Portrait of a 19th Century Radical

Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist

Jeremiah Hacker. image/courtesy Maine Historical Society

Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist
by Rebecca M. Pritchard
Frayed Edge Press

If you lived in mid-19th century Portland, chances are you would have been familiar with an eccentric-looking character who roamed the dusty streets with a bundle of his radical newspapersJeremiah Hacker was strikingly tall, with a big bushy beard. He carried an ear trumpet because he was nearly deaf and wore an old drab coat covered in patches because he felt “required to clothe himself according to plainness and simplicity of truth.” Often on the edge of poverty, he lived on bread and water in a boarding house on Cross Street, where he wrote his paper, The Portland Pleasure Boat, every week on his knee, assailing the institutions of government, capitalism, slavery, prisons and organized religion.

Although Hacker had devoted readers throughout the country, historians have largely ignored him. Fortunately, Maine journalist Rebecca M. Pritchard has breathed new life into Hacker’s iconoclastic writings in her wonderful new book, Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist. 

Born to a large family in Brunswick in 1801, Hacker was deeply influenced by his Quaker upbringing, which shaped his pacifism and disdain for the hierarchy of organized religion. In the midst of the Second Great Awakening, Hacker joined scores of itinerant preachers who flocked to the Maine countryside. But unlike the others, his aim was to convince people to leave churches, not to join them. He believed that God “dwelleth not … in temples made with men’s hands, but in man” and that “pure and undefiled religion … visits the sick, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and leads man to live inwardly and outwardly unspotted from the world.” As Pritchard notes, Hacker was also fiercely anti-government, believing, like 20th century anarchist Emma Goldman, that all governments rely on violence, so he refused to support them by voting or paying taxes.

He had no love for wealthy capitalists either. “While the wives and daughters of mechanics are toiling over their wash tubs, or cooking over hot fires, the wives and daughters of capitalists are murdering pianos, sighing over novels, sauntering with coxcombs or searching for the latest fashions; and all these things cost money, and this money must by some kind of hokus pokus means, come from the pockets of the producing classes,” Hacker observed in an 1849 essay. “If therefore they can wring an hour’s labor each day from each man in their employ, it will aid in defraying their pious expenses, and in supporting them in luxury and idleness.”

When Hacker launched the Pleasure Boat in 1845 by selling his one good coat to pay the printing costs, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to draw independent artisans and subsistence farmers from the land and into wage labor in the cities and towns. Fearing the impending loss of their economic independence, Maine workers formed associations to call for land reform and the elevation of the producing classes over monopolists, land speculators and bankers. Mainers also experimented with cooperatives and utopian socialist ideas as female textile workers organized the first strikes in Saco and Lewiston for better pay and working conditions. After visiting some of these factories, Hacker poured his outrage into the pages of the Pleasure Boat.

“There are hundreds of young females shipped from this State every year to the factory prison-houses, like cattle, sheep and pigs sent to the slaughter,” he wrote in another 1849 piece. “Every steam boat and car that leaves this State for Massachusetts carries more or less of these victims to the polluted and polluting manufacturing towns where they are prepared for a miserable life and a horrible death in the abodes of infamy.”

Hacker also visited jails and was appalled by the conditions he witnessed, particularly the sight of children in cells with adults. To prove they could be reformed, he bailed boys out of jail and placed them with farmers and a sea captain to learn their trades. He was also the first voice to call for a reform school, which eventually became the Boys Training Center, most recently renamed Long Creek Youth Development Center, in South Portland.

Hacker couldn’t be pigeonholed into one reform group because he was critical of all of them. He opposed slavery, but scolded abolitionists for not boycotting slave-made goods like he did. He chastised peace activists for paying taxes to the war machine. He was an ardent teetotaler, but opposed Maine’s landmark 1851 prohibition law because he believed in persuasion, not coercion. Hacker supported gender equality, but didn’t think anyone should vote.

Many of Hacker’s ideas seem quaint in retrospect. His solution to poverty, crime, alcoholism and wage slavery was to just grant everyone tracts of land where they would “be no longer the landless slave of capital, driven about by landlords, and robbed by shylocks.” But as Pritchard notes, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, granting land to 2 million Americans, and we still have basically the same societal ills that Hacker observed. Hacker failed to grasp the power of capitalism to globalize, or as his contemporaries Marx and Engels put it, “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” In spite of his flaws, many of Hacker’s critiques of our institutions still ring true today, even if his solutions are hopelessly naive.

Hacker’s most entertaining writings were his takedowns of prominent figures. He described temperance crusader Neal Dow, the mayor of Portland, as “a mad dog with a firebrand to his tale.” And he despised lawyers, declaring them “no more fit to enact laws for a nation of working men than a lady’s bustle is fit for a dairy-woman’s cheese-hoop, or a dandy’s cane for a laborer’s crowbar.”

Hacker was Maine’s original alt-journalist. The Pleasure Boat contained no ads, which gave him the freedom to “hack” away at disreputable businesses that advertised in other Portland papers. His favorite targets were “quack” doctors selling fake miracle cures. After one doctor threatened to sue a printer for printing Hacker’s constant tirades against him, Hacker just found another printer, defiantly writing, “If I live a while longer, there shall be a free press in Portland, if I have to beg rags to procure it!”

In the end, it was Hacker’s fervent opposition to the Civil War that did him in. Incensed readers cancelled their subscriptions en masse in 1862. He would revive his paper in various forms, but they were short lived. After the Great Fire of 1866, Hacker moved to the progressive community of Vineland, New Jersey, to farm and write. He lived for another 30 years before passing at the ripe old age of 94.

Pritchard’s book is quite short (it was adapted from her master’s thesis), but it’s an excellent primer on an influential figure who deserves more attention. And her descriptions of old Portland through Hacker’s eyes — the tenements, the grog shops, the free blacks, sailors, street children, impoverished widows and destitute elderly couples forced to continue working — provide a vivid context for his righteous anger.

“A cruise on The Pleasure Boat was no pleasure if you were the subject,” notes historian Herb Adams. “Hacker was deaf — quite literally — to both pleasure and pain, and let critics of his paper bellow themselves hoarse while he stood silently by.

“He was a true lone eagle,” Adams continued, “happy to keep a shrewd eye and a sharp pen pointed at our world of sin that never quite came up to his expectations. And there was plenty of sin in his time, as he’d say — slavery, alcohol, taxes, politics and people who would not listen, especially to him. He must have been a fascinating neighbor, an exasperating friend, and a terrible foe.”