Mysterious “Mr. Zero” tends to the East Side poor

His real name was Urbain Ledoux. Born in Canada in 1874, he wanted to be a priest but pursued law instead, eventually taking a job as the United States consul in Prague.

By 1910, he quit diplomatic service and decided to help humanity in a different way: drawing attention to hunger and homelessness in cities.

Ledoux went to Boston first. An advocate of the Baha’i faith, he called himself “Mr. Zero” and set about securing beds for homeless men. He also built a shelter dubbed the “Poor Men’s Club.”

Unconventional and confrontational, he held “slave auctions” at Boston Common, where he auctioned off the services of jobless men to employers.

Ledoux earned a reputation as an agitator, and he wasn’t exactly welcomed by city officials when he made his way to Manhattan after World War I, where he took up the cause of poor veterans.

“Will the police interfere? I do not know,” Ledoux told the New-York Tribune in September 1921, after he’d announced that he was holding a similar “slave auction” on the steps of the New York Public Library.

“All of those who will be sold, with the exception of one woman, are ex-servicemen. They marched away to war amid the cheers of thousands and with banners and stands there on the Public Library steps paid for by the people’s money.”

Ledoux focused on down and out veterans, but he worked on behalf of all who needed help. His first New York breadline, the Stepping Stone, opened at 203 East Ninth Street in 1919 (above).

He then launched a soup kitchen called The Tub. Sources vary, but it was either at 12 St. Marks Place or in the basement of 33 St. Marks Place (above right and center). Ledoux himself lived on St. Marks as well.

“The Tub is one of the cleanest little restaurants in New York, where you can get meals for 5 cents—all you can eat,” he told the New York Times in 1925.

The Tub also served as an employment agency, and the place cooked up holiday turkey dinners for the poor that regularly made newspaper headlines.

Ledoux, who was widely assumed to be a rich philanthropist, was an unusual anti-poverty and peace activist.

On one hand, some of his actions—the slave auctions (left), for example, and rallying for tickets to President Harding’s inaugural ball so he could bring a contingent of poor people—were seen by some as publicity stunts.

But they were stunts that brought the spotlight on the thousands of people sleeping in parks and scrounging for food in the modern New York of the 1920s.

“It may be that Mr. Ledoux’s plans for dealing with unemployment are fantastic,” wrote the New Republic in 1921 in an interview with Ledoux“They call for the assumption of the burden by the public and the state. They make an immense draft, an overdraft, on the bank of human kindness.”

“‘Yes,’ says Mr. Ledoux, ‘but the nation is in danger, and society is poisoning itself with its waste of human life.'” He died in 1941, and much of his work has been forgotten.

[Photos 1 and 2: Wikipedia; photos 4 and 6: Getty Images; photo 5: Bain Collection/LOC]

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7 Responses to “Mysterious “Mr. Zero” tends to the East Side poor”

  1. Zoé Says:

    This is a very interesting post Ephemeral! It’s making my head spin due to his using the words “slave auction” for finding people employment & “tub” for somewhere to eat! (Did ‘tub’ have some other meaning then?).

    Perhaps the police had reason to be wary of him. (Words that anyone is unlikely to hear me say again!). He seems to have helped people find work & eat… whilst humiliating them? Very confusing!

    And so many things have taken place on those two blocks of St.Marks. From the German shooting club to Andy Warhol & everything in between.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Zoe. I feel like his use of a “slave auction” was simply to get people to take notice of how many jobless and homeless men (and women) existed in the shadows of urban America. He called himself an “alarm clock to waken the slumbering conscience of the people.”

  3. Tom B Says:

    Thanks to you Ephemeral his work is not forgotten. Rocking the boat, stirring up the water always make the status quo nervous. No good deed goes unpunished!

  4. David H Lippman Says:

    He deserves to be remembered better.

  5. Xay Says:

    I enjoy watching old videos of NYC. I ran across this one when I camera stopped I noticed Zeros 12 Tub. So i googled it and ran across your article which I found to be very interested. In fact it does say 12 St Marks

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Wow, thanks for sending in this link, which immortalizes The Tub and the men who came for a meal there. The footage is truly incredible. I was also drawn to the footage of the old Radio Row, once on Cortlandt Street. It comes a little later in the clip.

  6. Kamma Says:

    I’m just watching a documentary on called “The Panic is On: The Great American Depression as Seen by the Common Man.” At 11:54, there’s a section on Mr. Zero, Urbain Ledoux. It shows his soup kitchen and him speaking to the men who come there to eat.

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