A St. James Tenant Causes the Rocking Chair Riots of 1901
March 9, 2018
Oscar F. Spate ran his business, The Comfort Chair Company, from an office in the St. James Building, 1133 Broadway. In 1901, Spate had a “brilliant” idea: He could make $250 to $300 per day ($7,500 to $9,000 in current dollars) by charging people three to five cents to sit in rocking chairs he would place in the city parks. Spate approached the president of the Park Commission, George C. Clausen, with his idea, and Clausen happily gave Spate a permit for the price of $500 per year ($14,300 in current dollars) for five years. That was the spark that ignited the Rocking Chair Riots of 1901.
In May of 1901, Spate placed his bright green rocking chairs on the Central Park Mall, in Riverside Park, and in Madison Square Park, across the street from Spate’s office. The chairs were positioned in the shade while most of the free park benches were moved into the sun or removed entirely. Accompanying the new chairs were burly attendants dressed in gray who would approach those who sat in the chairs to ask them to pay for their seat or force them to get out. Understandably, the scheme did not go over well from the outset.
In early June, Alderman Randolph Guggenheimer, the equivalent to today’s Speaker of the City Council, told The New York Times, “It is ridiculous for the Park Commission to grant such a permit. The parks belong to the people and should be free to all… there is no propriety in providing elegant seats to those who can pay for them and allow those who cannot pay to put up with poorer seats or no seats at all.”
Soon the press managed to track down Spate at his office in the St. James Building. When questioned by the reporters, Spate became indignant and his inflammatory remarks only made matters worse. “I’ll put in as many chairs as they will allow,” Spate told the reporters. “The attendants who collect the charges are in my pay . . . 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 day. But the holder of a three-cent chair can only sit in a three-cent chair.” Spate also told the reporters he was doing the city a favor, since charging for the chairs would keep the ‘lazy loungers, none too clean,” out of the more desirable areas of the parks, thereby keeping the parks sparkling clean and free of loiterers.
New Yorkers didn’t take kindly to this undemocratic business model. The newspaper editorials ferociously denounced the policy. Spate’s attendants reported that only 1 in 50 people who sat on the chairs actually chose to remain and pay the requested fee, and these workers, who made a mere $1 per day (about $28 today), were verbally berated and physically attacked on a continual basis.
At first, the protestors who refused to pay were forcefully removed, but eventually, crowds of people outnumbered the attendants and even threw stones at them. Central Park and Madison Square Park were the centers of the protest. Uptown in Central Park, people began marching with signs protesting Clausen and Spate’s actions. At Madison Square, which was the center of New York social, political and cultural life at the time, the chairs brought riots.
Oscar Spate countered the reaction by informing attendants to stack the chairs in a heap and to only give them out when people paid for them. The protesters resolved to pay for the chairs only so that they could smash them on the ground.
While Spate hoped matters would soon calm down, a crisis arose. In a seven-day period in late June and early July, temperature records were broken, and the thermometer soared to 99 degrees. Metropolitan New York City witnessed 797 heat-related deaths and 891 heat prostrations in that one week. Things were so bad, that on July 2nd, the city’s hospital ambulance drivers worked 24 hours straight with no relief.
With the city in a heat-induced frenzy and no air conditioning to soothe the populace, people hurried to the city’s parks, which the Park Commission had ordered to remain open all night. When people arrived at the parks, they discovered that many of the free benches were no longer there — removed for “repairs,” and the ones that were still present in the parks had been moved into the sun, making them too hot to sit on. Spate’s green chairs, however, were sitting nicely in the shade.
What ensued is hard to imagine in the tranquility of today’s Madison Square Park, with its free public benches, and the surrounding NoMad neighborhood. Things got ugly.
On Saturday July 6th, the situation reached a boiling point. A man sat in one of Spate’s chairs in Madison Square Park, and he refused to pay the five cents that Spate’s man Thomas Tulley demanded. Tully pulled the chair from out under the man and bedlam ensued. An angry crowd of 1,000 men and boys surrounded Tully and began shouting, “Lynch him! He’s Spate’s man!” Tulley fought his way to the Fifth Avenue Hotel (on the site of 200 Fifth Avenue), where he rushed upstairs and locked himself in a room. The crowd gathered in the hotel lobby for half an hour until policemen arrived and escorted Tully to safety.
Later that day, with the heat still beating down on the park-goers, another one of Spate’s men evicted a boy who was sitting in one of Spate’s chairs in Madison Square Park without paying the required five cents. An incensed crowd attacked this second Spate man, and when a policeman tried to intervene, he was dumped into the park’s fountain. Spate’s man fled the park in fear, and after he did, delighted people began taking turns sitting in Spate’s chairs for free. When evening arrived, several people carried Spate’s chairs home with them as trophies to grace their living rooms.
Things continued to spiral out of control on Monday, July 8th. Spate workers and policemen were hit with flying missiles composed of wads of paper soaked in Madison Square Park fountains, and when police tried to take three men into the local stationhouse, they were pursued by a crowd which numbered over 1,500 before they even got to Worth Square. The Police Commissioner himself had to cut off and stop the crowd at 27th and Broadway.
The riots continued in both Madison Square Park and Central Park on Tuesday, July 9th, but the tide began to turn in favor of the protestors. The police were ordered by Police Commissioner Michael Murphy not to aid any of Spate’s men trying to collect fees and not to arrest any of the rioters, unless court magistrates issued arrest warrants for the individual rioters. At this point, several of the magistrates told the press they would not issue any warrants. Protestors had virtual immunity.
Finally, a man named Max Radt, vice-president of Jefferson State Bank, sued The Park Board in New York’s Supreme Court. On July 11th, the court found that the Clausen/Spate agreement was illegal and voided Spate’s contract. The text of the court’s decision removed any doubt about the Spate’s predatory intent: “It appeared upon the trial that, as an incident to the privilege given to Spate under his agreement, the ordinary park benches were, in or about the month of May 1901, removed from shady spots to make way for his chairs, and that any person who was either unwilling or too poor to pay for a chair would have to either swelter on a free bench in the sun or seek shade, fresh air, rest or relief from excessive heat in some other place than in the public parks.”
With this ruling, Spate gave up his business and President Clausen purchased the remaining chairs and placed them in the park with a sign on each which read, “For the exclusive use of women and children. Free.”
Oscar Spate dropped out of sight and was never seen or heard from again in New York City, except for one report in The New York Times on December 11, 1907. The paper reported that a Reginald Spaulding, a prisoner peeling potatoes in Pittsburg’s jails, was actually Reginald Seymour the scion of a wealthly British family. The article noted that Spaulding/Seymour had just inherited more than a million dollars from his mother who had recently died in London. What is most surprising is that the article noted that Reginald Seymour had another alias . . . Oscar F. Spate, a name he assumed just before his park chair scandal in New York City.
What is not surprising is the fact that “Spate” had a string of dubious business undertakings and run-ins with the law. As far back as 1893 an article in the San Francisco Call reported that he claimed that when he had married Honorah Spate in 1887, he did not know she was a man. (One can only wonder what scheme that was, when it took him six years to find out his she was a he.)
It all eventually caught up with him in 1911 when he committed suicide in Detroit following a government investigation into a company he was promoting.