Nothing incites the general public more than someone trying to charge for something that was once free. Yet that’s exactly what entrepreneur Oscar F. Spate tried to do in the New York City parks in the blistering summer of 1901. It all started in Central Park on June 22, 1901, when a group of people spotted rows of bright green rocking chairs along the park’s mall, near the casino. Usually in this same spot, stood rows of uncomfortable wooden hard benches, so it was a pleasure indeed for the park-goes to sit and rock and enjoy the wondrous summer day.
On Saturday July 6th, the situation reached a boiling point. A man sat in one of Spate’s chairs in Madison Square Park, and he absolutely refused to pay the five cents that Spate’s man Thomas Tulley demanded. Finally, Tully pulled the chair from out under the man and bedlam ensued. An angry crowd surrounded Tully and began shouting, ”Lynch him! He’s Spate’s man!” Tulley fought his way through the crowd and sped across the street to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where he rushed upstairs and locked himself in a room. The crowd gathered in the hotel lobby for about 30 minutes, when policemen arrived and escorted Tully from the hotel to wherever he called home.
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As the crowd converged on the chairs, people who had already paid for the right to sit, abandoned the chairs and fled from the park. One of Spate’s man quit his job on the spot, and he also fled the park. However, another one of Spate’s men continued to try to collect the chair fees. But he quit his job too after an angry old lady jabbed him in the back of the neck with a hairpin. On Monday July 8th, Madison Square Park was the site of almost constant rioting. A dozen or so boys went from chair to chair, sitting for as long as they pleased, accompanied by an unruly crowd threatening to hang any of Spate’s men who tried to collect any fees. A brave and foolhardy Spate employee named Otto Berman slapped one boy in the face. The crowd surrounded Berman and his life was saved by six policemen, who bum-rushed Berman out of the park and into safety. Things had gotten so-out-of-control in Madison Square Park, police reenforcement were called in from the nearby West Thirtieth Street police station.
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