A Hoboken resident for over 30 years and a freelance writer since 1985, Holly Metz has written extensively on legal, cultural and social issues for the American Bar Association and for publications including The Progressive, Labor History, Metropolis, and The New York Times. The founder of Hoboken Oral History project, which documents the city’s working class history, she received two New Jersey Historical Commission grants to research poor relief and the Scutellaro trial. Killing the Poormaster is the result of that research.
1. What writer most influenced you?
2. What’s your favorite city and why?
Hoboken. It’s home.
3. How long did it take for you to publish your first book?
I’ve co-authored other books, but Killing the Poormaster is the first where I’m sole author. It took about eight years from start to finish.
4. If you could meet one of your characters who would it be and why?
Herman Matson, the fiery, out-of-work laborer who responded to the Scutellaro tragedy by attempting to organize the jobless poor in Hoboken. I’d like to know how he’d respond to our new Great Depression. According to the most recent census, poverty is on the rise in New Jersey–and many other states as well.
5. If Killing the Poormaster were made into a movie – who would cast as the lead?
I haven’t gotten that far in my imagining–though I do think the story could inspire a Springsteen song or two.
On February 25, 1938, in the early days of the welfare system, the reviled poormaster Harry Barck—wielding power over who would receive public aid—died from a paper spike thrust into his heart. Barck was murdered, the prosecution would assert, by an unemployed mason named Joe Scutellaro. In denying Scutellaro money, Barck had suggested the man’s wife prostitute herself on the streets rather than ask the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, for aid. The men scuffled. Scutellaro insisted that Barck fell on his spike; the police claimed he grabbed the spike and stabbed Barck.
News of the poormaster’s death brought national attention to the plight of ten million unemployed living in desperate circumstances. A team led by celebrated attorney Samuel Leibowitz of “Scottsboro Boys” fame worked to save Scutellaro from the electric chair, arguing that the jobless man’s struggle with the poormaster was a symbol of larger social ills. The trial became an indictment “of a system which expects a man to live, in this great democracy, under such shameful circumstances.”
We live in a time where the issues examined in Killing the Poormaster—massive unemployment, endemic poverty, and the inadequacy of public assistance—remain vital. With its insight into our social contract, Killing the Poormaster reads like today’s news.