The Strangest Riot

When I was a small boy, I was in awe of my mother and grandmothers, particularly because they seemed to know every detail of those Old School social rules. For instance, every Mother’s Day our church offered carnations to the ladies of the congregation, and my mom knew to take a pink one (because her mother was alive), while my grandma knew to take a white one (because her mother had passed on). Both instinctively knew to wear them on their left side, just as they instinctively knew when to send thank you cards, how long they had to send them, and how much writing to actually put on the card itself… just a quick thanks? A long paragraph or two of sincere gratitude for a gift or thoughtful action? They always just… knew, somehow.

Many of these rules have fallen by the wayside, but there’s one rule they absolutely, positively keep: no white after Labor Day. I can imagine my grandmother now: “Son, I’m 94 years old. I’ve come to accept women preachers and gay marriages… but I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear white shoes in October. There are some rules you just don’t break.”

Society doesn’t seem to take the “no white after Labor Day” rule very seriously any more. I bet millennials don’t even know it is a rule: that’s the beauty of Generation X: we knew about the rules like “no white after Labor Day”, but we broke ’em anyway. But some people used to take the rule seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it caused a riot.

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Straw hats were popular with men in the early 20th century. In Europe and Asia, the tradition of wearing hats made of straw or reeds – but only in summer! – dates back to the Middle Ages. And why not? They keep the sun out of your face, and unlike felt or wool hats, they’re breathable, keeping you cool in the summer. Although hilariously unfashionable now, they were kind of dapper:

Straw Hat
(Image via Wikipedia)

In New York City, the custom was to wear straw hats until September 1st, but no later. At some point in the early 1900s, for reasons unknown, the cut-off date shifted to September 15th. It also became something of a popular prank – not just in New York, but throughout the country – for teen boys to sneak up on people wearing such hats after the cut-off date and knock the hats to the ground and stomp on them. Don’t ask me why: these things just happen.

In 1922, some teens decided to jump the cut-off date by two days. On September 13, a pack of teen boys in the Mulberry Bend area – one of the worst parts of Five Points, arguably the worst neighborhood in Manhattan – went around knocking off people’s hats and stomping on them, as was the custom. That is, until they tried knocking the hats off a bunch of dock workers. These guys fought back, and soon a full-scale brawl was underway between the two groups. The fight was so big that it shut down traffic on the Manhattan Bridge until police could come and break it up.

But police couldn’t arrest everyone involved. Groups of teen boys would scatter from police and start the hat stomping anew in other neighborhoods. The next day, the riots intensified. Some teens even roamed the streets carrying big sticks with nails sticking out the business end. Up to 1,000 teens caused trouble on Amsterdam Avenue, beating up some so badly that they needed medical attention. Cops didn’t take the matter seriously, partly because of “boys will be boys”, but also because if they broke up the rioters in one area, they would just splinter off into other areas. Rioters, emboldened. even snatched the hat off a police sergeant, who hilariously fell face-first into a mud puddle while chasing the lawbreakers.

The riots kind of died down by themselves by September 16th. Although “hat violence” continued for several years – one man was murdered in a hat stomping incident in 1924, and several “hat hooligans”  were arrested in 1925 – the full-scale riot of 1922 was unique: never again did groups of youthful social enforcers take to the streets. Within a few years, straw hats themselves went out of fashion altogether, taking with them the odd custom of teens knocking them off people’s heads.

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