School children being inspected by a nurse ca. 1906
School children being inspected by a nurse ca. 1906

When it came to protests, America’s lower classes at the turn of the century had a bevy of galling circumstances to choose from. But none were so unusual⁠⁠—and few so large⁠⁠—as the Tonsillectomy Riots of 1906.

The trouble began that year in New York City, when a tonsillitis outbreak in the crowded tenements kept scores of children home from school. Middle-class families often chose to end the cycle with a tonsillectomy, but women working 12-hour days had no time to schlep their children uptown, nor could they afford the doctor’s 50-cent fee. So the principal of P.S. 100 on Cannon Street arranged for a campus-wide charitable event: doctors from Mt. Sinai hospital would come and perform the operations for free during school hours.

He did, of course, ask the parents’ permission, but the majority of his students were Jewish immigrants whose families only spoke Yiddish. Eighty-three mothers signed the form with little to no understanding of what they were agreeing to, and were horrified when their children came home from school drooling blood and struggling to speak.

A few days later, the Yiddish paper Warheit published a scathing editorial claiming that some parents had never actually signed the permission slips. This spark of outrage grew into a word-of-mouth wildfire in the largely illiterate community, until rabble-rousers were shouting on the street corner that 83 Jewish children had died in a government-sponsored massacre. To those who had only recently escaped very real pogroms in other countries, the story was more than believable.

By mid-morning, around 50,000 Jewish mothers had rushed to elementary schools across the Lower East Side. Some began smashing windows to gain entry, while others commandeered a ladder and attempted to climb in through the second floor. Several attacked bystanders who, by virtue of their eyeglasses, resembled doctors in the mob’s eye. After two hours of violence, school was officially canceled throughout the borough.

Though the community’s fears were quelled, racial tensions continued to play out in the papers for several weeks. The Warheit vilified the supposed arrogance of Irish principals, while The New York Times alleged that the hysteria had been deliberately goaded by Jewish doctors who resented having their tonsillectomy prices undercut. On the final day of school that spring, police were pre-emptively stationed outside two predominantly Jewish campuses while the children performed their year-end play: The Merchant of Venice. Fortunately, no one lost a pound of flesh that day, and no one rioted.