Gerald Carbone: Seth Luther, Rhode Island’s Labor Day Hero
Saturday, August 31, 2013
Labor Day now serves with Memorial Day as a seasonal bookend, framing the long languorous stories of a summer that once seemed never-ending but now is abruptly shut.
The origin of Labor Day
Labor Day’s hold on the national consciousness has not always been so; it has been with us as a national holiday since Grover Cleveland signed it into law 119 years ago, about half of the nation’s 237 years.
The holiday’s original intent of celebrating "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" has morphed into backyard barbecues and end-of-summer blowouts; but it still is a good time to recall the roots of the American labor movement which, thanks to a carpenter named Seth Luther, burrow deep into Providence.
RI's unsung hero: Seth Luther
Born in 1795, Luther seemed well-positioned for success in the early American Republic: he possessed a trade, political connections, and standing in the First Baptist Church. Little in Luther’s background suggests that he would develop into what historian Mark S. Schantz calls a person who, “By any relevant standard …measures up to be one of the most significant figures in the antebellum labor movement.”
A key to Luther’s radicalization came in the fall of 1823, when a constable hauled him into the State Jail at the bequest of two men to whom he owed money -- $2.50 to one, $15 to the other.
Luther’s path to debtor’s prison began in the summer of 1822, when an illness laid him low. For two months he could not work and thus collected no wages, for a carpenter a loss of about $75. He rallied that autumn, but late in that year he ruptured a blood vessel, costing him four more months of work, and $38.50 for medical care.
He owed his boarding house keeper on Weybosset Street, a grocer on South Main, the lumber dealer on Union. Finally in September 1823 two of his creditors prevailed upon the constable to haul Seth Luther into the State Jail.
The jail stood about where the Providence Place Mall is now. The prison’s south side acted as “the Debtor’s Prison;” one corner of the shared, 16-squre-foot cell stored bed pans to hold wastes for six prisoners. Luther described the fare as “coarse beef hashed, mixed with potatoes, skins and all …and spiced with dead flies.”
The humiliation of debtor’s prison, where he spent six weeks in a dank stone cell, formed the foundation of Luther’s opinions on a host of issues from class inequality to labor reform and expanded voting rights.
In 1832, Luther helped organize The New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen, a group that labor historian Edward Pessen calls “America’s first attempt at industrial unionism.” The Association spawned a successful movement to shorten the work day – from 14 hours to 10.
Luther's later years
In middle-age Luther again wound up in jail, this time for marching with Thomas Wilson Dorr’s troops in an ultimately successful attempt to broaden suffrage in Rhode Island. His harsh confinement in a Newport prison pushed him to the brink of sanity – and eventually over it.
In 1846 he tried to rob Boston’s State Street Bank with a sword. He was admitted to the Dexter Asylum, and then transferred to the new Butler Hospital for the Insane. To save money, the city later removed its wards to the Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont. Luther’s transfer papers from Butler read: “Probably had some friends in Providence but if so they have never visited him.”
Shorter work days, expanded voting rights, Luther won them. He died April 29, 1863; nobody claimed the body. Seth Luther lies buried in the retreat’s pauper cemetery.
Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.
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