"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Great Rocking Chair Rebellion

One fine day in the spring of 1901, a fellow named Oscar F. Spate strolled into the office of George C. Clausen, president of New York City's Park Commission, with a business proposition. Spate wished to set up a few comfortable chairs in the city parks and charge people a small sum for using them. It was, he explained, already a normal practice in Europe, and would prove to be very beneficial for the city's ever-needy coffers.

Mr. Spate, so we are told, was a complete stranger to Mr. Clausen, but the idea sounded splendid to this enterprising public servant. On the spot, with no further reflection or questions asked, Clausen granted Spate a five-year contract. Spate would pay the city of New York $500 a year for the privilege of setting up his little business in Manhattan and Staten Island.

It would prove to be highly unfortunate that Clausen did not bother to vet his new business partner before entering into this arrangement. Spate was one of those sprightly souls with a colorful past. As an example, here is the story that first brought him into the public eye, eight years earlier:

San Francisco Call, Dec. 31, 1893

Clausen also seems to have been unaware of the fact that his new-found friend was not, as he had intimated, a successful entrepreneur, but an energetic, if remarkably unsuccessful grifter who had recently filed for bankruptcy after a scheme to sell fake "fine Persian rugs" collapsed. Ah, well. On with our story:

On June 22, visitors to Central Park were delighted to find, rather than the usual uncomfortable wooden benches, rows of highly inviting-looking apple-green rocking chairs. However, just as the weary citizens were getting settled into these unexpected civic improvements, several men wearing imposing gray uniforms suddenly appeared. They demanded that every occupant of those rockers hand over five cents. Everyone who refused was rudely evicted from the seats. To every expression of anger or confusion, these gentleman had but one answer: "Them's Mr. Spate's chairs."

When word of the contretemps reached the ears of the New York press, a few journalists went to have a word with the mysterious Mr. Spate. From his office in the St. James Building, the new Rocking Chair King calmly explained: "I'll put in as many chairs as the Park Board will allow. The attendants who collect the charges are in my pay. They will wear gray uniforms, and each will look after about fifty chairs, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. A five-cent ticket entitles the holder to sit in either a five-cent or a three-cent chair in any park at any time during that one day, but the holder of a three-cent ticket can sit only in a three-cent chair."

If Spate had stuck to that statement, all might have been well for him. Unfortunately, he added a few highly insulting comments about how his system would keep "lazy loungers, none too clean," (i.e. anyone too poor to pay for a seat,) out of the more desirable areas of the parks.

The politicians of New York were well aware that many of those lazy loungers voted, and they rose in a body to decry this slur on the indigent, and attack these heartless attempts to deprive them of one of their few free recreations. The president of the Municipal Council denounced the idea that private parties could make money by occupying public ground. Union leaders asked sarcastically if the next step was to barricade the parks against anyone under a certain income bracket, and added some very hard words denouncing Spate and his enabler, the increasingly unpopular president Clausen. The "New York Tribune" snorted that the fiasco was "only another instance of the hopeless stupidity of the present Park Commission."

Spate was undeterred. His response to the controversy was to put out even more of his now-infamous green rockers, and anyone who tried to sit in them without buying a ticket was ejected with increasing severity by his henchmen.

In this atmosphere of heightened tension, a crisis was bound to erupt, and erupt it certainly did. On June 26, the city entered one of the worst heat waves in its history. By June 30, the temperature had reached 97 degrees, and twenty-four people had died from weather-related causes. On July 2, it was ninety-nine degrees in the shade. By then, two hundred deaths were reported, and city officials ordered that the parks were to be kept open 24 hours a day. New York had no relief from the blistering heat and smothering humidity until July 4, after nearly four hundred people had died.

In Russia, Napoleon was brought down by the cold.  In New York, Spate was brought down by the heat. Gothamites flocked in droves to the parks for some relief from the intolerable weather, only to find that the Park Commission, in its eternal wisdom, had removed all the free benches for repairs. The only seats that remained were Spate's apple-green rockers, cozily nestled in what little shade the parks afforded.

The Wat Tyler of this story was a man--his name, alas, lost to history--who on July 6, sat in one of Spate's rockers and flatly refused to pay. One of Spate's gray-uniformed bravos, a man named Thomas Tulley, responded by yanking the chair out from under him.

For this hot, tired, suffering crowd, that was the last straw. An ominous-looking mob quickly formed around Tulley, and talk of lynchings suddenly filled the air. Tulley, very wisely, fled. An infuriated crowd chased him through the broiling streets right up to the steps of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where the terrified henchman managed to rush upstairs and lock himself in a room. His pursuers hung around the lobby for a while, but were finally persuaded to give up their quarry and return to the park. Tulley was given a police escort home.

Later that day, a crowd in Madison Square rioted when a small boy was forced out of one of the rockers. The Spate employee responsible for this ejection was attacked, and a policeman who tried to quiet them was thrown into a fountain for his pains.

The Great Rocking Chair Rebellion was on. Spate's hated employees all ran for the hills, and for the rest of the day, New Yorkers boldly sat in the rockers at their leisure.

The next day, a crowd paraded through Central Park singing their "Marseillaise":
"We pay no more,
We pay no more;
No more we pay for park
Chairs any more.
Clausen made a break,
One summer's day;
And now he ain't
Commissioner no more."
The mob then fell on the rockers, their hated symbol of oppression, and quickly smashed a number of them to bits. One last, brave Spate worker made an effort to collect fees, but desisted when an elderly woman stabbed him with a hatpin.

July 8 was Occupy Day. A crowd of boys made the rounds of the surviving rockers, taking turns sitting on them and daring Spate's hired men to interfere. When one of them slapped a boy, it took half-a dozen policemen to get him out of the park safely.

Parks throughout New York were in full riot. Chairs were smashed, and any Spate employee foolhardy enough to show his face risked a pummeling. There were a number of arrests, until the Police Commissioner, Michael Murphy, gave orders that the officers were not to help Spate's men collect their fees, and no further rioters were to be taken in except where there were warrants duly sworn out before magistrates. The magistrates responded by saying they had no inclination to issue warrants for mere protests in the parks.

Commissioner Clausen--who was now sweating from more than just the heat--turned to that time-honored political tactic known as "passing the buck." He nervously issued a statement saying that much as he regretted the unfortunate turn matters had taken, he himself could do nothing about it. Only the Park Commission as a whole could cancel Spate's contract. Seeing that such weaseliness was doing nothing to improve his popularity, Clausen issued a new statement a few hours later reversing himself. As he had been the one to approve Spate's contract, he promised that he would be the one to break it. Spate retaliated by getting a court injunction preventing Clausen or the Park Commission from doing any such thing. The writ was soon dismissed.

Spate tried to keep his new business going by piling his chairs up in heaps and renting them out only to anyone who paid in advance. However, no sooner was a chair rented than onlookers would grab the rocker and destroy it. In between these activities, the crowd kept busy by throwing showers of stones at Spate's workers.

The tumult lasted until July 11, when Max Radt, a vice-president of the Jefferson State Bank, got the state Supreme Court to issue an injunction forbidding anyone from charging money for park seating.

Spate finally gave up. He put his surviving chairs in storage, and New York knew him no more. He tried his hand at several more grandiose schemes that went nowhere--opening a boarding-house for actors here, setting up majestic-sounding, but hollow "corporations" there--but he did not resurface in the news until 1907, when he made headlines in a characteristically singular fashion:

New York Tribune, Dec. 12, 1907

At the end of December 1907, Spate, or Seymour, (other accounts insist his real name was "Reginald Spaulding,") was released from prison. He had been jailed for thirty days for proposing "to introduce Pittsburg's wealthy people to the English nobility for a monetary consideration." He was said to also be wanted by the Montreal authorities, but as they did not bother with an extradition request, the former Rocking Chair King was released.

He expressed himself very bitterly about being deserted by his former "clients." "If Judas were alive to-day," he told the press, "he would hang himself to some Pittsburg steel magnate's family tree. The women of Pittsburg would have done anything for me when they thought I could introduce them to the British nobility, but as soon as I got into trouble they deserted me. The Bible says that woman was the last thing God made. He must have made the Pittsburg brand of women on Saturday night. It shows fatigue." He said he was on his way to London to claim his multi-million dollar estate.

The newspapers went on to say that the Pittsburg police had just received a "pitiful letter" from an elderly Englishman named Everett Weston, saying that "Spate" had taken his life savings of two hundred pounds, by persuading him to invest in "Spate's" "Turber & Co. Limited." He and his wife were now left utterly destitute. He begged the authorities to inform "Spate" of his desperate position, and persuade him to return his money, now that "Spate" was reportedly set to inherit a fortune.  We are told that "Spate got the letter but refused comment on it."

Shortly before his release from prison, the "New York Herald" commented sardonically that "Mr. Spate is thought of frequently by those who know him in this city, and they are asking what his versatile talents will lead him to do next."

The "next" was Nemesis finally catching up to Mr. Spate/Seymour/Spaulding.  In 1911, he committed suicide in Detroit, "following a Government investigation into a company he was promoting."

Returning to the Rocking Chair Rebellion, the Armistice came on July 29, 1901, when the Park Commission announced that Clausen had, out of his own pocket, bought all of Spate's chairs and presented them to the city. The chairs would be put back in the parks. Clausen particularly requested that "FREE" be painted on them in very large letters.

God bless America.


  1. As a business idea, it wasn't too bad, though Spate should have rented out the chairs from a central location upon receipt of a nickel right from the beginning, like renting a paddle-boat on a lake. If he had tried his hand at just this one venture, I may have felt sorry for him. I even felt sorry for his employees trying to collect the rent for the chairs - or I would have if they hadn't been so heavy-handed from the start. If the exact same business had been handled with finesse instead of an iron fist, it would have succeeded but that apparently wasn't Spate's way. An interesting story, as always.

  2. Great story, thanks for sharing. It is just outrageous and hilariously baffling. You think Spate would have set up some announcement or given everyone a free day to try out the seating. I have been reading so many historical accounts over the years and have never come across this one. Very original!


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