It was the Great Depression. Many of Hoboken’s longtime unemployed had to turn to the local poormaster, the city official with the power to decide who would receive bread tickets—like modern-day food stamps—that were often critical to a family’s survival.
Poormaster Harry Barck had a reputation for cruelty. One fateful day, Barck suggested that an out-of-work mason, Joe Scutellaro, send his wife to work the streets. There was a scuffle in his office, and Barck was fatally stabbed in the chest. Scutellaro, the obvious suspect, claimed it was an accident.
“It was a big story,” says journalist Holly Metz who made it the focus of her true-crime book, Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption and Murder in the Great Depression (Lawrence Hill Books, October 2012).
Scutellaro’s trial emboldened the poor to organize and stand up to their mayor, Bernard McFeely, and his political machine. The book also delves into the often-tense relations among the city’s ethnic groups. “There’s quite an extraordinary depth of history,” Metz says. “I just see my story as the first contribution to documenting that.” As for Scutellaro, he was convicted of the killing, but Metz remains uncertain of his guilt.
As a freelance reporter for publications like the New York Times and the Progressive, Metz often writes about legal and social issues. She is also fascinated with history. In 2000, she initiated Vanishing Hoboken, an ongoing oral history of the city.
Killing the Poormaster allowed Metz to combine her two passions. “The past helps create the way the present is,” she says. “If I can provide a greater understanding of what was, and therefore some of what is, I will have done something.”Click here to leave a comment