Camera Rolls: 102:18-22
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ruth Benedict , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 15, 1990, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
—how you first found about the Bonus Marchers?
I supposed I first heard about it in, over pre—over radio or the newspapers. I was working in an office then not very far from the White House, and I was much interested in what was happening to these hapless people who were without jobs, without money, without anything. I must have, I think I had read about the Hunger Marches that preceded it, but I did not follow that as closely as I did follow the Bonus Marchers.
How did you, how did you get involved with the Bonus Marchers? What happened that you got involved?
I had a friend who was as much interested as I was in what was going on, and everyday as soon as we were through with our jobs—around 4:30—we would jump into her car and go over to the Capitol and go to wherever the bonus people were to talk with them and find out what was going on. We did this day after day.
Now, you had said that you spent a lot of time in the camps, can you describe some of your, your visits to those camps? Do you have any vivid memories of that?
I have some rather vivid memories, memories that involved horror, and humor, and pathos. The people who lived in those camps were doing their best to live a somewhat normal life in absolutely abnormal circumstances.
They tried to
** do, give little homey touches to the hovels they lived in.
** I don't know where they got all the materials to build their little hovels— some of them were built of cardboard, some of tin sheeting, some of wood—and
** several of them, a number of them had planted little gardens,
** put plants, had bought plants to put around them places. Of course, after the camp at Anacostia was torn up, it was just chaos, it was set fire to. I did see, I first saw the camps they lived in on Pennsylvania Avenue, but I didn't see as much of those. The action was more around the Capitol building then. But I did go over to Anacostia when they moved over there, and so I got, I knew Anacostia better than the camp on Pennsylvania Avenue.
What kind of people were in these camps? Who were they?
I suppose that the people in the camps were hodge-podge of people who normally didn't have much income, but had jobs.
There were some professional people, there were a good many women, and a good many children
** because so many of them had had to give up their homes when they had no income. They had come from all over the country, some of them in rattle-trap cars. I remember one family
** we talked to had come all the way from California
** in a car. They had, their home was taken away from them, and they had put into the car everything they could carry, including the jelly the wife had put up, and they used the jelly to pay the toll charges
** when they got onto a toll bridge or a toll road. And I remember the wife telling me so resentfully that one toll keeper had taken twelve jars of her jelly to let them go through a fifty cent toll charge.
So they were, they were on their last legs in a way financially.
And then, they were being taken advantage of sometimes.
Can you remember, what, the camp, do you remember when they started building the camp, and then, how the camp seemed to fill up? Can you describe that, how the camp became more and more populated, the camps?
I suppose that the camps—
Oh, I'm sorry, we have to cut for a second 'cause we're—
OK, I guess what, the camps filled up, got more and more populated, can you, do you have any impression why that was?
My rather general impression is that as a few people started building, scavenging to find materials to build, and built little hovels. More of the people who, I think when they first came to Washington, some of them were able to find cheap rooms to stay in. But when their money was going fast—whatever money they had—and I think that as the word spread, more and more people just began scavenging and finding what they could do to put a little hovel to stay in. Now, I think some of your pictures should show that some of the people had trailers, I think there were a few trailers. But my impression is that it was just a matter of word of mouth, that they found that this was a better place to be, and there was a sense of solidarity in being with the rest of the Bonus people.
Do you have any recollections of sights, sounds, smells of this camp? What was it like as a sensory experience?
I think, the friend and I—who went with me and I—felt they did a very good job of policing it to keep it clean. Now when rains came and things got muddy, it was awful, just awful. I don't have much recollection of that, but I do remember seeing it one day when they were wallowing in mud. But they were clean, and some of the Bonus families tried to trim up their little areas with rocks, and as I mentioned plants, and so on.
They were pretty enterprising weren't they?
We thought they were enterprising, and I don't have any recollection of talking with the leaders to know what was done to inspire people, but I guess desperation was the main motivation. There was nothing else for them to do when they lost homes, lost their homes and had no money.
I was, I was wondering about Pelham Glassford. You said that you had seen him from afar, what was your impression of—
Let's hold for a second.
Can you give me your impressions of Pelham Glassford?
I have a very vivid impression of Pelham Glassford. In a situation where there were some people you wish were not there, I wished that he were with the Bonus people all the time, because he seemed to have sympathy for them and seemed to want them to get along as favorably as they could. When I say favorably I mean favorably in the eyes of the press that was reporting all of this. He was a very tall, gangly man, good looking. I remember him most vividly when he was not wearing a uniform. He used to ride around on a motorcycle with, I think he wore tweeds and a slouching cap, and he was always very casual in, as we saw him from a distance talking with the Bonus people. He often had a pipe in his mouth. He was low-key, and I think that that was a part of his intention to try to keep the lid on what might have erupted, might have produced an ugly picture of the Bonus people.
So could you, could you give me your impressions of Pelham Glassford?
Yes, he made a very strong impression on me, all favorable. First, he seemed to be sympathetic with the Bonus Marchers, and he seemed to be eager to make their plight as pleasant as he could for them. I never talked with him, I admired him from a distance. He was always riding around on a motorcycle, and you could see him from a distance chatting with some of the leaders, some of the individuals. He was a tall, gangly man, very good-looking, and my—as I try to call up the image of him right now, I see a very causal man, tall and good-looking, who rode around on his motorcycle.
We're going to stop there because you could tell though, right?
Mrs. Benedict, when, I wonder if you could tell me again how you'd, how you'd go and visit the veterans?
Well there were several ways we visited the, talked with the veterans. I think we talked with veterans more around the Capitol during the march than we did in their own little huts. That's where the action was. We'd go and find if there was a wall to sit on near the Capitol or steps to sit on, and we'd sit, just pick out a family and go and sit with them and fall into conversation. And we observed the—Of course we were concerned about families, little children. And we noticed that ministers gathered around. I remember one minister, I even remember his name, who moved from one Bonus Marcher to another, gave his name, the name of his church, and said, "I hope you'll come to church on Sunday." We were rather contemptuous of him because they didn't need to go to church as much as they needed food and so on. During the last days of the march, it was hot weather, and some of the men were barefoot and their feet were bleeding. I think we didn't find it difficult to find some common ground with these people, and particularly when we paid attention to the children, the parents approved of that because it must have been a dull bore for the children. How they were able to behave so well I guess is still a miracle to me.
Can you, can you talk about the—Would you, would you describe the Bonus Mar-, the death march for me? What were they doing there? Why were they there?
I think this was a desperate move—they'd been here for sometime—and Congress was about to disband for the summer and they hoped there would be action in Congress. As I understand it, the House had passed a measure but the Senate had not. And they, they kept trying to think up new ways to make an impression. As I recall, where it was done it was right in front of the Capitol, and a lot of people involved, mostly men, but as I remember occasionally women and children got in the line.
The thing we couldn't forget was that the pavement was so hot, and with these bare feet it must have been a very painful thing.
When you were watching the death march go on, where were you sitting?
I have a vague recollection that there was a wall somewhere in front of the Capitol building. I haven't been around the Capitol for so many years that I couldn't...it's pretty dim in memory.
When, when the Bon—when the death march was going on, where were you, where were you?
Right in—when the death march was going on, we were right in front of the Capitol talking with the people, concerned about the men who's feet were getting sore on the hot pavements, and we talked with some of the families. I remember one family we just, we just look over the people we saw and if they looked friendly we'd sit down and talk with 'em. One family, husband and wife, rather young people I would guess in their mid-30s, with a little girl who was five or six years old. And we first started talking with them about what sites they had seen in Washington, and they didn't have much time to go around because they were concerned with the Bonus March. And we struck up a very friendly relationship, and so then my friend and I began asking them if they would like to go home with us. They had told us that they had run out of money, they had fifty cents left. They had spent, I guess, a quarter for milk for the little girl that morning. They had been staying at a cheap room, but they'd have to leave the room because they had no more money to pay for it. So we asked if they wanted to come home and have dinner with us. They said, the wife said to me that she so much wanted a bath. So they took some persuading because they were quite proud. The man was a professional photographer and his, he just had to give up his, his business had melted away, and his job was lost, and they'd given up their home...had to give up their home.
Could you start that again with "The man was a professional photographer"? Don't forget to sort of look at Eric, sometimes I think more towards the lens. Just forget the lens.
That's right. Start where?
The man was, you tried to persuade him to come home with you.
Oh, a very friendly family that we fell into conversation with had told us that they didn't have any money. They had fifty cents, they had spent everything else on milk for their little girl and a cheap room, but they would have to leave the room. They had left the room and had no place to stay. So we began persuading them to go home with us. The wife had told me she so much wanted a bath, and they had pawned practically everything they owned. So they finally agreed to come home with us, and we stopped and bought a couple of boxes of chicken, and we had some vegetables at home and other things. And, but before we had dinner we asked them if they would like to take a shower, and as I remember, each one of them took a shower. Meanwhile—
So Mrs. Benedict, tell me about that family you met.
This was one of the very friendly families we had encountered, and learning some of their problems we asked them if they would like to come home and have dinner with us. The wife had said she so much wanted a shower. So we finally took them home, and stopped and bought a couple of boxes of chicken, and we had some food in the refrigerator—some vegetables and ice cream—and while they were taking, we asked each of them if they didn't want to take a shower. So, while they were taking showers we got the dinner on, and my friend and I were rummaging around in our dresser drawers to see what we could produce. And I can remember the wife had told me she had only one brassiere, so I produced a couple of brassieres, we were about the same size. And we found some hose, we were willing, hosiery we were willing to give up. And we found her a dress. We didn't have anything the little girl could wear, which made her a little unhappy. And they settled down to dinner. They did not eat greedily and we knew they hadn't eaten all day. It turned out to be a very pleasant, rewarding evening for us, and I think they went away a little more heartened. Partly because one of the beaus who was with us that night -who had money, and my friend and I didn't have much money—he prevailed on them to take, I think it was a ten dollar bill so that they would have a little bit to go on the next day. I wish I knew now what had happened to that family because they were very decent, fine people.
The Bonus Marches in general were, how would you describe them?
I imagine there were all sorts of people in that Bonus March. There must have been, I know that they were very well, all of them were well behaved. If there was violence or improper behavior, I didn't see it.
There were a lot of what I would call middle class people,
there may have been some people who at one time had been very rich, quite rich. But
there was sort of a leveling process as these people got together, and there was a sense of solidarity, and a sense of responsibility to give a good account of themselves.
OK that's fine. Let's cut for a second.
Could you tell me that part of the story where, after you'd given the clothing?
We were, I think we were all concerned. It was not only my female friend who with me had gone on all these expeditions, but one of our beaus was with us that evening. And, we, we wished we could give them some money, but we didn't have very much money. And our beau prevailed upon them—
I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Cut.
So, could you tell me what happened after the clothes?
We wished that we could give them some money because they were out of money except for the fifty cents they had. Now but we didn't have that much money, and we were stripping our, our minor clothing wardrobes, but one of our beaus was with us that evening and he prevailed upon the photographer, the husband, to take a ten dollar bill, which made us feel a lot better. They were such decent, fine people, I wish that I knew now what happened to them.
Thanks, that's great.
There were a lot of rumors going around at this time, you know about who these marchers were, what kind of rumors were there?
I have rather vague recollections of rumors I heard, but I did hear some, and I think the rumors that made the most impression on me were the rumors of radicalism among the Bonus Marchers. Communist influences were mentioned—people who were, might be willing to incite violence if they didn't get the bonus awarded as they were trying to do. And the press as I—I don't remember much about what was in the press. Actually, we were so busy putting all the waking hours we could into the talks with the bonus people that I don't know that I read a lot of newspaper reports at that time. But that was one of the fears. Now, whether snobbish people thought it was a bad thing for Washington to give an inch of ground to these desperate people I don't know, but that must have existed. Just like as of today when you see so many homeless people begging on the streets, some people are horrified and say they ought to be put in jail. But there were rumors, and exactly what the role of the press was, I wouldn't have a very clear impression.
OK, I would like to ask you what you thought you saw, what you thought you saw unfolding in front of you?
I think what we thought we saw unfolding before us, as day after day we saw these people, was the possibility of a great tragedy. We couldn't, we talked a little bit about how was all this going to end. If Congress gave them the bonus as they were demanding, or if Congress didn't, what would happen? I think this was the thing that concerned us most. Were some of these people who were really desperate going to turn to violence? What was going to happen? I do, I think that somebody provided funds to help them get out of town after congressional action was not taken and the senate action was not taken. And that probably did a lot to avoid real trouble.
Now the Senate, the Congress closed-
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
The Congress closed in—adjourned—in the middle of June, but the veterans lingered on. Why did, what was their purpose then? What happened?
I'm not sure that I know what these people who stayed be—stayed on in Washington had in mind, because from our conversations with people, they just thought—
We're, we're blowing away.
Can you describe Pelham Glassford to me?
I have a very vivid memory of Pelham Glassford, always from a distance, I never talked with him. He moved so easily among the Bonus Marchers. He was a tall, good-looking, gangly man, who was very casual in every movement he made. He was often smoking a pipe, riding around on his motorcycle. Most of the times I saw him he was not in uniform, just wearing shabby tweeds and a slouchy cap with a pipe in his mouth. I had the feeling that he did a lot to keep things from getting out of hand because he was talking not only with the leaders, but with the individual Bonus Marchers. And he was clearly sympathetic with them and did what he could to make their plight as easy as possible. I thought he was, at the time I thought he was one of the heroes of this experience, and I didn't know all the heroes. But he must have done a good job with some of the leaders because I do remember that after Congress adjourned with no action on the bonus, he was—
—at some of the leaders, and there were some fears that they would turn to violence if Congress didn't act. And apparently that night he—with the help of the leaders—diverted some of the crowds to an area we did not go to for a meeting, where I believe he spoke.
Could you tell me about that Se—that night in the Senate, that last night?
The last night in the Senate was, to me, a very dramatic happening. Here were these men, the senators, who had terrific power over the hundreds and thousands of bonus people. Terrific power, they could make their lives easier or they could say, "No, we don't care about you." And of course, my sympathies were wholly with the bonus people at that point. I'm not sure whether there was a filibuster going on, I have a vague recollection there was. And I do remember seeing Huey Long in his beautiful, expensive clothing, pacing up and down the Senate and talking about very little that had to do with the bonus. That's why I think it may have been a filibuster. But
it was a dramatic moment,
** there were some of the Bonus Marchers had got into the galleries as we had, and you could just see faces falling all over the place because no action had been taken and they were pinning their hopes as a last minute ploy on the part of the Senate, and it didn't happen.
Great. OK, let's cut for a second.
So, Mrs. Benedict, could you tell me of the last night in the Senate?
The last evening in the Senate, before the Senate adjourned for summer, was quite dramatic. My friend and I were in the gallery and we could spot Bonus Marchers around—some Bonus Marchers—around in the galleries, just avidly waiting for, hoping that before the Senate adjourned—sometime around eleven at night or perhaps even closer to midnight—hoping that they would act to give the bonus to these marchers when they wanted it.
Oh OK, let's, can we start it again because the march is the bonus?
So can you tell me about the last night in the Senate?
The last night in the Senate was very dramatic. The Senate was going to disband for the summer, and in the galleries where I was sitting, and where a number of, we could spot Bonus Marchers also sitting in the galleries waiting to see what happened. My most vivid impression of that evening was seeing Huey, Senator Huey Long, speaking vehemently on the floor of the Senate, and walking, pacing up and down as he did. And when the Senate was declared disbanded, I think they say [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , the bonus people we saw in the galleries just looked so sad. You could just see faces falling all around you. And that was their last great hope, so I consider that one of the dramatic parts of the bonus experience.
I'm going to move on now to the night of the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] let's cut for a second, what's or foot—
That's, that's, you know what, I think it's made an impression on you that's deep. So, what, what, how important was seeing this?
I consider my acquaintance with the Bonus Marchers one of the important experiences of my lifetime. I thought I considered myself a student of government, and I was curious about how Congress was going to handle this. Of course they disappointed me. I didn't care a bit about the economics of it, whether it was unwise to pay the bonus earlier than had been contracted in the original legislation. I cared only about these people. And perhaps a part of it was that my own family had very difficult times in the Depression. My father was just wiped out in the Depression, and my mother had to take in boarders for a while in order to feed us. I did learn—for reasons that are still not wholly clear to me—that government then showed its semi-side. There was,
on the one hand, where the Congress with the power to make or break some of these people, there was a president who sat in his well-guarded White House. The streets were cut off, were taped off-
—'cause you, you completely ruined...could you, could you tell me what you saw that night you walked out of the Senate?
I remember walking down that long flight of steps, and seeing hundreds, maybe thousands of crowds milling about-
I'm sorry, could you start again? Thousands of people in the crowds—just start again, "I remember walking down..."
I remember walking down that long flight of steps in the Senate building and seeing thousands of people milling about,
** crowds on the steps, at the foot of the steps, on the green, on the grass in front of the building. I think that there was probably a sense of great confusion,
** "What in the world do I do now? I've come all the way from California or Arkansas to try to get the bonus awarded so I can feed my kids, and Senate hasn't done anything about it. What do we do now?"
** I remember seeing Pelham Glassford in a distance talking with some of the leaders—and a long, earnest conversation—and we heard rumors that what he was trying to do was to convince the leaders that they all ought to adjourn to a field somewhere else, somewhere in Washington, where they would have a meeting and somebody would make speeches. He was going to talk to the crowd. I don't remember just what happened after that, but a sense of lost hope, desperation, fear, concern, every thing you can think of was very obvious in the crowds milling about, wondering what to do.
Great, thank you. Let's cut.
Can you tell me what, how you heard about Anacostia that last night and what you saw?
As I remember, that dramatic evening when Anacostia was set ablaze by the authorities, by order of the authorities to oust the Bonus Marchers, as I remember, we had spent part of the day talking to the bonus people, had gone home to have some dinner, and one of our friends who had been with us several times either phones us or we heard on radio that Anacostia had been set fire. And a friend did phone us and say, "Let's go." So we jumped into a car and rushed down there. We approached the bridge...over the river, that you'd have to cross to get to Anacostia, and you couldn't possibly get across that bridge. There were fifteen cavalry, policemen, lined up on their horses, facing us—
I think we've got to st—
So tell me what happened as you, as you got out?
As we came to—
Just start again.
As we approached the bridge over the river to Anacostia, we couldn't possibly get across that bridge because there were fifteen cavalry policemen line up. Their horses facing us as we approached, standing stock still. Crowds were behind us, they wanted to get over. Some of the people, bonus people who's belongings, few belongings they had, were in flames at Anacostia. It was rather difficult because the police were trying to push the crowds, including us, back away from the bridge, and this incredible sight of fifteen stock still horses and horsemen. We'd duck into doorways and hope that they wouldn't notice us. And we were doing pretty well, but then they began throwing tear gas, and that was a little hairy.
As we approached the—
Start again. I stepped on your words.
I stepped on your words. I spoke over your words.
Oh. As we approached the bridge over the river, which you have to cross to get to Anacostia, we were stopped by the dramatic sight of fifteen cavalry policemen lined up tight across that bridge. The horses flanks touching horses flanks, policemen and horses not moving a muscle. And behind them you could see flames leaping up to the sky as Anacostia, camp of the marchers, burned. Behind us were people trying to get to the bridge. I have to assume that a good many of them were Bonus-
We're going to have to cut.
So, tell me what, tell me what you saw when you started to approach this bridge.
As we faced the Anacostia bridge, that you have to cross to get to the Anacostia field where the campers, where the bonus people had their camps. We were faced with fifteen cavalry policemen shutting off access to the bridge, standing flank to flank. These immobile horses and immobile horsemen, and behind them and flaming in the sky we could see Anacostia bonus camp just going up in flames and smoke. It was a very dramatic sight. And behind us we realized, began to realize, there were other people, there were a lot of people who were trying to get to the bridge. Probably the bonus people who's belongings, what belongings they had, were being burned up. And then the policemen began pushing the crowds, including us, away from the bridge, and we tried to stay as close as possible to the bridge and to the horsemen by ducking into doorways. And we were being pretty successful, we didn't go back with the crowd the police were pushing, but eventually they began throwing tear gas, and we thought that was pretty hairy, we though we just have to get out of that. So, when a street car came along, we jumped on the street car, and the motorman was driving through that tear gas area with tears streaming down his face, and we finally got through the bad area and we found our car and left. That was one of the most dramatic sights I've ever seen in my life. The horsemen on the bridge and the flames in the sky.
How did you, you also looked at the White House that night, what did you think when you looked at the White House?
When we drove away from there we passed an area not far from the White House, but we couldn't get near the White House because President Hoover was so carefully guarded that the streets were blocked, and policemen were—several policemen, quite a few policemen—in every part of that area. We were wishing that this-
I think that you should stop, I'm sorry to—
You also passed the White House, right?
Yes, we passed the White House where President Hoover was being carefully guarded, streets blocked off, policemen everywhere. And we wished that this man who had done such a splendid job of doing relief work in Europe after World War I would apply some of that compassion he showed then to the Bonus Marchers. We wished he would go out of the White House and go down and talk with the bonus people. It would have done wonders. But of course presidents don't do that, there's always, always fear he would be harmed. But we did not have much use for President Hoover that night, I must confess.
How did you, how did you feel about the country? What did you think about America on that night?
I guess that evening's experience made me feel as I had been tempted to feel, that the richest country in the world was doing a lousy job of taking care of its own.
Who did you blame?
Can, can you repeat that question because there was an inter—I heard a, I tried to stop it because there was a noise.
How did you feel about America that night?
You're OK, you can go.
I think I was very unhappy about my native land that night.
What had gone on reinforced my feeling that it was too bad that the richest country in the world couldn't do a better job of caring for its own people.
** Particularly people who had gone off to war and subjected themselves to danger in order to help the country, with belief to help the country. I wish, I didn't think much of our President Hoover at that time. He was so carefully guarded, with streets blocked off around him and policemen everywhere. I wish that that president who had done such a beautiful job of relief work in Europe after World War I would show the same compassion for his own people. I just thought America didn't give a very good account of itself that night.
** Will that do?
Yes, very well.
Tell me why you were so interested in these Bonus Marchers.
I am guessing that one reason I was so interested in the bonus people is that my family had difficult times in the Depression years. I graduated from college in 1928, came home to my family. I was lucky enough to find a job, and more than half of my salary went to my family because my father had just been hard hit by the Depression. He had no job. He was a chemical engineer. We were able to eat, go on eating because my mother took on boarders. Then when I came, I came to Washington in 1930—
We're getting wiped out.
—happened for you, for you and your family as the country experi—after the crash.
So could you tell me that, how, how you experienced the crash?
Are we on now?
I was well acquainted with some of the difficult effects of the Depression. My father was hard hit in the Depression. And I had five brothers and sisters, I was number two. So there were five of us at home, and we were able to eat because my mother took in boarders. I came to Washington in 1930, and things got more and more difficult. The Depression wasn't over with in a hurry. I can remember that I had fifty cents a day to eat on. I was sending every penny I could home. And one reason I, one way I could save money was that there was a government sponsored restaurant. It may have, could have been a WPA restaurant sometime in the early '30s, where you could get a stand-up dinner for seven cents. Meat was five cents and each vegetable was two cents. So I could get some dinners at five cents a day.
Well just, could you start out again and say, and talk about how the country, how it seemed the Depression came on for you?. Maybe at first you weren't quite sure what was happening. OK, let's cut for a second.
What was the atmosphere like around the Capitol during the death march?
The Capitol area during this sad—
So what was the atmosphere around the Capitol during the death march?
The atmosphere around the Capitol building was very strange during the death march,
** it was weird. There was not much noise. Maybe people didn't have enough energy to make a lot of noise, but they were quiet and well behaved. There was a sense of sadness, of desperation, which I can't forget. The Bonus Marchers themselves didn't make much noise, maybe they didn't have enough energy
** because they were putting it all forth, putting forth all their energies into the march. And there were families sitting around near where the marchers marched, and the families looked grim. It was just somber, and it was very unnatural. Human beings just don't behave this way in normal circumstances.
** That OK?