The Agitator

William Bailey and the First American Uprising against Nazism


By Peter Duffy

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This story of an anti-fascist’s dramatic and remarkable victory against Nazism in 1935 is an inspiration to anyone compelled to resist when signs of oppression are on the horizon

By 1935, Hitler had suppressed all internal opposition and established himself as Germany’s unchallenged dictator. Yet many Americans remained largely indifferent as he turned his dangerous ambitions abroad. Not William Bailey.

Just days after violent anti-Semitic riots had broken out in Berlin, the SS Bremen, the flagship of Hitler’s commercial armada, was welcomed into New York Harbor. Bailey led a small group that slipped past security and cut down the Nazi flag from the boat in the middle of a lavish party. A brawl ensued, followed by a media circus and a trial, in which Bailey and his team were stunningly acquitted. The political victory ultimately exposed Hitler’s narcissism and violent aggression for all of America to see.

The Agitator is the captivating story of Bailey’s courage and vision in the Bremen incident, the pinnacle of a life spent battling against fascism. Bailey’s story is full of drama and heart–and it’s an inspiration to anyone who seeks to resist tyranny.



Remember that rainy evening

I drove you out,

With nothing but a fine tooth comb?

Ain’t that a shame,

I know I’m to blame,

Bill Bailey, won’t you please come home?


THE FIRST THING to know about Bill Bailey is that Bill Bailey wasn’t his given name, a biographical detail that he never disclosed publicly and was only known to a close few. He was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on June 13, 1915, to an Irish immigrant family living in dire poverty. He was christened Michael Bailey.

In his autobiography, which he self-published with financial help from friends and comrades in 1993, he wrote that the Bailey children were “Isabella, the oldest, followed by John Patrick, Kathleen, Mike, William, and Alice.” But according to the 1920 census, the birth order was Isabella, John, Kathleen, William, Michael, and Alice. William’s age was listed as eleven. Michael was five. At a pivotal point in our story, Mike Bailey will assume the identity of his older brother, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The stouthearted matriarch of the family was Elizabeth (née Nolan) Bailey from the outskirts of Waterford in southeastern Ireland. She arrived at Ellis Island in 1904 with her husband, William Bailey père, who had served a stint with the British Army in India. The couple settled in the first city they came upon after passing through immigration, Jersey City, the gritty port on the west bank of the Hudson River across from Lower Manhattan.

Mrs. Bailey—“this beautiful woman,” our protagonist called her—gave birth to thirteen children at home with the aid of neighbors or a local midwife. Seven of the children didn’t survive infancy. “I only remember one of them,” he told an interviewer. “I remember him sitting in a chair. She had placed this little kid in a chair, to keep an eye on him, and I, I think his name was Edward. And she went to the kitchen and all of a sudden this little kid started to shake somehow. And I hollered, ‘Hey, Mom, there’s something happening,’ you know. She come runnin’ in and picked the kid up, and that’s all I ever saw of him. She took the kid to the hospital, and it was, apparently, I found out years later, something called spinal meningitis.” Young Michael had his own bout with infectious disease. He contracted polio, spent several months in the hospital, and emerged with one leg a half inch shorter than the other. He walked with a slight limp for the rest of his life.

The elder Mr. Bailey was a manual laborer with a drinking problem who was always looking for a fight. When he heard a group of impromptu musicians performing the song-and-dance number “Won’t You Please Come Home, Bill Bailey,” written by Hughie Cannon and published in 1902, he had to be convinced they weren’t taunting him. He always found someone to scrap with in bars, at least the ones that allowed him through the door. The police showed up at home the time he bit off half of Stephen O’Riley’s ear. The kids would cower in hiding spots when he turned his practiced fists on Mrs. Bailey, who would sometimes have him arrested but wouldn’t go so far as to testify in court. She was fearful of losing the scant help he did provide.

Sometime before the 1920 census, Elizabeth Bailey marched the six kids across Jersey City to a tenement a block from the waterfront in an industrial zone called Paulus Hook. Mr. Bailey didn’t follow. He will not be heard from again.

The Hudson Street building had no running water, gas, or electricity. Kerosene lamps provided the only illumination. A wood-burning stove generated heat. Across the street was a machine shop that employed hundreds of workers, filling the air with the constant racket of steam hammers, rivet guns, and compressors. The Baileys moved into the top-floor apartment, the farthest from the tenement’s lone toilet in the backyard. The neighbors, just slightly better off, were so moved by the family’s plight that they donated tattered blankets, scuffed pots and pans, and an old spring mattress that was turned into a makeshift bed for Mrs. Bailey. The kids slept on the floor.

The windows of the decrepit hovel looked out upon an astonishing vista. The Baileys had a view of the busiest maritime hub in the world, a frenzy of barges, floating derricks, sludge boats, coal colliers, lighters, freighters, sightseeing craft, ferries, scows, railroad-car floats, oil tankers, junk boats, and, the most impressive of them all, transatlantic passenger liners cutting through the haze with the entitled air of high-born aristocrats.

Michael was transfixed.

In the 1920 census, Mrs. Bailey’s occupation was recorded as “janitor” for “houses.” She was a freelance washerwoman and cleaning lady, toiling day and night to buy the sacks of potatoes, onions, and flour that kept the family alive during the lean times. With help from the older children, she would collect laundry from middle-class families in a nearby neighborhood. The clothes would be boiled in a tub on the Bailey stove, scrubbed by hand on a wooden washboard, and hung out to dry on the line. Sometimes Mrs. Bailey would ride the ferry into Manhattan to work as a cleaner for Wall Street businesses. She also took employment as a kitchen helper at the Catholic parish six blocks inland, St. Peter’s, where she retained her faith in God but grew disgusted by his servants. The priests were “drunken pigs” who would pinch and grab at the nuns.

She made enough money to buy two beds, which were used not for the children but for rent-paying boarders, salty characters who worked maritime jobs on the harbor. There was an old tugboat captain with a fondness for drink who never made a sound and always paid his rent on time. A ship’s fireman from Portugal nicknamed “Spick” was a favorite of the kids, handing out pennies and, after a few drinks, performing the trick of pushing a hatpin through his hand and bicep, which left the youngsters chattering for hours. With the extra money, Mrs. Bailey was able to supplement the family’s meal plan with the gnarled remnants of a pig—tail, feet, or neck bone—which aroused the interest of the large water rats that were indigenous to the neighborhood. The children would fall asleep listening to them scratching through the wall-pipe recesses in search of a bit of sustenance.

The older boys—John and William—contributed to the family welfare by becoming juvenile delinquents. They began by stealing milk and bread from corner grocers. The middle girl, Kate, found a job in a slaughterhouse, where she pilfered meat products until she was caught one day with a ham underneath her apron. Michael joined the brigade of newsboys selling the Jersey Observer. His best day was July 2, 1921—he was six years old—when thousands of boxing fans arrived via the ferries to attend the championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres arena in Jersey City. “Read all about it!” he shouted. “All the facts about the big fight!” The family was thrilled when he returned home and dumped handfuls of coins on the table.

Michael learned his first lessons in politics from his mother, a proud Irish patriot with a deep-seated loathing for the British. Her brother back in Ireland, Patrick, was killed by the Black and Tans, the British unit notorious for its criminal brutality, during the Irish War of Independence of 1919–1921. The story went that Patrick was dragged from the family home, stood up against a door, and shot for being a suspected member of the Irish Republican Army. “She told me that as far as she knew the bullet hole was still in the door,” Bailey said. On the St. Patrick’s Day after the establishment of the Irish Free State, Mrs. Bailey spent money earmarked for food to purchase an Irish flag, which she hung on the end of a flagstaff that extended 10 feet out over the street. “It was my mother’s way of shouting her defiance to the New World, which had promised so much but delivered so little.”

The young boy was raised on the myths and legends of Irish nationalism, a fighting faith with a tradition for bracing feats of revolutionary theater—the hunger strike (which dates to pre-Christian Ireland), the swearing of an illegal oath in a bogside shebeen, the stirring speech from the dock on the eve of execution. To be an Irish rebel was to be one of the select few with the righteous bravery to rouse the masses from their poverty-induced torpor. In a famous nineteenth-century ballad, which adorned many a tavern wall in the diaspora, Thomas Davis imagined the peasants of Ireland’s most impoverished regions emerging into consciousness:

And if, when all a vigil keep,

The West’s asleep, the West’s asleep—

Alas! and well may Erin weep,

That Connaught lies in slumber deep.

But hark! some voice like thunder spake.

“The West’s awake, the West’s awake!”

We’ll watch till death for Erin’s sake.

The West’s awake! The West’s awake!

The Baileys were truly hard-luck. Mrs. Bailey found a second husband, an Irish native who had served with the US Army in World War I, but he was just as drunken, shiftless, and violent as her first. John and William graduated from pilfering milk and bread to stealing much of the inventory from a chandlery, which sold supplies and equipment for ships. Caught by the police, each was sentenced to the youth prison at Jamesburg. John would escape after a few years, fleeing to the western United States and changing his name. He eventually found work on an oil rig and then as a merchant seaman. William would remain incarcerated for the next ten years, leaving his birth certificate and other vital documents behind in the Bailey family apartment. Kate planned to marry a Polish barge worker, but he was killed in a pier accident. She briefly considered joining the convent. Isabella, or Bella, the oldest daughter, suffered from ill health, which made it difficult for her to work very long in the foul conditions of the Paulus Hook factories. She would be in and out of hospitals for years.

Michael had the distinction of being the only child to attend St. Peter’s without shoes, which did not endear him to the pugnacious nuns who rapped students’ knuckles for the slightest infraction. Informed of the dress-code requirements, Mrs. Bailey told the sisters that Michael would have proper footwear within a few days. But the family couldn’t afford it. His shoeless condition was tolerated until he showed up with his legs and feet splattered with foul-smelling mud and grime, the result of an ill-advised shortcut through a polluted canal. The teacher scrawled out a note and told Michael to return to his mother.

Mrs. Bailey, who was illiterate, took the letter to the bartender at Paddy’s saloon. Her body stiffened as she listened to him read the message. Michael, the note said, would not be allowed back in class until he was properly clothed and bathed, as the law required. She charged to the school in a fit of rage. Michael trailed behind, just barely able to keep up. Throwing open the door of the classroom, she confronted the nun and demanded to know whether she wrote the note.

“Who the bloody hell do you think you are, with your God Almighty airs, to tell me that I don’t keep my boy clean?”

She added: “If you keep whipping my boy the way you have been, I’m gonna come up here and lay that rubber strap across your ass so you know how it feels!”

A conclave was convened in the Mother Superior’s office, where a settlement was reached: Michael could come to school without shoes so long as he cleaned up in the washroom before entering class. And Mrs. Bailey would no longer enter classrooms uninvited or use such words as hell and ass in front of the impressionable students.

A reckoning was thus postponed until Michael was ready to receive his First Communion in the second grade. The preparation period, as any Catholic school kid will tell you, went on for months. Two weeks before the big event, Michael was informed he wouldn’t be allowed to receive the sacrament unless he was suitably dressed and shod. A barefoot boy would not be allowed to defile the altar. Mrs. Bailey was so infuriated that she stormed directly to the Mother Superior’s office. “The Lord ran around with a burlap sack on his ass,” she said. If it was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for her son. “If you want him to be dolled up, then you get him the clothes and shoes because I can barely get the money to feed him.”

A few days later, one of the nuns pulled Michael out of class and took him to the uptown shopping district. He was outfitted in the formal attire necessary to receive the holy Eucharist. The poorest kid in St. Peter’s school had his first pair of shoes.

Yet the nuns saw potential in the urchin from Hudson Street. His star shone when a teacher assigned him to sit in front of the class and tell a story from memory. Michael recounted the plot of one of the books that had been read to him by his older sisters. Even he was surprised by his photographic memory. The class was enthralled. Instead of asking another student to perform the assignment on the following week, the teacher urged Michael to recount another of his tales.

His tale-spinning ability was impressive enough to earn him a tryout as an altar boy, which, as the first step to the priesthood, was regarded by poor Irish families as an honor-conferring initiation into the middle class. But Mike Bailey wasn’t about to be tamed by the strictures of the Church. He and a few of his fellow trainees, no more than seven or eight years old, were expelled from the ranks when they got drunk on sacramental wine. His profane indiscretion became so notorious that adults sneered at him on the streets of Paulus Hook.

From Jersey City, the Baileys (along with the indolent stepfather) moved to the next town upriver, Hoboken, where Michael was freed from the tyranny of the nuns and enrolled in public school. His favorite teacher, Miss O’Rafferty, recognized him as a talented boy constrained by economic circumstances. She did what she could to keep him off the streets, offering gifts of food and clothing and assigning extra reading projects. The effort was doomed. He fell in with a small gang of fellow troublemakers, young hoodlums who provided initiation in the ways of petty larceny. They unscrewed 100-watt lightbulbs from streetcars, extracted lead pipe from abandoned houses, and pried copper sheeting from municipal depot roofs. The materials were sold to junk dealers for enough hard currency to buy pizza and charlotte russes. Cops had little trouble busting up the syndicate. Upon his first offense, Bailey got two weeks in the Farm for Wayward Boys, where he was treated for diphtheria. The second time he was nicked, he was sent to Wayward Boys for a month of digging ditches. “Shake hands with a pick and shovel,” he was told. Before he could be sentenced for his third offense—stealing a suitcase full of silk shirts from in front of a fancy hotel—the Bailey family packed up and crossed the Hudson River to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. The Hoboken cops were happy to see him go.

They found a ground-floor apartment in a tenement on West Thirty-Eighth Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, in the heart of the infamous neighborhood long reputed to be America’s toughest, the cutthroat quarter of warehouses, piers, factories, and rail yards that was a traditional breeding ground for organized crime. Mrs. Bailey arranged to work in the building as a part-time custodian, which meant a substantial break on the rent. She continued to take cleaning jobs wherever she could find them. One callous boss insisted she use lye in the mop water, which, when a splash got in one of her eyes, caused years of sight problems, eventually leading to partial blindness. The stepfather, who felt most at home on a barstool, made every effort to avoid work. He would come home from the taverns and wage drunken battles with Mrs. Bailey, who gave as good as she got. During one violent argument, she pulled a stiletto from a bureau drawer and plunged it into her second husband’s lower abdomen. He stumbled out into the street and hailed a cab to take him to Bellevue Hospital. Although seriously wounded, he survived to drink again.

Michael resumed his knockabout ways. He would crawl under the pushcarts on Ninth Avenue and steal shopping bags of fruits and vegetables, which he either sold for a profit or brought to the family table. Sometimes he returned home with nothing more fortifying than a kick in the ass, administered by angry merchants who had caught him in the act. He would walk over to Times Square and hail cabs for theatergoers after the shows let out, pleading for a tip in return. On a good night, he could make a few dollars, which he invariably handed over to Mother. He picked up work as a newsboy. He recalled selling the “Extra!” edition that announced the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists from Boston, on August 23, 1927. He was twelve years old. For fun, he and his pals would sneak into movie theaters through a bathroom window or unlatched back door. In the summer, they would dive off an open pier into the slum version of a swimming pool, the Hudson River. When one of the neighborhood kids drowned after getting his head stuck in a large milk container on the riverbed, Michael swore that he would never again wade into the garbage-strewn waters of his native river.

School interested him less and less until he stopped going altogether. But he would rather be anywhere than the dysfunctional chaos of the apartment. He twice attempted to hitchhike to California, only to be turned around by cops before he got more than a few miles into New Jersey. After his stepfather lunged at him during a family quarrel, he escaped into the subways, spending a few months panhandling, selling papers, and fare beating. He found shelter in the Sixty-Sixth Street station on the IRT line, which he determined was the warmest spot in the system. When he attempted to bum a nickel from a man who turned out to be a police detective, he was arrested for vagrancy and hauled into Magistrates’ Court on West Fifty-Fourth Street, the venue of convenience for the small-time crooks and con artists who had been nabbed from Harlem to the Garment District, from Times Square to the piers on the Hudson River. The Tammany Hall magistrate–he didn’t recall his name—was unusually sympathetic to Michael’s concocted tale about how he raised himself on the streets without the aid of a mother or father. The court officers were stunned when the judge dismissed the charge and ordered the young man to be given an award of five dollars. It was not Bailey’s most improbable victory in that gray stone courthouse, nor his last.

By the time he reached his early teens, Michael was 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered and imposing. He was never challenged when he exaggerated his age by five or six years, which was a regular habit. His mother decided it was time for him to get a real job. She cajoled a longshoreman boss who lived in the building, a man named Flynn, “to do something for your own kind and put my lad to work.” Michael spent three or four months loading and unloading cargo from ships at the West Side docks, struggling to operate a large hand truck stacked with heavy crates while refusing to pay the kickback money necessary to get a good assignment at the shape-up each morning. He was outraged and humiliated when waterfront toughs demanded a portion of his wages for Flynn’s nonexistent “Retirement Fund.” His refusal to participate in a corrupt system earned him a defective hand truck, banishment to the worst jobs on the pier, and the contempt of the bent-nose thugs, who sputtered at the young punk: “You think you’re better than us?” He quit in disgust.

And anyway, Michael wanted to go to sea. “Ships had always wormed their way into my soul.” He’d read every sea story he could lay his hands on. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was a particular favorite. He’d dreamed of smoky dens in Port Said and rickshaw rides in Shanghai. “He belongs on a cattle boat going to Australia,” a visitor to the Bailey household once said of the idle teenager, which sounded like a good idea to him. But he was also living in a perpetual state of hunger. He knew a seaman’s job came with three meals a day, a luxury that was about to grow even more rare with the onset of the global economic crisis.

Left: Mrs. Bailey, holding dog; right: Bailey and his mother. (Michael Bailey)

Probably in late 1929 or early 1930, when he was fourteen years old, Bailey decided to visit every pier on the Hudson River waterfront until he found a ship that would take him on as a crew member. He started uptown and worked his way south. No one was interested. Finally, he arrived at his last chance, Pier 1, “way the hell down in the Battery,” at the tip of Lower Manhattan. An old freighter named the Lake Gaither was preparing to embark for the sulfur ports in Texas and Louisiana.

“So I just happened to go aboard the ship at that time,” he remembered. “I guess the mate had an argument with an ordinary seaman. I don’t know what the beef was. He fired him and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. And I stood there lying like hell. Told him I was an experienced seaman, been on all seven seas including the Dead Sea. I could do anything on a ship, blah, blah, and I’m 21 years old. And I’ve already been on so many ships. And I started naming them off, including Belgian and English ships. And the guy just said, ‘Yeah, okay. Come back at 5 o’clock and at 6 o’clock take over the gangway watch.’ And from then on I had a job as an ordinary seaman.”

Bailey appears in the March 1930 census of merchant seamen as a crew member on the SS Lake Gaither of the Newtex Steamship Corp. The entry says he was able to read and write, was born in New Jersey, and hadn’t been married. His name was recorded as “Bailey, William.”

Michael Bailey had ceased to exist. Bill Bailey was born.


The ships built in that period surpassed all others in grace, luxury, speed, and size (and have since been bested only in the last category). They were the technical marvels of their time, “the greatest of the works of man,” in one writer’s phrase, and subjects of intense public fascination. Even people in landlocked little prairie towns—folks who would never see the ocean, much less an ocean liner—knew the ships’ names and could tell them apart in photos with ease. The big ships were international celebrities in a way that no man-made object is today. Owners, builders, passengers, and spectators alike assumed that their ascendancy would continue forever.


IN THE YEARS leading up to World War I, Germany emerged as a formidable maritime power, challenging the supremacy of even the mighty ruler of the waves, Great Britain. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s naval fleet grew to include more than three hundred modern warships, a fearsome arsenal of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, and U-boat submarines. The German merchant fleet—the array of civilian ships carrying cargo and/or paying customers under the national flag—was led by two of the most impressive passenger liners on the seas. The 52,000-ton Imperator was the world’s largest ship upon its maiden voyage from Hamburg to New York in 1913. A year later, its sister ship, the 54,000-ton Vaterland, seized the crown as the grandest expression of industrial and scientific might on the planet.

Then came the Great War. By the end of four years of conflict, Germany’s oceangoing capacity was reduced to next to nothing. According to the punitive strictures of the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, the German Navy was permitted eight obsolete battleships, eight aging cruisers, sixteen destroyers, sixteen torpedo boats, and a handful of auxiliary ships. U-boats were forbidden. The merchant fleet was decimated by 90 percent, its vessels lost during hostilities, confiscated in foreign ports, or seized under the terms of the treaty.

The two venerable German shipping companies—Norddeutscher Lloyd (North German Lloyd line, or NDL) and Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (Hamburg-America Line, or Hapag)—were left with little of value. The North German Lloyd’s Kronprinzessin Cecilie was seized by the United States government and turned into a troop transport ship, the USS Mount Vernon. NDL’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, once the fastest ship in the world, became the USS Agamemnon. The great Imperator, a Hamburg-America Line property, was eventually taken over by the British and rechristened as the Cunard liner Berengaria. Hapag’s Bismarck, which wasn’t completed when the war broke out, became the White Star Line’s flagship, Majestic. The masterwork of German shipping, the Vaterland, was seized from the Hamburg-America Line and transformed into the luxe passenger liner of the United States Lines, the Leviathan, remaining in service until the mid-1930s.

If a nation-state’s strength can be judged by its presence on the world’s waterways, Germany was pitifully weak in the aftermath of its defeat in the First World War.

Yet even as Germany struggled through the early years of the Weimar Republic—the unsteady experiment in democratic governance that followed the abdication of the Kaiserite monarchy—the rebuilding project commenced. National pride was at stake. With the help of government subsidies and American loans, both Hamburg-America and North German Lloyd began placing orders for new vessels. “Resuming service, their small ships seemed merely to dog-waddle in the water while fabulous German-built ships under new names, with new oil burners, raced past them en route to New York or Southampton,” according to one writer. By the middle of the decade, a handful of German passenger liners in the 20,000- to 30,000-ton range had entered transatlantic service. Then, in December 1926, North German Lloyd announced the beginning of construction on two superliners, the Europa and the Bremen, both of which would have the capability to cross the Atlantic at an average speed of 27.5 knots, a record. Shipping experts scoffed. “They claim that in addition to the tremendous cost,” explained the New York Herald Tribune


On Sale
Mar 19, 2019
Page Count
288 pages

Peter Duffy

About the Author

Peter Duffy is an author and journalist based in New York City. He has written three books of historical non-fiction — The Bielski Brothers (HarperCollins, 2003); The Killing of Major Denis Mahon (HarperCollins, 2007); and Double Agent (Scribner, 2014). His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, the New Republic, and many other publications.

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