Stills and Strikes: Policing in Early-Twentieth Century Boston

By Brendan Kieran, Reader Services

For my first blog post for the Beehive, I decided to look beyond the major political and social names to see what the collections here could tell me about life for “everyday” people in Massachusetts. In my search, I came across the Robert E. Grant Diaries. These diaries, kept, between 1901 and 1930 by a Boston police officer, provide opportunities for research into a variety of events and developments that took place in the city during those decades, such as the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and executions. While Grant’s entries are usually brief and direct, they chronicle the career of a person who spent three decades experiencing urban life at the ground level. As such, they could be of potential interest to a variety of researchers studying early-twentieth century urban history.

One interesting topic covered in the Grant diaries is Prohibition, including the police raids conducted during that period. For example, in an entry from Friday, 15 February 1924, he writes that “5000 lbs of sugar was seized,” following a mention of the “Largest Still Seized.” A newspaper clipping describing four raids that had recently occurred (and mentioning Grant’s name) is attached to this entry. This account captures the pride Grant must have felt on that day; it also serves as a snapshot of Prohibition-era Boston and the actions taken by law enforcement to enforce bans on alcohol. This story is not the only one of its kind described in Grant’s diaries, so there are certainly opportunities for further research into this topic contained in these pages.

Grant also writes briefly about the Boston Police Strike of 1919. On Tuesday, 9 September 1919, he writes:

After rollcall at 5:45 PM, Patrolman Buckley informed the Captain that they refused to go on duty & twelve of them said the same they were told to leave all property belonging to the Department at the desk which they did & walked out. At 11:15 PM patrol Downey who did not join the union reported to this station that he refused to go on duty on morning watch & he turned in his property & walked out.

While Grant’s coverage of the police strike is brief, the MHS does hold other materials that offer some more details about the strike and the climate of the city during the strike. For instance, Dates, Data and Ditties: Tour of Duty, A Company, 11th Regiment Infantry, Massachusetts State Guard, During the Strike of the Boston Police, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, printed for members of the A Company in the aftermath of the strike, provides insight into the activities of the soldiers deployed to patrol the city during the strike. The book details incidents ranging from the violent, such as attempted assaults against women, to the mundane, such as giving directions to pedestrians at South Station.

In-depth studies of the strike help provide context for these materials. In A City in Terror, Francis Russell analyzes the context for the strike, the major players and events, and the aftermath of the strike.

The Grant diaries are an excellent example of the wide variety of research possibilities contained within the collections at the MHS. Researchers are welcome to visit the library and explore these opportunities.