On June 27, 1906, thousands of immigrant parents of students in Lower East Side Manhattan schools rioted after the rumor spread that school authorities were slitting children’s throats.
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As outlandish as the story sounds, it was documented by contemporary newspapers and retold several years ago in a story by historian Eddy Portnoy in Tablet magazine. And it has a certain logic to it.
Around the turn of the 20th century, New York City schools were contending with an influx of tens of thousands of immigrant children. They came from very different cultural backgrounds, and their parents often did not understand English. At the same time, principles of public health were being adopted by society, and the public schools were seen as a vehicle for providing the youngest new Americans with minimal medical supervision and preventive services, including vaccinations.
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In late June, in preparation for the summer school vacation, New York schools were providing children otherwise lacking in preventive care with mandatory inoculations. Additionally, according to the account of the riots published the following day in the New York Tribune, “Miss A.E. Simpson, principal of Public School 100 … found that many of the children were suffering from adenoids,” enlargements of tissue that can block the rear of the throat and can be removed by minor surgery. Simpson, reported the paper, sent a note to parents of children with adenoids, saying that if they could not arrange for the surgery themselves, doctors from the board of health would take care of it.
Apparently, not all parents received the school announcement, or understood its content. Portnoy explains that, when their children arrived home with blood in their mouths after undergoing the procedure and were asked what had happened, they said that doctors had taken razors to their throats.
Less than two weeks earlier, a pogrom in Bialystok, in the Russian Empire, had led to the murder of more than 80 Jews. Now, parents believed they had evidence that the violence they had intended to escape by fleeing from Europe had pursued them across the ocean.
In the words of the Tribune: “Excitable, ignorant Jews, fearing Russian massacres here, knowing nothing of American sanitary ideas and the supervision exercised over school children by the Health Board, outdid all previous resistance to vaccination. They stoned the schoolhouses, smashing windows and door panes, and, except for the timely intervention of the police reserves from several precincts, would without doubt have done serious injury to the frightened women teachers.”
The New York Times also reported on the riots “among the Hebrew population on the East Side,” adding the tidbit that “cheap practitioners,” apparently from the neighborhood, “started the tale of a contemplated massacre” out of irritation that uptown physicians were being brought in to do the procedures, thus denying them the income.
The riots were quelled before the men of the community had time to join in, and without any significant injuries. Teachers sent their pupils home early, which provided the best proof that children were not being slaughtered. “The screaming, fighting mothers caught their own progeny and hurried home,” according to the Tribune, “helped along by indignant police reserves whose sleep had been spoiled. Commencement exercises in many schools were postponed. No fatalities were reported, but the East Side lost all interest in the discussion of kosher ‘wurst’ to gossip over this ‘near massacre.’”
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