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Hell’s Kitchen has at times been known by other less popular names — Clinton, Midtown West, and even Mid-West — but in 1910, seven years before women got the vote, the arrests of six female election “poll watchers” led to the area being nicknamed “Suffragette Slope”.
“That interesting section of the city once described as Hell’s Kitchen, but henceforth to be known to the police as Suffragette Slope, was the life of the primaries yesterday,” read a newspaper clipping headlined “Suffragists Invade Hell’s Kitchen” from September 13, 1910 — the day after Francis P Coughlin faced John F Curry for the Democratic leadership of the 13th Assembly District.
The women “watchers” were organized by Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Suffragette Movement leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as part of the voting rights advocacy group the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women. The watchers were sent to the West Side poll site to observe that a fair and free election occurred after a September 1909 matchup between Coughlin and Curry led Coughlin to petition the New York Supreme Court to declare the election void and fraudulent.
The suffragettes of 1910 were facing an uphill battle to keep elections fair. Although he had died more than 30 years earlier, “Boss Tweed”’s era of political corruption and Tammany Hall election rigging were still alive and well. West Side women of the late 1800s like “Battle Annie” Walsh — known as the “sweetheart of Hell’s Kitchen” and a notorious gang leader — had left a legacy of joining in rather than fighting against election day mayhem. The political climate of the day was one where, as a New York Times retrospective put it, “elections were riotous affairs in which brawls, bribery and intimidation of voters were common practices.”
According to reports from the 1910 primary, the suffragettes “equipped with election insignia and ribbons and medals bearing the ‘Votes for Women’ motto,” were at a 9th Avenue polling location. Anne Herendeen and Lavinia L Dock, “Coughlin adherents”, and Winifred Leonard, Independence League watcher, “took their stand behind the rail separating the polling section from the rest of the establishment and fastened their eyes on the ballot boxes.” When Board of Inspections Chair Robert Jackson asked Dock to move to the other side of the rail, she refused. “I’m a legally appointed watcher,” said Dock, “and I’ve got as much right here as anyone. I decline to move for you or anyone else.”
Jackson refused to open the polls, and after “the angry mutterings of early voters,” decided to call the police to arrest the group. Herendeen withdrew, but Dock and Leonard were arrested and taken to the West Side Court at 314 W54th Street (now home to the Midtown Community Court) where they were arraigned under the charge of interfering in an election, but ultimately cleared to return to the polls as watchers.
While the women had decidedly not interfered in the proceedings, their arrest gave several others the chance to do so. “Miss Dock discovered that in her absence two men had voted under names not contained on the polling lists,” the report read. “They dropped their ballots in the box hastily and disappeared before they could be challenged, it appeared.”
It wasn’t the only suffragist-related incident in Hell’s Kitchen that day. Nora Blatch de Forest — daughter of organizer Harriet Stanton Blatch and then wife of inventor Lee de Forest — was arrested at a polling place on W59th Street before being released as a legal watcher. Two more women, Elisabeth Fraser and Louise Helmuth, who had been keeping “absolutely impressive eyes on the ballot boxes” in Midtown were arrested and taken to a W68th Street police station before “the desk lieutenant there, having heard of Magistrate Kernochan’s decisions in three similar cases, promptly released both prisoners.” Over at 23 Amsterdam Avenue, (now part of the Fordham University campus) poll watcher Mary E Thornton was arrested and released, “leaving the station amidst the applause of a group of Suffragettes gathered in the street.”
Harriet Stanton Blatch defended the work of her “warlike disciples,” as the reports dubbed them, as legally necessary amid the prolonged era of corrupt elections. “Mrs Blatch herself is fighting so hard for the suffrage party she has no time to take part in little tilts between Democrats, Republicans and other such unimportant factors in the political game,” read the report. “But she does want the world to know the Suffragettes can keep a ballot box cleaner than men election inspectors ever will do.” Candidate Coughlin agreed: “The presence of these ladies’ adds all kinds of class to the primaries in this district, no matter what else it does. I can’t understand the action of the Board of Elections and the police in ousting women watchers regularly appointed by me from the polling- places,” he told reporters at the scene. “The new laws make it perfectly plain: the sex of the watcher is not taken into consideration at all.”
Coughlin seemed to be a strong supporter of women’s suffrage in general, as he added: “Anyway, most of Mrs Blatch’s friends hope to be voting themselves pretty soon and they can count on me to do all I can to help them. If all voters were as clean as the women would be, there wouldn’t have to be any watchers anywhere.” Curry, however, opposed the suffragettes and vociferously argued that “only men could be chosen as watchers.”
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Despite his support for the women of “Suffragist Slope”, the minimal election reports available appear to show that Coughlin lost anyway. One day after the contest, the New York Daily Tribune reported that the candidate had offered a $5,000 reward (about $158,000 today) to anyone who could prove the election fraudulent, in another “fight to wrest the leadership from John F Curry.”
Curry for his part, was a West Sider who rose through the local McManus political ranks to eventually serve as the controversial Democratic leader of Tammany Hall from 1929 to 1934. Although born in Ireland, “the family settled on a farm near Tenth Avenue and West Sixtieth Street. From the time he was seven until he was 12, John Curry milked his father’s cows and delivered the milk before going to school,” the New York Times said in his 1957 obituary.
In 1910, the suffragettes of Hell’s Kitchen and New York City had a popular song by L Emerson Brown named after them, but were still seven years away from the right to vote. While New York’s Constitution was amended in 1917 to give women full suffrage, it was only after a nearly 70-year fight to gain voting rights. Harriet Stanton Blatch renamed the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women the Women’s Political Union, and the organization successfully lobbied to help push the campaign to the 1917 victory.
Some suffragists involved in the Hell’s Kitchen primary “invasion”, like Anne Herendeen, were later written up as “receiving considerable notoriety” for their involvement. Other suffragettes and derisively nicknamed “new women” took up residence at The Windermere apartments on W57th Street and 9th Avenue (now vacant and proposed to become a mixed-use building), close to where watchers Herendeen, Dock and Leonard were arrested during the September 1910 primary.
And while the suffragettes and their “slope” are now long gone from Hell’s Kitchen, there’s always the chance that the new musical Suffs — rumored to be in development for a potential Broadway transfer from The Public Theater — could bring the suffragettes back once more to “invade” Midtown.