News & Events

Boston Globe Sept 22 09 The only known homicide within walls of the State House: A labor leader

Recalling a capitol murder

Tablet honors labor leader slain at State House in 1907

By Andrew Ryan

Globe Staff / September 22, 2009

Politics has long been called Massachusetts’ favorite blood sport, but there has been only one reported fatality at the State House despite 211 years of clashes and compromise under Charles Bulfinch’s dome. A labor leader named Edward Cohen took a bullet in the head on the afternoon of Dec. 5, 1907, as he waited in the lobby of the office of Governor Curtis Guild Jr.

“Despite the anger toward Beacon Hill over the years, that is the only known homicide within the walls of the State House,’’ said Representative Michael F. Rush, a Democrat from West Roxbury, repeating what he tells groups when he leads tours as official historian.

But until yesterday, the act of violence had been forgotten in a building adorned with some 240 plaques, statues, and oil paintings commemorating long-dead governors, generals, and towering social figures.

A 240-pound, 5-foot-high bronze tablet that honors Cohen and traces the history of organized labor was unveiled yesterday in a ceremony in the third-floor hallway. The relief hangs within sight of the governor’s office, with Cohen’s memorial sharing the hallway with a portrait of John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first governor of the Commonwealth.

It took so long to honor Cohen’s death because monuments at the turn of the century focused on political titans.

“He’s a cigar marker, for heaven’s shakes,’’ said James Green, a professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “He’s not the type of person that you put up a bronze plaque to.’’

Cohen lived in Lynn, and as president of the American Federation of Labor championed tighter labor laws to protect children. On that December afternoon in 1907, he sat with two other labor leaders waiting to see the governor. Some reports say the men had come to lobby on behalf of workmen’s compensation law; others say they came to seek a pardon for a mentally ill union man imprisoned for a killing in Essex County.

The gunman was John Steele, 38, a man “inflamed by persecutory delusions’’ who had just been released from a state asylum in Danvers, according to the report the next day in the Boston Daily Globe. Leaving home in Everett that morning, Steele told his mother that he endeavored to become a newspaper reporter, but after a stop at the Globe’s office on Washington Street, he went to the State House with a newly purchased revolver.

Steele burst into the governor’s office at 3:30 p.m. and began shooting wildly, first hitting the wall and then striking Cohen, 49, and one of the labor leaders before being subdued. The governor escaped unscathed, but Cohen died and Steele was committed to Bridgewater State Hospital.

“We are constantly in that anteroom,’’ said Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, who holds a job similar to Cohen’s. “It’s pretty powerful to me that the guy who has my job was murdered right there 100 years ago.’’

The bronze relief by sculptor Meredith Bergmann of New York City hangs in a hallway leading to the office of the speaker of the House.

The location is a fitting tribute, Haynes said, to the history of organized labor in Massachusetts.

“For every state rep to see as they walk by to remind them of working families and labor,’’ Haynes said. “What a powerful, powerful statement.’’