What do you think of when you think of Thanksgiving? Turkey, family gatherings, football, Macy’s parade, pumpkin pie, Pilgrims?
Historically, Thanksgiving began as a tradition of celebrating the harvest of the year, as Harvest festivals are celebrated around the world, usually in Sept/Oct time. Here, in the United States the Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated on the third Thursday of November, and was established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Previous to this official recognition by Lincoln, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer”.
In reverence to the giving of thanks, some people are able to use the holiday time to remember the things they have received over the year and extend the hand of fellowship and generosity to those fellow human beings less fortunate than themselves. Our feature video this week gives respect to a man who was dogged in his work to help the more unfortunate in life. His is a name forgotten by most but his deeds should not go unnoticed and perhaps in the fluctuating world we live in today we should remember the good Samaritans of the past.
This video shows Mr Ledoux with some of the men that he helped to feed and clothe in the holiday season in New York City in the 1920s. I also include a brief biography of him here to highlight the good work that he did throughout the year and not just at Thanksgiving or at Xmas. This man was a frequent sight on the streets of New York and in the newsreels and newspapers in the 1920s and it seems such a shame that his name is no longer known.
Urbain J. Ledoux, also known as Mr. Zero, (1874 – 1941)
This man was a godsend to the homeless and jobless of not only New York City but of the entire nation. Perhaps a deep religious instinct sent Urbain J. Ledoux among the poor and disinherited on the street of forgotten men. He would say that he was inspired by biblical text from the Sermon on the Mount, but we don’t really know what led him to dedicate his life to helping the men and women that he saw on the streets of the cities that he lived in. Not much is known about him. He was born in Quebec, of a poor family, who had worked the cotton mills of Conneticut. He was an educated man, who was appointed to the United States consulate at Quebec at the age of 21 and was later the commercial consul at Bordeaux, and Prague. He was noted there for having introduced the first file index system Prague had ever seen. He later became an executive for a firm producing denatured alcohol and about this time began to preach the universal brotherhood of man. He worked for world peace and even went to the Hague as a United States delegate.
In 1917, Ledoux worked for the Government War Camp Community Service, helping to feed and shelter transient soldiers. The sight of so many dispossessed soldiers who had fought for the liberty of the nation affected him deeply and after the war he took up the cause of jobless soldiers. He opened a bakery in Broadway to feed and shelter them. In January 1921, he led a ragged delegation into Trinity Church in silent appeal for aid. He then hit on the idea of selling jobless soldiers at auction to highlight their cause, referring back to the auctioneering of slaves in previous times. “Here is an ex-soldier,” he would say. “He was with the sixth Marines in France. He was wounded. He is a carpenter. Who will bid?” The auction won country-wide attention but not universal approval.
Here is a picture from the Library of Congress showing Ledoux auctioning off one of his soldiers:
In September, 1921, Ledoux tried to auction soldiers in Bryant Park in Manhattan, and on the steps of the Public Library but the New York City police would not let him.
The New York Times reported: “Scenes of wild disorder ensued upon the refusal of the police to allow Urbain Ledoux, to auction off jobless men in Bryant Park. Thousands of persons had gathered to witness the novel effort to find work for the men, and there were some thousand workers on hand, their indignation already whetted by the action of the police earlier in the day in refusing to allow Ledoux to feed them a wagon load of buns he had bought for them, or to permit him to hold a meeting in their behalf in a hall he had hired for that purpose.
“Milling crowds fought with police in front of the public library between 11 o’clock and midnight last night when the police, in heavy force, descended upon the jobless and drove them away. The police throughout the day, had exorted themselves to an extraordinary degree to thwart Ledoux’s efforts in behalf of those out of work. They had broken up and chased his crowds and prevented his meetings, as well as preventing his efforts to feed those he wanted to aid. Efforts were made last night to learn the purpose of the authorities in adopting such tactics but communication with Chief Inspector William J. Lahey and others failed to elicit any explanation. When Chief Inspector Lahey was asked for an explanation, he said: “No, I won’t give you any explanation. Good Night.” ”
“Liberty is dying in America,” Ledoux said. “You have seen today that the right of assembly and the right to petition have been denied. Freedom in America is slowly dying. What hope is there for it? Simply that public opinion may, in it’s great common sense, rise and protect these violated liberties which are guaranteed by the constitution. If New York stands for such things as I have seen today, what hope is there? My God, what will the end be? ”
Quotations like that remind me of the Occupy Wall St protestors that were seen last year in New York City, and his words are eerily prophetic of such scenes as the clearing of Zucotti park in which the protestors were encamped in November 2011. History repeating itself 90 years later?
In 1925, Ledoux opened a restaurant called ‘The Tub’ near the Bowery to feed and shelter the homeless. Ledoux himself explains “The Tub is one of the cleanest little restaurants in New York, where you can get meals for 5 cents – all you can eat. There is a barber shop where expert tonsorial work is dispensed for [almost nothing], and a tailor who cleans, presses and repairs a suit for 10 cents. There are expert electricians, carpenters, stationary engineers, pipefitters, plumbers, and other artisans temporarily out of work. A bookkeeper, a former C.P.A., accounts for every cent taken in.”
In 1928, Ledoux was responsible for saving many lives as the temperatures in New York City over the winter hit record lows. Lodging houses were turning away unfortunates after they had been filled to capacity. About 200 men, ranging in age from 20 to 75 years, were befriended by Urbain Ledoux, who distributed overcoats, sweaters, socks and shoes and other clothing to those most in need and even gave them entertainment in the form of songs, dances, and recitations, as well as soup and coffee at the Tub.
At holiday times Ledoux’s efforts were needed and appreciated even more, especially after the start of the Great Depression in 1929. This film featured from our collection of Fox Movietone News, shows Ledoux himself, with the men he was feeding and clothing, at Thanksgiving in 1929. The New York Times also reported on this generosity:
“Thanksgiving Feast Stewing At the Tub” New York Times – 11/27/29
The special Mulligan Stew, with 1,000 turkeys to give it body, which will be served at The Tub, 12 St. Mark’s Place, on Thanksgiving Day, is being concocted, according to Urbain Ledoux, the owner, who is known as “Mr. Zero.”
The Mulligan, together with 1,000 pies and bread and coffee and other food, will be served to the Bowery’s wayfarers at the nominal price of 5 cents, cripples and others being exempted from any charge, Mr. Zero said, and he added that there would be a surprise feature for the day.
That will be the distribution of scores of overcoats and hundreds of leather jerkins, woolen shirts and other warm clothing, as he said a survey of the Bowery had revealed an unusual number in need of these articles.
This program will include prizes for songs, dances, recitations, jokes, the longest noses, feet, ears and legs, and the handsomest man and the homeliest man. The entire celebration being the largest Mr. Zero has ever planned.
This video, which you can watch in full here, http://mirc.sc.edu/fedora/repository/usc%3A1951 is the outtakes of the newsreel about Mr Zero, an event which was covered by several newsreels at the time. It shows Urbain as he speaks with the men who are being fed and shows them feasting on huge turkey legs.
Thanks to another newsreel from Universal, we have managed to name a few of the men featured. 4-5 mins into the newsreel two older gentlemen are shown, who we can name as Alfred Powell, 65, to the right of Mr Ledoux, and John Rist, 83, shown here on our left.
They seem to be enjoying their turkey to some kind of musical accompaniment. Urbain is then seen handing out turkey stew and later chatting with the men as he helps them into overcoats to help them survive the winter.
“What do you think of me as a tailor?…I got you well you couldn’t do any better on Baxter street…watch out that the tinpan market doesn’t get it …You wear it well… a muffler for you and what colour? …your eyes sparkle.”
A charming man, who seems to care for the men that he is helping. This was before the Great Depression fully kicked in and brought the country to its knees and soup kitchens weren’t as prevalent at this time as they were to become a few years later. Most places that would accept transients or down and outs were city run houses which were very strict and poorly resourced for helping the needy. Mr Zero was able to fill a gap in the system that for some people, especially returning soldiers, was a life saver.
Urbain Ledoux died in 1941, at the age of 66. The advent of the New Deal ended the desperate need for his labors. Men who had swarmed to his “Tubs” for hot coffee and unbuttered bread found that they could do better on government relief, a plan he had always urged. Mr. Zero became Urbain Ledoux again, having helped and been an inspiration to so many. Think of him this Thanksgiving and give thanks for the many unsung heroes in this world, like Mr Zero, who dedicate their lives to helping others in need and ask no thanks in return.
–Lydia Pappas, Curator, MIRC