The American Historian

International Expertise and Its Discontents: What Disaster History Can Show about the Progressive Era

Jacob Remes

For historians, disasters are double opportunities. They create paper: letters in which survivors narrate their ordeals, newspaper accounts, and bureaucratic files, such as reports, appeals, and statistics. They occasion the creation of archives that record things that likely would have gone unrecorded otherwise. They are moments and create stories through which a historian can shape a broader narrative. But they also change history: they cause people to move; they are opportunities for beneficent or maleficent actors to reshape society; they occasion contests for power. The history of disasters can illuminate themes in Progressive Era history even as disasters helped to create the Progressive Era itself. An international cadre of disaster experts—many of them mobilized by the American Red Cross—developed, traveling from disaster to disaster, bearing forms, methods, and ideology. At the same time, because the objects of these relief efforts fought back to demand aid on their own terms, disasters let us see how ordinary people sought both to take advantage of the help offered by the growing progressive state and to reject the power that reformers sought over them.

Thomas Wilson, or perhaps his parents, had migrated from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia to what many called “the Boston States” around the turn of the twentieth century, looking for work and opportunities that were scarce in the underdeveloped Maritimes region of Canada.[1] The Wilsons were not alone; in 1915, the Massachusetts commonwealth census found nearly eighty thousand people who had been born in Nova Scotia.[2]By the end of 1917, Wilson worked in Boston’s building department. On December 6 of that year, an explosion tore through Nova Scotia’s capital city, Halifax. Sparked by the collision of a French munitions ship bound for World War I with a Norwegian civilian ship, the Halifax explosion killed just under two thousand people, maimed nine thousand, and rendered about twenty-five thousand homeless or jobless.

Nova Scotians in Massachusetts were desperate for information. They raised money, and some of them went back to help, but most of all they wanted confirmation that their family and friends in Halifax had survived. There were so many Nova Scotians in Boston that the city set up an ad hoc information bureau at city hall to conglomerate the inquiries and telegraph them to Halifax in an organized way. The building department seconded Thomas Wilson to run the bureau, and he spent his days getting inquiries, sending them to Halifax, and then relaying the answer. Four days before Christmas, he sent his own inquiry, asking his contact in Halifax for confirmation that his cousins were okay.

Halifax’s explosion was only one of the many disasters that beset the U.S. and Canada in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Between 1870 and 1920, Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), Seattle (1889), St. John’s, Newfoundland (1892), the twin cities of Hull, Quebec, and Ottawa, Ontario (1900), Jacksonville, Florida (1901), Toronto (1904), Baltimore (1904), San Francisco (1906), Chelsea, Massachusetts (1908), and Salem, Massachusetts (1914), all suffered major conflagrations that destroyed large swaths of the city. Hurricanes killed thousands of people in the Florida Keys (1870), the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands (1893), rural Louisiana (1893), and Galveston, Texas (1900). This is to say nothing of the recurrent river floods (especially bad in 1913), epidemics, and workplace disasters like mine collapses and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. As generations of historians have written, one of the defining characteristics of the Progressive Era was a privileging of expertise and managerial knowledge. The tools of statistics, social science, and engineering seemed to give city planners, reformers, engineers, and social and natural scientists the ability to manage nature and society as managers directed a factory. Continued disasters seemed to be a constant reminder of the difficulty of this task. They also provided new opportunities for social workers, reformers, and technocrats to ply their new professions.

As Thomas Wilson’s story suggests, disasters were experienced both locally and transnationally. Even as the United States government erected more immigration controls and built a stronger state at the border, many people’s lived experiences remained transnational. People, money, and ideas all crossed and recrossed national borders. News of the explosion reached the Massachusetts State House during a meeting of the Committee on Public Safety, which coordinated civilian efforts to support the war. Two committee members quickly organized a relief train. John Farwell Moors, a Yankee Democrat investor, and Abraham Captain Ratshesky, a Jewish Republican banker, had both been involved in managing disaster relief since the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.[3] When they arrived in Halifax, they set about trying to get the local worthies who had established themselves as the “Halifax Relief Committee” in the near absence of municipal government to conform to what Moors and Ratshesky thought were the best practices of disaster relief. Later, on Moors’ recommendation, the American Red Cross dispatched Christian Lantz, the general secretary of the Salem YMCA, who had developed a filing system to keep track of aid recipients when his own city had suffered a conflagration. Other experts who arrived in Halifax included Thomas Adams, a British urban planner then working in Ottawa, who designed a garden suburb in part of the devastated area; C. C. Carstens, the secretary of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; R. C. Dexter, the general secretary of Montreal’s charity organization society; Thomas Darlington, the former New York City health commissioner; Katherine McMahan, the head of the Boston Dispensary’s social services department; Lucy Wright, a past member of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind; and John Howard Toynbee Falk, a British-born, Winnipeg-based charity worker whom the American Red Cross urged be appointed manager of social workers. The social workers whom Falk managed were also a transnational group, coming from across Canada and the United States. This group was largely assembled by the American Red Cross, which had begun a program to train, assemble, and circulate disaster experts about ten years before the explosion.

Meanwhile, it was not only the experts and social workers who crossed borders. So too did ordinary people like Thomas Wilson. As Moors and Ratshesky traveled to Halifax themselves, their colleagues on the Committee for Public Safety and its local committees around the state set about raising money.[4] What became the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee eventually raised about $700,000 in cash, plus in-kind donations. Much, if not most, of this money came from migrant Nova Scotians. Just as Nova Scotians in the Boston states sought information about their friends and relatives, they sent money and supplies. With that money came political power. People in Massachusetts who had donated wrote to relief authorities in Halifax demanding that their relatives be better taken care of; people in Halifax wrote to Massachusetts politicians demanding their share. Despite the legal border, people in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia created a transnational political community, and, through it, tried to establish political power over the relief doled out by experts.

Studying disaster helps us to see how well-meaning attempts to rescue and relieve people were often resisted by recipients—not because they did not want help but because they wanted to retain privacy and autonomy over their own lives. Before the Halifax explosion, Moors, Ratshesky, and Lantz had worked together in Salem, Massachusetts, where in June 1914 a fire in a patent leather factory had spread across the city, rendering eighteen thousand people homeless, jobless, or both. In its aftermath, the National Guard erected two tent villages for homeless survivors.[5] These camps became contested ground in which soldiers and officers sought to impose order and limit who got what aid, and residents used weapons of the weak to undermine that order. The authorities’ concerns were predictable: they cared about cleanliness, sanitation, and sobriety, they wanted to make sure that only the people they deemed eligible received aid, and they feared that recipients would either leave or get used to the dole and not come back to work when factories were rebuilt.

In turn, the camps’ residents resisted the power and demands of the authorities. Encouraged to stay sober, they drank beer; ordered by soldiers to pick up trash, they refused and were arrested; put in indistinguishable tents in straight lines, they pinned unofficial name tags to them and poached camp lumber to build personalized furniture. When a camp officer needed carpenters, they refused to work unless he paid the union wage. The same officer thought it inappropriate that women brought their babies to the milk station at night and ordered that babies be refused their feeding unless accompanied by a man; fathers refused to cooperate with this intrusion into their family arrangements and boycotted the relief milk. Survivors’ presence in the camps made their behavior and living conditions visible and vulnerable to authorities’ intrusion, but since authorities wanted recipients at the camps to make aid more efficient, survivors could demand accommodations in exchange for their continued presence. Relief authorities were also concerned with making sure that people received no more aid than that to which they were entitled. Ostensibly, this was to protect legitimate applicants, for whom there would be more left over if fakers were excluded. But despite entreaties from the police, elected officials, and priests, legitimate aid recipients seemed to refuse to turn in the fakes. Indeed, they shared information among themselves to maximize what they got. The fire’s victims wanted the money and material the government and private relief organizations offered them, but they fought to avoid giving up autonomy and privacy in return.

Progressives sought to tame nature, and disasters showed the difficulty of the project. But they also gave progressives an opportunity: to show how coordinated action could rescue people in need. For historians, disasters can show how those people in need were not simply passive recipients of aid. As legal scholar and historical sociologist Michele Landis Dauber has shown, disaster relief was a central component in the building of the American welfare state.[6] Understanding how people in the Progressive Era built and resisted systems of authority and knowledge in the aftermath of disasters can help show what understandings, expectations, and contestations were built into the American welfare state.


[1]Thomas Wilson to R. P. Bell, Dec. 21, 1917, item 113.2i, series C, Correspondence, Halifax Relief Commission fonds, MG 36 (Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax, N.S.).

[2]Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics, Decennial Census, 1915 (1918), 290. For more on Maritimes migration to New England, see Alan A. Brookes, “Out-Migration from the Maritime Provinces, 1860–1900: Some Preliminary Considerations,” Acadiensis, 5 (Spring 1976), 26–55; Patricia A. Thornton, “The Problem of Out-Migration from Atlantic Canada, 1871–1921: A New Look,” Acadiensis, 15 (Autumn 1985), 3–34; Yves Otis and Bruno Ramirez, “Nouvelles perspectives sur le mouvement d’émigration des Maritimes vers les États-Unis, 1906–1930,” Acadiensis, 28 (Autumn 1998), 27–46; Betsy Beattie, Obligation and Opportunity: Single Maritime Women in Boston, 1870–1930 (2000); Bruno Ramirez, Crossing the 49th Parallel: Migration from Canada to the United States,1900–1930 (2001).

[3]George Hinckley Lyman, The Story of the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety, February 10, 1917–November 21, 1918 (1919), 189–212. On John Farwell Moors, Abraham Captain Ratshesky, and other continental experts, see Jacob A.C. Remes, “‘Committed as Near Neighbors’: The Halifax Explosion and Border-Crossing People and Ideas,” American Review of Canadian Studies, 45 (March 2015). 26–43.

[4]See, for example, a newspaper advertisement enclosed with Arthur N. Phippen to Henry B. Endicott, Dec. 12 1917, reel 12, Massachusetts Halifax Relief Committee correspondence and papers, Special Collections Division (Massachusetts State Library, Boston, Mass.).

[5]Jacob A. C. Remes, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (2016), 78–104.

[6]Michele Landis Dauber, The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State (2013).