Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Tales from the Rock City" by Helen Schloss, 1913

Thanks to the efforts of Little Falls native Bill Simpson, a series of thirteen articles by the public health nurse and labor activist Helen Schloss is being made available at low cost, or free, to the public. Bill is the great-grandson of Irving Stacey who founded the Little Falls Felt Shoe Company in 1905.

Writing for The New York Call in 1913, Schloss describes the horrendous conditions then existing in the working class slums of the town. At that time Little Falls was home to at least twice its present population, with foreign-born immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe living in extremely crowded housing on the south side of the Mohawk River, which was itself literally an open sewer. Not only did industrial waste flow unchecked into the river but toilets were located directly over the water in many cases. Workers slept in shifts in the slums and small children did piece work for the mills in their living quarters. Schloss decries the wasteful spending of the rich mill owners on the new YMCA on Jackson Street while mothers died of untreated infections on the other side of town. She was particularly affected by the fate of a small girl who fell to her death in a terribly crowded tenement.

The Russian-born Schloss came to Little Falls in April of 1912, was hired by a group of wealthy women to address the ongoing tuberculosis epidemic among the poor. She soon developed a disdain for “the good ladies” when her struggle for better housing and safer working conditions met with obstruction from their husbands. She describes her discouragement as she realizes that the workers simply cannot follow her advice on how to avoid disease., and felt that she had become only “a fad for the ladies.” By the time strike spontaneously broke out that Fall, she was isolated from both her wealthy employers and the poor whom she was so desperate to help. Shocked by Police Chief Long’s observation that all of the strikers “ought to be shot,” she helps to organize a soup kitchen, only to be jailed for inciting to riot. After two weeks in the Herkimer County lock-up, she returns to the battle which finally ended in January, 1913 with modest pay increases for the strikers.
Helen Schloss and the Little Falls strikers in jail
The articles which the young nurse wrote for the socialist newspaper provide a very individual look at the life of factory workers of a century ago. Helen Schloss is quite candid about her own doubts and weaknesses while offering very vivid descriptions of the people and environments she encounters. She later went on to join the labor battles in Paterson, New Jersey and Ludlow, Colorado. The last record of her is from 1919 when she went to Bolshevik Russia as part of a Quaker medical mission.

The Helen Schloss who appears in her own words is, in my view, only slightly different from the version of her I imagined in my 1912 novel of the strike, The Red Nurse. Her stay in the Herkimer County jail was much longer – two weeks- than I described it in the novel. If anything, she downplays her leadership role in these pages, failing to mention her part in the speaking tour with Big Bill Haywood which is well documented elsewhere.

Interestingly, she also fails to mention the key role of the other female strike leader. Matilda Rabinowitz, who similarly did not mention Helen in her own narrative, included as an appendix to The Red Nurse. The two young women were the same age, were both Russian Jewish immigrants, shared similar politics, and both went on to other labor battles of the era – but perhaps they had some kind of rivalry or simply did not get along.

My fictional version of the same events in The Red Nurse  is available at Wilderness Hill Books and Amazon paperback and kindle.
A much more fictionalized version of Helen also appears  in Mr. Dolge's Moneypublished this month on Amazon kindle. After fighting in the IWW battles at Paterson, New Jersey and Ludlow, Colorado, Helen joined a Quaker medical mission to Russia in 1919 and there is no  record of her after that point - In this novel she is imagined as finding a new career as a Comintern agent whose humanity soon marks her as an enemy of the Bolsheviks who so quickly subverted the socialist dream.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mr. Dolge's Money: a new historical novel

Mr.Dolge’s Money is a new novel loosely inspired by the final years of Alfred Dolge, the visionary founder of Dolgeville, New York. The historical Alfred Dolge was much influenced by his father, Christian, who was imprisoned for his part in the anti-monarchist uprisings of 1848. As a youth Alfred’s thinking was also guided by his father’s friend, Wilhelm Leibknecht, founder of the German Socialist Party. By the time he arrived in the United States in 1866, Alfred had already imbibed the stirring but contradictory ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

He came to what was then known as Brocketts Bridge in 1874, committed to building a utopian society that combined his highest ideals with a profitable business. Over the next twenty-four years, he build an industrial village founded primarily on the manufacture of pains and piano components but also including an autoharp factory and extensive lumber holdings. He also back Daniel Green in creating the shoe and slipper company that was a major employer in the area until 1999. Although Dolge provided a very good life for himself and his family, he never lost sight of his goal of improving the lives of his workers, many of whom he imported from Germany. The old age pensions he offered to his workers led him to credited as a forerunner of Social Security on that agency’s website. He also provided sick benefits, life insurance and profit-sharing far exceeded those available to American workers today, However, in 1898 his entire financial complex collapsed and he declared bankruptcy. For more on this intriguing history, see my short biography of Alfred Dolge or visit the Dolgeville-Manheim Historical society.

The novel takes up where this history ends and explores the implications of Dolge’ s ideas on a stage far larger than the small village at the edge of the Adirondack forests. One of the main characters is a fictional grandson who grows up in Venezuela where Dolge’s son Rudolf has gone after giving to his father’s enemies a power of attorney which they used to destroy everything he had built. Another leading character is Helen Schloss whom some readers may know from The Red Nurse or her own series of articles on the 1912 Little Falls strike, published recently as Tales from the Rock City.

Dolge’s grandson, known both as Jose and Joseph, is dispatched by the elderly Mr. Dolge to Europe as soon as the first world war ends in order to access funds secretly hidden during the debacle of 1898. In the resulting struggle for this money, Joseph becomes caught up in the beginnings of the Red Terror in Russia and fierce warfare between communist and fascist factions from Berlin to Barcelona. With the old monarchies in collapse, Joseph finds that the ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith which inspired his grandfather’s benevolent policies have become a pretext for unimaginable violence. Beset by treachery on every side, he sees Rosa Luxembourg murdered and is held prisoner by a crazed band of anti-Semites who will become the leaders of the Nazi party. His survival depends on women whose motivations he cannot understand, the Comintern agent and former I.W.W. agitator Helen Schloss and the Nazi mystic Maria Orsic.

Mr. Dolge’s Money is available exclusively on Kindle for $2.99.

Among the historical figures and events in the novel:

Teffi, the Russian humorist and writer
who helped Joseph flee from the Bolsheviks

Karl Leibknecht, murdered head of the German
Communist Party whom Joseph met at the height
of the Spartacist uprising

The Spartacist uprising in Berlin, 1919
Erich von Ludendorff, an early supporter of the Nazis
Maria Orsic, a fortune-teller and mystic
popular with the early Nazis
Prince Rupprecht and Princess Antonia of Bavaria,
whom both Joseph and Helen met at their castle
Neuschwanstein Castle where Joseph is imprisoned

 IWW activist Helen Schloss
who traveled to Russia with Joseph in 1919,
later a disillusioned Comintern agent
Anarchist fighter in Barcelona,
where Joseph Dolge arrived in 1937

Most recent article on Alfred Dolge appears at Utica Sojourner Post