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3 posts from February 2017

15 February 2017

The Tale of Josefa

Hannah Kohler is one of this year’s Eccles British Library Writer’s Award winners. She is researching her novel, Catspaw, which follows two women during the California Gold Rush. In researching female criminals and vigilante justice in California, she came across the tale of Josefa.

Josefa Segovia—also known as Juanita and Josefa Loaiza—was the first and only woman to be hanged in California. A Mexican woman living in the mining town of Downieville, she was accused of murdering Frederick Cannon, a miner, on 5 July 1841, and was summarily hanged from a bridge over the Yuba River.

Hanging of the Mexican Woman

William Downie, Hunting for Gold. San Francisco: California Publishing Company, 1893. Shelfmark: X.809/2834

Contemporary accounts are conflicting, but suggest Cannon entered Josefa’s house on 4 July, possibly assaulting her.  The following day, Josefa and José Loaiza, with whom she lived, confronted Cannon. Cannon called Josefa a whore; she challenged him to insult her inside her own home; he followed her inside, whereupon Josefa fatally stabbed him. An impromptu judge and jury were assembled, but the man defending Josefa was rolled down the hill in a barrel. Within hours, Josefa was executed.

The story first appeared in the Daily Alta California four days later. Referring to Josefa only as ‘the Spanish woman’, it noted her extreme anger, stating that when Cannon came to her door to ‘apologize,’ she met him with a ‘large bowie knife, which she instantly drove into his heart’. Subsequent accounts called her by the generic Mexican name ‘Juanita’; most dwelled on her beauty; many implied she was a prostitute. Underlying these narratives was an assumption of Josefa’s culpability, implicitly or explicitly linked to her ethnicity and sexuality. In his memoir, Hunting for Gold (San Francisco, 1893; shelfmark X.809/2834), William Downie lamented the incident in a chapter named ‘Lynching a Beauty’, calling it ‘one of those blots that stained the early history of California’.

Lynching a Beauty

William Downie, Hunting for Gold. San Francisco: California Publishing Company, 1893. Shelfmark: X.809/2834

Josefa’s treatment – both her lynching and the way in which her identity and version of events were obscured – reflects the oppression of and violence towards Mexicans in mid-nineteenth-century America. However, in recent years, Chicano scholarship has sought to restore Josefa’s identity and reputation. In 1976, Martha Cotera demonstrated that Josefa’s last name was Segovia. Further scholarship contested the notion that she was a prostitute, and established that she was likely married to Loaiza, who appears to have filed a claim in 1868 against the United States for the murder of his wife (he lost).  The remaining details of Josefa’s experience are likely lost to history. She is consigned to Gold Rush lore, and on websites dedicated to the Old West, she has become a ghost story, her specter drifting along the Yuba River, haunting the old gold country.

Gold Region of California

 C. D. Gibbes, A New Map of the Gold Region of California. Stockton, CA. & New York, 1851. (Shelfmark: Maps 71865 (3)) 

Hannah Kohler

Sources: Irene I. Blea, U.S. Chicanas and Latinas Within a Global Context: Women of Color at the Fourth World Women’s Conference. Westport, Conn; London: Praeger, 1997 (Shelfmark: Document Supply 98/02749); William Downie, Hunting For Gold. San Francisco: California Publishing Company, 1893 (Shelfmark: X.809/2834); Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West, 1850-1935. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006 (Shelfmark: Document Supply m06/42195); F. Arturo Rosales, Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 1996 (Shelfmark: YA.1997.b.3535); Maythee Rojas, 'Re-Membering Josefa: Reading the Mexican Female Body in California Gold Rush Chronicles', Women’s Studies Quarterly, 35: 1/2  The Sexual Body (Spring/Summer 2007) pp. 126-148 (Shelfmark: Document Supply 9343.705700); Kerry Segrave, Lynchings of Women in the United States, The Recorded Cases, 1851-1946. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010 (Shelfmark: YC.2011.a.9418).

Eccles British Library Writer’s Award: For more information, please see www.bl.uk/ecclescentre

11 February 2017

The Flint Sit-down Strike, 1936-37

Eighty years ago today – following a 44-day sit-down strike at their plant in Flint, Michigan – General Motors (GM) formally recognised the United Automobile Workers (UAW) as the sole bargaining authority for the striking workers.

Flint Wikimedia
Wikimedia Commons, provided by Farm Security Administration. LC-USF34-040028-D.

It is almost impossible to over-estimate the impact this recognition had upon both the unionisation of the American automobile industry and the labour movement across the United States.

In the early years of the Great Depression, increased workloads and cuts in pay were commonplace across the auto industry. In 1935, the average auto worker’s income was barely half that deemed by the government to be a minimum for a family of four. The following summer, hundreds of workers died in Michigan auto plants due to the heat wave and on-going poor working conditions. Theoretically, such conditions made these plants ripe for union organisation. However, strikes in 1930 and 1934 had been viciously broken up by the Flint police, aided by company informers; indeed, GM paid $839,000 for detective work in 1934 alone (1).

In 1935, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act – which legalised strikes – invigorated the Congress of Industrial Organizations' efforts to unionize industrial plants across the US. The following summer, UAW officials unaffiliated with existing (GM-infiltrated) locals began organising in Flint – an audacious plan, given it was essentially a company town; yet, they recognised the pay-off could be enormous. To avoid detection, they met with workers in their own homes and encouraged them to join; many did so. General Motors’ reaction was swift. On 29 December union leaders learned that over the New Year’s holiday the company planned to remove the huge and vital ‘dies’ used to make car bodies. If this happened, cars could be made elsewhere, thereby weakening the union’s strategic position. Recognising what was at stake, the workers refused to leave the plant.

The next 44 days were unprecedented in the history of American labour. Inside the plant, the workers organised themselves into committees for cleaning, defence, entertainment and exercise, while supporters outside brought them food and supplies.

  Flint wikimedia meal

Wikimedia Commons, provided by Farm Security Administration (LC-USF34-040031-D).

Finally, on 11 February 1937, GM signed an agreement recognising the UAW, and agreeing not to discriminate against those workers who had struck. The following year, nearly one-hundred sit-down strikes took place in auto plants across the country; UAW membership rose from 50,000 to 300,000; and auto worker wages rose by as much as 300%. This historic sit-down strike presaged a decade of intense union activity across American industry, and an extraordinary improvement in the lives of ordinary workers.

The British Library holds a wide variety of materials documenting the labour movement within the United States, including: reports, newspapers and recruiting pamphlets by individual unions, the CIO and the American Federation of Labor (AFL); Congressional hearings, reports, and federal legislation; publications by political parties, including the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of America; and reports by civil rights organisations. Additionally, the rise and activity of the unions may also be documented through our extensive collection of American newspapers, secondary sources, and electronic databases.

 Witch hunt CIO

George E. Novack, Witch-hunt in Minnesota: the federal prosecution of the Socialist Workers Party and Local 544, CIO. New York: Civil Defense Committee, [1941?]. Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.6863; The CIO: what it is and how it came to be. Washington, DC: Committee for Industrial Organization, 1937. Shelfmark: YD.2009.a.1501

AFL Communist party

Communist Party of the United States. For a Powerful, United A.F. of L. New York: Workers Library, 1936. Shelfmark: YD.2007.a.1654; Communist Party of the United States. Greetings to the American Working People on the Occasion of the First Anniversary of the Great Labor Merger, AFL-CIO! New York: Labor Committee, Communist Party, USA, [195?]. Shelfmark: YD.2009.a.1322

  UAW local

John G. Kruchko, The Birth of a Union Local: the history of UAW Local 674, Norwood, Ohio, 1933 to 1940. Ithaca, NY: New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, 1972. Shelfmark: q72/20497

1. "The 1936 - 37 Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike," BBC, Retrieved May 18, 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-london/A672310 

Jean Petrovic

03 February 2017

Have you tried the Electroburger? A 1962 menu for the North Shore Line’s Electroliner dining car

Restaurant cars in trains are disappearing fast and with them a lot of the charm of travelling by train, including the possibility of encounters of the kind depicted in films from North by Northwest to, more recently, Almodóvar's Julieta . For train lovers who daydream of dining on board the Orient Express but are more likely to find themselves eating a sandwich squeezed in the seat of a budget airline, our collection of menu cards can provide some inspiration. 

The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, also known as the North Shore Line, was an interurban railway line that covered the route between Chicago and Milwaukee.  This striking menu card [YD.2016.b.444], printed in 1962, shows the dishes on offer at the Electroliner’s Tavern-Lounge car, where passengers could sit down and enjoy a full service diner-style meal or a snack.

  Electro1

The star item in the menu is the Electroburger, served on a roll with potato chips and relish for the price of $1, including coffee.  The menu also contains a wide selection of sandwiches, including ‘flavor-rich’ sardines’, ‘young, tender, selected tongue’, and ‘Milwaukee-style liver sausage’. Passengers had an ample choice of drinks available, from sherry to a dry martini, and could even purchase playing cards for entertainment.

Image2

Those travelling in the morning could also enjoy a cooked breakfast, as shown in this earlier Electroliner menu from c.1955 [YD.2016.b.443]

Electro3

The British Library holds a rich collection of menus, including a collection of menu cards spanning the years 1890–1904 which were donated by the American collector Miss Frank E. Buttolph – for more information please see this blog post. All of them are available from our Explore catalogue.