In 1922, New York City had a three-day riot about straw hats

A 1919 newspaper ad for the offending items. Image: Steve Strummer/Wikimedia Commons.

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.  

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.