The strange case of Jim Larkin, J. Edgar Hoover and Charlie Chaplin

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To carry on his fiery cross mission among labouring men, who, as everybody knows, are shockingly abused in this country, and underpaid, is the idea of Mr. Larkin…James is unique in his line, the most conspicuous and noisiest disturber of the public peace. He is no imitator. He is an original

New York Times’ editorial reacting to news of Larkin’s proposed trip to America,

 December 26, 1913

 

On May 21st, 1916, Jim Larkin, by then resident in Chicago, organised a rally at George M. Cohan’s Grand Opera House on Clark Street to commemorate those who had died in the Easter Rising the previous month. Several guest speakers were invited along, representing the various radical, nationalist and socialist groups from around the city.  Dr. K.A. Zurawski came to the podium, wearing the colours of the Polish Federation, a group whose aspirations for independence were in tune with Ireland’s own.

“The English certainly murdered the Irish in true Russian style,” said Zurawski. The crowd of nearly 1500 erupted with applause at the line, one put-upon ethnicity empathizing with another. As the clapping and the cheering died down, Matthew Thomas Newman, described by journalists present as “a dapper young men with a broad English accent”, stood up in his seat and began to speak.

“I am as good an Irishman as any here today,” said Newman. “I have lived in Ireland and my mother is from a long line of Ireland’s best. But such ballybunk makes me ill. I say, why do you put over such ridiculous drivel?”

Larkin was seated at the back of the stage but he was near enough to hear every word. He stood up out of his chair with rage, sprinted towards the footlights, hurdled the orchestra pit and jumped another brass railing before landing in the aisle. As he closed on Newman, Elisabeth Larkin shrieked at the back of the auditorium and started to walk down toward her husband. By then, he had reached his quarry and she beseeched him to see sense through the red mist descending.

“Be careful what you do to him!” shouted Elizabeth. “Jim, Jim! Think!”

He wasn’t thinking. He was too busy attacking the heckler. He had his hands gripped around Newman’s throat and seemed bent on choking him to death. Perhaps finally affected by his wife’s intervention, he stopped the attempted asphyxiation but he wasn’t letting Newman off lightly. He pulled him from the row of seats and shook him with such ferocity that he ended up tearing his collar away. Then, he dragged Newman up the aisle and through the doors before depositing him in the lobby.

The show over, his face flushed with rage, his blood boiling and sweat forming on his brow, Larkin made his way back to the stage. He still had a job to do. In his mind, that job was to educate those present about the complexity of the rebellion in which his friends and colleagues had died. When he came to the microphone himself later in the evening, Larkin informed the crowd, amongst other things, that the Rising had been aided by English people. To hammer home this particular point, he picked up one of three rifles which had been placed on the stage, and held it above his head.

“Perhaps you don’t know who brought this kind of rifle into Ireland,” he said. “Of course you don’t because the press has never told you. Well, it was Angela Spring-Rice, sister of Ambassador Spring-Rice (London’s man in Washington). It was she who smuggled them to us.”

That cameo in Chicago came 18 months after Liverpool-born Larkin had left Ireland for New York with the fall-out from the 1913 Lock-out still resounding. The impact of the Dublin agitation and the coverage of it in American papers meant he arrived in the United States already a well-known name. Indeed, the New York Times had first talked about him coming to the city 11 months before he actually landed. Originally intending to stay for a few months, he remained for eight and a half years, during which time he became more infamous than famous after his involvement in a succession of high-profile controversies, court cases, and a stint in Sing Sing Prison.

Just three days after he walked off the St Louis in New York Harbour in November, 1914, Larkin spoke before a crowd of 15,000 at a rally in Madison Square Garden, an honored guest at a celebration of the election of Meyer London, a socialist, to US Congress. Quite a debut.

“If it’s men you are fighting for, your movement is damned,” said Larkin that night, “but if it’s a great principle, you will triumph. The task before you is great. You must realise the great responsibility that faces you. It takes great men and women to stand up and say ‘We’re Socialists’. You are fighting to abolish this system of exploitation.”

He went down a storm with that sympathetic audience, most of whom knew his reputation and regarded him as a hero from what they’d read about him in the left-wing press. The rest of New York and America came to know the name pretty quickly too due to Larkin throwing himself into various socialist and radical causes, from workers’ rights to the anti-war movement. The Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the modern FBI) file on Larkin would eventually run to nearly 500 pages as the government struggled to keep up with his every move, crisscrossing the continent.

One minute he was headlining an Irish Independence rally, flanked by Irish Volunteers on one side of the stage and German Uhlans on the other, the next he was chairing a meeting where 500 Americans pledged themselves to communism as a police stenographer sat in the crowd taking copious notes. He lived in great poverty for much of the time, almost dying from a leaky gas cooker in his Greenwich Village apartment, Yet, when he went down to Mexico to meet with German spies anxious to get him to try to create havoc on the American docks and to hamper the war effort, he was travelling by power boat and staying in the best hotels.

“There are 20m German-Americans and 13m Irish-Americans in the United States,” roared Larkin at an event in Philadelphia where the Irish and German diasporas shared common cause. “And if you act together, you can make the United States and the newspapers do as you like. I am not a citizen of the United States and if they want to deport me tomorrow they can do it.”

This type of stuff ensured he was avidly watched throughout his stay and, inevitably, he fell foul of the authorities. As might be expected from an outsized character loose in America at a tumultuous time in that nation’s history, there was espionage and intrigue (he was assiduously courted by both the Germans and the Russians), double-dealing, assassination attempts, courtroom drama and prison stays. 

At various times, he plotted with the Germans in San Francisco, urged anarchists to throw bombs in New York, attracted death threats for organising miners in Butte, Montana, and published a socialist newspaper out of Chicago. In a seminal moment in American trade union history, he delivered one of the orations at the funeral of the trade union martyr Joe Hill (immortalised in song by, amongst others, The Dubliners). His high-profile role that day, coupled with his clandestine associations with everyone from Russian revolutionaries to Italian anarchists meant he was all over the American government’s radar.

When they responded to the growing “red scare” in November, 1919 by arresting 2000 dissidents over the course of one day, Larkin was among them. He was charged with “criminal anarchy”, his crime being involvement in the Socialist Party of America’s newspaper “The Revolutionary Age”. Released on bail, he didn’t temper his words any and the government didn’t ease off on the surveillance either.

 “I take pleasure in enclosing herewith a memorandum prepared by me upon a speech made by Jim Larkin at Yorkville Casino, New York, April 6th, 1920 which contains certain statements pertinent to his activities,” wrote J Edgar Hoover in a memo to the Department of Labor, as he sought to bring deportation pressure on Larkin.

Over time, Hoover, then in charge of the Bureau’s Intelligence Division, became a little obsessed with Larkin. Even after his trial culminated in him being sentenced to “five to ten” in Sing Sing prison, the future director of the FBI was trying to manufacture fresh charges against him.

“I have just come across the enclosed clipping dealing with James Larkin whose pernicious influences you so successfully curbed,” wrote Hoover to the state prosecutor. “However, he seems to be engaging again from behind prison walls in his usual propaganda. I thought the same might be of special interest to you.”

The Hoover correspondence is contained in the FBI file. It shows how some in power regarded him as a serious threat. Indeed, the chief magistrate at his trial in New York described him as a “positively dangerous” man. It says much for his celebrity too that Sean O’Casey headed up one of the committees established to get him released, the Soviet Union offered to do a prisoner swap of Americans in return for Larkin, and Charlie Chaplin was among those who visited him in prison.

The best-known actor of the age was so moved by his plight he sent on a package to Larkin’s wife Elisabeth, including a gift of some slippers. Truth be told though, the marriage had become more and more estranged even after his wife had joined him in New York. This wasn’t the least of his problems either. At one point, Irish Republicans were planning to poison him because they feared what effect he might have on the situation back home should he return to Dublin. Their bizarre plot included a lookalike they had ready to send to Ireland in his stead.

Then there’s the court case. With his usual obstinacy, Larkin opted to defend himself and used the opportunity to deliver his manifesto to an even wider audience.

“Gentlemen, some day you in America will be told the truth,” he lectured the court. “In the meantime, we who have been on the housetops telling the truth have to suffer. We have to go down the dark days and the dark nights but we go there with the truth in our eyes and our hearts, and no lie upon our lips.”

Even after his eventual release from jail in 1923, pardoned by Governor Al Smith, Hoover remained on his trail.

“You will have noted the report that Jim Larkin has been released from prison in New York by Governor Smith,” wrote Hoover in a letter to his superior William J Burns on February 7th, 1923. “It is very likely that a deportation case could be made upon Larkin and I am calling it to your attention in order that you may indicate if it is your wish to proceed with the preparation of this case and present the same to the Department of Labor. I understand there was a warrant issued for Larkin when he was convicted under the New York State laws, and this warrant of course will still hold good.”

Within two months, Hoover got his wish. Larkin was deported aboard the White Star Line’s Majestic back to England, telling one of the agents asking after his luggage as they sent him on his way, “Everything I own is on my back.”
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