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History > General History > The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part Four.

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submitted by Steve Frangos on 12.10.2006

The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part Four.

Steve Frangos, c. 2006



Crimes against the newly arrived Greek peddlers took many forms and by various attackers. It must be recalled that between 1880 and the very early 1900s, the average worker made a dollar to two dollars a day. Published reports document that some child workers made only $15.00 a year. Extortion, thief and trickery were only three ways in which the artful criminal could hook wink an unsuspecting citizen.

By returning to original newspaper accounts, and citing them at some length, it becomes easily to see how over time the laws, officials and common people of New York City gradually come to the aid and assistance of all the newly arrived immigrants. But it was a hard drawn out fight. Sometimes these crimes extend over decades. As you shall read these open conflicts were waged in the streets, police stations, jails, courts, and across the pages of America’s leading newspapers. It is critical that we recognize that when these events first occurred there was no way of knowing what would be the ultimate fate of the Greek immigrant peddlers.

It must be stressed that the late 1880s and throughout the early 1900s was a period of time in America when children worked along side adults in factories, mines and on the railroads. Punishment of children during this era was common and if the police or another native-born American male chose to discipline a young boy by striking or shaking them this was not deemed sever or outrageous behavior. These are crucial points to bring up as the street wars between Greeks and assorted others often began with children stealing or harassing the peddlers.

Why would the police and other city officials simply ignore these ever growing attacks? At a time when police were assigned neighborhoods and commonly seen day after day patrolling the same district any sign of protection would have prevented much of the violence against Greeks. Since this did not take place we can only assume that part of the money police extorted was based on protection; coupled by racist distain for the Greeks.

Crooked Courts

Crime always pays, at least for the government. Many of the local policemen, city judges and aldermen were all involved in various forms of criminal actions against the early Greek peddlers. Most of the available news accounts on Greeks as street peddlers deal with legal issues surrounding questions of licenses. Licenses and city codes are all a question of who is invoking them and when it is done. Initially the question seems reasonable since the two core complaints against peddlers; health issues related to unrefrigerated food on open carts and the undeniable competition with already established stores can not be denied.

The Greek peddlers were not without their champions. One such defender was T. T. Timayenis. Telemachus Thomas Timayenis is an extremely problematic figure in Greek-American history. Before his death in Boston Timayenis was involved in a long stream of legal battles and would commit what we know today as ‘hate crimes.’ In early 1894, all of that was in the ill-fated Timayenis’ future. As the following news account reports even this man could not stand quiet as his fellow-Greeks were systematically oppressed:

“T. T. Timayenis, a Greek manufacturer…makes serious charges against the police, who, he assets are, persecuting Greek flower peddlers. He says also that the peddlers, when taken to the Tombs Police Court, are unjustly treated and cannot say a word in their own defense; as they cannot speak English, and the interpreter at the court cannot either understand or speak Greek.

“It is a great outrage the way these poor people are treated,” said Mr. Timayenis yesterday. “This is a sample outrage: I bought some flowers from one of these peddlers on last Thursday and requested him to deliver them for me. While doing so he was arrested for peddling without a license. I gave bail for him, and the case came up at the Tombs to-day. I explained the matter to the Judge, but he refused to pay any attention to me. The charge was stated and the interpreter at once answered ‘guilty’ for the accused.

“That interpreter cannot speak one word of Greek. The man was fined $5. There were nearly twenty other Greek peddlers in court, who had been arrested on various pretenses, and the interpreter pleaded guilty for each one in turn, and they were all fined. When I asked the interpreter what excuse he could offer for this conduct, he replied: ‘They would all be fined more if they did not plead guilty.’

“I can furnish dozens of instances where the police have demanded money from these Greeks to allow them to prosecute their business. I shall bring the matter to the notice of the proper authorities. There are some 4,000 Greeks in this city who can speak hardly a word of English, and there is no attempt to give them the opportunity to be heard in their own defense when they are arrested, but they are all adjudged guilty and fined. There certainly should be an interpreter furnished for these poor people (New York Times May 18, 1894).”

This is a ‘problem’ that did not go away quickly.

On September 2, 1910 in an article on the establishment of new courts we hear highly incriminating information: ”[I]n the new Man’s Night Court at Yorkville Magistrate Appleton, as he took his seat on the bench, found one prisoner and four spectators gathered to greet him. No policemen were on duty, but three of the new court attendants were doing the best they could…Magistrate Appleton had to coach the attendants in their duties…At one time when a Greek interpreter was wanted, an attendant stalked along the gangway calling to the few spectators to know if any of them might be the interpreter.” At 9:45PM when Chief Magistrate McAdoo arrived to relieve Appleton, “[H]e was astonished when he heard that there was no Greek interpreter on hand to try a case in which a Greek peddler was concerned, and told Mr. Brock [his chief clerk] that steps must be taken at once to get one. At present there is only one, and he is employed in the day.”

The obvious question is why is a Greek interpreter so necessary? Clearly because Greek peddlers were being prosecuted on such a regular basis and in such numbers without an interpreter the courts could not process all the “criminals.” And if your aim was not to dispense justice but to collection bribes and/or fines for the city’s coffers then having interpreters really paid off.

Crimes of Youth?

In reading nearly 100 news accounts between 1883 and 1911 concerning Greek pushcart peddlers in New York City it is striking how many of the attacks on these immigrant men were initiated by young native-born American boys. As these accounts themselves report the newspaper men, police and everyone one else involved recognizes the boy’s culpability. One news report in particular seems to give the ‘reason’ the boys and other children were dismissed and the Greek adult peddlers held accountable.

“Detective Kennedy of the East Twenty-second Street Station brought to justice in the Yorkville Police Court yesterday a desperate criminal whom he had caught in the act. His prisoner was Charles Trux, twelve years old of 395 First Avenue. The detective had arrested two Greek peddlers on a charge of selling peanuts without a license, and their pushcarts were left outside the station while the peddlers were being questioned. The detective happened to glance out of the window and discovered the boy in the act. He rushed out of the station, and after a chase of two blocks caught the fugitive. When the boy was arraigned, Magistrate Crane said: “How many peanuts did he steal?” “About ten your Honor,” replied the detective. “Were you ever a boy?” asked the Magistrate. “Yes,” replied Kennedy. “So was I,” said the Magistrate. “What do you want to do with this desperate criminal? Send him to State prison?” “He committed a crime and should be punished,” said the detective. “He may have done wrong.” Said the Magistrate, “But I have seen policemen, time after time, walk up to fruit stands and take not only peanuts, but anything else that suited their appetites, and the proprietors didn’t dare to object. I guess I won’t send this boy to prison. He is discharged (New York Times 30 May 1896).”

While it is difficult to judge how much any street peddlers earned per day in New York City between 1880 and 1900 at least one account reports $22 “represented [one Greek peddler’s] earnings above expenses for a week (New York Times October 31, 1904).” Looked at from that point of view changes how much a couple of handfuls of peanuts some street kid might steal would really cost.

While it is clear that the New York Times journalist is writing in a tongue-in-cheek fashion about the ‘crime’ something else is reported that the writer did not intend. Why didn’t Magistrate Crane when he had “seen policemen, time after time, walk up to fruit stands and take not only peanuts, but anything else that suited their appetites” not stopped those men? How much has to be stolen, by whom, and what age the thief before it is a crime according to the good Magistrate Crane?

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