Mary Heaton Vorse

Mary Heaton Vorse

Mary Heaton was born in New York City on 11th October, 1874. Her mother had inherited a large fortune from her first husband, a wealthy shipping magnate. Soon after his death she remarried Mary's father, Hiram Heaton. The family lived in a 24-room house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mary travelled extensively and as a child she learnt to speak fluent French, Italian and German.

In 1896, Mary Heaton began to study at the Art Students' League, located on West 57th Street in New York City. It had no entrance requirements and no set course. By the time Heaton joined it had developed a reputation for progressive teaching methods and radical politics. Heaton became friendly with several students such as May Wilson Preston, Alice Beach Winter, Ida Proper and Lou Rogers who became active in the struggle for women's suffrage and other progressive causes. However, Heaton lacked artistic talent and she wrote in her diary: "When I come into my room and see my work lying around, my sense of my own futility overwhelms me. After so much work, that is all I can do."

In 1898 Mary Heaton married the journalist, Albert Vorse. With her husband's encouragement she concerntrated on writing rather than painting. The couple moved to Provincetown in 1906, where she gave birth to a son. Mary Heaton Vorse published her first book, The Breaking-In of a Yachtsman's Wife, in 1908. This was followed by Autobiography of an Elderly Woman (1910) and Stories of the Very Little Person (1910).

Albert Vorse died in 1910 and she married the radical journalist, Joseph O'Brien, two years later. Mary became increasingly involved in politics and after becoming a close friend of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and wrote a sympathetic account of the Lawrence Textile Strike in 1912. As Linda Ben-Zvi pointed out: "The couple shared a passionate interest in labor movements and suffrage causes, as well as a great love for Provincetown and the Vorse house, which O'Brien made his own, remodeling and expanding it to accommodate Mary's two children from her first marriage and Joel, born to them in the winter of 1914. Joe was big, friendly, and easy going. His Irish humor particularly appealed to Susan, and she relished his friendship as she did his stories and yarns."

Mary Heaton Vorse became a widow for a second time in 1915. Later that year she joined with a group of left-wing writers, including Floyd Dell, George Gig Cook, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Susan Glaspell, Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay to establish the Provincetown Theatre Group.

Vorse was strong supporter of women's suffrage and was involved in the suffrage campaign in the United States. On the outbreak of the First World War, Vorse and other pacifists in the country, began talking about the need to form an organization to help bring it to an end. On the 10th January, 1915, over 3,000 women attended a meeting in the ballroom of the New Willard Hotel in Washington and formed the Woman's Peace Party. Jane Addams was elected chairman and other women involved in the organization included Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Anna Howard Shaw, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Crystal Eastman, Carrie Chapman Catt and Sophonisba Breckinridge.

In April 1915, Aletta Jacobs, a suffragist in Holland, invited members of the Woman's Peace Party to an International Congress of Women in the Hague. Jane Addams was asked to chair the meeting and Alice Hamilton, Grace Abbott, Julia Lathrop, Leonora O'Reilly, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Emily Bach went as delegates from the United States. Others who went to the Hague included Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Emily Hobhouse, (England); Chrystal Macmillan (Scotland) and Rosika Schwimmer (Hungary). Afterwards, Jacobs, Addams, Macmillan, Schwimmer and Balch went to London, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Berne and Paris to speak with members of the various governments in Europe.

Mary Heaton Vorse
Mary Heaton Vorse (1915)

Mary Heaton Vorse continued her work for the radical journal, The Masses, until it was forced to close because of its opposition to the First World War. Over the next few years she produced articles on child labour, infant mortality, labour disputes and working class housing for several newspapers including New York Post and New York World.

In 1920 Mary Heaton Vorse began living with Robert Minor, a talented cartoonist and founding member of the American Communist Party. She suffered a miscarriage in 1922 and soon afterwards Minor left her for illustrator Lydia Gibson. The couple got married in 1923. As a result of the trauma of these two events, Mary became addicted to alcohol. However, she broke the habit in 1926 and she returned to writing.

As well as publishing eighteen books, A Footnote to Folly (1935), Labor's New Millions (1938) and Time and the Town (1942), Vorse published more than 400 articles and stories in most of America's leading journals, such as McClure's Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Harper's Weekly, New Republic and Ladies' Home Journal.

Mary Heaton Vorse died aged 92, on 14th June, 1966 at her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Heaton Vorse, A Footnote to Folly (1935)

Twenty thousand textile workers in Lawrence had walked out against a wage cut. It was a sudden, unplanned uprising. A fifty-four-hour week for women and children had been put into effect in Massachusetts, and the textile industry employed so many women and children that it meant a fifty-four-hour week for everyone. Consequently, there was a wage cut. It was a small cut, but it meant "four loaves of bread" to the workers.

There was almost no organization. There were less than three hundred scattered workers in the I.W.W., with another two hundred and fifty or thereabouts organized under the United Textile Workers, who belonged to the higher paid crafts such as weavers and loom fixers.

Wages in Lawrence were so low that thirty-five per cent of the people made under seven dollars a week; less than a fifth got more than twelve dollars a week. They were divided by nationality. They spoke over forty languages and dialects, but they were united by meager living and the fact that their children died. For every five children under one year of age, one died. For children under five years of age, the death rate was 176 in a thousand. Only a few other towns in America had higher death rates. These were all mill towns.

Practically all New England had grown rich on the products of textile mills, in which profits as great as those of the Pacific Mills were common. The Pacific Mills had been capitalized for only two million dollars in the beginning. The company had paid twelve per cent dividends as regularly as sunrise. In addition, it had paid thirty-four per cent in extra dividends between 1905 and 1912, and had a six million-dollar surplus over and above what it had written off against a sinking fund and depreciation. The gains of the other mills were similar.

Meantime, the labor costs were falling. Much more cloth per worker was being made, and the speed-up, which caused the out breaks in the South in 1929, was already "tentatively put into effect" by the American Woolen Company.

It was against such conditions that this spontaneous strike occurred. The workers streamed out the gates of one after another of the long mills, each moated by its canal. Strike demands were swiftly formulated: 15% increase; Double pay for overtime; Abolition of the bonus and premium system; No discrimination because of strike activity.

A week after the first group of the children of the Lawrence strikers arrived in New York, news was flashed that another group, being sent to Philadelphia, had been prevented from leaving town by the Lawrence police. There had been a riot at the railway station. Mothers had been clubbed and arrested. Children were actually separated from their parents and sent to the poorhouse. It was one of those senseless exhibitions of police violence common to the labor movement. A roar of indignation came from the workers of America.

Down the street were more soldiers pacing back and forth. All the mills were guarded with troops. Young boys patrolling high brick walls with guns over their shoulders. We looked at each other and we did not speak, but walked on down the cold, pale street, which was so unnaturally quiet and which looked so menacing with the young, armed uniformed soldiers walking up and down.

It was the first time I'd seen a town where the troops had been called out against the workers; and suddenly Lawrence, a familiar New England town, seemed strange and alien.

We walked along rapidly, always through empty streets, one or two people scurrying furtively past. Everywhere stood the uniformed boys with their guns guarding streets, guarding mills. High brick walls and guns. We paused a moment to look at a street sign and a boy again told us to move on. All the force of the state was turned against the workers. We walked down one street, turned to the left and passed other mills, then back to the hotel. There were more people in the street now and the street lights were out. We got breakfast, not talking much, for our familiar New England world had become strange and sinister.

From the beginning the workers were determined, but there was so little actual violence that the government report of the strike, prepared for the Department of Labor, stated that "Few strikes involving so large a number of employees... have continued so long with so little actual violence or riot."

Yet all New England was appalled by Lawrence. It was a new kind of strike. There had never been mass picketing in any New England textile town. Ten thousand workers paraded. They stoned mills and broke windows and, almost storming a factory to bring the workers out, were kept back only by streams of icy water from the fire hose.

It was the spirit of the workers that seemed dangerous. They were confident, gay, released, and they sang. They were always marching and singing. The gray tired crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their mouths to sing, the different nationalities all speaking one language when they sang together.

"Revolution!" screamed the conservative press.

Three young I.W.W. organizers appeared on the scene. They were all in their early twenties. Their names were Caruso, Joe Ettor, and Arturo Giovannitti. They were young, idealistic and of magnetic personality. Joe Ettor was one of the best organizers I ever knew. He had a sense, amounting to genius, of the movement when a strike may be settled. When he talked, he glowed like a beacon light. Yet his energy and his vitality were restrained by his solid Latin good sense. He never made windy speeches.

(2) Mary Heaton Vorse, A Footnote to Folly (1935)

The women’s rising tide of protest against the war came to a point on February 12, 1915. On that date a great peace meeting was held in Washington by the women of America. On the same date, in Holland, an International Congress of Women, to be held in Amsterdam, was called by Dr. Aletta Jacobs, a famous Dutch suffragist.

The American delegation, the largest which attended the Congress, was headed by Jane Addams. It included such people as Grace Abbott, Julia Lathrop, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Dr. Alice Grace Hamilton, Miss Kittredge, Mrs. W. I. Thomas, who, with her husband, was so bitterly persecuted during the war for her pacifism, Fannie Fern Andrews, Mary Chamberlain, from the Survey, and Marian Cothren. At my table were Mary Chamberlain and the Pethwick Lawrences.

Besides many of the most forward - looking women of America, the group also included cranks, women with nostrums for ending war, and women who had come for the ride. New Thought cranks with Christian Science smiles and blue ribbons in their hair, hard - working Hull House women, little half-baked enthusiasts, elderly war horses of peace, riding furious hobbies.

As a background was Jane Addams, unassertive, contemplative and sensitive. All the way over we discussed our program. All the way over, that great woman, Miss Addams, listened with as much patience to the suggestions of the worst crank among us as she did to such trained minds as Miss Breckinridge. I have never known anyone who had a greater intellectual hospitality or courtesy. When I spoke of this to her one day, she said quietly, “I have never met anyone from whom I could not learn.” We were held up for four days in the English Channel, off Dover, and arrived late, just in time for the opening meeting on the 27th of April.

The women who attended this Congress were for the most part well-to-do women of the middle class. It was an everyday audience, plain people, just folks, the kind you see walking out to church any Sunday morning. Labor was unrepresented except for Leonora O’Reilly, of the Woman’s Trade Union League, and Annie Molloy, the president of the Telephone Operators Union. It was an audience composed of women full of inhibitions, not of a radical habit of thought, unaccustomed for the most part to self-expression, women who had walked decorously all their days, hedged in by the “thou shalt nots” of middle-class life. This meeting of these women seemed all the more remarkable on that account, much more significant than the famous Ford Peace Ship.

The Congress was held in a great hall, called the “Dierentuin,” in the Zoological Gardens. In front of the gardens on a wide field, soldiers were perpetually drilling. One saw them move off more like automata than men. One saw them go through various maneuvers. They were perpetually there, a living example of the awful madness of war. A Dutchwoman said to me, as we walked past them: “It is only since the war that I have realized that they do this to learn how to kill other men and to offer themselves to be killed. My head has always known this, but my heart only since the war!”

Counting visitors, there were between 1,200 and 1,500 in the audience. There were delegates from twelve countries. But no delegates from France, Serbia or Russia. Not even the Socialist women would send a delegate while the enemy was on French soil.

On the proscenium sat some of the most famous women in Europe, almost all internationally known; Miss Jane Addams and Miss Fannie Fern Andrews, from America; Dr. Aletta Jacobs and Dr. Boissevain, from Holland; Miss MacMillan and Miss Courtenay, form Great Britain. One wonders where those old feminists are now, Dr. Augsburg and Fraulein von Heymann of Germany, Frau Kruthgar or Frau Hofrath von Lecher of Austria. What has become of those able fighters of twenty years ago from Central Europe?

Of the two hundred English who had planned to come, only two had been allowed visas. And only one Italian delegate had got through, but there were delegates from Poland, from South Africa and from Canada.

For the first time in all the history of the world, women of warring nations and women of neutral nations had come together to lift up their voices in protest against war, through which the women and the workers gain nothing and lose all.

(3) Mary Heaton Vorse, New Republic (10th May, 1933)

Out of the contradictory testimony of the trial, the Scottsboro story finally emerged. It unwound itself slowly, tortuously. As witnesses for the prosecution and the defense succeeded one another, they revealed what took place on the southbound freight between Chattanooga and Huntsville, and how they happened to be riding on it, and how they lived at home and in the hobo jungles. It was a murky story of degradation and horror that rivals anything written by Faulkner.

The Scottsboro case is not simply one of race hatred. It arose from the life that was followed by both accusers and accused, girls and boys, white and black. If it was intolerance and race prejudice which convicted Haywood Patterson, it was poverty and ignorance which wrongfully accused him.

Victoria Price was spawned by the unspeakable conditions of Huntsville. These medium-sized mill towns breed a sordid viciousness which makes gangsters seem as benign as Robin Hood and the East Side a cultural paradise. As you leave Huntsville you pass through a muddle of mean shacks on brick posts standing in garbage-littered yards. They are dreary and without hope. No one has planted a bit of garden anywhere.

Victoria Price grew up here, worked in the mill for long hours at miserable wages, and here was arrested for vagrancy, for violation of the Volstead Act, and served a sentence in the workhouse on a charge of adultery. Here she developed the callousness which made it possible for her to accuse nine innocent boys. In jail in Scottsboro she quarreled with the boy who remained on the train, Orval Gilley, alias Carolina Slim, and with Lester Carter, the Knoxville Kid, because they refused to testify with her. Orval Gilley said he would "burn in torment" if he testified against innocent boys, but Victoria, the product of the mean mill-town streets, said she "didn’t care if every n***** in Alabama was stuck in jail forever."

The chief actors in the trial besides Haywood Patterson, the trial’s dark core, were the three hobo children: Victoria Price of the hard face; Ruby Bates, the surprise witness who recanted her former testimony and insisted that she had accused the boys in the first place because "Victoria had told her to"; and Lester Carter, the girls’ companion in the "jungle."

On both Ruby Bates and Lester Carter, the jury smelled the North where they had been. Carter offended them by his gestures, by the fact that he said "Negro" - showing "subversive Northern influences." Ruby Bates was dressed in a neat, cheap gray dress and a little gray hat; Lester Carter had on a cheap suit of clothes. Their clothes probably threw their testimony out of court for the jury. The jury, as well as most people in the courtroom, believed these clothes were "bought with Jew money from New York."

Ruby Bates, Victoria Price and Lester Carter among them gave a picture of the depths of our society. They told how the hobo children live, of their innocent depravity, of their promiscuous and public lovemaking.

Lester Carter, just off the chain gang for pilfering laundry, was taken to Victoria Price’s house by Jack Tiller, the "boy friend" for whom she had been serving time in the workhouse. Carter was staying at the Tillers’. There would be words between Tiller and his wife, and Tiller would go over to Victoria’s. It is interesting to note that Tiller was in the witness room during the trial, but was never put on the stand.

In the Prices’ front room there was a bed; behind that was a kitchen room, and a shed, and a yard behind that. Victoria’s mother and Carter talked together. Tiller and Victoria sat on the bed. Later they went out. The next night Victoria introduced Ruby Bates to Lester Carter, and the four of them went off to a hobo jungle. "We all sat down near a bendin’ lake of water where they was honeysuckles and a little ditch. I hung my hat up on a little limb—" And here in each other’s presence they all made love.

"Did you see Jack Tiller and Victoria Price?" Lester Carter was asked.

"Sure. They would scoot down on top of us. They was on higher ground." All four of them were laughing at this promiscuous lovemaking. It began to rain, so they went to a box car in the railroad yards. Here they spent the night together and made plans to go West and "hustle the towns." The girls both had on overalls, Victoria’s worn over her three dresses; both had coats, probably their entire wardrobe. The girls were already what Judge Horton had called them in his charge to the jury: "women of the underworld," whose amusements were their promiscuous love affairs, whose playgrounds were hobo swamps and the unfailing freight cars.

Why not? What was to stop them? What did Huntsville or Alabama or the United States offer a girl for virtue and probity and industry? A mean shack, many children for whom there would not be enough food or clothing or the smaller decencies of life, for whom, at best there would be long hours in the mill—and, as now, not even the certainty of work.

With hunger, dirt, sordidness, the reward of virtue, why not try the open road, the excitement of new places? One could always be sure of a boy friend, a Chattanooga Chicken or a Knoxville Kid or a Carolina Slim, to be a companion in the jungle and to go out "a-bummin’" for food. More fun for the girls to "hustle the towns" than to stay in Huntsville in a dirty shack, alternating long hours in the mill with no work at all. Ruby Bates’s mother had had nine children. What had Ruby ever seen in life that rewarded virtue with anything but work and insecurity?

In the cozy box car they went on with their exciting plans. Jack Tiller said he had better not go with the girls on account of the Mann Act and the conviction already on record between him and Victoria. He could join them later. So the two girls and the Knoxville Kid went on to Chattanooga together, bumming their way.

Victoria Price had said on the witness stand that when they got to Chattanooga they went to "Callie Broochie’s" boarding house, "a two-story white house on Seventh Street," and had looked for work. In reality they had stayed all night in the hobo jungle, where they picked up Orval Gilley, alias Carolina Slim, another of the great band of wandering children, another of those for whom this civilization had no place. Here the boys made a "little shelter from boughs" for the girls and went off to "stem" for food. Nellie Booth’s chili cart gave them some, and "tin cans in which to heat coffee." Many different witnesses saw them there in the hobo swamp in the morning. The quartet boarded the freight car which was to make so much dark history. They found five other white boys on the train. Scattered the length of the freight car were Negro boys.

Among these were four very young boys, Negroes from Chattanooga, Andy and Roy Wright, Haywood Patterson and another boy of fourteen. One of the Wright boys was thirteen. These little Negro-boy hoboes stayed by themselves on an oil-tank car. White tramps came past and "tromped their hands."

"Look out, white boy," Haywood Patterson warned. "Yo’ll make me fall off !"

"That’d be too bad!" said the white boy. "There’d be one n***** less !" Then the white boys got off the train as it was going slow, and "chunked" the Negro boys with rocks.

There is one precious superiority which every white person has in the South. No matter how low he has fallen, how degraded he may be, he still can feel above the "n*****s." It was this feeling of superiority that started the fight between the white hobo boys and the black hoboes on the train between Chattanooga and Huntsville.

It started because seven white-boy bums were above riding even on the same train with Negroes. The Negroes decided to rush the white boys. The four very young Negroes were asked to come along by the older boys. The dozen Negroes on the train fought the seven white boys, and put them off the train.

The only decent moment in the whole story was the dragging back of Orval Gilley - Carolina Slim - by one of the Negro boys, apparently Haywood Patterson. He had pulled the white boy Gilley back on the train by his belt, perhaps saving his life. When asked on the witness stand if he had committed the crime, Haywood Patterson cried in a loud voice—

"Do yo’ think I’d ’a pulled a white boy back to be a witness if I’d ben a-fixin’ to rape any white woman ?"

Gilley then climbed in the gondola with the girls, a "churt car" full of finely crushed rock for mending the road bed. It was in this car that the conductor later found Victoria’s snuff box. The four young Negro boys from Chattanooga went back to their former places and sat facing each other. The white boys who had been put off the train complained to the authorities at Stevenson, who telephoned ahead.

At Paint Rock a posse of seventy-five men arrested the nine Negroes in different places on the train. The girls in overalls, fearing a vagrancy charge, then accused the Negro boys of assault.

Ruby Bates, Victoria Price and their companions, Orval Gilley and Lester Carter, were all taken to the jail together. The rest of the story is known.

Observe that this quartet of young people has no standards, no training, no chance of advancement; that there is for them not even the promise of low-paid steady employment. They have one thing only—the trains going somewhere, the box cars for homes, the jungles for parks. They pilfer laundry, clothes, as a matter of course. They bum their food, the girls "pick up a little change hustling the towns," and it’s all a lot better than the crowded shacks at home and the uncertain work in the mills.

Apparently Victoria had come in and out of Chattanooga often. Lewis, a Negro who lived near the jungle, the one whose "sick wheezin’ hawg" wandered in and out of the story, testified that Victoria had often begged food "off his old woman." Victoria Price and Ruby Bates are no isolated phenomenon. The children’s bureau reports 200,000 children under twenty-one wandering through the land. These two girls are part of a great army of adventurous, venal girls who like this way of life.

For it is a way of life, something that from the bottom is rotting out our society. Boys and girls are squeezed out of the possibility of making a living, they are given nothing else; but there are the shining rails and trains moving somewhere, so the road claims them. The girls semi-prostitutes, the boys sometimes living on the girls, and all of them stealing and bumming to end up with a joyous night in a box car.

The fireman on the freight train was asked what he thought when he saw the girls on the train. He answered "he didn’t think a thing of it, he saw so many white girls nowadays a-bummin’ on trains." Victoria Price is only one of thousands who put overalls on over all the clothes they own and hit the road; only one of thousands, one who has had all kindness and decency ground out of her in her youth.

(4) Linda Ben-Zvi, Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times (2005)

Hutch and Neith soon became close friends of all the "unaccountably gay" brides and grooms spending that summer in Provincetown. Besides Susan and Jig, there were Margaret Thurston, a painter, and Wilbur Daniel Steele, a short-story writer. He was a distant cousin of Bert Vorse and had traveled with Bert and Mary in Europe in 1909 and then boarded with Mary in Provincetown, profiting from the writing advice she provided to him and to his roommate, Sinclair Lewis, when both lived on nearby Avellar Wharf: "Place your unpaid bills before you, then apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair-and write." Steele soon became one of the masters of the American short-story form, a much-honored writer for his realistic tales, before the sparer, more experimental work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald eclipsed his art.

Mary Vorse was also a bride that summer. Her first marriage to Bert Vorse had been unhappy, and they had separated in 1909, a year before his sudden death. She met Joe O'Brien when both journalists were covering the Lawrence strike, and they married the next year. The couple shared a passionate interest in labor movements and suffrage causes, as well as a great love for Provincetown and the Vorse house, which O'Brien made his own, remodeling and expanding it to accommodate Mary's two children from her first marriage and Joel, born to them in the winter of 1914. Joe was big, friendly, and easy going. His Irish humor particularly appealed to Susan, and she relished his friendship as she did his stories and yarns. She had first gotten to know Mary and Joe when she had lived in Provincetown the previous summer with Lucy Huffaker, and by 1913 she considered them both her dear friends. The four couples formed the nucleus of the transplanted Villagers. For Mary and Joe and Susan and Jig, Provincetown became their primary residence.