In 1893, bootmaker James Murtaugh was changing a belt on his machine at the A. Coburn boot factory in Hopkinton when his knees caught in the equipment, twisting his body and fracturing his lower leg. The entire factory shut down while frantic coworkers disassembled the machine so Murtaugh could be freed. Murtaugh’s injury would disable him and plunge his immigrant family into destitution.
“People worked long, terrible hours and there were quite a few injuries,” explained Stonehill College professor Ann Mattina. “There was no workers compensation back then. If you were lucky the church or the union would take care of you.”
Mattina shared stories found through her extensive research on Hopkinton’s shoe industry at a presentation at the Hopkinton Historical Society a few weeks ago. She pointed out that while Hopkinton’s shoemakers and bootmakers played a role in the nascent labor movement, most of them never enjoyed the fruits of their efforts. It was only after 1912 that the Massachusetts labor movement really got going.
The professor shared some insights from the journals of Samuel Dexter Wales, a bootmaker here during the mid-1800s. Wales’ diary, found in a Maine farmhouse, talks about how hard it was to find a friend that could lend him $2. He also noted that people in Hopkinton didn’t seem to care about workers as long as they were making money:
“The interest in the cause of freedom is very small,” Wales wrote. “The boot business is good and all are busy in making the most of it. It seems to be a trait in human nature to forget the downtrodden fellow mortals in the heyday of flesh and prosperity.”
Hopkinton’s population during its mid-1800s shoemaking heyday included many “downtrodden fellow mortals,” most of them Irish immigrants. They worked at the factories and shops that dotted Main, Chestnut, Wood and Lumber streets. The S & A Crooks Manufactory stood where the Main Street Service car repair business is now. The E.A. Thompson Boot Factory stood at the corner of Main and Grove streets; the D.T. Bridges & Co. shoe factory was on Main Street; the G. & F.W. Wood Shoe Shop was in Woodville. By the 1870s, Mattina pointed out, Crooks was the nation’s third-largest shoe manufacturer and Hopkinton was shipping thousands of pairs of shoes daily.
Shoe factory owners collaborated on wages and prices, and marriages between families often made them even more powerful and rich. As a result, workers who were too vocal about working conditions at one plant might find themselves blackballed from another.
“If you made trouble at the Crooks plant, you could not work at Coburn’s,” Mattina said.
The workers suffered in other ways. “The boot business was seasonal, and the factories did not run all year,” she said. “It was so frustrating to workers because they could not depend on regular pay. So they grew their own food and worked in other places until they were called back.”
Other labor issues were more widespread than Hopkinton or the boot industry. “There were no child labor laws back then,” said Mattina. “There were no limits on the length of work day…all the things we take for granted now. You worked at the behest of the owner.”
As the labor movement was stirring, Hopkinton’s workers gathered courage. In 1859, bootmakers struck town-wide after factory owners reduced their wages. Twenty years later, lasters demanded a raise of five cents per case of shoes. In 1886, finishers at the Coburn shoe factory demanded a 25-cent raise. And in 1894, workers at the Coburn plant went on strike after the company cut their wages by 10 percent. The impasse caused the company to shut down a year later and move to New Hampshire.
One of the most violent strikes came in 1871, when management at the Coburn and Phipps plants clashed with the Crispins, a secret labor organization known for its readiness to use violent tactics.
“The Knights of St. Crispin was one of the largest labor organizations in Hopkinton,” Mattina said. “One of the rules that they made everyone swear by was that nobody in the union would train you unless you joined the Crispins. This drove the factory owners crazy.”
The 1871 strike, over giving workers holidays, was so bad that the state militia was called in. “At that time, ‘picketing’ wasn’t a nice orderly line of people with signs,” said Mattina. “It generally meant that men were out on the streets, jeering at people who crossed the picket lines to go into factories.”
Three strikers were shot while they were trying to stop an employee from entering the plant. The shooter claimed self-defense. Another striker was sent to jail for throwing stones at a member of the militia.
In a newspaper account from that era, the New York Times noted that the Crispins “kept the shoe industry in a state of great disorder” and called their tactics “terrorism.” The Crispins would become the Knights of Labor in 1880, and Hopkinton shoemaker Richard Griffin would eventually become its national vice president and move the organization towards less violent tactics.
The growing strength of the labor movement, the abandonment of the rail line through Hopkinton, and the three fires that consumed Hopkinton in 1876, 1882 and 1900 helped spell doom for the shoe industry.
It was only after the shoe industry departed that the labor movement began to gather steam…unfortunately, too late for Hopkinton’s workers.