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When immigrant Lower East Side moms rioted over tonsillectomies

Eddy Portnoy
August 19, 2010
A nurse examines school hildren in New York in an undated photo.(National Library of Medicine)
A nurse examines school hildren in New York in an undated photo.(National Library of Medicine)

One of the convenient aspects of studying Jewish history is its 3,000-year-old paper trail—the texts and records of the rabbinical and intellectual elite allow us to examine contours of Jewish law and history. But in contrast, we tend to know less about average Jews, whose lives didn’t receive much attention in the writings of the intellectuals. That began to change in the late 19th century, when the Yiddish press hit the streets, for the first time recounting the lives of the unwashed masses of Jews in the public record. Tablet Magazine offers some of their stories, reconstructed from century-old newspaper accounts.

“The [Lower] East Side is a volcano of superstitious ignorance,” read an article in the New York Tribune in the steamy June of 1906, referring to masses of immigrant Jews prone to the kind of mass hysteria that occurs every so often in the quarters of poor and ignorant.

In this case the volcano had erupted in a riot earlier in the month when 50,000 immigrant mothers descended on their local public schools demanding to see their children, having had heard that there was a Board of Health-sanctioned child slaughter taking place. Greeted by locked doors, the screaming throngs surrounded the schools and began smashing windows and pounding on doors. On Essex Street, some white-hot mothers clambered up ladders in an attempt to break into P.S. 137 through the second-floor windows.

During this rampage, gangs of immigrants cursed out principals, fought police, and attacked anyone in the street bearing the slightest resemblance to a doctor—and, according the Tribune, this meant anyone in a pair of spectacles. Some of them raided vegetable pushcarts for ammunition while others, like one young man who pulled a revolver on a member of the Board of Health, used more serious weapons.

Word had spread among the Jews of the Lower East Side that uptown doctors were coming into downtown public schools and were, as described in the daily Varhayt, “cutting the throats of Jewish children!” After a two-hour assault, the rag-tag army achieved victory: Their kids were released early and alive, proving that no such slaughter had taken place.

Thrilled at having gotten a miraculous half-day’s vacation, the kids didn’t even know what the ruckus was about. “I dunno sir, I t’ink the school exploded,” one boy told a reporter from the Evening Post.

As with many hysteria-inducing rumors, this one contained a kernel of truth. After cases of tonsillitis kept scores of Jewish students out of school a week earlier, one school principal recommended that these kids have tonsillectomies. The mothers complained that the trip uptown for such a procedure wasn’t possible for people who worked 12-hour days, six days a week. What’s more, the 50-cent doctor’s fee was too high. So, the principal kindly arranged for doctors from Mt. Sinai hospital to come to the school and perform quickie operations.

Just days before the riot, doctors performed 83 tonsillectomies at P.S. 100 on Cannon Street. Most of the kids were back in class the following day. According to the Tribune, none of the operations were performed without parental consent, and, they added, there were no complaints. A tonsillectomy was no big deal.

But the Yiddish daily Varhayt claimed otherwise, reporting that not only did many of the young patients fail to get their parents’ permission, they had been sent home with unintelligible permission slips. “First of all,” the Varhayt editorialized, “the poor and unhappy immigrant mothers who suffer the stifling heat and confinement of the tenements can’t even read. And secondly, they aren’t able to understand the technical English on the permission slips that was being read to them.” All they knew was that when the children returned home from school after their procedures, they did so drooling mouthfuls of blood, barely able to speak. Shocked, their parents asked what happened. “Doctors cut our throats,” the children replied.

Rumors of a wholesale slaughter leapt like wildfire throughout the tenements and shops. As the gossip wended its way through the neighborhood, the story grew from “doctors cut our throats” to “two children died” to a wild “83 children died.” Street-corner orators got into the act, screaming about the massacres in the schools, comparing them to the pogroms in Russian-ruled Poland.

Coming on the heels of a particularly brutal pogrom in Bialystok that had just been reported on—accompanied by gruesome photos—in the Yiddish press, the Lower East Side surgeries morphed, in the eyes of gullible parents, into evidence of an American pogrom. Accustomed to such violence in Europe, many of the recent arrivals believed such things could happen even in America.

But if the Tribune implied that the Jews were superstitious dupes prone to wild overreaction, the Yiddish Varhayt shot back that the fault lay with the Board of Health and the school’s principal for stupidly sending home permission slips not in Yiddish. The Varhayt also launched into a tirade about how Irish principals have no respect for Jewish immigrant parents and essentially do what they want with the children.

All the Yiddish papers decried the overwrought reaction of the mothers. But in an attempt to fully blame the Lower East Side’s Jews for the riot, both the Tribune and the New York Times alleged that there was a gaggle of local Jewish doctors who had spread the rumor because they were furious that uptown doctors were performing tonsillectomies on local kids for free, when they could be getting 50 cents a pop. The Yiddish press opted not to remark on that theory.

The Tribune also took the opportunity to bemoan the episode as one of a series of events that plagued the overcrowded and frequently obnoxious Jewish quarter. Four years earlier, they noted, Jewish women rioted against local butchers, and three years earlier, they rioted against doctors who were treating their children for trachoma. These same immigrant women joined together most consistently for “Landlord Riots,” which exploded every time rents were raised, and for bank riots, which occurred every time a Jewish bank went belly-up, leaving its poor immigrant depositors with bupkes.

The great tonsil riot fizzled quickly, as it occurred at the end of the school year and was forgotten almost immediately as students graduated and parents kvelled. The police, however, worried a little longer and, according to the New York Times, posted squads of cops outside heavily Jewish schools, on Essex and Grand Streets, where, on the last day of classes, graduates performed scenes from The Merchant of Venice to their Yiddish-speaking parents, none of whom rioted or even panicked. Well, maybe they panicked just a little.

Eddy Portnoy, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is the Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is also the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).