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William “Fingy” Conners, Bishop James Quigley, and the Great Strike of 1899
An excerpt from Against the Grain, pp. 101-111
by Timothy Bohen

Reprinted with permission.

One of the most significant employers in the history of Great Lakes commerce hailed from an unlikely place: the First Ward of Buffalo.  On January 3, 1857 William J. Conners was born to a pair of Canadian-Irish immigrants, descended from County Cork, who lived on Louisiana Street.  The family later moved to Ohio Street and then to 51 Sandusky Street. 

Peter Conners, William’s father, progressed from a lake sailor to the more skilled position of a stonecutter, which enabled him to save enough money to buy a saloon. 

Young William, also known as “Jimmy,” dropped out of school at age eleven or twelve to become a porter on steamboats on the Great Lakes, and later worked stacking cords of wood for the railroads.   At age seventeen, the blue-eyed, muscular Conners became a longshoreman on the docks and because of his toughness and fighting ability he became a leader of a small gang.  The charismatic “Fingy” was a natural leader, but he exhibited a characteristic that differentiated him from other natural leaders in the Ward: ruthlessness.   This trait would guide him, for better and for worse, throughout his future commercial and political endeavors.

There is an interesting story that exemplifies William’s fearlessness and explains how he acquired his nickname.  Conners claims that when he was a young boy, one of his friends questioned whether or not he had the nerve to have “one of his fingys” cut off by the friend.  William retorted that it was his friend that did not have the nerve to actually perform the operation; Fingy, however, underestimated his friend’s psychological state and the friend did indeed cut off one of Conners’ fingers on his left hand. 

As the legend goes, after the unfortunate event Jimmy Conners ran down the street with a bloody stump yelling “he cut off my fingy” and from that moment until his death he was known as Fingy Conners.

Unfortunately, sadness would strike Fingy in his late teens when his only sister died in a house fire in the Ward.  At about age 19 he lost his mother from the grief of his sister’s death, and his father died the following year.  These events led to an abrupt end to his youth; Fingy was now a man dependent on himself for survival.  However, out of these numerous tragedies his fortunes would change as well. 

He inherited his father’s saloon and rooming house at 193 Louisiana Street near the Ohio Basin, and he used the insurance money from his parents’ and sister’s deaths to expand his saloon operation.  Fingy’s saloon gave him a taste for making money, but he wasn’t adequately satisfied from the modest profits of a saloon.  By the 1880s he expanded the saloon to include a boarding house at 444 and 446 Ohio Street near South Street.  Using his gifts of leadership, the inheritance money and his keen sense for business, Fingy calculated how to profit even further from the burgeoning commerce on the waterfront.

Success for many people is intricately tied to being at the right place at the right time and this was one of the keys to Conners’ success.  As the need for dockworkers exploded in the late 19th century, shipping companies lacked the resources to hire dockworkers directly, so they handed this task off to saloon owners, who would then control the task of hiring workers to unload packaged goods from the boats.  For instance, the captain of the ship would go to a saloon owner and ask for ten workers; the saloon owner, or “boss” as they were called, would then pick his ten favorite customers.  If you weren’t a regular at the saloon you were out of luck. 

Saloon bosses like Conners obviously preferred to hire the single men who would also be boarders at their saloon and their most loyal bar patrons.  The workers pay was even paid out as a tab at the saloon, which further lined the pockets of the saloon boss owners.  If you have ever seen the movie “On the Waterfront” and remember the longshoremen’s union boss, Johnny Friendly, you get a sense of the power that a saloon boss wielded. 

There were several saloon owners who profited from this system, but it was Fingy who envisioned monopolizing this fragmented system of bosses with him as the premier boss—a task he accomplished with ruthless precision.  In 1885, as a reward for keeping costs low and running his operation efficiently, he was awarded a contract for all of the shipments on the Great Lakes for the Union Steamboat Company.  

Fingy now controlled the operations of unloading goods from the lake vessels to the docks, but the unsatisfied Conners desired ownership of the remaining operations: from the dock-to-the-warehouse and from the warehouse-to-the-railcars.  Fingy eventually controlled both of these pieces as well. 

At the young age of thirty-eight, he was reportedly the largest freight contractor in the United States, a newspaper publisher, the president of a local brewery, and a successful building contractor.

However, while his system was extremely profitable for himself and his cronies and efficient for the shipping companies, it was vehemently opposed by the workers, by the neighborhood priests, and by some in the press.  Their public criticism, however, could not derail Fingy Conners and it may have further emboldened him.  Within a decade after Fingy consolidated his freight handling of dry goods, he set his sights on controlling the lucrative grain handling business.  Fingy eventually monopolized this business as he had the others; he always got what he desired.  But as Fingy was rising, so too was another Irishmen from Buffalo who was ready to challenge “The Uncrowned King of the Docks.”

A proud moment for the Irish First Warders came on February 24, 1897 when the pastor of St. Bridget’s, Father James E. Quigley, was consecrated as the third Bishop of Buffalo at the young age of forty-one. 

James Quigley was born in Oshawa, Canada on October 15, 1855 to poor Irish immigrants who moved to Rochester, New York a few years after he was born.  In 1865, the ten-year-old Jimmy Quigley was sent by his mother and father to live with his uncle, Father Edward Quigley, the rector of Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Buffalo.  The wavy-haired, handsome Jimmy was the favorite student in his class and the star pitcher on the baseball team at St. Joseph’s Collegiate—a local Catholic high school.   One of his high school language teachers, Dr. Doyle, once commented to a fellow teacher on what a special student Jimmy was. 

That boy is a marvel at acquiring learning. He picks it up without any apparent     effort. I’ve taught school in a good many countries, but that is the brightest boy I ever knew. He’s full of life and vivacity, doesn’t study any longer than he has to, but absorbs knowledge surprisingly. Watch him.

After graduating at the top of his high school class he planned on attending West Point Military Academy where he was accepted.  Instead, the charismatic Quigley decided to become a Catholic priest.  As a seminarian he was sent to Europe for studies and was ordained at Innsbruck, Austria.  A rising star in the Buffalo diocese, Quigley was a noted pulpit speaker whose charisma endeared people to him.   After serving at the mother church of the diocese, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Quigley asked Bishop Ryan permission to become rector of St. Bridget’s in the Ward in 1896.   His exact motive is unclear, but perhaps as the son of working-class Irish parents, he may have wanted to assist the families of the Irish laborers in the Ward. 

While his tenure at St. Bridget’s was short and mostly free of any major events, a connection was made with the workers and their families that would impact his tenure as Bishop of Buffalo.  Specifically, his policy on Church involvement with labor unions started to evolve.  Quigley was also praised for transforming the rectory, the church and the surrounding area of the parish in less than a year. 

In addition, he inspired a young man, William Donovan, the future World War I hero and founder of the OSS.  Donovan later claimed that Father Quigley was his boyhood idol.  He had become a champion of the working-class Irish and was much loved by those in the Ward. 

On December 12, 1896 James Quigley was named Bishop of Buffalo and ordinary Catholics were excited with his appointment.  Even the non-Catholic press wrote favorably about him describing him as popular, intelligent, progressive and inclined toward the liberal wing of the Catholic Church.   These qualities would serve him well in his clash with Fingy Conners.

In the winter of 1898-1899, the Lake Carrier’s Association, a trade association representing vessels on the Great Lakes, awarded Fingy Conners control over all of the loading and unloading of the grain boats including the lucrative task of hiring the grain scoopers.   Up to this point he only controlled the freight-handling business on the waterfront.  Conners immediately set up a network of cronies at saloons in the Ward and on the waterfront who devised a scheme to profit from this new operation.  Basically, the saloon-bosses started to add fake names to the roster of workers on a particular job and then collect the pay themselves for these fictional characters.  For instance, if thirty scoopers worked a job, the saloon bosses would say there were forty and keep the pay of the ten fictional workers. 

The grain scoopers immediately realized this resulted in a reduction of their pay and threatened to strike.  Not wanting any disruptions in his business, Fingy Conners immediately put an end to these shenanigans.

The year before Conners was granted his contract, a grain scooper averaged $4.90 a day and his pay was based on how many bushels he unloaded.  Fingy thought he could squeeze some more of the workers’ wages so he hatched another scheme.  He created a new compensation plan with a fixed rate of 28 cents an hour of work versus the previous wage system based on bushels unloaded.  Almost overnight this resulted in a 50% decline in pay.  This new system was even worse for the workers than the previous one where the bosses were just skimming some profits. 

To make matters worse, the bosses continued to give hiring preference to workers who spent money in their saloons.  Saturday evening was payday and the workers had to go to the saloon to receive their wages over the counter at the bar.  The workers’ wages were the net of their earnings less any alcohol and boarding fees, and from the saloon bosses perspective, if your check was too large that meant you were not spending enough at his establishment; consequently your future prospects of employment were limited. This system obviously favored young, single workers who boarded at the saloons and who enjoyed frequent libations over married men with families. 

To further profit from this system, Fingy directed his saloon-boss cronies to purchase the saloon’s alcohol from a local brewery where he was the director: Magnus Brewery.   In addition, whenever there were any hints that the workers wanted to strike, Fingy would insert his cronies into the local union leadership at Local 51 to ensure that any reforms would be stifled.  The leadership of Local 51 decided to accept Conners’ change in the pay structure, and this infuriated the majority of grain scoopers.  Finally, in late April of 1899, the grain scoopers, furious with their cut in pay, organized a new union, Local 109, at Patrick “P.J.” McMahon’s saloon at 161 Elk Street in the Ward.  This was a slap in the face of William J. Conners; things were about to get interesting.

On April 30th, in an effort to retaliate for the creation of a new union and to intimidate the strikers, men loyal to Fingy Conners destroyed the McMahon family saloon on Elk Street.  This event was just the beginning of the violence that was about to ensue.  The Fingy loyalists were smaller in number than the strikers but due to the fact that their enterprise was being threatened they struck back ferociously. 

Many grain scoopers faced an agonizing decision: side with the powerful Fingy Conners and continue earning smaller wages than they were accustomed to or strike with no wages and no certainty of victory.  The fact that there was little in the way of a government or union safety net made the prospect even more dire.  Most scoopers ultimately sided with the strikers.  In the Bohen family history, the author explained the dilemma and the consequences that workers faced based on whether they sided with Conners or not. 

The family historian stated that, “[Timothy Bohen] lost his job in the big strike but not his dignity.”   The history continues that Timothy “could have been rich if he would have scabbed for Fingy Conners his very close friend.”  In the Bohen oral history, it has been retold that Fingy Conners came twice to the Bohen house at 45 Sandusky Street—just two houses away from where Fingy grew up at 51 Sandusky Street—in an effort to persuade Timothy into switching to his side with promises of riches.  Timothy wouldn’t budge and reiterated his support for his fellow strikers.  Conversely, many of those who sided with Fingy went on later to profit handsomely as his agents with the Great Lakes Transit Corporation.

Fortunately the powerless grain scoopers had allies in the Catholic Church and in the political arena as well.  Father Patrick Cronin, an Irish Catholic priest, and advocate for the downtrodden workers, wrote several articles in the years leading up to the strike in the official diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Union and Times, where he chastised Fingy Conners for engaging in his corrupt system.  In one such article, he commented: “the diamonds he [Conners] wears are the crystallized tears of your women.” 

But Father Cronin knew that editorials wouldn’t change Fingy’s course of action so he decided to call a meeting with the thousand-plus scoopers at St. Bridget’s Hall in the First Ward.  Once the strikers assembled, Cronin delivered a passionate speech rallying the workers to stand up to Conners.  As his speech was nearing an end, cheering started to emerge from the back of the hall as another church official was pushing through the crowd making way to the platform.  The entire crowd rose to their feet to meet the unexpected guest; it was Bishop James Quigley

Bishop Quigley delivered a clear, somewhat dispassionate address to the workers, but he left them with an unequivocal mandate.  Specifically, the senior church leader forbade any of the strikers from working for Fingy Conners until he exited the grain business.  

The Bishop’s authority was in part derived from the groundbreaking 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, which for the first time officially urged Church leaders to advocate on behalf of workers’ rights.  Pope Leo XIII exclaimed that “the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”  Leo XIII further proclaimed that the Church could no longer be silent with regard to matters of labor and to the conditions of workers.  Eight years after this proclamation, Bishop Quigley had the mandate he needed to spearhead efforts on behalf of the roughly 1,000 grain scoopers. The strikers finally had a leader who would guide them through this storm.

Despite sharing an Irish Catholic background, Bishop Quigley and Fingy Conners couldn’t have been more different.  Quigley was well educated and refined, while Conners was educated on the docks and unpolished.  Quigley relied on persuasion and eloquence while Conners used fear and intimidation.  Quigley, the former rector of St. Bridget’s, became the chief negotiator and dealmaker for the strikers and he worked with a committee of lay representatives with upstanding men like Timothy Donovan, father of future hero William “Wild Bill” Donovan.  Father James Lanigan, the rector of St. Bridget’s Church, was also a passionate advocate on behalf of the strikers.  Meanwhile, Conners employed a gang of toughs and thugs to carry out his orders.

On the political side, the Catholic strikers had what appeared to be a traditionally unlikely ally: a congressman who was both Episcopalian and Republican.  The former two-term Republican congressman and future U.S. Secretary of Labor, Rowland B. Mahany, also pleaded the laborers’ cause and rallied the workers.  

Mahany grew up on Carroll Street near Chicago Street—one block north of the Ward boundary—but because of the proximity of his homestead to the Ward and because his Irish father from County Kerry had formerly worked as a dockworker in the First Ward the locals claimed him as one of their own.  Mahany attended elite schools like Hobart and Harvard, but he still had a great affection for the working class.  At the young age of twenty-eight, he was appointed U.S. envoy and minister to Ecuador by President Benjamin Harrison in an effort to gain the Irish-American vote in New York State during his 1892 campaign for reelection.  

Three years later, as a result of his concern for the laboring class and despite the fact that he was a Republican, the Catholic Union and Times endorsed Mahany in his bid for the open congressional seat in Buffalo.  More importantly, the Irish Catholics in the southern part of Buffalo—most of them Democrats—elected this distinguished and dapper gentleman to two terms in Congress representing the 32nd District.

Another motivation for Mahany’s involvement on behalf of the strikers was the mutual dislike that he and Fingy Conners had for each other.  Both wore battle scars from previous political contests and Fingy disdained him so much that he unleashed the editorial staff at both of his newspapers (the Courier and the Enquirer) to attack the congressman; the attacks worked and Mahany lost in his run for a third term.  In one of Conners’ blistering editorials from the Buffalo Courier on May 4th, the writer explained that, “They [the strikers] are simply the tools of this man Mahany, a glib beggar, a man who lives without work, a man of no character, no standing, and no balance.”  

But Mahany, whose great oratorical skills earned him the nickname “the silver-tongued orator,” would ultimately have his revenge, as he was able to use his gifts of oration to inspire the workers and the general citizens of Buffalo.  Unlike previous strikes where sentiment was isolated to those in the Ward, Mahany was able to broaden awareness of the plight of the scoopers to broader segments of the populace—even the Protestant clergy joined the Catholic scoopers cause.

Meanwhile, as the grain scoopers resisted crossing the picket line, Fingy was struggling to find replacement workers to assist in unloading the boats.  Conners attempted to hire local Italians and Polish immigrants to replace the stubborn Irish scoopers, but both groups declined and sided with the strikers.  He eventually recruited over 1,000 scabs from outside of Buffalo and from as far away as New York City and Cincinnati, but many didn’t realize they were recruited to be strikebreakers so they too defected to the side of the strikers once they arrived in Buffalo.  There are even reports that the scoopers in the Ward fed and housed their would-be replacements after they declined to work for Conners. 

Fingy’s efforts to intimidate the strikers only led to more violence such as when a group of Conners loyalists clashed with a group of strikers at the foot of Main Street.  William H. Kennedy, a nephew of one of Conner’s top lieutenants, James Kennedy, owned a saloon on the seawall and worked at one of the elevators as a timekeeper.   Conners sent William Kennedy and other cronies on a mission to intimidate the strikers into ending their futile strike.  The strikers had ideas of their own and one of them, John J. “Buck” Skinner, responded to the intimidation by firing shots at William Kennedy; he was a good shot and killed Kennedy. 

Conners was furious at his friend’s death, but rather than use more force he tried a different tactic; he used his newspaper, the Buffalo Courier, to lambaste his critics by trying to intimidate them with words.  Conners, however, was quickly losing control of the strike.  The freight handlers had already joined the strike and the International Seamen’s Union, which represented the crews on the ships, threatened to join as well.  The strikers were emboldened after they convinced other union workers from the New York Central Railroad and men from the coal and iron industry to join the strike to assist the grain scoopers.  

Furthermore, the strike was attracting national attention and Daniel Keefe, the president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, came to Buffalo several times during the strike to assist in the negotiations on behalf of the workers.  All the while, Bishop Quigley was urging the workers to maintain peace and order, which contributed to the sympathy exhibited by the wider community.

The intended effect of the strike, to halt grain shipments at the beginning of the bustling shipping season, worked perfectly.  Commerce on the Great Lakes shut down and tens of millions of bushels of wheat were stuck on the freight ships; two weeks into the strike there were 3.6 million bushels of grain waiting to be unloaded on forty-three ships.   In Duluth alone there were over 20 million bushels waiting to be shipped to Buffalo.  The entire trade route of grain from the Midwest to the East Coast was halted because of the strikers in the First Ward.  If people on the East Coast had not previously heard of the grain scoopers from the First Ward of Buffalo, they did now. 

Finally, almost a month later, on May 23rd, the shipping companies could no longer hold out and they agreed to negotiate directly with Bishop Quigley and the new union, Local 109; the result was that William J. Conners was essentially cut out from his control of the grain-scoopers. 

Immediately, P.J. McMahon was named president of the new union, new officers were nominated and a new constitution was drawn up.  The next day, police officers were on the docks checking the workers’ union cards to make sure that they were members of McMahon’s new union.

The Irish grain scoopers were satisfied with the terms: their original wage structure was reinstated, they now made about 49 cents per hour, and they were paid at their place of employment, no longer in the saloons. 

While the grain scoopers were content and returned to work, their strike had opened up other wounds on the waterfront.  Specifically, the ore handlers, who were mostly Polish immigrants, as well as thousands of freight handlers, received no new concessions from the strike; even worse they now earned significantly less than the grain scoopers.  Quigley had urged the freight handlers to accept the offer, but they voted his proposal down and demanded an increase in pay.  

After some minor skirmishes between these other dockworkers and Conners’ men, major violence erupted on June 12th when Conners’ henchmen shot 200 rounds of ammunition into the hatch of the Samuel Mather, an iron-ore carrier, where Polish workers were working in the hull.  Three workers were shot, but none of them died of their injuries.  A total of sixteen people were arrested for the incident and one of Fingy Conners’ relatives by marriage, Dick Nugent, the husband of Fingy’s niece, was arrested and sent to prison for five years for being the ringleader; Nugent operated the Nugent Hotel on Ohio Street in the same building where Fingy ran his saloon-boss operation. 

Meanwhile, the striker Buck Skinner who killed Fingy’s man, William Kennedy, received a comparatively light sentence of only eight months.  Clearly the judicial system was more sympathetic to the strikers than their opponents.

While Fingy Conners lost control over the grain business in Buffalo, he had previously diversified his fortune into other activities such as newspapers, street-paving companies, poultry farming, breweries, and real estate, so the loss was inconsequential.  In 1904, Conners left the south side of Buffalo and wedged himself into the elite Protestant enclave when he purchased a mansion on Delaware Avenue and joined the exclusive Buffalo Club

In 1906, Fingy was selected to the powerful position of chairman of the Democratic State Committee where he was influential in the 1908 U.S. Presidential election.

In 1916, at age 59, William J. Conner’s fortunes brightened once again.  The Panama Act, legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress, ended the monopoly the railroad companies had on Great Lakes shipping.  The railroad companies had to divest their Great Lakes shipping operations, so they urged their long-time friend Fingy Conners to consolidate their disparate lake freight lines into one company under his control.  Fingy, a former cabin boy on the Lakes, quickly bought up their shipping lines and formed the Great Lakes Transit Corporation. Once again Fingy was the right man at the right time. 

That year, William J. Conners became Chairman of the Board of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation and one of the most powerful businessmen on the Great Lakes; the 33-vessel enterprise employed between 4,000 and 6,000 men weekly and at one point Conners claimed that he was the largest individual employer of labor in the United States.  Eventually he controlled a staggering 85% of the package freight on the Great Lakes. 

During World War I, Conners offered the entire Great Lakes Transit fleet as well as his beloved yacht, the Mary Alice, to the U.S. government for whatever price they offered.  The war department also hired him as a consultant to figure out logistical problems they were experiencing with transporting freight to French ports.  

After the war, Conners split his time between Buffalo and West Palm Beach, Florida where he again profited by building a toll road which went through the Florida Everglades and connected the west coast of Florida to the east coast.  He also purchased 6,000 acres in the Everglades, built the Harding Memorial Bridge over the Kissimmee River, and created a massive farm which he described as “the finest farm in the South.” 

Later in life, Fingy also silenced some of his critics through his philanthropic activities such as a $1 million fund to help poor people in Buffalo, and he even leased the shuttered New York Central railcar business in East Buffalo in order to keep the 1,500 idled workers employed.  When he created the board of directors for his charity in Buffalo, the newly progressive Conners stipulated that it be composed of two Catholics, two Jews, and two Protestants in order that the funds would be judiciously spent.  Fingy Conners truly exemplified the American Dream: an uneducated laborer with street smarts and unbridled ambition became a nationally prominent multimillionaire.  But there was an unanswered question.

For a man who grew up with so many of the grain scoopers, who had worked as a laborer himself, who shared their faith and their heritage, it is fair to ask the question of why he so ruthlessly schemed against his neighbors leading up to the Great Strike?  Why did he divide the community of his birth and condone violence toward his fellow neighbors? The answer may be simply greed.  Or maybe he craved power and the benefits that come with it. 

He certainly was a visionary in his understanding of how to consolidate the fragmented logistical business of transporting dry goods and grain.  All empire builders—Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates and Jobs—are slapped with similar labels of ruthlessness or greed, but often the real motive is more difficult to understand.  We may never know the real motivation for his behavior.  Regardless, in his time, Conners was one of the most successful businessmen in Buffalo and he likely ranks as the most successful businessmen to ever come out of the First Ward.

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