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Curiosity Desk | August 1, 2018

How A Team Of Citizen Researchers Are Finding New Layers In The Story Of The 1919 Boston Police Strike

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Boston Police Department Duty Card for Festus Madden, striking officer who was also the runner up at the 1911 Boston Marathon
Courtesy of Boston Police Department Archives and UMass Boston Healey Library
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Curiosity Desk | August 1, 2018

As the records manager and archivist for the Boston Police Department, Margaret Sullivan is a pretty busy woman. And still, she spends much of her spare time researching what she calls, "the overlooked areas” of the department's long history. Naturally, she remembers this particular red-letter day:

"Ten years ago, when I was new to this job, the records for the police department for 1919 were found in a Boston attic," said Sullivan.

Those records were thousands of pages detailing the day-to-day happenings of the country’s oldest law enforcement agency, during a tumultuous year that included the Great Molasses Flood, riots on May Day, a deadly flu epidemic, and a massive police strike.

"The strike is probably the biggest event in the history of the police department," said Sullivan.

Having gone years without a raise and facing grueling overtime hours, more than 1,100 policemen — about two-thirds of the patrolmen on the force — walked out. They were promptly fired, for good.

And while plenty of scholarship has been done on this pivotal moment in Boston history, Sullivan says one crucial aspect of the story remains largely untold.

"We know what happened to the governor, who went to the White House, Calvin Coolidge," she explained. "The mayor’s papers are at the Boston Public Library. But what happened to the 1,100-plus officers who took a stand, lost their jobs, and it changed their lives and their family’s lives forever?"

Aside from a handful of them, nobody really knew. And as Sullivan pondered this question, she realized that index cards sitting in the police archives were key to answering it.

"All we have on each striker is a little index card that says 'name, date of hire, and station' and then stamped on the bottom are the words, 'abandoned his duty September 9, 1919,'" she said.

And so, years back, Sullivan began a quest to find out what happened to every single fired patrolman, in time for the centenary of the strike in 2019. It quickly became clear, she was going to need some help.

"We are, at UMass Boston, really interested in public history and local history and connecting that to the academic mission of the university," explained Joanne Riley, interim dean of libraries at UMass Boston.

When Sullivan brought the idea to her, Riley jumped at the chance to partner. While the school could provide expertise and computing power, Riley understood that a project of this scope would take a small army to complete. And so, she thought, why not assemble one … from everyone?

"We wanted to invite people to come in and have the joy and the excitement of doing research that adds to the sum of knowledge about the history of Boston," said Riley.

To join this volunteer army, you need not be an expert. An online course developed by Riley trains participants how to comb census records, public directories, newspaper archives, genealogy websites and other resources, to assemble a detailed profile on each individual officer and his family. Riley calls it, "crowd-fueled research."

I was especially interested because one of my great uncles was one of the strikers," said volunteer Maryellen McDonagh, who got so hooked learning about her great uncle she’s now completed nearly 50 profiles. What drives her to keep at it? "The joy of the hunt," she explained. "I'm determined that I'm going to find that missing piece."

Another volunteer, Maureen Egan says she’s found the research equal parts illuminating- and moving. "After you’ve known so much about this person — who they were married to, what their kids names were — you start to feel like they're almost real to you," she explained.

All of the work is vetted by professional researchers at the school, who are busy transforming the raw data into a rich, interactive website that will be unveiled before the centenary. There will be info, maps, and a profile page on every striker — complete with a biography, photos and more. 1,100 men brought back to life, thanks to the work of many, and the curiosity of one woman, Margaret Sullivan.

"If you sit around waiting for someone who ought to do it to do it, it won’t happen," said Sullivan. "This kind of really close, local, personal history can be done by anyone who decides to put their mind to it."

Sullivan and Riley want anyone and everyone who is interested to put their mind to the project, too. They have about a year left to finish the work and still about 500 profiles left to complete. More information about how you can get involved with the 1919 Boston Police Strike Project is available on their website.

We're always looking for story ideas here at the Curiosity Desk, and the best ones often come from you. What have you been curious about lately? Email me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org and let me know. I might just look into it for you.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that index cards with information about the officers were found in a Boston attic. They were actually in police archives.

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