La Plebe publishing site: Carlo Tresca and Early Twentieth Century Italian Socialism in Philadelphia

L'attentato a Mussolini, a play by Tresca

1029 S 8th Street

1029 S. 8th Street is an address in the heart of South Philadelphia, just off Washington Avenue and a few blocks from the Italian Market. In 2016, the building is unoccupied, surrounded by Asian businesses. But in 1907, it was the office for La Plebe, a socialist newspaper run by Italian immigrant radical Carlo Tresca. Tresca was one of the leading figures in US socialist circles in the early 1900s, supporting workers during some of the infamous labor strikes during the period and later strongly denouncing Benito Mussolini, fascism, and the rise of Italian-American fascism in the United States. At age 25, he was forced to flee Italy for America to avoid imprisonment on a libel conviction arising out of his political activities. When Tresca arrived in the US in 1904, he settled in Philadelphia after a brief stay in New York and lived here until 1908.

In Philadelphia, Tresca was appointed the director of Il Proletario, the official newspaper of Italian socialists in America. Italian radicals like Tresca advocated for their fellow immigrant workers, who in their view, were exploited on one hand by American capitalism and on the other hand, by the conservative leadership of the Italian-American community and the papacy. Their influence was strong; in the pre-World War I era, there were over 100 Italian radical newspapers published in the United States.

Tresca was an enthusiastic recruiter for the cause, and his reputation soon spread beyond Philadelphia. The Washington Times reported on Tresca’s June 25, 1905 visit to the capital, describing him as “one of the most noted socialists in the United States.” Tresca’s speech in Italian was “vigorously applauded” by the several hundreds in the audience and many of them registered as socialists afterward.

Tresca’s life in Philadelphia was busy as well. He led support for Italian and Jewish striking workers at the John B. Stetson Co. factory in 1905. Those laborers were protesting Stetson’s “apprentice worker” system that employed a large number of new immigrants to perform unskilled, menial jobs – like softening felt in hot water -- for $2.00 per week. The strike eventually failed, but Tresca gained experience that would benefit his involvement in subsequent labor strikes.

Tresca antagonized Philadelphia’s Italian-American community leaders later that year with a series of articles about the Italian consul Geralamo Naselli, accusing him of failing to serve the immigrant community, among other things. Naselli sued for libel, and Tresca and his colleague Giovanni Di Silvestro were found guilty in December 1905. Tresca served three months in Philadelphia’s antiquated Moyamensing Prison - then located at 11th Street and East Passyunk Avenue.

Tresca’s reputation suffered in 1908 as a result of his relationship with a 16 year old girl that was revealed when he was arrested for disorderly conduct at a Philadelphia hotel. The resulting scandal in Philadelphia and loss of standing generally caused him to leave Philadelphia and move La Plebe to Pittsburgh.

Tresca’s political career continued until his death in 1943. He participated in major strike actions including the 1912 mill strike in Lawrence Massachusetts, the 1913 silk workers’ strike in Paterson, New Jersey, and the 1916 coal miners’ strike in the Minnesota Mesabi Range. He edited the radical periodical Il Martello (The Hammer), which was confiscated by the US government numerous times. Tresca was also a leading voice against the rise of fascism in Italy and in the United States, particularly among the Italian-American community through Blackshirt-type organizations.

Tresca made enemies through his activities, including organized protests against visiting Italian dignitaries. At events in New York and Philadelphia in 1921 surrounding the visit of Fascist party member Giuseppe Bottai, protestors outside scheduled speeches disrupted the planned program. Similarly, when aviator/fascist Antonio Locatelli visited the two cities in 1924, 3000 protestors in Philadelphia threw tomatoes and bricks at the speaker. Tresca was murdered on the streets of New York as he was leaving his office, an act many believed was at the hands of the Mafia.

South Philadelphia is a diverse community; many of its residents are immigrants like Tresca. African-American, Hispanic and Asian inhabitants, and an urban renaissance of new homes, shops and restaurants, complement the traditional Italian-American influence.