A lot of the time, even if it can’t be defended, an act of violence can be understood. “I don’t approve of how they’ve expressed it”, we might think, “but they’ve a legitimate grievance there.”
Not always, though. Sometimes, you’ll get a burst of some good old senseless violence, done by a group with no discernible principles whatsoever, just for a bit of a laugh. New York’s Straw Hat Riot is one of those times.
Our story is a strange one. In New York, at the start of the 20th century, all men had to stop wearing their straw hats by 15 September. This wasn’t a law, but it wasn’t a vague rule followed by a minority, either. It was taken absurdly seriously, and you were really, properly in for it if you ignored the deadline: examples abound of New Yorkers being pummelled for their transgressions. And one particular instance stands out about the others.
In 1922, a few days before the straw hat season wrapped up, some kids got tired of waiting. They wanted to smash hats, and they were damned if anybody – or any unofficial “deadline” – was going to stand in their way.
On 13 September, this group threw tradition to the wind. Accounts vary, but the most common version of the tale runs as follows. They began by nicking the hats from a few factory workers, and quickly moved on to other groups. During the spree, they wound up picking on a bunch of dockworkers.
Not a particularly smart move, it turned out: the dockworkers weren’t going down without a fight. A few scuffles started, one thing led to another and, within a few hours, a mass brawl was underway, churning through the city, destroying all hats in its path.
“Straw Hat Riots Embroil East Side,” ran a New York Times headline on 14 September. It reported “scores of rowdies” on the prowl, and even mentioned “straw hat bonfires”. (It’s very, very tempting to paint this as an ideological battle: one side fighting to the death to defend straw hats; the other, to secure their destruction. But it was probably more an “any excuse” type of thing.)
After a while the police were called out, and by the end of the day they’d manage to slap seven of the troublemakers with a $5 fine. Understandably a bit rattled, officers and magistrates sent out warnings to anyone thinking about hat-snatching the following day, along with an affirmation of the rights of hat-wearers.
“It is against the law to smash a man’s hat, and he has a right to wear it in a January snowstorm if he wishes,” magistrate Peter Hatting told the Times. “To hit a man’s hat is a simple assault, and in this court it will be treated as such, and I want you to spread this word among all who would smash hats.”
You’d think that’d be it, wouldn’t you? You’d think that, given the unlikelihood of the thing in the first place, coupled with a few stern words from the grownups, the thing would be out of everybody’s system, wouldn’t you?
Worse still, the participants were now armed
It wasn’t. It really, properly wasn’t. Things ramped up and up during the next couple of days, and by 15 September the brawl was, quite simply, bloody enormous. What started as a fracas had become a full-on, city-wide riot.
The Times reported on the 16th that “in some cases, mobs of hundreds of boys and young men terrorised whole blocks.” It continued: “The hoodlums would hide in doorways and dash out, ten or twelve strong, to attack one or two men.”
Worse still, the participants were now armed. Many of the “hat-hunting hoodlums... were armed with sticks, at the ends of which nails projected at right angles”, reported the New York Tribune. The aim here was to use the nail to lift hats from people’s heads, and then whack them if they resisted.
Another common method of hat-snatching was for the groups to line up along roads and then lift them from unsuspecting passengers in open-top cars. As the Times report on such an instance explains:
“A man who said he was E.C. Jones, a promoter of 70 West 93rd Street, telephoned to the Times that this happened when he was riding uptown on an Amsterdam avenue car… at about 9 o'clock last night. He said the car was attacked by a group of boys who later disappeared in a mob of about 1,000.”
Policemen who got in the way found themselves outnumbered, too. That same piece reported that “Acting Detective Sergeant Brindizi was attacked by a gang at 102nd Street and Third Avenue and his hat thrown into the street. He ran after his tormentors, was tripped and fell headlong into the gutter.”
The cops were pretty much powerless: “As soon as the police broke up the gangs in one district, the hoodlums resumed their activities elsewhere.”
They did end up catching a few perpetrators, but in the end, seven of them escaped charges: they were under 15. The Tribune reported that “Lieutenant Lennahan invited the boys’ fathers to come to the station and spank them and the invitation was cordially accepted.”
As the night of the 15th drew to a close, things started to slow down, and over the next day or so the riots gradually petered out.
Over the next couple of years hat-snatching did happen in spurts, but it was quickly put to a stop once and for all. In 1925, a few days before the 15th, the Times ran the headline “Discard Date for Straw Hats Ignored by President Coolidge” on its front page.
Calvin, understandably, had had enough of the ritual and presumably thought that, as the most powerful man in the land, his transgression of the convention would consign it to the scrap heap. He was right: hat snatching was far less frequent over the next few years and ultimately died out altogether.
(Another potential explanation is that, in 1925, someone was killed for wearing a straw hat. But that’s a bit morbid, so let’s pretend it all boils down to the above.)
I should mention that it wasn’t all innocent victims running for their lives, though; some good came of all this. The Tribune reported that “Some hat stores kept their doors open long after closing time and did a thriving business in soft hats” – that is, the winter hats that were meant to take over on the 15th.
You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty entrepreneurial. In fact, you know what? I tip my hat to them.