milk Pool’s strike efforts were unsuccessful. The organization issued a statement after ending the strikes in May, 1933, still insisting on the farmers’ right to control the price of their product, yet lamenting that enforcement of said control required such violence and anarchy.

Back in Milwaukee, while the city’s police were relieved to have steady jobs during a time when most Americans were hopelessly unemployed, this exceptionally rare job security came at a steep price: The Cream City’s firemen and policemen bitterly accepted a voluntary 10% pay cut, intended to improve Milwaukee’s finances. As most residents were out of work, the city was having difficulty collecting taxes, and actually had to halt the distribution of salaries for an agonizing four months.

When salaries resumed, officers were paid with a city-sanctioned alternative currency known as “scrip”. As most Milwaukee merchants refused to accept the “scrip” at full value, the city paid its officers a ratio of one quarter U.S. dollars to three quarters “scrip”. Some years later, Milwaukee’s firemen received as compensation for their 10% pay cut five days of paid vacation. Milwaukee’s police force received nothing.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

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