ublished by Lawrence Hill/Chicago Review Press: Killing the Poormaster, a non-fiction account of a murder trial that revealed a city’s corruption and put America’s welfare system on trial.
A few years ago, at a celebration of the release of a new Hoboken Oral History Project booklet, I was talking with a high school student, a resident of one of the city’s housing projects. The girl described her feeling that she and her neighbors were “an endangered species.” She could envision a time, she said, when Hoboken would no longer have any poor residents. It was a fear borne out of simple observation. During her short life, the city’s century-long history of welcoming poor families, transients, and laborers had come to an end. Yes, there were still subsidized apartments in the city, but increasingly they were converted to market rate rentals when low-income residents moved out. No poor or working class person could afford to move to Hoboken today. Rents here rival those across the river, in New York City.
How would anyone know what life had been like for so many of Hoboken’s residents, for so many years? Their stories were not to be found in “official” histories, which have most often focused on the accomplishments of the moneyed classes or of politicians; and oral histories, I knew, are often tinged with unintended nostalgia.
And then I remembered a story I’d heard from an electrician who had come to work on my apartment soon after I’d moved to the city. The repairman had wondered what kind of work a young tenant could be doing that would allow her to be home during the day. When I told him I was a freelance writer, and that I wrote about social issues, including the problems faced by poor people, he recalled that in Hoboken, the director of welfare had been called “the poormaster.” Encouraged by city fathers to keep outlays low—often to the advantage of those in power—the old poormaster had been withholding for decades, he said, and in the depth of the Great Depression, a starving welfare applicant had killed him.
When I recalled the electrician’s account of the killing of the poormaster, I realized that the poormaster’s records, along with court records and other documents, might contain direct accounts of the lives of Hoboken’s poor and working classes. That is where my research began.