Two unexpected bits of coolness that come with publishing a nonfiction book: (1) Seeing yourself cited in bibliographies and footnotes, and (2) being approached for cover blurbs by other writers in your line. Which is a roundabout way of saying that not only is the just-published Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression a great book that deserves lots of attention, but it also marks my debut as a blurber. Not just on the dust jacket, either –I’m right before the title page, rubbing inky elbows with Anthony DePalma and Fred Gardaphe. Tell Mr. DeMille I’m ready for my close-up.
Holly Metz has written a historical page-turner centered on the February 1938 death of Harry Barck, a petty city official in Hoboken, N.J., who used his position as “poormaster” to grind impoverished city residents under his heel. To borrow phrase from Jimmy Breslin, Barck died of natural causes — his heart stopped beating when a paper spike was thrust into it. For the scores of Hoboken residents who’d had their assistance arbitrarily cut back because of Barck’s views on self-reliance, and the families forced to get by on resources that would have been inadequate even for one person, the poormaster’s death was a source of grim satisfaction. An unemployed mason, Joe Scutellaro, was charged with murder; Scutellaro claimed the death was accidental, saying he had fought with Barck after the poormaster suggested his wife should turn tricks instead of asking for aid from the city.
The ensuing trial turned the spotlight on the way America treated its impoverished citizens during hard times, and Holly Metz’ book picks out some even more glaring parallels with our current economic and political situation. The depth of research is evident on every page, but Metz’ prose is quick and light on its feet. Hoboken may have gone from roughneck to ritzy over time, but one of the most important things you’ll learn from Killing the Poormaster is this: The past is always closer than you think.