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.
Suddenly, two broad-shouldered men approached the rocking-chair sitters. They wore identical gray suits and they carried black satchels with straps over their shoulders. The men in gray told the sitters that these were private chairs for rent, and that if they wanted to continue sitting they had to fork over five cents a day for the better seats, and three cents a day for seats that were not in as preferential a position in the park. Some people vacated their seats, but others paid. People who did neither were physically ejected from the seats. When they asked why, the men in gray said, ”Them’s Mr. Spate’s chairs.”
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An associate of Spate, who asked a newspaper reporter for anonymity, said that Spate had already invested $30,000 in his new venture. The reporter did the math and he came up with the rocking chairs only costing Spate around $9,500. Pray tell, where did the other $20,500 go? Spate’s spokesman said nothing to enlighten the reporter. ”Well, there’s always expenses in things like this, you know,” he told the scribe.
In the late afternoon, two men occupied two of Spate’s chairs and offered a thousand dollars to any of Spate’s men who could evict them from the chairs. Two of Spate’s men jumped in and tried to collect the reward, but they were promptly beaten to a pulp by the two men, who turned out to featherweight champion of the world Terry McGovern, and former fighter and then-boxing ring announcer Joe Humphreys. The police stormed the park and arrested six rioters, whom they led in cuffs to the Thirtieth Street police station. The policemen and the arrestees were followed by a crowd estimated at 200 people, who were marching in lock step and chanting: