How a Kid from Hoboken Revolted Against Nazism

Peter Duffy's new book, "The Agitator," deems Bill Bailey’s 1935 uprising the first of its kind in America.

Before he made headlines around the world for taking part in what a new book calls “the first American uprising against Nazism,” Bill Bailey was just another Depression-era kid from Hudson County’s waterfront slums. Life was tough. Seven of his siblings did not survive infancy.

Bailey “was formed by the bitter struggles of his young days in the most depressed quarters of Jersey City and Hoboken,” says author Peter Duffy, whose new book, The Agitator (PublicAffairs), charts Bailey’s journey from poverty to activism.

Like many in 1930s America, young Bill Bailey was drawn to radical politics. While working as a merchant seaman, he became a union organizer. Bailey was outraged in 1935 when the German luxury liner SS Bremen sailed into New York. The Bremen “was the flagship of Hitler’s commercial armada,” Duffy writes, “a technical and aesthetic marvel regarded by the world as the waterborne embodiment of German nationhood.”

Bailey, just 20, and a band of labor and Communist pals hatched a plot to sneak onto the Bremen and—despite tight security—tear down the vessel’s billowing swastika flag and heave it into the Hudson River. They succeeded—but were promptly arrested and charged with felonious assault, unlawful assembly and other offenses.

Bailey was daring America to join him in taking “a firmer stand against this menacing [Nazi] reality,” as he later wrote in a self-published memoir.  

Following a circus-like trial, Bailey was acquitted, which outraged the German government. He would go on to fight in the Spanish Civil War and serve in the Merchant Marine during World War II before moving to the West Coast to work as a longshoreman. Yet when it came time to sum up his colorful life (he died in 1995), this “agitator” called his memoir The Kid from Hoboken.

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