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Suspicious of Forced Tonsillectomies, Jewish Mothers Rioted

June 27, 1906

Immigrant Jewish mothers in the early 20th century were hardly inclined to trust officials to protect their children. Suspicion and skepticism fueled rumors, especially when there was a kernel of truth. One day in June 1906, a rumor spread on the Lower East side that doctors were slitting the throats of Jewish children in public schools.

In response, 50,000 immigrant Jewish mothers stormed the local public schools, demanding to see their children. The children were released with no visible bodily harm. According to Yiddish professor and author Eddy Portnoy: “Thrilled at having gotten a miraculous half-day’s vacation, the kids didn’t even know what the ruckus was about. ‘I dunno sir, I t’ink the school exploded,’ one boy told a reporter from the Evening Post.”

The rumor was not without a basis in fact. Volunteer doctors had in fact performed 83 tonsillectomies on students at Public School 100. The Yiddish daily newspaper, Varhayt, got wind of this and reported children telling their mothers that the doctors had “cut [their] throats.” Unable to read the technical English on the permission slips, immigrant parents were alarmed and angered. The episode touched a nerve that supposedly well-intentioned American doctors had not predicted.

Again according to Portnoy in Tablet magazine:

Rumors of a wholesale slaughter leapt like wildfire throughout the tenements and shops. As the gossip wended its way through the neighborhood, the story grew from “doctors cut our throats” to “two children died” to a wild “83 children died.” Street-corner orators got into the act, screaming about the massacres in the schools, comparing them to the pogroms in Russian-ruled Poland.

Coming on the heels of a particularly brutal pogrom in Bialystok that had just been reported on—accompanied by gruesome photos—in the Yiddish press, the Lower East Side surgeries morphed, in the eyes of gullible parents, into evidence of an American pogrom. Accustomed to such violence in Europe, many of the recent arrivals believed such things could happen even in America.

Were such a rumor to spread today, it would be shocking if 50,000 mothers didn’t storm the local public schools.

Source: "Sore," Tablet Magazine.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Suspicious of Forced Tonsillectomies, Jewish Mothers Rioted." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/27/1906/jewish-mothers-storm-public-schools>.