September 8, 2019


This installment of Strange But True tells the story of Fela Biro, a Polish émigré, her two-year-old son, John, and a 10-cent toy garden hoe.

The incident begins on Sunday, April 22, 1934, when Fela takes her son out to play in Central Park. The child begins to dig in the dirt with his hoe, drawing a policeman, who tells the mother to make the child stop. "He's just playing," she protests, and one thing leads to another. In the end, she's brought before a magistrate and fined two dollars, which she doesn't have. It's the Depression. Her husband is out of work. Their meager income derives from her salary as an actress with the Artef Players Collective, a Communist theater group.

So Fela and her son are thrown into jail for four hours. The press somehow gets wind of it and is outraged at such harsh treatment for a petty offence. Says the Daily News, "The majesty of the law descended heavily yesterday upon an impoverished mother and sent her to jail for a day because her baby boy dragged a 10-cent tin hoe along the sacrosanct grass of Central Park."

The incident gets enough bad press to warrant a response from Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Fela, he says, is a "so-called hard luck case" and a "Communist baiter of cops. All the evidence indicates that she was just looking for trouble and that the newspaper notoriety that followed was duck soup for her." [Fela was an avowed Communist; her son's full name is John Reed Biro, after the Socialist activist].

The New Yorker concludes the story in Tudor City in a droll Talk of the Town piece:
Mrs. Fela Biro and her two-year-old son John, who were sent to jail for digging in Central Park, made their latest, and perhaps their final, public appearance last Wednesday morning. One of the newsreel companies, anxious to film the celebrated excavator but unwilling to become accomplices to another crime by filming it in Central Park, took John over to Tudor City's private park on Prospect Place. John brought along his beach spade and his mother, and enthusiastically reenacted the outrage. The recording called for only a little superficial turning up of the sod, but as soon as it was over, John started digging like mad. "Hey, you can't do that!" hollered one of the Tudor City people, and made a grab at his spade. It took two grown men to stop him. 

No comments:

Post a Comment