The rear of Mahanoy City Lumber & Supply Company.
Photograph by Nick Kupensky.
Mahanoy City’s West End
Mahanoy City’s first and second wards make up what is known as the city’s West End, which is the historically Slavic section of town. Mahanoy City was divided into five wards during the beginning of the twentieth century, and according to the 1910 census, the residents of the first ward overwhelmingly emigrated from Central and Eastern Europe.
As you walk east down West Railroad Street, you will find yourself in one of the most densely populated Slavic neighborhoods in the first ward. In 1910, the 400 block of West Centre Street, which begins at the former Mahanoy City Lumber & Supply Company, housed 105 individuals, 90 of whom were Central or Eastern European. On the 400 block of West Railroad Street, every one of the 90 residents was Carpatho-Rusyn, Slovak, Polish, or Lithuanian.
The Slavic Gossip Column
This large diverse population of recent immigrants made Mahanoy City’s West End fertile ground for cultural misunderstandings and ethnic-inflected skirmishes, and local newspapers covered these conflicts between Slavs and their neighbors with the sensationalist fervor of yellow journalism.
The Mt. Carmel Daily News eagerly chronicled even the smallest of confrontations with dramatic copy fit for the tabloids. “Two men may die and one is badly hurt as a result of assaults by drunken Huns and Slavs in Wilkes-Barre,” reads an 1894 news brief. In 1896, Shamokin witnessed the “usual assault and battery tale of woe” when “a fracas between a party of Russian Poles and Slavs” resulted in three men being arrested. In a story from Whiting, Indiana, three men turned up dead when a “race war” erupted between a Slavic saloon keeper and his Hungarian and Italian customers. Another article tells the story of a “terrific race riot between Slavs and Polish miners and coke workers” that involved thirty men and women who ended up “covered with blood after the fracas” in Connellsville.
Local papers covered cultural misunderstandings even when they didn’t burst into violence. An article entitled “Case like Tower of Babel” describes a situation in which the newly-appointed rector of Shamokin’s Lithuanian and “Slavonian” churches was “perfectly willing to hear his people’s confessions,” but “it is impossible to make him understand” because he didn’t speak the same language as his parishioners.
While many of these stories likely have some degree of truth, the frequency with which they appeared suggests that many of them are overblown to play on the American public’s distrust of these new immigrants, which, of course, would stoke their fears and sell more papers. Indeed, the words most frequently used to describe “Slavs” in one local newspaper were “strike,” “shot,” “killed,” “murder,” and, above all, “foreign.”
While the American reading public clearly enjoyed these types of stories, Reverend Peter Roberts called attention to the deleterious effects of local gossip columns. In Anthracite Coal Communities, he argues that newspapers interested in “cultivating sober thought and respect for established institutions” aren’t read in the Coal Region because of the penchant for juicy conflicts among local readerships. According to Roberts, gossip columns indulging in “sensationalism,” “pleasing phantasy,” and “the wildest rhapsody” comprised between a third to a half of the content of local papers, which “pander to the deprived sensuous taste of the masses” wanting to satisfy their “morbid delight in reading repulsive scenes in life’s tragedy, and in seeing nasty and miserable pictures taken from miry depths” (1904, 192-193).
The Sociological, Sensational, and Sentimental:
Emil Kubek’s “An Easter Gift”
Emil Kubek’s “An Easter Gift” draws upon both of these influences – the unique social conditions of Mahanoy City’s West End and the muckraking nature of local journalism. In a text that incorporates multiple genres and modes, including sociological realism, the gossip column, the village romance, the immigrant narrative, and the religious parable, Kubek’s “An Easter Gift” begins with an extended description of the environs of what is likely the block of West Railroad Street located immediately behind the former Mahanoy City Lumber & Supply Company. Kubek’s text makes multiple references to “Second Alley,” and what now is North A Street was formerly North 2nd Street before the street names were changed in 1908.
This English translation of “An Easter Gift” was done by Reverend Louis Sanjek and appeared in three installments of the Mahanoy City Daily Record on March 23, 24, and 25, 1921. Sanjek’s translation makes a number of cuts and edits to the version of Kubek’s Carpatho-Rusyn text published in the first volume of People’s Tales and Verses (1922), but perhaps the most important difference between the two texts is their intended audiences.
When writing for the Carpatho-Rusyn community, Kubek’s narrator in the first chapter would be very close to the position of a local gossip monger who, at least initially, appears to be dangerously close to slandering poor, alienated Fedor Bistrica (though, as the story progresses, we quickly discover this is not the case). In translation, Kubek’s narrator is now addressing the broader Mahanoy City community that now includes the largely Anglo-Saxon, Protestant East End readership. Indeed, the opening of “An Easter Gift” would have instantly appealed to the American taste for stories of inter-ethnic conflict, but the unveiling of Fedor’s tragic past gives “An Easter Gift” its power as a story to humanize the Slavs of the West End and inspire sympathy across economic, ethnic, and geographical boundaries.
The excerpt below describes diverse immigrant communities that would have lived alongside the railroad tracks in the shadow of the lumberyard.
An Easter Gift
By Emil Kubek
Translated by Louis Sanjek
Have you ever seen “a yard of the nations?”
Many of them are to be found on the outskirts of large American cities on a thoroughfare which is neither street nor avenue but an alley. It needs but a glimpse to tell what class of people are living there. For the romantic souls who compose the yard about which I am going to write, there is a lumber yard, the boards of which are occupied from springtime until late in the fall by those optimistic philosophers of the American land, known to the inhabitants as “bums.”
Trains pass the yard every hour, by day and by night – passenger and freight, black diamond and milk express. The earth trembles under their heavy loads and the inhabitants of the yard of nations are in danger of losing their hearing bye and bye.
You don’t find much light between the houses in the yard for the sunshine cannot break through. Light by night is furnished the inhabitants by two small lights placed on the street by an honest-to-goodness borough council. Even this small amount of light is needful, especially after pay day – and for the denizens of lumber yard.
The lumber yard affords a trysting place for sweethearts who come from as far away as East Centre street to speak about the greater things of life, here among the sleepers. Neither moonshine nor electric lights bother them here. Even the dogs of the neighborhood keep quiet for they know the visitors. A more ideal place for the children of cupid you cannot imagine.
From afar you will know everyone who resides in the yard even though it be for only three months. You will know them even in church. The church goers from the alley don’t know how to whisper or to speak in low tones. Because of the noise made by the trains they are accustomed to loud speaking and cannot break the habit. When other people feel it is incumbent to whisper, they almost shout.
In the yard of the nations live eight families, close together, like so many sardines in a box. There are really eight and a half families for our Fedor Bistrica, we might consider a half-family. To place eight and one half families on one lot is no easy task even for Second Alley. But Mr. McMuch is a smart fellow and knows how to accommodate them. They pay, therefore, two dollars less than is demanded for a cleaner place, and that is very important.
The nationalities in the yard represent nearly all of Europe. One family is Polish, one Lithuanian, another Greek, one Serbian, another Slovak, one Niger and two are Italian families. The heads of these families – one from Lombardy and the other from Sicily – married sisters, after much quarreling, and now fail to recognize each other as fellow countrymen.
In the yard you will find thirty-six children of varying ages. In Niger’s family there are seven children. Sometimes entire families are fighting together.
In the two Italian families there are twelve children. Quite often all are fighting at once excepting those in the laps of their mothers. Children do not go to parents to arbitrate their disputes because more often than not a whipping comes from that quarter. Sometimes the disputes of the neighborhood were brought to the Squire’s office for adjustment but that official became perplexed by the babel of tongues and was compelled to disperse them because all talked at once.
Fedor Bistrica was the only one who did not mix himself in the quarrels of the international yard. He did not have any right to the privilege, for Fedor had neither wife nor children, neither did he pay full rent. He was the inveterate enemy of all the women and also of the children. Not for the world would he talk to a woman.
Now that I have told that much about Fedor it is my duty to explain the reason for his animosity toward women and children, even though he should bring me to the squire’s office.
Read the rest of “An Easter Gift.”