The Legend of a Fiend: John "Blackjack" Jerome and Violent Strikebreaking
|On the dark side of the Greek-American immigrant experience, John Jerome with Daisy Economakis in 1927, 10 years before their marriage. Daisy's mother, Pauline, stands on the left.|
THE LEGEND OF A FIEND:
JOHN "BLACKJACK" JEROME AND VIOLENT STRIKEBREAKING
Published in The National Herald, September 24-30, 2016 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer
We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group.
Sometime in 1905, Yiannis Petrolekas arrived in San Francisco. No more than sixteen years old, Petrolekas faced all the same prejudices and opportunities may other Greeks of his generation were to experience on American shores. The choices Petrolekas was to make defined him as a man and as a historical figure.
There is no question that Petrolekas led a life far, far different from the average GreekAmerican. And I would be among the very first to advocate his life be reintroduced into the general historical accounts of Greeks in the United States. Petrolekas, who changed his name to John Jerome, became a wealthy very well-known public figure. And here is where we must move with some care. For by reviewing Jerome’s life we are forced into an entirely new consideration of an old-American stereotype, the Greek immigrant as strike breaker.
By 1920, after years at various and sundry occupations, Jerome formally established the Jerome Detective Agency of Los Angeles. This agency was initiated for the expressed purpose of serving as a professional strikebreaker service. While employed briefly for an electric street car company Jerome quickly realized that a great deal of money could be made from the ongoing labor disputes between the tramway company owners and their workers. Consequently, Jerome specialized in “street railway strikes, his men, according to Tramway officials, being trained experts in the handling of electric cars (Denver Post August 2, 1920).”
Let us be clear, the Jerome Detective Agency was nothing less than an organization hired to sabotage any and all labor strikes. Jerome would hire unemployed men, most often World War I veterans, who were desperately looking for a day's wage to break through the picket lines throughout the 1920s. As a professional strikebreaker, it is always asserted, that Jerome literally made millions. It also earned him the nickname ‘Blackjack’ because of a club he carried during the strikes. Jerome’s later life, based on his earning as a strikebreaker, as a real estate investor and the owner/operator of a dog track (which was notorious for gambling) are not our concern here. To gain insight into this man and his methods we need only focus on one of the various strikes in which he was employed.
At 5AM on August 1, 1920, local division 746 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electrical Railway Workers in Denver Colorado voted for a strike 887 to 9. The city had denied the union an increase in wages from 48 cents an hour to 75 cents an hour. A reported 1,100 individuals went out on strike. On August 2, Blackjack Jerome and his men arrive hired by Denver Tramway Company officials. To assure that street car services continue Jerome came prepared with “armored cars with heavy wire screen.” Denver’s electric street cars were being run by Jerome’s men or with those going to the Army hospital by soldiers attached to that facility.
Without missing a step on August 2, Jerome and his men barricaded themselves in the eastside Tramway Company barn and “issued a public statement declaring that they were instructed to shoot to kill (Labor World (Duluth) August 21, 1920).” “Before the riots the Denver Trades Assembly marched to City Hall in a body and called the attention of the mayor to the danger of such a procedure and requested him to remove the armed thugs. Of course he refused (The Toiler Cleveland) September 3, 1920).” And what did the average citizen of Denver see? “Armored motor cars with machine guns mounted on them are patrolling the streets, with guns manned by former soldiers who served in the American army machine gun outfits against the Germans (Sun and New York Herald August 7).” On August 3, the killings began.
In truth it is difficult to sort out from all the subsequent news coverage how many individuals were actually killed and/or injured. Accounts vary but at the very least six men were killed and more than 80 severely injured. But all accounts agree on one point: “not one was killed by a member of organized labor, and that up to date no member of organized labor has been arrested changed with shooting anyone. The shooting was done by “Blackjack” Jerome’s gunmen (Labor World September 21).”
After the violence was over and the workers returned to their jobs with no increase in pay a report was issued by the federal councils of the Churches of Christ condemning the actions of city and company officials. This study was undertaken at the insistence of a group of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish churchmen of Denver (Boston Herald October 24; World Herald (Omaha) October 24).” The report especially condemned “publicity methods which pictured the working man as a radical and violent in contradiction to fact (Cleveland Plain Dealer October 24, 1921).”
In 1953, after returning from a trip to Greece, Jerome suffered a heart attack and was found dead in his San Francisco office.
His funeral was a grand affair, attended by over 1,000 mourners, among who were many local officials and important personalities. His funeral was postponed for 18 days because of reactions from the union of undertakers: They were angry because “Blackjack” had broken one of their strikes
Jerome’s documented career as the leader of hired men whose only purpose was to stop, by any means necessary, any strike by common workers is beyond contestation. As such Jerome now enters a select realm of Greek-American immigrants who consciously oppressed and even killed their fellow Greeks (or others) for the profit of the Robber Baron class. With even this short review of Jerome’s life we come to a finer grain understanding of this social system of oppression. There were in point of fact, layers of villainy
Traditionally, in Greek-American historical accounts the principal subjects of “Greek-onGreek” crime have been the Greek labor agents, known as patrons. Men such as Peter Merles of Grand Rapids, MI who sought to form a national shoe parlor trust or Leonidas Solaris, known as Czar of the Greeks, who was the Greek labor agent for the entire Western United States. By juxtaposing Jerome against the Greek patrons and educated rogues such as Telemaque T. Timiyenis and Dr. P. G. P. Attias, who sought to become leaders among the newly arrived Greeks but only so long as it was to their personal advantage we now have a more refined sense of the modes of organized labor oppression applied against Greek immigrants of the 1880 to 1920 eras
Yet, inexplicitly, two writers have recently presented the life and exploits of Blackjack Jerome as if he were some kind of 1930s noir hero figure (donherron.com/tag/blackjackjerome; ekathimerini.com/.../ resurrecting-the-legend-of-johnblackjack). Anyone who actually reads published accounts reporting on John Jerome’s daily actions can only come to one conclusion—this man was a fiend who made large amounts of money by unlawfully attacking Americans who were exercising their civil rights as outlined under the law. There is history and there is fiction. In terms of documented historical accounts John Jerome is a classic example of a new kind of GreekAmerican villain, someone who was paid to stop ‘by any means necessary” peacefully assembled citizens from exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights.