Nothing incites the general public more than someone trying to charge for something that was once free. Yet that’s exactly what entrepreneur Oscar F. Spate tried to do in the New York City parks in the blistering summer of 1901.
It all started in Central Park on June 22, 1901, when a group of people spotted rows of bright green rocking chairs along the park’s mall, near the casino. Usually in this same spot, stood rows of uncomfortable wooden hard benches, so it was a pleasure indeed for the park-goes to sit and rock and enjoy the wondrous summer day.
Suddenly, two broad-shouldered men approached the rocking-chair sitters. They wore identical gray suits and they carried black satchels with straps over their shoulders. The men in gray told the sitters that these were private chairs for rent, and that if they wanted to continue sitting they had to fork over five cents a day for the better seats, and three cents a day for seats that were not in as preferential a position in the park. Some people vacated their seats, but others paid. People who did neither were physically ejected from the seats. When they asked why, the men in gray said, “Them’s Mr. Spate’s chairs.”
This new phenomenon was covered extensively and very contentiously, in the following day’s daily New York City newspapers. And the man on the hot seat was the president of the Park Commission – one George C. Clausen.
It seemed that a few days earlier, Clausen had been visited in his official Park Commission office by a man named Oscar F. Spate. Spate seemed amiable enough, and he offered Clausen a proposition Clausen saw no difficulty in accepting. It seemed that Spate said he wanted to place comfortable rocking chairs in the parks throughout New York City. And for the privilege of doing so, Spate offered the city the tidy sum of $500 a year.
“They do this in London and Paris,” Spate told Clausen. “And it would undoubtedly be good for New York City.”
Clausen saw no problem with Spate’s line of thinking, so he readily agreed; albeit without first consulting with the other member of the Park Commission. As a result, Clausen graced Spate with a five-year contract, allowing Spate to place his rocking chairs in all the New York City parks. With the ink still not dry on his contract, Spate immediately ordered 6,000 chairs, costing about $1.50 each. If Spate’s projections were correct, these chairs would earn him an estimated $250-$300 a day.
An associate of Spate, who asked a newspaper reporter for anonymity, said that Spate had already invested $30,000 in his new venture. The reporter did the math and he came up with the rocking chairs only costing Spate around $9,500. Pray tell, where did the other $20,500 go?
Spate’s spokesman said nothing to enlighten the reporter.
“Well, there’s always expenses in things like this, you know,” he told the scribe.
The New York City press knew a story when it hit them in the face, so they managed to track down Spate in his offices in the St. James Building, on Broadway and 26th Street, near Madison Square Park. When questioned by the reporters, Spate became indignant.
“I’ll put in as many chairs as they will allow,” Spate told the reporters. “The attendants who collect the charges are in my pay. They will wear gray uniforms, and each will look after about fifty chairs, from 10 a.m. to 10 p. m. A five-cent ticket entitles the holder to sit in either a five-cent, or a three-cent chair in any park at any time during that day. But the holder of a three-cent chair can only sit in a three-cent chair.”
Spate also told the reporters he was doing the city a favor, since charging for the chairs would keep the undesirables (read – the poor) out of the parks, thereby keeping the parks sparkling clean and free of loiterers who leave a mess in their wake.
The outrage from the New York City press and from philanthropists came swift. Randolph Guggenheimer, the president of the Municipal Council, said he “saw no good reason for allowing private parties to occupy park grounds and make money through a scheme like this.” The New York City Central Federated Union sent a statement to the press denouncing both Spate and Clausen for their “hideous actions.” The New York Tribune wrote in an editorial, “This is only another instance of the hopeless stupidity of the present Park Commission.” The New York Journal also wrote an editorial defending the “rights of poor people to sit in public park.” However, the New York Times saw no problem in what Spate was doing, as long as “the prices were regulated properly.”
Park Commissioner Clausen tried to defend his actions by telling the press that there were always plenty of free benches for people to sit on, except, of course, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The New York Tribune pointed out that those were the days with the biggest demand for seats in the parks.
As this issue became monumental, Spate became more resolute. He ordered more chairs be placed in Central Park, and also in Madison Square Park, which was across the street from his office. Some people paid to sit, and those that didn’t, were unceremoniously thrown out of the chairs by Spate’s thugs in gray suits.
Things quieted down for a few days, as few people protested paying for the seats. That all changed on Wednesday 26, 1901, when the city’s outside temperature rose above 90 degrees. By Saturday the temperature had risen to 94 degrees and nineteen people had perished in New York City due to the insufferable heat conditions. The temperature reached 97 degrees on Sunday, making it the hottest day on record with the Weather Bureau since June of 1871. On Sunday, fifteen more people died, and on Tuesday, with the temperature rising to 99 degrees, two hundred deaths were reported. There were 317 heat-related deaths on Wednesday, which made, in the time period from June 28th to July 4th, a total of 382 heat-related deaths in Manhattan alone, along with 521 hospitalizations for heat prostration. Altogether, in a seven-day period in the metropolitan district of New York City, which included Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond County, there were 797 deaths and 891 heat prostrations. Things were so bad, that on July 2nd, the city’s hospital ambulance drivers worked 24 hours straight with no relief.
With the city in a heat-related frenzy, harried people hurried to the city’s parks, which were now ordered by the Park Commission to stay open all night. When people arrived at the parks, they discovered that many of the free benches were no longer there, and the ones that were still present in the parks had been moved into the sun, making them too hot to sit on. However, Spate’s green chairs were sitting nicely in the shade, making them more attractive to the people fighting the stifling heat.
On Saturday July 6th, the situation reached a boiling point. A man sat in one of Spate’s chairs in Madison Square Park, and he absolutely refused to pay the five cents that Spate’s man Thomas Tulley demanded. Finally, Tully pulled the chair from out under the man and bedlam ensued. An angry crowd surrounded Tully and began shouting, “Lynch him! He’s Spate’s man!”
Tulley fought his way through the crowd and sped across the street to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where he rushed upstairs and locked himself in a room. The crowd gathered in the hotel lobby for about 30 minutes, when policemen arrived and escorted Tully from the hotel to wherever he called home.
Later that day, with the heat still beating down on the park-goers, another one of Spate’s men evicted a boy who was sitting in one of Spate’s chairs in Madison Square Park and had refused to pay the necessary five cents. An angry crowd attacked Spate’s man, and when a policeman tried to intervene, he was dumped into the park’s fountain. Spate’s man fled the park in fear, and after he did, delighted people began taking turns sitting in Spate’s chairs (without paying of course). When nightfall arrived, several people carried Spate’s chairs home with them as trophies to grace their own living rooms.
The following day, Sunday, July 7th, the uneasiness moved to Central Park, where a huge crowd gathered in defiance of Spate and his green rocking chairs. While two of Spate’s men guarded Spate’s precious chairs, the crowd marched perilously close to the chairs chanting to the tune of “Sweet Annie Moore”:
We pay no more!
We pay no more!
No more we pay for park
Chairs any more!
Clausen made a break
One summer’s day.
And now he ain’t
Commissioner no more!
As the crowd converged on the chairs, people who had already paid for the right to sit, abandoned the chairs and fled from the park. One of Spate’s man quit his job on the spot, and he also fled the park. However, another one of Spate’s men continued to try to collect the chair fees. But he quit his job too after an angry old lady jabbed him in the back of the neck with a hairpin.
On Monday July 8th, Madison Square Park was the site of almost constant rioting. A dozen or so boys went from chair to chair, sitting for as long as they pleased, accompanied by an unruly crowd threatening to hang any of Spate’s men who tried to collect any fees. A brave and foolhardy Spate employee named Otto Berman slapped one boy in the face. The crowd surrounded Berman and his life was saved by six policemen, who bum-rushed Berman out of the park and into safety. Things had gotten so-out-of-control in Madison Square Park, police reenforcement were called in from the nearby West Thirtieth Street police station.
In the late afternoon, two men occupied two of Spate’s chairs and offered a thousand dollars to any of Spate’s men who could evict them from the chairs. Two of Spate’s men jumped in and tried to collect the reward, but they were promptly beaten to a pulp by the two men, who turned out to featherweight champion of the world Terry McGovern, and former fighter and then-boxing ring announcer Joe Humphreys. The police stormed the park and arrested six rioters, whom they led in cuffs to the Thirtieth Street police station. The policemen and the arrestees were followed by a crowd estimated at 200 people, who were marching in lock step and chanting:
Clausen and Spate!
Clausen and Spate!
On Tuesday, July 9th, the riots continued in both Madison Square Park and Central Park. However, the New York City police took a different tactic, when they were ordered by Police Commissioner Michael Murphy not to aid any of Spate’s men trying to collect fees, and not to arrest any of the rioters, unless court magistrates issued arrest warrants for the individual rioters. At this point, several of the magistrates told the press they would not issue any warrants, which gave the rioters the (wink-wink) go-ahead to do as they pleased with Spate’s chairs.
By this time, the president of the Park Commission George C. Clausen was figuratively tearing the hair from his own head. Having first said he could do nothing about the situation without the permission of the rest of the Park Commission, Clausen then reversed himself and said since he was the one who had confirmed Spate’s contract, he could also revoke Spate’s contract with New York City. Spate quickly answered by by getting a court injunction “restraining Mr. Clausen and the Park Commission from interfering with his valid contract with the City of New York.”
In an act of desperation, Spate ordered his men not to place his chairs on the ground, but to pile them in heaps in Madison Square Park and Central Park, and rent them only if they were paid for in advance. However, as soon as someone rented one of Spate’s chairs, members of the crowd grabbed the chair and broken it into little pieces.
Soon the crowd, tired of Spate and his chairs, began bombarding Spate’s men with rocks and stones, as Spate’s men hid behind and under the chairs piled up in heaps. Spate himself entered both parks to try to enforce his contract, but was forced to flee both times, as he was chased with rocks and stones flying past his head.
Finally, on July 11, a hero named Max Radt, the vice-president of the Jefferson State Bank, went into state Supreme Court and got an injunction forbidding Spate and the Park Commission from charging people to sit in Spate’s green rocking chairs. Spate, realizing he was a beaten man, promptly put all his chairs in storage. A few days later, Spate announced to the press he was “abandoning his project.”
Oscar F. Spate dropped out of sight and was never seen or heard from again in New York City.
A few weeks later, the Parks Commission issued a press release to the New York City newspapers announcing that the president of the Park Commission — George C. Clausen – had used his own personal money to purchase what was left of Spate’s green rocking chairs. These chairs were to be placed in parks throughout New York City. On each of these chairs was stenciled the lettering, “For the Exclusive Use of Woman and Children.”
And right above the declaration, in large letters was painted the word “FREE.”