On January 8, 1908, Felix Radzius, a 19-year-old immigrant from Poland, was sentenced to death for the double murder of his boarding mistress Mary Cherkoski and her 4-year-old son, John. Although his lawyer wanted to appeal the sentence, Radzius refused and asked to be put to death as soon as possible. “I did it,” he said, “and I want to die quick.”
Each chapter in the case of Felix Radzius seems to be taken right out of a Dostoevsky novel: Radzius’ intent to kill his landlady and then spontaneously murder of the young boy when he happened upon the scene; Radzius’ spiritual transformation after confessing to the authorities and before the public at large; the Schuylkill County sheriff’s use of capital punishment as a performative technology to inspire fear of the retributive power of the state; and the carnivalesque scene that broke out at the gallows when the Slavic crowd fought over the hangman’s noose and had to be scared back by gunfire.
Indeed, Emil Kubek was not a writer who shied away from the carnivalesque, and what makes the life and death of Felix Radzius of interest to Kubek’s work is that he may be one of the prototypes for the character of Ivan Ponti in Kubek’s short story “Palko Rostoka.” We know that Kubek drew upon the discourse of local newspapers when constructing the rhetorical texture of his short stories (see “An Easter Gift”), and we can perhaps view the characterization of Ponti, the central villain of “Palko Rostoka,” as evidence that Kubek also engaged with the content of local news media, which during the early 20th century was filled with stories of gruesome murder, exciting manhunts, and terrifying displays of state power.
The Making of a Murderer
A Grizzly Scene
At 8 in the morning, on Monday, December 16, 1907, 8-year-old Eva Cherkoski went into town to buy tobacco for her family’s boarder Felix Radzius, a 19-year-old Polish immigrant who had recently settled in Shenandoah.
When Eva returned home, she discovered that all the doors were locked and nobody came to the door when she knocked. She went to her neighbors for help, who called the police. When they eventually made their way into the house, they discovered a gruesome scene. Eva’s mother, Mary, and 4-year-old brother, John, both were found dead with their throats slit “lying on the cellar floor, close together, in a great pool of blood.”
The police immediately suspected Radzius, who, according to the Mount Carmel Item, “had been drinking heavily of late” and was “behind with his board bill.” On the Saturday before, “Mrs. Cherkoski informed him after he had drawn his pay, he must either pay up or get out. This angered the man, and yesterday morning he did not go to work” (December 17, 1907).
It was discovered, though, that Radzius had fled town. The alarm was sounded, but the search was complicated by the fact that Radzius was known to use a number of different pseudonyms: Katelenas and Rogers.
An interstate manhunt began when the police learned that Radzius boarded the 11 o’clock Lehigh Valley train to New York. The police telegraphed a description of Radzius to stations along the line, and a man matching the description was spotted in Jersey City, New Jersey. The officer approached the man and said, “Hello, Felix!” Radzius seemingly fell for the trick, turned around and said, “Hello!”, after which he was immediately detained.
The next day, the Shenandoah chief of police traveled to Jersey City to bring Radzius back to town. When Radzius arrived at the Shenandoah train station, a crowd of “hundreds of foreigners” threatened to lynch him, which compelled the entire police force to shield the man from the “enraged mob” as he was marched to the local jail. Stiney Cherkoski, the husband and father of the victims, arrived to identify Radzius and was “thoroughly searched and watched in order that he should not kill his wife’s slayer, which he had sworn to do” (December 21, 1907).
Radzius initially pretended that he had never been to Shenandoah before, despite being positively identified by his landlord and many of his friends. But when it was discovered that he was wearing Stiney Cherkoski’s overcoat and that he was apprehended wearing a hat made by a Shenandoah hatmaker, Radzius ultimately confessed to the crime:
He said he had been drinking heavily and as the boarding mistress had refused to leave him in the house the night before, he determined to have revenge. He then described how he had taken the razor of the woman’s husband and had gone down into the cellar to hide. In a short time Mrs. Cherkoski came down into the cellar to get sour kraut and he cut her throat from ear to ear after a hard fight. The four-year-old son then came down in the cellar and he killed him in the same manner. (December 21, 1907)
On December 21, the following Saturday, Radzius was transferred to the Schuylkill County prison in Pottsville, but as he left Shenandoah, another large crowd followed the procession to make a new round of death threats. After he had his preliminary hearing later that day, he “became a nervous wreck” after “his experience with the crowd” and was put on a twenty-four hour suicide watch.
Radzius’ trial took place on Tuesday, January 7, 1908 and was reported to be “the swiftest in the history of the county.” After the morning trial, the jury went out around 5 pm Tuesday afternoon and by 8 am the next day had reached a verdict: Radzius was guilty of first-degree murder and should be sentenced to death.
Due to the swift nature of the trial, Radzius’ lawyer made a motion in arrest of judgment, but much to everyone’s surprise, Radzius prevented him from doing so. “I did it,” he said, “and I want to die quick.”
The local newspapers expressed a range of responses to Radzius’ trial. While the Danville Morning News was astonished at the “remarkable spectacle of a man hastening his own death sentence,” the Mount Carmel Item celebrated that the “brute” Radzius – that “cold blooded,” “inhuman wretch” – would “pay the penalty with his life,” a verdict which, in their words, “meets with general approval” (January 9, 1908).
Waiting to Die
After the trial, the only thing that remained was for the Governor, Edwin Sydney Stuart, to set the date of his execution. But when three months had passed without word of when he would be executed, it was reported that Radzius was “fast losing his mind” (March 31, 1908).
Radzius was finally notified on April 17 that his execution would take place on May 26. He was apparently relieved by the news and insistent that “he deserves death on the gallows.” “I have made my peace with God,” he said, “and am ready to die” (April 24, 1908).
Prayer and Fasting
Knowing that he only had a month left to live seemed to have produced a profound transformation within Radzius. The Mount Carmel Item reported that “since the reading of the death warrant to Felix Radzius on Monday, the condemned man has spent most of his time on his knees in prayer. He refuses to be interviewed by the prison officials, or seen by visitors, and takes little or no nourishment. He says he will spend his remaining hours on earth in this manner and will say nothing about the crime” (May 1, 1908). At one point during his final month on earth, Radzius spent more than 80 hours in perpetual fasting and prayer (May 8, 1908).
A Second Confession
After two weeks of silence, Radzius began to speak with the media again and made a startling confession: he had committed another murder in Europe before his emigration to the United States.
Exactly where this murder took place in Europe and its details, however, are unclear. The Pittstown Gazette reported that it was a “murder in Austria” and “that he came to this country to escape punishment” (May 12, 1908). The Reading Times also reported that the crime took place in Austria. The Mount Carmel Daily News, however, wrote that the murder occurred in “Russian Poland,” where Radzius “killed a man in his old home three years ago” (May 27, 1908). This paper also began to refer to Radzius as a “condemned Black Hand assassin” (May 25, 1908), which associated him with the international Italian gang of the same name.
After making the second confession, Radzius tried to “suffocate himself in his cell by starting a fire” but was prevented from doing so by the prison guards (May 12, 1908).
Invitation to An Execution
Shortly before Radzius was to be hanged, the Schuylkill County Sheriff, Clay W. Evans, decided to open the execution to the public. However, not just anyone would be allowed to attend. Tickets of admission were reserved for “the leading representatives of the Poles, Huns, Slavs, Lithuanians, Russians and Italians” (May 25, 1908), for the sheriff hoped that “the story of the execution as told from the lips of the foreigners would have a salutary effect in curbing the murderous tendency of some of the lawless element” (May 27, 1908).
A Public Hanging
On May 26, over 500 people showed up to witness the execution. The Mount Carmel Daily News reported that “the foreigners […] were all eager to see the hanging, took all they could get, and long before the time set for the opening of the jail gates, they swarmed about the place.”
One individual who received a ticket was the Pottsville resident, Augustus B. Trout, who reported that Radzius was led into the yard by Sheriff Evans and then made “the long, slow procession across the prison yard to the carefully erected wooden gallows.” The Mount Carmel Daily News described how the “stir and a buzz of talk” from the crowd drew his attention: “He glanced hurriedly over the big throng that hemmed him in. He gave no sign of recognition to any, however, as he walked through walls of humanity.”
As Radzius, dressed in “drab prison garb” walked “slowly up the stairs of death,” he looked out into the audience but was “careful not to offer any final words to the curious, gawking crowd.” Instead, he stared intently at “the small silver crucifix that he held in his outstretched hands.”
Then the prison physician Guldin prepared the execution mask, and “as the black cap was pulled over the face of the condemned there was a low murmur which was soon hushed by warning signals from the guards.”
At 10:05, the deputy sheriff signaled to the executioner that it was time, and “with the simple hand gesture the drop fell beneath the condemned man.” Trout remembered that “immediately, you could see the body plunge downward through the swinging doors of the trap.” The Daily News wrote that “when the gallows drop was sprung and the prisoner swung in the death throes there was a perceptible movement.”
It took thirteen minutes for Radzius to die, for “his neck has been broken by the fall, and the noose had slipped around from beneath the left ear to the rear of the neck.” “After swinging to and fro for a total of twenty-one minutes,” Radzius was finally cut down, and “as the doctors hastened to the side of the condemned and pronounced the man dead absolute silence prevailed.”
As the crowd filed out, a number of the witnesses, “hungry to get a souvenir,” attempted to grab a piece of the execution rope, for “getting part of the hangman’s noose after an execution gave one magical powers.” Once he realized that a number of individuals were about to take the noose, the sheriff was forced to fire a number of shots in the air to disperse the crowd.
The Daily News was quick to celebrate a public execution designed to inspire respect for the American rule of law. “The hanging was in every way what is usually termed ‘a success,'” the paper reported, for the spectacle “had certainly awed those who witnessed it. […] The streets in the vicinity were like a babel while the men of the several nationalities went their way in groups, discussing the day’s gruesome event” (May 27, 1908). Likewise, the Frederick News called the sheriff’s plan of inviting foreigners “well conceived,” for “by this method the execution of the murderer hanged today may be made to serve as a lesson and a warning” (May 26, 1908). But not everyone was prepared to praise the effectiveness of the event.
The Detroit Free Press pointed to the incident with the hangman’s noose as a sign that “the visitors failed to profit” by the execution. “The hanging evidently failed,” the paper argued, because “instead of being duly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion and going home to assimilate its warnings, the Slav spectators broke into a mob-like rush for the rope on which Radzius was depending and cut it into little pieces for themselves, being possessed of the superstition that such a rope is a cure for rheumatism.” For this reason, the editorial page made the case that Sheriff Evans’ experiment raised questions about the “serious moral problem whether man has the right to vengeance by slaying” (May 28, 1908).
The editorial page of Salt Lake Herald also roundly criticized Evans’ decision and made an impassioned case against the death penalty in general. Entitled “A Bad Example,” the editorial argued that “it is not right to make a holiday out of the taking of human life, however much the owner of that life deserves to lose it.” In addition to the moral problems raised by punishing a murderer by murdering him, the Salt Lake Herald also discussed the practical problems of capital punishment. “Nine out of ten murderers go to the scaffold bravely,” they argue: “The public execution is much more apt to make the condemned a hero in the minds of many of the onlookers than to impress them with the necessity for obeying the law” (June 8, 1908).
As time went by, Radzius’ public execution gained a cult-like status among local writers as well. “Felix Radzius’ cell” became a modifier to describe the location of other prisoners who were sent to Schuylkill County prison, and Radzius’ case was evoked as a touchstone for other gruesome murders.
How to Teach the Slavs American Values?
One of the reasons why Sheriff Evans chose to use the public execution as an instrument to inspire respect for the law (and fear of the state) was likely the high prevalence of crime within Schuylkill County’s Slavic communities. In 1900, for example, the percentage of criminals who were Slavs was 79.6% in Shenandoah, 67.3% in Mahanoy City, and 64.8% in Mount Carmel (cited in Roberts 1904, 282), and one of the most common explanations for these high crime statistics was the Slavs’ penchant for heavy drinking.
In Slav Invasion and the Coal Miners (1902), Frank Julian Warne writes that “nearly every observer of conditions among the ‘foreigners’ in the anthracite fields, when asked as to the principal cause of crime among the Slavs, points emphatically to the large consumption of liquor by these races. […] Many of the most serious crimes among the Slavs are invariably traced, whenever they can be traced at all, to some drunken orgy” (112-113). In Anthracite Coal Communities (1904), Peter Roberts echoes this point: “When the brute is aroused in the Sclav by a mixture of whiskey and lager, he becomes more fierce than a red-toothed beast of prey” (283).
Roberts, however, also emphasized that the Slavic community wasn’t criminal by nature, as many writers were known to argue. Instead, social and institutional factors contributed to the high crime statistics:
The excess of crime among the Sclavs is explained by their social condition and the excess of males over females among them. […] Young men with strong natures, far away from the wholesome influence of home life and surrounded by saloons, are liable to break forth into excesses which lead to crimes and their consequences – litigation and imprisonment. […] It is also true that the offices of justices of the peace are almost wholly in the hands of the English-speaking, and hitherto the Anglo-Saxon has not spared the Sclav the vexation and expense of a lawsuit. (282)
Indeed, the identities of the individuals executed in Schuylkill County perhaps demonstrates how the death penalty was used against the ethnicities and races viewed as the biggest threats to public safety.
Hangings in Schuylkill County
1846 – James Riggs
1875 – Joseph Brown
1877 – James Boyle
1877 – Hugh McGeehan
1877 – James Carroll
1877 – James Roarity
1877 – Thomas Munley
1877 – Thomas Duffy
1878 – Dennis Donnelly
1878 – Jack “Black Jack “ Kehoe
1879 – Martin Bergan
1894 – Peter Broski
1900 – Thomas Brennan
1908 – Charles Warzel
1908 – Felix Radzius
1911 – Joseph Christock
Irish – 10 | Slavic – 4 | Black – 1 | Unknown – 1
As the chart above indicates, the first hanging in Schuylkill County was of James Riggs, a black man, who was attacked by a convicted murderer, shot him in self-defense, but was convicted of first-degree murder anyway. The hangings in the 1870s were almost all suspected members of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish miners who fought against the authorities to improve working conditions and increase pay. Finally, during the height of Eastern and Central European migration to the Coal Region (1880s-1910s), four out of the five men executed in this period were of Slavic background.
Felix Radzius and Kubek’s Ivan Ponti
Radzius’ trial and execution surely had a chilling effect on the Carpatho-Rusyns of Mahanoy City. While we don’t know if Kubek was invited to the execution as one of the “leading representatives” from the Slavic community, he undoubtedly was acquainted with the details of the case. Local newspapers gave Radzius’ trial and execution extensive front-page coverage for months (read some of them at “Documents Relating to the Case of Felix Radzius”), so it is reasonable to assume that the parallels between Radzius and the character of Ivan Ponti, the main villain in Kubek’s short story “Palko Rostoka” (1922), are not entirely coincidental.
“Palko Rostoka” tells the story of Paul Smith (born Palko Rostoka), who comes to the fictionalized American town of “Northwest” after being framed for a robbery and murder in Europe. He Americanizes his name, marries a local girl, and becomes a successful worker in an automobile factory. Despite successfully concealing his Carpatho-Rusyn identity, Paul is perpetually haunted by “the shame of his youth” and is forced to confront his past when he happens to encounter Ivan Ponti on the streets of Northwest.
Ponti was formerly Paul’s friend in Europe and was the man responsible for his time in jail. On the day of Paul’s graduation from school, Ponti tricked him into being an accomplice in a robbery turned murder. When the two men meet in Northwest, Ponti threatens to reveal Paul’s dark secret to his wife and son. Afraid and enraged, Paul attacks him, and in the course of the fight, Ponti slips into an open mine shaft and falls to his death, but not before ripping Paul’s watch out of his pocket. When Ponti’s body is found, the police discover Paul’s watch at the scene of the crime but don’t suspect him of murder. The incident makes Paul realize that he can’t run from his past any longer, and he finally reveals his shameful history to his wife. In his confession, he describes how Ponti set him up:
I’m not an American, I came from Europe nineteen years ago as the son of a poor, but honorable teacher. I finished the teacher’s course, and received my diploma at the age of 20. I made the acquaintance of a highly-educated but depraved young man. I didn’t know about it at the time, and loved and valued his friendship. As soon as I received my diploma, he came to my place in the evening to congratulate me. It was a warm, clear, spring day; he asked me to go for a walk. When we were below the city, he said to me, “Paul, my friend, I love the governess of Count H.,” just as we came up to the park of his summer house: “She arranged a rendezvous for me today because the count’s family is away at a party. I would like to make this girl my wife and want to talk with her about it now. Will you do me a favor and sit here in the bushes while I speak with her? It will only take half an hour, an hour at most.”
I really didn’t want to, but my refusal nearly brought him to tears. “How little do you value our friendship?,” he said, and so I agreed. “If you see somebody coming close, whistle. I wouldn’t want to bring her shame or problems.”
After a half an hour in the house, I heard a scream, then a gunshot, and my friend came running towards the park fence, without his hat, and took off through the square. Terrified, I ran after him. We probably both would have gotten away if they didn’t send the dogs after us; it was the dogs who caught us.
In the house of the count, he broke into the safe, where the count kept his treasures. I tried to convince them that I was innocent, but it didn’t do any good. The supportive testimony of my professors didn’t help either. I sat in jail for six months until the case was completely investigated.
Then it turned out that my friend was a world-class swindler, the son of a certain Polish rabbi, a member of an international gang of thieves. He came to our town as a merchant and committed the majority of his crimes at night, so no one suspected him. And he was wanted for theft in Paris, London, Vienna, and God knows where else too (Kubek 1922, 73-75).
The case of Felix Radzius may shed some light on how Kubek conceived of the character of Ponti, for both individuals share a number of common characteristics. First of all, both are from Poland. Ponti is suspected to be part of “an international gang of thieves,” and Radzius was reported to be a “Black Hand assassin.” Ponti was perpetually on the run from the law and came to the United States to escape imprisonment; likewise, when Radzius made his eleventh-hour confession to a third murder in Europe, he explained that “he came to this country to escape punishment.” Just as Radzius killed Stiney Cherkoskis’ wife and son, Ponti threatens Paul’s wife and son. Radzius is caught wearing Stiney Cherkoskis’ overcoat, and Ponti is found in possession of Paul’s pocket watch.
While many of these links may be superficial connections, Paul’s struggle with Ponti (and Sheriff Evans’ hanging of Radzius) also dramatizes a larger conflict within the Coal Region: whether Slavic immigrants were capable of finding their place in the United States and leading successful lives or whether they would fall into a life of crime, insobriety, and murder. As Elaine Rusinko argues, “the values Kubek expresses in this story are typically Rusyn” in that “the keys to success are hard work, modesty, temperance, and economy; and the virtuous man who achieves success is not materialistic, but kind, and most important, unpretentious” (2009, 277).
Thus, the execution of Radzius and Kubek’s “Palko Rostoka” represent the two diametrically opposed approaches to the integration of the Slavs into American society. Rather than using the corpse of a murderer to intimidate and threaten recent immigrants, Kubek instead uses literature to celebrate those who have made successful lives for themselves in the new world. Indeed, one of the models for Paul Smith (Palko Rostoka) is Mahanoy City’s wealthiest Carpatho-Rusyn John Smith (Ioann Žinčak), whose rags-to-riches story is nothing less than remarkable.
For contemporary newspaper accounts relating to the trial and execution, see “Documents Relating to the Case of Felix Radzius”.