Padrone System Scandal Involving Up to 200 Italian Workers in Pelham Manor in 1894
In 1894, New York City newspapers were abuzz with exposés and investigatory articles regarding use of the padrone system to hire manual laborers for city work. Nineteenth century "padrones" typically were immigrant labor brokers who supplied large construction projects, railroads, mining concerns, industrialized agriculture, and the like with laborers from their own country. According to one account:
"Padrones, unlike ordinary labor agents, dealt exclusively in immigrant workers from their own country of origin, and also cultivated intricate, binding relationships with their men. They found immigrants jobs but also provided them with a range of other services that intensified their dependence on the padrone. . . . Immigrants paid padrones a variety of fees, and often these fees would be deducted directly from workers' pay."
Source: Philip, Meghna, The Invisibility of Mexican Peonage: Race, Space, Temporality, and Free Labor in the 19th Century, Brown Journal of History, Vol. 5 (Spring 2011), pp. 31, 42.
Padrones, in short, used the equivalent of a "company store" -- usually in the guise of a canteen in which the men were required to eat -- to charge the men essentially what they were supposed to earn for the work they performed, thus keeping them in servitude as providers of free labor.
On February 20, 1894, The World of New York City crowed in a front page article that its "fight against the infamous padrone system of securing city labor" had "resulted in victory" after the New York City Street-Cleaning-Department announced that it would no longer use padrones and, instead, engaged 200 extra men directly, without using labor brokers, and would pay them the requisite $1.50 per day for their work. See ANDREWS YIELDS AT LAST -- He Puts 200 Laborers at Work Without Calling on the Padrones, The World [NY, NY], Feb. 20, 1894, p. 1, col. 5 (Note: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
At about this time, Pelham found itself swept up in the padrone investigations. In January and February of 1894, there was a major construction project underway in the three-year-old Village of Pelham Manor. The newspaper reports are unclear, but the project likely involved the construction of sewer lines throughout the village -- a project that was undertaken in 1894. In any event, a firm named Donlon Brothers employed between one hundred and two hundred Italian immigrant laborers for the project in Pelham Manor.
When not working, the laborers lived, ate, and slept in temporary longhouse-style shanties. They were required to eat meals provided by their employer. The employer then "charged" the men exorbitant prices for their room and board. The charges wiped out the men's pay. Thus, the men labored without being paid. In short, the construction firm was using the padrone system to perform the work without paying the laborers. To make matters worse, the laborers were provided with meager and infrequent portions of food to the point that they were malnourished.
In February, 1894, four malnourished and "suffering" Italian laborers working in Pelham Manor escaped and fled to New York City where they approached a well-known, wealthy, and successful Italian American banker named Vincenzo Palumbo. One of the men had an untreated broken arm. All four "looked the picture of hunger and suffering."
The men told Palumbo a story of "torture while at work." Palumbo and his colleagues were shocked and outraged by the revelations. Palumbo began an investigation of Donlon Brothers.
The company claimed that it had absolutely no knowledge that its laborers were provided as part of a padrone system. The company said it merely had arranged the labor through a contractor. Palumbo wrote the contractor on behalf of the laborers demanding that the men be paid for their labor. The contractor wrote back to say the men were scheduled to be paid the following Monday and invited Palumbo to visit Pelham Manor to witness the men being paid off. Palumbo accepted and left for Pelham Manor.
What Palumbo witnessed in Pelham Manor was shocking. He returned to New York and spoke immediately with a reporter for The Evening World. He reportedly told that reporter:
"'It was the most awful sight I ever witnesses,' Palumbo said. 'The snow was a foot deep, and more than 200 men, sick and hungry, were lying in the shanties. On account of the snow, work had been suspended. Not a particle of food had crossed the lips of those men all day. There was not as much as a crust of bread in any of the shanties, nor was there any fuel. 'You cannot imagine how the men looked. I shudder now even to think of it. They swarmed around me and begged piteously for me to take them back. They said they had been robbed and starved. They certainly looked the latter. Several of them had been injured while at work, and no physician had bee called to set the broken limbs. 'When I asked the contractor if he proposed to pay off the men as he agreed he said he could not, as his brothers, who had the money, were in the city. I denounced him as a trickster, but he only laughed and said he could do nothing. I told him I would bring suit in the name of every man for the money due, but even that threat produced no result. 'While coming away the men clung to me and begged to be taken back. I only had a few dollars with me. I distributed that and took back the four most serious cases. The men are here now and you can see them for yourself. I only wish that some of the authorities here could see those 200 men in the shanties. If they would only spend a few hours in going up to Pelham Manor, the padrone would soon be crushed.'" (See full text of article below.)
Once again, such revelations shocked and outraged New York City. The Mayor's Marshal Englehard began preparing charges against the Pelham Manor padrones operators and Vincenzo Palumbo began working with laborers to prepare affidavits as evidence against the operators. New York City newspapers blared front page headlines such as "Outrageous Treatment of Laborers at Pelham Manor" and "Laborers at Pelham Manor Complain that They Have Been Cheated and Cannot Get the Money Due Them."
The investigation suggested that an organization named "the Pelham Improvement Association" was involved with overseeing unspecified work in Pelham Manor. The investigation found that about one hundred Italian workers were furnished for the Pelham Manor project by Tony Richards of White Plains. According to an account of the investigation, "Excepting, perhaps, half a dozen, the men have not been paid, although they have earned from $5 to $30 each."
Tony Richards of White Plains, according to news reports, was overseeing the laborers in a padrone system. According to one report:
"Tony Richards has charge of the boarding-house, and the men say he charges them exorbitant prices. It costs them 10 cents for a small loaf of bread that can be bought any place else for five cents. His price for macaroni is nine cents a pound. It isn't worth more than five. He charges 18 cents for bologna that they could buy in the city for eight cents. The shanty in which the men are compelled to build a wood fire on the floor, which is the earth."
Despite the outrage and the threats of arrest, there seem to be no reported resolution of the matter in favor of the workers. Reports suggest that Donlon Brothers denied owing the men "but very little" and claimed it was unable to pay the men "until a certain portion of the contract is finished."
While one might think the negative press, investigations, and threats of law enforcement might have dissuaded firms from using the padrone system thereafter for work in Pelham Manor, it appears that the practice continued. Indeed, in October, 1894, the New Rochelle Pioneer reported on a thwarted effort by a disgruntled Italian laborer working on the Pelham Manor sewer system project to dynamite a shanty in which Italian, Irish, and African American laborers were enjoying card games after work. The article included a sketch of the shanty (see below) and described difficult living conditions in which the men were required to eat meals as part of the shanty boarding system required for their jobs.
* * * * *
"TO ARREST PADRONES
The Mayor's Marshal, Englehard, Promises to Take Action.
Banker Palumbo Now Preparing the Affidavits.
Outrageous Treatment of Laborers at Pelham Manor.
The arrival of four Italian laborers from Pelham Manor, in charge of Banker Vincenzo Palumbo, caused some excitement in Italian circles this morning. The men were victims of the padrones, and had been lured here two months ago to work at the Manor. They looked the picture of hunger and suffering. One man's arm had been broken and all of them will be on the sick list for many days to come.
The stories they told of the torture endured while at work made many of their hearers cry out in rage against the bosses. They returned just as they had started out, without a dollar. What little they had earned had been kept from them, and it was only by the charity of Palumbo that they were able to get back. Two hundred others, it is claimed, are now at work in the same place, enduring the same suffering.
A man named Donald is the contractor, and the work is being done for a firm who have an office at 18 Wall street, this city. The latter, however, have no knowledge that the padrone system is in operation. Donald's right-hand man is named Pricelardeeli, who runs the 'boarding-house' at which the men must eat.
One week ago the men wrote to friends in this city that they were being robbed and illtreated, and Palumbo was appealed to. He wrote to the contractor and, in reply, received a letter stating that the men would be paid off on Monday. He was invited up to Pelham Manor to see the men paid off, and he accepted. He told the story of his visit to an 'Evening World' reporter this morning.
'It was the most awful sight I ever witnesses,' Palumbo said. 'The snow was a foot deep, and more than 200 men, sick and hungry, were lying in the shanties. On account of the snow, work had been suspended. Not a particle of food had crossed the lips of those men all day. There was not as much as a crust of bread in any of the shanties, nor was there any fuel.
'You cannot imagine how the men looked. I shudder now even to think of it. They swarmed around me and begged piteously for me to take them back. They said they had been robbed and starved. They certainly looked the latter. Several of them had been injured while at work, and no physician had bee called to set the broken limbs.
'When I asked the contractor if he proposed to pay off the men as he agreed he said he could not, as his brothers, who had the money, were in the city. I denounced him as a trickster, but he only laughed and said he could do nothing. I told him I would bring suit in the name of every man for the money due, but even that threat produced no result.
'While coming away the men clung to me and begged to be taken back. I only had a few dollars with me. I distributed that and took back the four most serious cases. The men are here now and you can see them for yourself. I only wish that some of the authorities here could see those 200 men in the shanties. If they would only spend a few hours in going up to Pelham Manor, the padrone would soon be crushed.'
Mayor's Marshal Englehard last evening requested Palumbo, through 'The Evening World' to procure evidence against the padrones for violating the employment agency laws. Palumbo readily agreed to furnish all the evidence needed, and he is at work to-day securing affidavits of victims. As soon as a sufficient number have been secured the Marshal will obtain warrants for the arrest of the padrone.
Palumbo is also securing affidavits showing the extortion practiced upon Italians in the police courts and by the police. This will be used in case the Legislature decides to investigate the padrone system."
Source: TO ARREST PADRONES -- The Mayor's Marshal, Englehard, Promises to Take Action -- Banker Palumbo Now Preparing the Affidavits -- Outrageous Treatment of Laborers at Pelham Manor, The Evening World [NY, NY], Feb. 27, 1894, p. 1, col. 2 (Note: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
"PADRONES BADLY SCARED.
Three of the Italian Slave-Drivers May Be Placed Under Arrest To-Day.
MORE AFFIDAVITS ARE SECURED.
Laborers at Pelham Manor Complain that They Have Been Cheated and Cannot Get the Money Due Them.
The padrones are badly frightened. The announcement in The World that Mayor's Marshal Engelhard is looking into the charges made against the bosses has had its effect and is proving of material aid in breaking up the gang of slave-drivers.
Last night 550 more men were placed at work on the streets through the St. Raphael Society. Commissioner Andrews kept his promise not to call upon the padrones.
Vincenzo Palumbo received several letters yesterday from bosses in various parts of the State offering to discontinue their abuse of the Italians and employ all the men needed from the Independent Italian Labor Union, which is to be organized to-night in Brookes's Assembly rooms, in Broome street. It was advertised that the meeting was to be held Friday night in the Germania Assembly Rooms, in the Bowery. Yesterday Mr. Palumbo received word that he could not have this hall.
The report was circulated yesterday that Rocco Manzelle, the partner of Francolini Bros., had received an order from the Street-Cleaning Department to furnish a certain number of men. This was denied at the office of the department and by Manzelle himself.
James S. March, who was exposed in The World as a padrone, wrote a letter to Vincenzo Palumbo yesterday, in which he said he had been wrongfully accused.
'I will employ every man that I put to work from the Independent Italian Labor Union,' he added, 'and will always be pleased to have my commissaries along the line of the Erie Railroad inspected by a committee from the union.'
One of the worst frightened padrones yesterday was Vincenzo De Vito, who runs a bank and saloon at No. 83 Mulberry street. An Italian who had paid him $38 to get a job in the Street-Cleaning Department and had in his possession a receipt from De Vito showing the transaction, called upon him and threatened to have him arrested if he did not refund the money. De Vito promised to give back the money at 6 P. M. last night, but at that hour begged off until this morning. If he does not keep his promise the receipt will be placed in Mayor's Marshal Englehard's hands. The Marshal has said that any evidence of this nature would be sufficient to warrant an arrest. Several affidavits were made yesterday which show conclusively that money has been fraudulently exacted for securing men work. An effort will be made to have three padrones arrested to-day.
The recent snowstorm caused another delay in starting men to work on the park improvements, for which a million-dollar appropriation has been made. At the offices of the Park Department it was said yesterday that there was no truth in the charge that only Democrats were employed. 'Why, you can go among the men who have been working for some time,' President Tappen said, 'and you will find just as many Republicans as Democrats. We are aiming to do all that lies in our power to help the poor men, regardless of politics. You can say that just as soon as the snow is cleared away all the men that can be used will be employed.'
The Italians who have been employed by Donlon Bros. at Pelham Manor say they have been cheated and robbed. These contractors have been at work for the Pelham Improvement Association for two months. They have employed about one hundred Italians. Most of them were furnished by Tony Richards, of White Plains. Excepting, perhaps, half a dozen, the men have not been paid, although they have earned from $5 to $30 each.
Tony Richards has charge of the boarding-house, and the men say he charges them exorbitant prices. It costs them 10 cents for a small loaf of bread that can be bought any place else for five cents. His price for macaroni is nine cents a pound. It isn't worth more than five. He charges 18 cents for bologna that they could buy in the city for eight cents. The shanty in which the men are compelled to build a wood fire on the floor, which is the earth.
Three men from New Rochelle called at Pelham yesterday for money that had been coming to them for a month. They didn't get any. They say they are put off from day to day with promises that are never fulfilled. Mr. Donlon told the men he would pay them last Saturday, and they gathered to the number of nearly 100, but were told to come on Monday. They returned on Monday, but Donlon could not be found.
Donlon claims that he owes the men but very little, and that he can't pay them until a certain portion of his contract is finished. He says that Donlon Bros. never cheated an employee out of a cent during their six years in business."
Source: PADRONES BADLY SCARED -- Three of the Italian Slave-Drivers May Be Placed Under Arrest To-Day -- MORE AFFIDAVITS ARE SECURED -- Laborers at Pelham Manor Complain that They Have Been Cheated and Cannot Get the Money Due Them, The World [NY, NY], Mar. 1, 1894, p. 9, col. 5 (Note: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
"A WOULD-BE MURDERER.
Patrick Reilly Attempts Wholesale Murder to Avenge an Alleged Wrong.
CAUGHT IN THE NICK OF TIME.
On the outskirts of this village near Pelham Manor, a most atrocious attempt was made by a man named Patrick Reilly Sunday evening, one of some hundred employees of Murray & Molloy on the sewer construction at that place, which had he not been detected in the nick of time would have resulted in a fearful massacre of nearly 100 laborers, who at the time of the attempted plot were in a rough spruce board shanty which is about sixty feet long, and in which they lived and slept.
The men live on rough fare provided for them by the wife of Antonio Cesaria, who is known as the 'shanty boss.' They include Italians, Irishmen and negroes. After the day's digging is done they play cards, drink and fight. At Cesaria's shanty the best man is the man who can stun his opponent with a kick or a blow, or drive him from the place out into the open country by showing him a gleaming dagger.
Reilly, the dynamiter, got on well enough with the Italians, but quarreled with Frank Murray, an Irishman, who boarded at the rough board table and slept in a bunk in the centre of the tobacco laden room. It was to blow Murray to pieces that Reilly says he arranged the dynamite cartridges. In his rage, he took little account of the fate of the others, though he says -- but no one believes it -- that by a scheme of his own. Murray would have been the only one killed.
Reilly was on the night shift on Saturday, and as he reported half an hour late, he was told that his services were not wanted that day, and his place was taken by an Italian probationer. A sewer gang is subject to strong discipline, and the men are kept in order by a system of 'laying off' when they show any signs of rebellion.
Before this Reilly says that he had several fights with Murray, in which Murray came off the victor. This made his attitude a sullen one, and he was constantly looking for a grievance. He left the sewer in an ugly frame of mind, attributing his ill luck to the machinations of his enemy Murray.
He spent Sunday in ill humor, apparently brooding about the triumph over him of the man Murray.
The cheap and nauseating beer which Reilly drank all Sunday improved neither his temper nor his nerves. When night came the tenants of the shanty were noisily playing cards. In the private room occupied by the shanty boss, that person's wife was washing up the dishes used at the last meal of the day and signing to herself an Italian hymn. Reilly sat on a box in the corner smoking his pipe. No one took any notice of him, and in fact he was already [portion illegible] dynamite cartridges and two fuses for his fiendish word. Dynamite in a camp like that is used so freely and familiarity breeds such a contempt for it that it is not even locked up, and the men will sleep within a few feet of enough of to blow a score of them almost into a small powder.
No one saw Reilly at his work at first. He lighted a torch and began his labors in as cool and methodical a way as if the shanty were rock which he had been employed to blow up, and as if no human being but himself were within a mile of him.
He put the nine dynamite cartridges under the door sill in a pile, placing the two detonators in the middle of the pile.
Having arranged this bomb, Reilly got an electric battery from the tool chest. With this he intended to ignite the detonators, which in turn would explode the dynamite. He took wire enough to allow the battery to be placed sixty feet from the cartridges which he probably calculated would be a distance sufficient to ensure his own safety.
With the flaming torch in his hand Reilly was leaning over the battery and connected the wires when providentially, an Italian named Francesco Marchese came out of the shanty and walked a hundred feet or so up the road. He returned presently and saw Reilly still bending over something. The fact was that the would be murderer had drank [sic] a very large quantity of beer, and the thought of his coming revenge excited him, and his hand trembled so that he could hardly twist and join the wires on which the spark was to travel that would rend and maim perhaps a hundred human beings now laughing and joking over their cards, and reduce the shanty to a pile of splinters, stained with blood and covered with the dismembered dead, while the dying cried pitifully to be put out of their misery or be relieved of their pain.
The sight of Reilly holding a torch suggested nothing remarkable to Marchese. He might be looking for a jack knife which he suddenly needed for an argument with some fellow workman hard to convince or e might be seeking for a button or a coin. The torch itself was not surprising, as the sewer laborers work by torchlight on week nights and light their way about the grounds with torches.
But the light fell on something bright, and this, Marchesi saw, led up to the door of the shanty. With his eyes on one wire, the surprised Italian tripped and fell over the other, and then he saw that it was no mare's nest that he had found.
He called out to Reilly and asked him what he was doing. The dynamiter responded with an oath. Marchese ran up and closed with Reilly, and there was a sharp struggle. They rolled over on the battery punching and clawing at one another, Reilly swearing in his baffled rage. The noise brought out a score of the men, who took up Reilly's torch, which had been half extinguished by falling in the dust, and looked about them.
Even now Marchese did not exactly realize what villainy the man had been concocting, but a yell of rage from the men who had followed up the wires told of the discovery of the nine cartridges under the door sill. They rushed at Reilly and began to handle him roughly, but the shanty boss, Cesaria, pushed him into the building and put him in his private room before all the workmen had got through their heads the fiendishness of the plot.
Then when it was all seen the men horrified at the narrowness of their escape, wanted to take the half drunken criminal out and kill him. Shanty boss Cesaria stood by the door and saved the fellow's life telling his men that the law would attend to him. [Remainder illegible.]
Source: A WOULD-BE MURDERER -- Patrick Reilly Attempts Wholesale Murder to Avenge an Alleged Wrong -- CAUGHT IN THE NICK OF TIME, New Rochelle Pioneer, Oct. 27, 1894, Vol. XXXIV, No. 31, p. 1, cols. 5-6.
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