Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Henry Kelly

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Henry Kelly: The "Dead Man" of Coosa River[edit]

Henry Kelly
Akron Rubber Mill Workers
BornHenry Kelly
Circa 1878
Sylacauga, Alabama
DiedUnknown
Likely Sylacauga, AL
NationalityWhite American
Other names"Dead Man" of Coosa River
OccupationRubber Mill Worker

Overview:[edit]

Henry Kelly-- known by his moniker "dead man" of Coosa River--was a former factory worker who lost his family and his job during the Great Depression. In a feature interview conducted by Federal Writer’s Project journalist, Jack Kytle, on September 21, 1938, Kelly told the story of his return to rural Alabama after living and working successfully as a rubber mill worker in Akron, Ohio.[1] While the rest of the country responded to the Depression by changing the political climate, advocating for labor unions, and resorting to social programs or communal living, but Kelly returned to his roots. 

Biography[edit]

Workers who lost their jobs during the Depression.

Early Life[edit]

Kelly was born in Sylacauga, Alabama around 1878, but there are few records of his early life[2]. After graduating high school, he began work as a rubber-mill worker for several years instead of furthering his education. Compared to Kelly, in the 1930s, nearly three percent of all white Americans were illiterate, and the majority of people only reached eighth grade.[3]

Records indicate that Kelly’s story really began around 1923 when he lived with his family and held a steady job in Akron, Ohio.[4] He was 45 then, married, and the father to an only daughter whom he adored. Her name was Lola.[5]

Post-Black Tuesday[edit]

When the stock markets crashed and Kelly lost his job at the rubber mill, he got a divorce and left his family to go back to Sylacauga. With the loss of his job and his wife, Kelly “went about for days in a fog..that almost drove [him] crazy.”[6] He lived the rest of his life in a hut by the Coosa River in Alabama. Kytle said that Kelly was always sick and hungry, but instead of asking for credit or charity, he “learned to suffer.”[7]

Kelly’s death date and place is unknown, but records indicate that he was 60-years-old at the time of Kytle’s interview. 

The Great Depression Hits[edit]

Effect of Depression on Industrial Towns:[edit]

When the stock markets crashed, Akron’s industrial businesses laid-off thousands and went bankrupt. Akron was the nation’s major source of rubber in the 1930s; Goodyear, Firestone, and Goodrich were based there.[8] However, an industry of nearly 40,000 employees let go of half its workforce by 1933. [9] The unemployment rate in Akron was upward of 60 percent, and unions were ignored by Goodyear and the government.[10] Workers worried President Roosevelt's New Deal would not be enough to help them regain their jobs.[11]

Examination of the before and after of FDR's New Deal on GDP.

Psychologically, anger and powerlessness made workers feel like they had no way to recover their jobs. As a result, the town’s population dwindled as people were forced to leave. Divorce was also common immediately following this time period because sociological research shows that “economic hardship undermines marital quality and stability.”[12][13] However, people couldn't afford divorce until after the Depression.

Vagrancy as a Result of the Depression:[edit]

The Great Depression gave rise to vagrancy.[14] Beggars scavenged for food and built homes out of any materials they could find. Vagrants and beggars crowded together in “hobo jungles” around towns and were regarded with suspicion and hostility by the middle and upper classes.[15] Socially, this type of living situation prompted society to regard the poor as not just dirty, but immoral. However, sociologists claim these vagrants weren’t bad people; they were just symbolic of the "derailed promise of the American dream.”[16]

Example of a 'hobo jungle.'

Political and Psychological Effects:[edit]

The political culture that emerged from the Depression emerged as a result of the psychological effects of the Depression. The idea of the American Dream and fear of involuntary unemployment created a panic that led the unemployed to unionize, sometimes violently.[17] This ultimately forced the political climate to create legislation to protect unions and workers to preserve order. 

Propaganda poster for FDR's New Deal.

In the early 1930s when unemployment rose, labor unions were not supported by the government or major companies like they are today. Thus, workers and their families felt that angry protests and staunch unionization were the only ways to be heard.[18] Sociologists and psychologists explain that sudden, widespread unemployment “deprives a person of valued, but unobserved, by-products of employment,” like sense of purpose and security.[19] When these feelings became amplified by the government’s perceived lack of action, workers resorted to psychologically destructive apathy.[20][21] Dejection and cynicism as a response to misfortune and failure comes back to the psychological premise that a "dispiriting pessimism" eventually overpowers any will to make positive change in one's life.[22]

This psychological phenomenon, coupled with pervading vagrancy, stimulated post-Depression politics to include protection of workers’ rights to form unions. The Wagner Act, creation of the American Federation of Labor, and the institution of the Congress of Industrial Organizations were passed to help protect workers and boost job security.[23]

Works Cited[edit]

"Akron, Ohio." Akron, Ohio - Ohio History Central. (Accessed September 27, 2017).

Brecher, Jeremy. "Akron rubber workers' struggles, 1933-1936." Libcom.org., September 4, 2013. (Accessed September 30, 2017).

Editors, The. "Husbands, Wives and Hard Times." The New York Times. April 08, 2009. (Accessed October 25, 2017).

Gregory, James. "Strikes and Unions." Strikes & Unions, 2009. (Accessed October 01, 2017).

Goldsmith, Arthur, and Timothy Diette. "Exploring the link between unemployment and mental health outcomes." American Psychological Association, April 2012. (Accessed September 28, 2017).

Kytle, Jack. ""Dead Man" of Coosa River." Federal Writers’ Project, September 28, 1938. (Accessed September 30, 2017).

Mirowsky John, Catherine E. Ross, and Marieke Van Willigen. "Instrumentalism in the Land of Opportunity: Socioeconomic Causes and Emotional Consequences." Social Psychology Quarterly 59, no. 4 (1996): 322-37. 

"National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)." National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1993. Accessed October 03, 2017.

Sternsher, Bernard. "Victims of the Great Depression: Self-Blame/Non-Self-Blame, Radicalism, and Pre-1929 Experiences." Social Science History, (1977): 137-77.

"The Vagrant in Fiction: Emblematic American?" HISTORY MATTERS - The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. (Accessed September 27, 2017).

References:[edit]

  1. Jack Kytle. ""Dead Man" of Coosa River." Federal Writers’ Project, September 28, 1938. Accessed September 30, 2017. 
  2. Ibid.
  3. "National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)." National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), U.S. Department of Education, 1993. Accessed October 3, 2017. [1]
  4. Ibid. [2]
  5. Ibid. [3]
  6. Jack Kytle. “’Dead Man” of Coosa River,” 1938. 
  7. Ibid.
  8. Jeremy Brecher. "Akron rubber workers' struggles, 1933-1936." Libcom.org., September 4, 2013. Accessed September 30, 2017.[4]
  9. Ibid. [5]
  10. Akron, Ohio." Akron, Ohio - Ohio History Central. Accessed September 27, 2017. [6]
  11. Ibid.
  12. Jack Kytle. “’Dead Man” of Coosa River,” 1938.
  13. The Editors. "Husbands, Wives and Hard Times." The New York Times. April 08, 2009. Accessed October 03, 2017.
  14. "The Vagrant in Fiction: Emblematic American?" HISTORY MATTERS - The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. Accessed September 27, 2017.[7]
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. James Gregory. "Strikes and Unions." Strikes & Unions. 2009. Accessed October 01, 2017.
  18. James Gregory. "Strikes and Unions." Strikes & Unions. 2009.
  19. Goldsmith, Arthur, and Timothy Diette. "Exploring the link between unemployment and mental health outcomes." American Psychological Association, April 2012. Accessed September 28, 2017.[8]
  20. Ibid. [9]
  21. Bernard Sternsher. "Victims of the Great Depression: Self-Blame/Non-Self-Blame, Radicalism, and Pre-1929 Experiences." Social Science History, (1977): 137-77.
  22. John Mirowsky, Catherine E. Ross, and Marieke Van Willigen. "Instrumentalism in the Land of Opportunity: Socioeconomic Causes and Emotional Consequences." Social Psychology Quarterly 59, no. 4 (1996): 322-37. 
  23. Gregory. "Strikes and Unions." Strikes and Unions, 2009. [10]