Northampton’s River of Time
From City Hall to the White House, Depression Era Meets the Cold War
By BRIAN TURNER
Northampton went national in a big way when her adopted son, Calvin Coolidge, moved up the political ladder with stunning speed and determined progression.
Mayor here from 1910-1911, he rose to Lt. Governor in 1916 and Governor in 1919. The event that made Coolidge’s larger reputation was the Boston police strike, which he suppressed with the National Guard. In 1920 Coolidge was nominated to be vice-president under Warren G. Harding. A spirit of isolation informed public opinion, for voters longed to return to “Normalcy,” as promised by the Republicans in reaction to the Great War in Europe during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. In 1921 Harding and Coolidge were inaugurated.
Harding died in 1923 after a scandal-ridden two years, and Coolidge found himself president. In his modesty, Coolidge was the antithesis of the Roaring 20s over which he presided; prohibition was more his style. It was during the Coolidge administration that a resurgent Ku Klux Klan spread its anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic message far beyond the deep South. The Klan was a phenomenon that Coolidge, true to form, hesitated to address. Coolidge enthusiasts argue that his hesitation was not out of sympathy for the Klan, but out of reluctance to wield presidential power over regional events.
In time the Klan struck too close to home. In Northampton, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1925, a cross was burned across from the B’Nai Israel Temple and the Knights of Columbus, near where the Post Office is today. Other cross-burnings took place not just in Northampton but throughout Western Massachusetts. In 1926 a contingent of 300 Klansmen, four in regalia, descended upon the Florence Methodist Episcopal Church to make a cash presentation to the pastor upon his retirement—as the Gazette reported the next day, “Florence All Agog.”
Throughout his presidency, Coolidge returned to visit his house on Massasoit Street; he had to be aware of the Klan’s activity in his hometown, just as George W. Bush would be aware of a neo-Nazi rally in Crawford, Texas. In 1926 Coolidge was moved to address the American Legion in Omaha and, without naming the Klan, delivered an implicit criticism. His metaphor for the American experience has been used many times since, by Martin Luther King, Jr., among others: everyone who had come to this country, Coolidge said, whether in steerage or first class, was an immigrant.
Coolidge declined re-election in 1928, returned to Northampton, where his wife Grace and he purchased “The Beeches” at the end of Munroe Street off South Street. He went every day to the law offices of Coolidge and Hemenway, in the Masonic block, at 25 Main St., and wrote his syndicated newspaper column and autobiography. He died at home of a heart attack in 1933, aged 60. In the following decades, Grace Coolidge worked on behalf of the disabled, and developed a strong interest in baseball as a devoted fan of the Boston Red Sox. She remained a popular former first lady until her death in 1957.
It was Calvin Coolidge’s misfortune to be identified with
Republican pro-business policies on the eve of the Great
Depression. In the 1980s an attempt was made to restore his
reputation, when Ronald Reagan hung Coolidge’s portrait in
the Oval Office, citing him as an avatar of untrammeled
capitalism, once again in vogue.
During the Great Depression, Northampton’s industries did not recover their former vitality, and the city was forced to rely on merchandising, education, social services and technology. The Depression brought social upheaval on an unprecedented scale. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of government intercession, progressive taxation, and social welfare dominated national and local politics. The Connecticut River floods of the late 1930s prompted concerted action, and with assistance from Washington and Boston, the Mill River was diverted away from Old South Street, along which it once ran, and into the Manhan Meadows swamp. A system of dikes and pumping stations were also built, so that Pleasant Street would never again be navigated by rowboat.
World War II was a conflict on a scale more savage (if not as senseless) as the Great War. From 1943 to 1945, Smith College trained WAVES by the thousands. The city provided the Hotel Northampton and its tavern to help accommodate the WAVES. Smith College provided offices, dormitories and its infirmary. The presence of so many women in uniform added another chapter to Northampton’s distinguished history as a center of women’s education and women’s rights.
America escaped devastation during World War II and emerged as a superpower matched only by the Soviet Union. Yet the Cold War era that followed and the doctrine of “Mutual Assured Destruction” of the 1950s and 1960s placed the nation (and Northampton) directly in the line of nuclear fire, contributing to an atmosphere of paranoia and dread. [Daniel Aaron, who taught at Smith from 1939 to 1969, recalled the mix of Coolidge Republicans, women scholars in “Boston “ marriages, Irish-American Democratic pols in City Hall, and radical leftists such as himself who lived and worked here (“Northampton” American Scholar, 2001).Their ideological differences were held in check during time of war, but after the war old political grudges resurfaced in distorted and disturbing forms.
The representative figure of[the early Cold War era, Sen. Joseph McCarthy spoke to the Smith College Republican Club in 1954, although his star in the Senate was then in eclipse. (William F. Buckley, author of God and Man at Yale, would keep the conservative flame alive, ably assisted by his sisters, Maureen and Aloise, both Smith graduates.) Aloise Buckley Heath sent a letter to alumnae naming Smith professors as “communists,” a term elastic enough to include socialists, liberals, and “deviants” of every kind, whereupon several Smith faculty were investigated and some eased into retirement. The faculty debated whether to name names before investigating government committees or whether to stay silent; the faculty reached no clear conclusion, for according to the ineffable logic of a witch hunt, both naming names and not naming names brought the college into comparable disrepute.
In the 1960s, Smith’s Newton Arvin, having survived denunciation as a communist, was arrested for possessing “pornography,” male beefcake magazines that would neither shock nor arouse today. He named two young instructors who shared his tastes, and they were dismissed (for which the Smith College trustees recently apologized). Arvin’s story has been told in detail by local author Barry Werth in his book The Scarlet Professor (2002). The Newton Arvin episode seemed absurd once the 1960s had ended, with its Vietnam protests, psychedelic and sexual license, the ferment that gave rise to the “counterculture,” whose survivors have gravitated to Northampton and participated in its renaissance.
The Role of Northampton’s Women
Northampton’s first women settlers, however strong-willed and independently minded, were regarded under the law as little more than chattel; over time they achieved agency as artisans or workers; later still, they were permitted to teach or go into nursing or relief work, a form of social capital upon which the nation continues to draw. Northampton has provided a supportive environment for the women’s movement, arguably the greatest social change over the last century of human history.
Located across from City Hall on Main Street in the early 1970s, the Valley Women’s Center was a government-in-waiting, a place for feminists to entertain transformative visions, behind which there lurked nothing more radical than belief in equality. The center provided workshops on a wide range of subjects of interest to women; it also published a newspaper during the 1980s the Valley Women’s Voice.
The Hestia mural on the Verizon building in the Masonic Street parking lot encapsulates the history of women in Northampton. In order to receive permission to the use the wall, the artists of the Hestia collective, Linda Bond, Mariah Fee, Susan Pontius, and Wednesday Sorokin, agreed not to depict nudity, abortion, or death by hanging.
In 1980, after years of planning, the women completed the mural. It presents a tableau of historical figures such as Sojourner Truth, the “African Sybil,” or figures of local significance such as Harriet DeRose, the publisher of the Gazette. In 2003 the mural was restored, and several more women added, including, among others, the political activist Frances Crowe, former Smith College president Ruth Simmons, and
local women’s sports maven Gush Valenta—a trio that aptly illustrates the breadth and variety of accomplished women who have lived and worked in Northampton.
In Northampton today women have a marked degree of political power. So, too, the annual Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual (also Transgender) parade demonstrates that Northampton is not uniquely heterosexual. The downtown scene has matured: shaven heads, tattoos and piercings excite little comment; two women kissing scarcely draw a glance. Only now the women are “two mommies,” as local author Leslea Newman says, and are more likely to be pushing a baby stroller. With the landmark 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Northampton saw a rush of lesbian and gay relationships solemnized outside City Hall.
Northampton is now governed by people once regarded as newcomers, women and men, gays and straights. There may be a restoration of the old guard, but not the old prejudices. New prejudices are another matter, as one beleaguered subculture, smokers, is quick to claim. With few exceptions, Northampton’s smokers have failed to carry the day. Whether there will be a repeal of the smoking ban, as there was of Prohibition remains to be seen, but medical evidence suggests otherwise.
Our women mayors, Mary Ford and Mary Clare Higgins (recent additions to the Hestia mural), entered office with great hopes. Governance has required them to face hard political and fiscal facts. When citizens protest a Proposition 2 1/2 tax override and denounce the new liberal establishment, one can almost hear the echoes of Daniel Shays. The recent special election that defeated the override by a few votes shows the divisions beneath the surface of Northampton’s pleasant façade.
Crimes and Scandals
During the 1970s an underground economy flourished here, and with it a need to launder cash from the trafficking of drugs, in particular cocaine. Restaurants were an excellent means by which to go “off the books” with cash transactions. The majority of Northampton’s restaurateurs were not so inclined, but one, Danny Constance, a former Holyoke policeman who ran Beardsley’s, was convicted of money-laundering. Beardsley’s, one of the city’s prestigious restaurants of the 1970s, was forced to close.
Criminality is as much a feature of the city’s life as any other endeavor—from the speakeasies and bootlegging of the 1920s on Pleasant Street to illegal gaming at the Satire Café in the 1960s, a fair share of Northampton’s citizens, some prominent, have consorted with traffickers, gamblers, “working girls,” loan sharks and the like. There are no longer stocks in the town square where miscreants can be put on display, but news accounts and court records reveal some features of the corruption here.
Many mysteries have persisted, some as serious as unsolved murders, and also less serious incidents such as a wave of bomb hoaxes in the early 70s. One particularly unsettling case occurred in 1978—the death of a University of Massachusetts student of Caribbean descent, Seta Rampersad, 20, in a motel in South Deerfield. An inquest ruled the death accidental, offering a lurid account of drugs and sex and criminal neglect involving the proprietor of an area strip club.
The inquest failed to satisfy many, especially women and minorities who saw in the Rampersad case an example of Northampton’s two-tier justice system, one for the well-connected, another for “women of color.” Rumors persisted, fueled by the anti-establishment sentiment of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, an attitude pervasive among the valley’s students and minorities, and yet another instance of the generational tension between the classes in Northampton.
The Valley Advocate ran investigative pieces on the Rampersad case that implied more than could be prove; Nummo News, a newspaper for African American UMass students, was more explicit, alleging a cover-up orchestrated by Northampton businessmen and politicians present the night Rampersad had died. Decades later, the case still invites speculation, as well as off-the-record accounts from people who insist that they “know people” who were “at the party” during which, it is alleged, Rampersad died. As recently as 2000, VMag, a monthly magazine active from 1999 to 2001, investigated the Rampersad case. The article, written by Dave Biederman, portrayed Northampton as a hard-drinking, drug-fueled, corrupt city—and yet no “smoking gun” was produced. Tipsters, though abundant, declined to go public with what they claimed to know. And so the case has remained closed.
One thing is clear: The late 1970s were an unsettled period in Northampton, a time of money-grubbing and sleaze. Northampton’s police were hit by scandal. Two officers, Donald Roy and Luke F. Scanlan, were convicted of responding to break-ins by stuffing their squad cars with goods amounting to $50,000. Further wrong-doing surfaced when a sting operation netted Scanlan selling illegal firearms.
Our city is a small one, the people living in it are largely insignificant, and much of what takes place on a policeman’s watch possesses a high drama and a desperation that is as unwarranted as it is familiar. In its addictions, Northampton has resembled many American communities, differing only with the placidity with which her citizens go about their business, legal and illegal. The impact of crime upon Northampton can be summed up by an entry in the Gazette District Court News, March 3, 1979: “For the first time in more than a decade, no one was arraigned in district court today. No one had been summonsed into court or, apparently, arrested by police during the night.”
So it would seem that in the 1970s, a period of significant corruption, it was possible for 24 hours to pass without a crime being committed in Northampton. And it was also possible for crimes to go undetected.
Next: Back to Business
Photograph of the Coolidges courtesy of Historic Northampton
Brian Turner, who teaches composition at Smith College, is co-author of The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton , 1823-1953 (2002) and co-author of A History of the United States Air Force (2004).
Downstreet.net editor Edward Shanahan prepared the series of articles for publication.
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